The Devil Incarnate; the Devil in Us

I have sometimes been accused of having intemperate political views.  With this in mind, I generally try to moderate my passions and to adopt a reasonable tone of voice.  But I identify so closely with America and its values that the possibility of a Trump presidency has strained my resolve. I am heartsick about Trump’s momentum in the presidential race. He is insufferable and dangerous.  I’m frightened and angry, and not just at him or at “those people” who favor him, but also at myself and at all of the liberal and Progressive people who are so appalled yet have allowed this to happen.  So, in this essay, I need to let it rip.  Here goes.

Donald Trump is, without doubt, the Devil incarnate.  He tempts and taunts, seduces and destroys.  He seeks out good people and bad.  But, and this is my main point, he is not an isolated phenomena, crawling out of the dark swamps of con artists and circus performers.  He only succeeds because of the fertile ground within us.  If we look honestly, Trump, holds a mirror up to the worst in ourselves.

First, he reflects our culture’s retreat into self centeredness.  All those gurus, psychologists, and marketing mavens telling us that we, each one of us, is the most important person in the world.  We need to take care of number one.  And, even if we have an altruistic impulse, it won’t be effective, it won’t be authentic, if we don’t take care of ourselves first.  A culture of encouraged narcissism if I ever saw one.  We have swallowed too much of the encouragement.

How do we know that we’re number one.  The polls tell us.  Twitter and Facebook tell us through Notifications and Likes.  People tell us that we’re “awesome.”  Really?  I’ve been good, effective, kind at times but I doubt I’ve often been awesome.  Most tellingly, parents tell their children that they are number one.  They watch and comment on their every move, photograph and film every event, virtually eulogize their children when they graduate from grade school.  Those speeches about the accomplishments of young children are bizarre.

The laser-like focus of parents doesn’t stop there.  They help with term papers and exams.  Sometimes this “support” goes on right up through graduate school.  Food is provided at a distance.  I have heard numbers of university professors talk about parental calls to argue grades.  “This will ruin my child’s life…”  How else could they guarantee that their children get the right start, the competitive edge in life.  How else could they avoid unnecessary pain.  Is there necessary pain in growing up?  I think so but it doesn’t seem to be part of the contemporary agenda. Helicopter parents are there on cell phones at a moment’s notice, trying to help their children avoid an anxious moment.  They guide, criticize, assist.  Everything their children do matters to them.  Everything positive and negative tells their children just how important they are.  Attention tells the story.  No man I have ever observed craves attention more than Donald Trump.  Yet there may be more like him on the way.

Since the children are so important, it is vital that they don’t make mistakes.  If their grades aren’t up to snuff, it must be the teacher’s fault.  If they get hurt, it must be someone else’s fault.  If the perpetrator isn’t obvious, parents and children, together, will find someone to blame.  Taking responsibility for flaws and faults is no part of their Trumpian agenda.

In contemporary society, certainly in contemporary politics, we refuse to admit our mistakes or accept losses.  When confronted, we begin with denial and misdirection.  If that doesn’t work, we attack the critic or we sue the sources of our pain.  We sue those who actually hurt us, and those who might.  For justice sake?  I don’t think so.  To get even, yes; but that’s not justice; it’s vengeance.  To line our pockets.  Sure.  You can earn a good living by suing people.  To intimidate, of course.  Trump’s love affair with litigation and bullying grows right from the ground of our litigious culture.  We have created a litigious society that has more people covering their rear ends than standing courageously for what they believe.

We sue and blame so we don’t have to deal with pain.  Pain is not supposed to be part of the equation for important people.  And when we see pain in others, it makes us uneasy.  To relieve our uneasiness, we blame or isolate them.  We blame victims.  We blame disabled people.  We blame “losers.”  We pump ourselves up by putting others down: immigrants, people of color, the disabled.  This approach seems to be reaching a crescendo in contemporary culture.

We have other ways to pump ourselves up, too.  We build larger and larger houses, wear more fashionable clothes, spend inconceivable amounts on hair “treatments.”  Can you even imagine what Trump pays to keep his hair looking like a horizontal yellow facsimile of his obscene towers.  This is the new gilded age, garish and full of self aggrandizement.  It is very much like the turn of the nineteenth century, when the Vanderbilts and Jay Gould fashioned castles in homage to their egos.  How has it gotten lost that Trump Tower, Trump Airlines, Trump whatever is just a hilarious and exaggerated caricature of the mcmansions  and malls that now fill the American suburbs.

We are narcissists, loving or trying to love our own image and trying to stay young forever.  We are social, national narcissists.  The social form of narcissism is nativism and racism.  These bigoted extensions of self love are just kissing cousins to America First, American exceptionalism, and making America Great Again.  Never mind that democratic ideals, practically applied, are what really make us great.  Give us a good carpet bombing or a Gucci bag to make us feel strong and beautiful.

Trump believes that sensational gestures, Hollywood come to politics, are what makes the difference in our political life, and we reward him by paying avid attention.  All of us.  Those who love him and those who hate him.  This is nothing but free marketing for him.  It’s a betrayal of American democratic ideals for us.  But we have grown accustomed to sensationalism.  We need it the way others need drugs.  We need our fix of Fox-generated drama.  We thrill with identification or humiliation to the angry crowd screaming to put Hillary in jail or even to kill her.  The media are ecstatic and we are their prey—or their mates.

We have lost the sense of what is real and what is not.   We have learned to watch carnage on TV, as if it is a video game.  We play video games that aren’t very different than the drones that bomb far away villages.  We are numb.  We have lost our sense of agency.  We are so consumed by our own lives that we want someone else to do it for us.  If that means a dictator, so be it.  He’ll be our dictator, like our Jedi.  There are many times when Donald Trump sounds almost exactly like Benito Mussolini.  Some alert journalists have pointed this out but it has not awakened us.  I suspect the image arouses many of his fans.

The Devil, with all of his excitement, has lulled us to sleep.  We are numb to his lies, numb to his reversals, numb to his bigotry, numb to his ignorance, numb to his immaturity and name calling, numb to the vile way he treats people.  We are almost literally in a trance.  Why are we so numb?  Because, the Devil is us.  We don’t want to hear that we are flawed, angry, bigoted, and self-centered.  And I mean all of us, not just the conservative right.

We the people of the United States need to wake up, cast off the Devil’s potions, accept responsibility for what is wrong, begin to redress those wrongs, and thrill to the opportunity to do so.  If we don’t, the Devil within us will win.

 

 

 

 

Personally, I am heartsick about Trump’s momentum in the presidential race. He is insufferable and dangerous.  I would hate to end my life with him as president.  That would feel like a defeat to all that I have stood for in my life: kindness and compassion; equality and pluralism; democracy and collaboration.   I am now seventy four years old;  and I dread entering old age and dying, while a narcissistic, cold-hearted bully and liar is the representative our once-proud nation.

 

Trump and the injured souls of men

Most who join the Trump bandwagon say they have been wronged.  They feel left behind and bullied by big government.  Their freedom is in jeopardy.  They don’t have jobs, having lost out to “foreign” workers who are empowered by big capitalists who move business off shore.  Or they have jobs that barely pay a living wage—nothing like their parents’ generation and, therefore, their own expectations.  Or they fear that job loss is just around the corner.  In short, they have lost the dignity of good work, lost the secure ability to support their family, and they feel vulnerable all the time.

That’s the external side of things.  The psychology of their condition is equally troubling—and infuriating.  With the economic and social vulnerability comes insecurity and a loss of identity.  They don’t know who they are anymore.  They don’t fit their own definition of manhood—and the majority of Trump supporters are men.  For those who went to war, long the definition of manhood and courage, the return, without their team, the soldiers who ‘had their back,’ can be disorienting and infuriating.  Who did they fight this war for, anyhow.  Much as the British psychiatrist, John Bowlby, says that mothers hold their children, giving them a sense of belonging and connection, so the army teams metaphorically held each other.  And, as Putnam so poignantly wrote, the structure of American society no longer provides that sense of belonging.  The men, veterans and just guys “bowl alone.”  As we say about children who lack true family support, these men are “at risk.”

These are Trump’s people and their vulnerability expresses itself most often in anger, which momentarily hides their vulnerability.  When you are angry—for that moment in time—you often feel strong.  You get pumped up and you find external targets for your rage.  In today’s America, the targets have been easy to find: immigrants and Muslims, bankers and effete northeastern intellectuals or “media types.”  When there is someone who models and stokes anger as well as Trump does, it is contagious.  When you see someone who seems to bully the enemy, then he becomes a hero.  He is the leader they believe they need.  As I wrote in my essay on eighth grade bullies, these men and their passions are ripe for mobilizing.

Rather than elaborate again on the theme of mobilization, though, I’d like to take a moment to better understand their internal struggles.  Many, many of the Trump people suffer from what psychologists call “narcissistic injury.”  So what is narcissistic injury.

Let’s begin with narcissism, itself.  Here are some definitions.  1. “Excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance.” 2. “Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.” 3. “Self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects.”  Sound familiar?  I think it captures Trump the way Matisse captures dancers with a few brush strokes.

Now let’s take this a step further. Here is a description of a “narcissistic personality disorder”:  “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”  What then?  He lashes out, as Trump has done with countless ‘enemies,’ the latest being Judge Gonzalvo Curiel, who presumes to sit on the Trump University fraud case.

Narcissistic rage is a reaction to narcissistic injury, which is a perceived threat to a narcissist’s self-esteem or self-worth. (Google def).  Where does the disorder or injury come from? Some powerful, usually repeated childhood experiences in which the child’s need for love and nurture is unfulfilled, and the existential insecurity that follows that unfulfilled child through life.  For much of the time, people can control the fear, but certain kinds of events set it off.  Rokelle Lerner, author of The Object of My Affection is In My Reflection,  identifies three triggers.  1) The threat of losing the primary source of narcissistic supply, be that a job or a relationship. 2) A failure of old strategies to work, for example, someone challenging their power or trying to take control away from them.  3) An unexpected situation in which their “robust sense of self dissolves and they become desperate.”

The narcissist is in constant search for affirmation and admiration to calm his fears.  When activated, his “frantic need” for “narcissistic supply,” the “constant ego-stroking that sustains…the underdeveloped sense of self and confirms his grandiosity, entitlement, and superiority.”  The confirmation is like a drug that is essential to his well being.   When you interrupt the supply by neglecting him, paying too much attention to others, criticizing or blaming him or not giving him special treatment, you threaten his sense of superiority and call his entitlement into question.  That triggers the a narcissistic injury.

I trust that I don’t have to draw each of the parallels to the Republican presidential candidate.  But, as I suggested earlier, his narcissistic needs require a response from others.  Just as a tree, when it falls in the forest, needs someone to listen in order to know that is has fallen, Trump needs his followers in order to believe he has a self.

What often follows narcissistic injury is rage and blame and, sometimes, violence.  We all recognize this response.  We see it in husbands and wives, children and friends, and bosses when they have been hurt.  Narcissistic injury flows readily among us.  But the degree and the expression of the injury varies immensely.   When you need the rage to relieve yourself, and you need it often, you know that the situation is dangerous.  Like admiration when it comes, rage and blame are like drugs for the narcissists.  This is why Trump can’t get enough of his own ranting, and his followers need it almost equally.  They both need the supply.