American Psychosis: Trumpism and the Nightmare of History




A version of this essay was given as a lecture at Université de Genève, January 18, 2017

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Insanity in individuals is somewhat rare. But in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

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I USED TO THINK that this aphorism by Nietzsche was nothing more than his attempt to be witty and outrageous, to “philosophize with a hammer.” But the older I get, the more it looks like plain common sense, verified by experience every day. For the majority of Americans who did not vote for Trump, the events of the days since November 8, 2016, have seemed as if the nightmare of history that Stephen Dedalus describes in James Joyce’s Ulysses has come upon us with a vengeance. And there is no possibility of awaking from it; it is a reality that will not go away; it has only just begun. Like the nightmare of September 11, 2001, it marks a historical epoch, underscoring the correctness of Nietzsche’s aphorism, which stipulates that it is not only a matter of collective insanity (“groups, parties, nations”), but also of “epochs,” those turning points and momentous events such as revolution and war that make us feel that we are living in extraordinary, even insane, times.

It is also an epoch that was long foretold as a danger built into American democracy, especially as it has evolved in an era of mass media celebrity, massive inequality, and political domination by an oligarchy of the super rich. The American columnist H. L. Mencken predicted the rise of a Donald Trump in 1920 when he wrote the following words:

As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

Mencken’s prophetic words have now been realized in the image of President Trump. A man who had been for so long dismissed as a clown and a buffoon by a majority of Americans has suddenly been transformed into the most powerful person on the planet.

Nietzsche’s aphorism about collective insanity has a long pedigree of historical precedents. Plato characterized democracy as especially vulnerable to mass insanity, a “ship of fools” in which the captain is chosen, not for his seamanship, but for his skills of flattery and popularity. The Athenian statesman Solon expressed a similar view about the world’s first democracy: “A single Athenian is a wily fox. A group of Athenians is a flock of sheep.” Likewise, in 18th-century Germany, Friedrich Schiller said, “Every man, seen as an individual, is tolerably shrewd and sensible. See them in corpore and you will instantly find a fool.” But Nietzsche refines their observation by historicizing it in relation to the momentous event, the epoch. The question, then, is what is different about our epoch? How is our collective insanity different from the age-old tendency of human beings to do crazy things when they get together in groups, parties, and nations? What makes this historical nightmare worse than the one envisioned by Mencken?

The answer, I think, is that consequences of collective irrationality, folly, and delusion are no longer confined to small city-states like Athens, or even relatively powerful nations like the United Kingdom, whose recent “Brexit” gave a foretaste of the Trump election. When the world’s most powerful nation goes crazy, the consequences are global. And this is nowhere to be seen more clearly than in the absolute silence about the greatest challenge facing the world community in the foreseeable future, namely, climate change. The issue never came up in the presidential debates, and received little coverage in the media. Admittedly, climate change is a hard sell to people who do not read newspapers. But when, in a rare moment of collective sanity and wisdom, 195 countries come to an agreement that climate change is real and must be addressed, one would think that the issue is, as we say, a no-brainer. But Trump is a climate change denier who intends to tear up the Paris agreement as a “bad deal,” and who has nominated a fossil fuel lobbyist who, like many Trump appointees, would like to destroy the very agency he has been appointed to direct, namely, the Environmental Protection Agency.

This suggests that Nietzsche’s aphorism needs to be further amended. It is not just “groups, parties, and nations” that are in danger from this epoch of collective madness, but the human species itself. Of course, there will probably be outposts of “civilization,” gated communities for those rich enough to protect themselves from the immiseration of great masses of people and the degradation of the environment. [1] Trump’s grandchildren will probably be all right, just as the wealthy citizens of Mumbai are today. The rest of humanity can expect to join the huddled figures in the foreground of the following image:

But I want to turn now to a question that I’m sure has been troubling you throughout my remarks so far: Is my use of the language of madness simply a rhetorical tool, an instrument of polemic? Is it nothing more than the usual litany of insults and accusations (i.e., you’re crazy, foolish, ignorant, a lunatic, an idiot, a moron, out of your mind, deranged, deluded, hallucinating)? Or does it have real potential as a way of analyzing a mentality, a style of thinking and feeling that is resistant to persuasion, but might be susceptible of understanding? It is one of the characteristics of an epochal moment like this that it is going to be very difficult to distinguish rational analysis from polemic. It may in fact be the case that there are times in history when reason and outrage have to converge, and the whole liberal style of calm deliberation and the comfort of long views will seem radically inadequate. My colleague Lauren Berlant has diagnosed our moment as one of “flailing” between genres, as if we don’t even know how to narrate our present moment. Marx thought that history could repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. But what if a moment in history feels like tragedy and farce at the same time? To be adequate to such a moment, we may have to flail about a bit, to be experimental with our genres, and to remember that flailing is not only a metaphor for aimless thrashing about, but also an actual tool of the harvest, an instrument for separating the wheat from the chaff, for threshing as well as thrashing.

Accordingly, I have adopted as my critical flail in this essay (criticism, by the way, comes from the Greek word for division or separation) the framework of collective psychology — more precisely, the discourse of madness and psychosis, and more specifically, an American psychosis peculiar to the history of our nation. As a student of visual culture, I see the category of collective psychosis, not merely as a discursive label, but as an optic, what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called a mode of “seeing as,” or “aspect seeing.” Like any optic, it will see some things clearly, and will also be vulnerable to blind spots. For now, however, it seems like a productive framework for analyzing a crazy moment in history.

This is especially true when the language of insanity is everywhere in the vernacular of American politics. Partly, this everyday language of insanity can be attributed to the shock of surprise; and then, the unveiling of the awful truth: He was not kidding. He was not being metaphorical. The unthinkable has happened. He is insane. This is insane. But rather than dismiss this media chatter as hyperbolic or decry it as ableist, I want to take it seriously as a symptom of an underlying disorder in our democracy. Here it is necessary to quote Freud word for word:

The contrast between individual psychology and social or group psychology, which at first glance seems to be full of significance, loses a great deal of its sharpness when it is examined more closely. It is true that individual psychology is concerned with the individual man and explores the paths by which he seeks to find satisfaction for his instincts; but only rarely and under certain exceptional conditions is individual psychology in a position to disregard the relations of this individual to others. In the individual’s mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent; and so from the very first individual psychology […] is at the same time social psychology as well — in this extended but entirely justifiable sense of the words. [2]

Freud thinks of the relation between individual and collective psychology as a series of concentric circles, radiating outward from the individual, to the family (both immediate and extended), to larger groups such as tribes, social clubs, political parties, ethnic groups, nations, and finally, as I have suggested, to the species itself. Of course Freud’s main effort was to trace the influence of the smallest of these groups, the family, in producing individual disorders. Our task is precisely the reverse. We have to ask the question: How is it possible that a group of otherwise sensible individuals can go mad when they get together? What is it that turns the wily Athenians into a flock of sheep? The answer, to continue the metaphor, can only be: a clever and unscrupulous shepherd who understands collective psychology and knows how to exploit it. In short, the demagogue and the con man are the perfect interlocutors for a psychotic. The con man listens closely to his mark, and mirrors back his delusions. He feeds on paranoia and rage, makes promises that appeal to the victim’ fantasies (“Make America Great Again”), and amplifies their fear and hatred of others — Mexican rapists, Muslims, snotty liberal elites who don’t respect them, and media who are lying to them.

Trump is not only a gifted liar, but also he convinces his followers that there are no sources of truth, no reliable facts, other than the delusions he exploits and reinforces. That is why, now that Trump has taken power, so much of the debate focuses on whether he is a cynic or a psychotic himself. Does he believe his own untruths or does he know better? Many of us had hoped for a time when we would not have to care about this question. I’m not particularly interested in the question of whether Trump himself is psychotic. It seems pointless to engage in debates about his “narcissistic personality disorder.” As Dr. Allen Frances, the author of the DSM-IV criteria for this disorder recently remarked:

It’s an insult to people who have real mental illness to be lumped with Trump. Most people with mental illness are well-meaning, well-mannered and well-behaved. And Trump is none of these. Trump is bad, not mad. And when bad people are labeled mentally ill, it stigmatizes mental illness. [3]

I agree with Dr. Frances that “Trump requires a full-court political response, not a phony medicalization.” But what about Trumpism, the mass syndrome that now grips this country and threatens the world? It fulfills the basic criteria of psychosis in its hostility to reality-testing and its potential to be “a danger to itself and others,” the legal standard for involuntary confinement of the insane. Any politics that sets out to cure the disorder of Trumpism will have to find a way to think of it in relation to psychology, not as a set of polemical labels, but as a therapeutic method, a listening cure. We experts will have to follow the example of sociologists like Arlie Hochschild, who has spent years interviewing Tea Party communities in environmentally devastated regions of Louisiana. Hochschild approaches her subject with deep sympathy, recognizing the complexity of their lives and perceptions of reality. At bottom, she discovers the Great Paradox, that people who individually are highly moral and reasonable about their personal lives, good friends and neighbors, are also victims of widely shared forms of amnesia, ignorance, and delusion. [4]

So Trump is not crazy. He is an extraordinarily high-functioning celebrity businessman, possessed of manic energy and a gift for simple, seemingly authentic oratory. I find it more interesting to ask why his iconic presence, his “image,” has such a power to mirror and reinforce a collective form of madness in a large group of people who, taken as individuals, are reasonable people.

Perhaps the best demonstration of the reality of collective psychosis comes from the theory of democracy itself. Grounded in fictions of the “will of the people,” democracy has always struggled to build in safeguards against collective psychoses, which lead a popular majority to do something destructive to the body politic itself. The very idea of the “rule of law” and the importance of a constitution testify to the need to restrain popular passions and limit the power of majorities and the sovereign himself. The “division of powers” between legislative, judicial, and executive branches in the American Constitution is already a kind of allegory for a balanced individual mentality, capable of restraining itself by passing and obeying its own laws, judging for itself whether those laws are being obeyed, and carrying them out with what neuropsychologists call the “executive function” of the brain. It is exactly the threat of popular irrationality that drove Winston Churchill to observe that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

That is why it is important to note that the potential for collective madness is not confined just to the political movements that one disagrees with. We are all involved in forms of collective consciousness, all subject to forms of groupthink. Certainly there was something irrational about the wild, unrealistic hopes that surrounded the election of Barack Obama in 2008, despite the fact that Obama may be remembered as one of the coolest, most rational presidents in US history, while Trump is widely derided as an impetuous buffoon or “twit” whose main means of communication is the Twitter Feed. One may glimpse the relation of these two figures of democratic populism by juxtaposing Shepard Fairey’s famous image of Obama as revolutionary hero with an anonymous parody of Trump as the equally iconic negation of that revolution.          

The style of Fairey’s image, drawn from Soviet Revolutionary iconography, suggests that both Obama and Trump are to be seen as revolutionary figures, the one caricatured as a communist and black nationalist, the other as a dangerous reactionary with authoritarian and fascistic tendencies. American political culture doesn’t just have two parties: it is structured around what psychiatrists would call a “bipolar” alternation of hope and fear, manic euphoria and depressive rage. That is why Obama’s American Dream could be transformed in a single day to Trump’s American nightmare. That is why every four years the predictable campaign slogan is reactionary: “Throw the bums out,” “Change we can believe in,” “Drain the swamp,” and “What do you have to lose?” The basic American political instinct might be seen as a blind faith in “change,” with little curiosity about the actual nature of the change. Running against the US government, against Washington, is therefore the most durable American political strategy we know. As Ronald Reagan put it, “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.”

In this particular election, the default hostility to the central government was augmented by another familiar staple of American collective psychosis, namely racism and xenophobia. Trump gained prominence by cynically exploiting the slanderous lie that Barack Obama was an illegal immigrant, not an American citizen, and that he was probably a secret Muslim. Not that he was alone in this. The modern Republican party’s “southern strategy” of using white nationalist race hatred as a source of political power had prepared the way for Trump. Throughout Obama’s eight years in office, a steady stream of racist caricatures had circulated on the internet, portraying the White House lawn as a watermelon patch, and “Obama Bucks” as a worthless currency.

The caricatures of Obama, while they did fire up the Alt-Right and the white nationalists, had little effect on Obama’s popularity because they were so transparently false. The caricatures of Trump, by contrast, had little effect for exactly the opposite reason — because they were so transparently true. One way to immunize yourself against caricature is to be and behave as a caricature in the first place. The New Yorker cartoonist Robert Leighton captured this situation in an apt metapicture that shows a cartoonist looking up from his drafting table as his wife bursts in to tell him to “Stop — that Trump cartoon you came up with this morning just happened.”

P. T. Barnum, the godfather of American hucksters, put it very well when he noted that “the bigger the humbug, the better people will like it.” He also remarked on how easy it is to bamboozle an emotionally vulnerable, poorly educated crowd with empty promises and hollow slogans. “There’s a sucker born every minute,” and the right-wing destruction of the American system of public education has certainly done its part to increase the birth rate of suckers. Abraham Lincoln had more faith in the United States. He is credited with saying that “you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” What he failed to notice was that these are actually very good odds for a gifted con man and demagogue who wants political power.

So why didn’t the experts see this coming? Why did the rational measurements of political probabilities fail so miserably? Perhaps because experts who work from rational premises, using empirical data, tested algorithms of calculation, and a well-grounded sense of history, are in the worst possible position to understand the dynamics of an imminent psychotic break in collective psychology. They expect people who behave rationally as individuals to behave the same way as a collective. It is very difficult for normal, reasonable people, much less highly trained experts, to predict the behavior of a psychotic, or to gauge what sort of messages will get through to someone in the grip of a delusion. That is why psychoanalysis, with its dream of a “talking cure” has generally been declared useless in treating schizophrenia. You simply cannot talk to a psychotic. There is no unconscious to be unearthed. The fantastic delusions and paranoid phobias are not suppressed, but are right out there in the open, just like the impotent caricatures of Donald Trump.

Another thing that misled the experts is the tendency of people to lie about their motives when they are feeling ashamed. One of the best things we can say about Trump supporters is that (as with Brexit) they were genuinely fooled, and didn’t foresee the consequences of their actions. If this were a case of individual madness, they could make an appeal based in a case of temporary insanity induced by a skillful psychologist who knew what buttons to press. It was notable that, despite the large crowds roaring their approval of Trump’s absurdities, and physically attacking anyone who dared to protest, when they were interviewed in private his individual supporters often became somewhat diffident about their intentions to vote for Trump. After all, the experts were all predicting that he would lose, and who wants to admit that they will be voting for a loser? But in the voices of those who were willing to say publicly that they supported the man, there was almost always the same equivocation: “I don’t agree with much of what he says, but …” “I don’t approve of his behavior with women, but …” Or: “I don’t know how much he can accomplish, but …” These “buts” are invariably followed by some cliché: “I like his policies, not his personality.” Or: “I think he will bring change, and what have we got to lose?” Or: “He speaks his mind, and is not a phoney.” Or: “I like that he is not politically correct.” Or: “He is not a politician but a businessman, and we need a businessman to bring back our jobs. Look at the mess the politicians have made.” Or: “He will keep the government’s hands off my guns.” Or: “He will stop abortions.” “He will be strong and tough.”

These utterances are classic instances of what Freud called “disavowal,” the transparent denial of what is obvious to the analyst. The most notorious version of this is the denial that one is a racist, whether it is anti-Semitism, Negrophobia, or Islamophobia. As Jean-Paul Sartre noted long ago in Anti-Semite and Jew, one always hears the same formulation: “I have nothing against the Jews, but there is just something about them.” This is often followed by “Some of my best friends are Jews, but just the same …” Trump’s great gift as a demagogue is the ability to say straight out what his followers can disavow, or to make those coded utterances known as “dog whistles.”

Is this fascism yet? I think not. But it is on the slippery slope which leads to corruption of the judiciary system, politicization of the military (the officer corps of the US military is already dominated by the Republicans), the persecution of minorities (his travel ban targeting Muslims), and the abrogation of civil rights (Trump has threatened revocation of citizenship for forms of political speech — e.g., flag burning — that he dislikes). In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Wilhelm Reich raised the question of why the communists and liberals did not see the rise of Hitler coming. Their economistic class analysis had made it clear that Germany was ripe for socialism. What went wrong? The answer: They ignored what they called “subjective factors,” the dominance of religion, mysticism, and a repressive patriarchal family structure that provided a perfect environment for what he called the “Hitler psychosis.” Again, it is important to be clear: it is not a question of calling Hitler psychotic, or of labeling individual Germans as mentally ill. Hitler may have been deranged, but he was perfectly capable of exploiting German engineering, science, and technology in the most rational ways to murder millions of Jews and conduct a world war. The average German had plenty of reasons for voting Hitler into power, including “making Germany great again” after the debacle of World War I.

Psychosis is not equivalent to irrationality; it is a much deeper syndrome, one which often puts reason to work. It is a disease of the soul, of character or personality, in this case what Mencken described as the “soul of the people.” Insofar as the figure of the sovereign becomes an avatar of this soul, a certain psychosis may be the occupational hazard of monarchs and presidents — those who enjoy the power over life and death. Even a cautious, moderate soul like Barack Obama found himself ordering the murder of American citizens, and drone strikes that turned innocent civilians — including children — into “collateral damage.” A longing for power (and its accompanying sense of powerlessness) is also the great vulnerability of populist movements, which so often turn to the strong, patriarchal leader who promises to address their grievances, destroy their enemies, and fulfill their fantasies of return to a glorious past that never was. The America that Trump wants to return to dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese and killed millions of people in Vietnam. It attacked nonviolent demonstrators with fire hoses and police dogs, lynched thousands of African-American men, and murdered Martin Luther King Jr. For a majority of Americans, this is a past, a nightmare of history, from which we are trying to awake.

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So what is to be done? Is there a cure for the American psychosis? In the absence of an all-powerful alien civilization that comes from outer space to impose rationality on the American populace, I think not. In fact, if Nietzsche is correct that collective insanity is the rule rather than the exception, it seems best to admit that Americans are suffering from an incurable condition, right along with the rest of the human species. Like Athens, the world’s first democracy, the United States is not immune to takeovers by tyrants and oligarchs, and in Trump we may have managed to get both for the price of one. This is why, at the same time that the American Left licks its wounds and strategizes for a comeback, it will be important to work hard in defense of liberal institutions such as the Constitution, the rule of law, the preservation of democratic forms such as free and fair elections, a responsible role for government, decent public education, and a vigilant free press. Every one of these institutions has been attacked by Donald Trump, and modest struggles in support of the positive work of government will be just as important as the radical organizing of new social movements going forward.

As for democracy, perhaps Al Smith was right that “the cure for democracy is more democracy,” although this sounds ominously like a prescription for what Freud called the “compulsion to repeat.” So I would add an asterisk to this prescription. We need more democracy minus the effects of unregulated, predatory capitalism, which degrades the lives of the vast majority and prescribes opioids and religion to ease their pain while blaming it all on immigrants, experts, and the federal government. Let’s get at the taproots of the psychosis in racism and capitalism.

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W. J. T. Mitchell is Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago. He has been the editor of Critical Inquiry since 1978, and his latest book Image Science: Iconology, Media Aesthetics, and Visual Culture was published by Chicago University Press in 2015.

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[1] See Evan Osnos’s The New Yorker essay, describing the ways in which the super rich are now quietly planning refuges from the collapse of civilization as we know it. Survivalism, which used to be the province of lower-middle class white nationalists like the Aryan Nation, is now becoming a cult among the one percent.

[2] Sigmund Freud, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” 1922

[3] Dr. Frances is professor emeritus in psychiatry at the Duke University medical school. Truthout interview with Kelly Hayes, February 4, 2017. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/39356-don-t-call-trump-crazy-the-dangers-of-pathologizing-bad-politics.

[4] Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the New Right. (New York: New Press, 2016). Hochschild’s subtitle reveals just how quickly sociology can find itself on the territory of psychoanalysis.



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