This essay is the second of two parts, inspired by a conversation between the author, Judith Gurewich, and Robert Orsi. Read the first essay here.
The matter of the love-hate relationship between psychoanalysis and public life has an unexpected link to the complexities of secularism in the United States. Officially, psychoanalysis has been dismissed as a mode of inquiry into the issues of public life and especially into the states of mind of its actors. This is the result of the famous Goldwater Rule, introduced into the ethics code of the American Psychiatric Association following the 1964 presidential election, when analysts had the temerity to “diagnose” Barry Goldwater without the benefit of having him on their couches. The Goldwater Rule came at a time when psychoanalysis was influential among psychiatrists, who had transformed the complex experience of the talking cure and the endless variations of human behavior into rigid diagnostic categories of mental illnesses. It is now common practice among psychiatrists to say that unless a patient expresses a complaint, psychiatrists are not ethically permitted to speak of the condition that supposedly is causing the mental distress. My attempt to explain President Donald Trump’s behavior in psychoanalytic terms is perceived by some not only as unethical, but as arrogant and insulting to a citizen who is not a patient and most probably will never become one.
There was a time, however, when psychoanalysis was squarely part of American culture, public discourse, and of the world of ideas. I mention here William James, Harry Stack Sullivan, James J. Putnam, and Karen Horney as examples. The cooptation of psychoanalysis by medical schools in the post-World War II era coincided with a broad discomfort in the country with the leftist secular turn that American intellectual life was taking and with the popularity among secular intellectuals of Sigmund Freud’s parapsychological studies of religion itself. There had been efforts in the 1920s to join psychoanalysis with recognizably American strains of spirituality, but this brief encounter was dismissed from the 1930s forward by the refugees of the Frankfurt School, who set themselves up in the United States, and by the secular Jewish community of psychiatrists who immigrated to this country during the Nazi era. This dismissal of a social-critical American psychological tradition had two consequences: on the one hand, psychological fads that did not necessarily exclude spirituality but were absent from social critique proliferated; and, on the other hand, psychoanalysis itself was medicalized.
In this way, the Goldwater Rule wound up throwing the gold out with the water. We have not only lost precious analytic tools in the process, but also the critical eye that social theory kept on the reductive approach of psychohistory. Words are now separated from their fields of expertise. For example, the word “paranoia” can be used colloquially to qualify a point of view but is not allowed to explain the functioning of an actual psychic landscape or personality.
And yet my Lacanian training, I believe, allows me to open a path beyond this limit because the description I offered of the president does not require me to speculate on his childhood or family connections. Rather, I connect the dots of what is publicly visible, and based on this I am able to offer an interpretation of behavior that is coherent—within Lacanian categories—rather than unpredictable, which is how the president is commonly described, most recently vis-à-vis his foreign policy following the shelling of the Syrian airbase and the dropping of the massive bomb on Afghanistan. In the case of President Trump, moreover, analysis of his unconscious is not necessary because, as I argued, he says what he means, unlike most of us who are endowed with an unconscious and who, according to Lacan, do not know what we say when we speak. The president does not have psychological (or political) agenda(s) other than what he puts in his tweets or speeches. In this sense, it was not his unconscious I proposed to analyze, but rather the unconscious of the country that erupts into the open when prodded by President Trump. What he says when he speaks has unleashed hatred across the land, along with the craving to believe that President Trump hates with his followers, endowing their hatred with the power and prestige of the Oval Office. It does not matter, then, whether he assists them materially or not, and it is regardless of their professed Christian values.
The paranoia I invoked in my earlier contribution refers to a way of thinking, a structure of thought, not to an illness per se. What makes the paranoid way of thinking and feeling distinct from other forms of desire is that the divide between public discourse and inner life is blurred. The president himself acknowledges that he says what is on his mind and what others fear to say. The latter became an oft-heard assertion during the campaign: that candidate Trump says what political correctness and perhaps a keener sense of social responsibility might prevent others from saying. What I did, then, was show that President Trump’s behavior is not erratic and unpredictable, but logical, and that it may be pieced together and understood. To interpret what the president says publicly in order to understand his mental functioning is not a violation of privacy.
As happens in George Orwell’s 1984, President Trump dismisses the past and simplifies ordinary language in the extreme. He never looks guilty precisely because the past never appears to haunt him. Rereading Orwell recently, I found that it ironically legitimizes my use of Lacanian theory on paranoia. It has become obvious in the past months that President Trump cannot be wrong, does not apologize, craves to be admired and hailed, and that his understanding of issues is very superficial. These are the playground rules and they need to be taken seriously.
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So what to do with this knowledge? I hope to have provided a critical framework for understanding one of the most dangerous political figures of our time, and to have demonstrated the utility of a psychoanalytical perspective for critique. The issue of “truth” is less paramount than exposing contradictions. Why would President Trump cut the taxes of the rich if he wants to help the poor? Is the president as racist and xenophobic as he seems? Does he truly want to appear this way? Do the people who elected him really want to be seen as racist and xenophobic? The analytical strategy is to ask question and point toward contradictions, without attacking the president or his followers. I offer an analytical tool, not a political agenda.
One thing strikes me, however, and that is how xenophobia and racism have been ignited by the ressentiment and regression among the president’s followers, who would rather see the Affordable Care Act repealed than tolerate the prospect that African Americans, immigrants and migrants, queer and gay people, and others will be getting health care (or in other contexts, education, better streets, equal justice, work, etc.) along with them. This is consistent with the racism and xenophobia so often evident in US social history. The psychic origins of this phenomenon must be exposed, however, because thus far there has been, I believe, a widespread misunderstanding. A toddler’s despair and megalomaniac fantasies have brought to the fore the illness of our land and it is this illness that should be discussed at all time rather than the president’s tweets. At the end of the day we need to build strategies of resistance that can be heard even by those who felt disappointed and voted for Trump with a defensive or angry tone in their voices.
All this to say that in a land where inequality, racism, despair, and moral confusion have been stewing since the financial crisis of 2008, it took a figure such as President Trump to expose the full depth of our problems. Because the president means what he says when he speaks, he is actually our unconscious, the only part of his presidency that must be taken very seriously.