Trump the Trickster
Driving home from Texas yesterday, I heard NPR’s Rachel Martin interview Don Reid, a genial Republican — he sounded like the kind of guy you’d love to have a cup of coffee with — and former city council member in Charlotte, NC. Reid is a Trump supporter. Excerpts from the interview:
DON REID: I just absolutely love the fact that Donald Trump is challenging the establishment Republicans. He’s redefining the party and, hopefully, destroying the power that has been in that little oligarchy of establishment Republicans in Washington, D.C.
MARTIN: All right. So let’s talk a little more about that. Why do you think the party has failed you?
REID: Well, since Reagan, they’ve offered people like me the choice of either voting for a loser like McCain or Dole or voting for the Democrat. And since I’m a conservative Republican, I held my nose and voted for the Republican. But they did nothing about illegal immigration. They did nothing about the debt. They shipped our jobs overseas. And so they’ve used the conservatives just like the Democrats have used the minorities to control the party.
There’s some interesting stuff buried in there, if by “conservatives” you mean “working class and religious conservatives.” But what does Reid mean that the “oligarchy of establishment Republicans” only offered him McCain and Dole to vote for? Dole and McCain were not selected by party officials. They both won contested primaries. Bob Dole won 71 percent of the GOP primary vote in the North Carolina primary in 1996. John McCain won 74 percent of the GOP primary vote there in 2008. Nobody forced Dole and McCain on GOP voters. They were chosen. It’s awfully convenient to blame party leaders now for choices that party voters made.
REID: … To me, the illegal immigration is the biggest problem that our country faces. It will destroy this country and our culture, and we must do something about it.
MARTIN: You think Donald Trump can actually fulfill his promise to deport 11 million illegal immigrants?
REID: I don’t know. I think that it’s unfair to ask him all the details about it. But the fact that somebody says – I will do it if I get in office. I’ll find the people to help me, and I will build a wall. All those things can be done if we have the resolve to do it. And if we don’t have the resolve to do it, let’s just fold our tent and forget that we’re a country and become a Greece.
To be clear, illegal immigration is a huge problem, but it is a problem that has leveled off after skyrocketing in the Clinton and Bush years. I think there are far more threatening problems facing America than illegal immigration today, but I respect someone who believes otherwise. That said, why on earth is it “unfair” to expect Trump to explain how he plans to deport 11 million people? This is classic American magical thinking: if we want to do a thing badly enough, we can do it. Like bringing democracy to Iraq. All Reid expects of Trump is that he express sufficiently strong feelings regarding illegal immigrants.
How does this make a lick of sense?
One more excerpt:
REID: … I’m very – a strong – a social conservative. I don’t believe Trump is. But social conservatism can be put on hold for four years. Doing something about illegal immigration, security of our country, building up our military, doing something about our national debt and the jobs – that can’t wait. Otherwise, nothing else matters.
“Something” about illegal immigration? OK, I agree, illegal immigration should be stopped. So what will we do? Reid doesn’t care. “Building up our military”? The US defense budget is larger than the combined military budgets of the ten next biggest national spenders . “Doing something about the national debt”? Many Trump supporters don’t care about federal spending; in fact, they depend on it.
Look, I think most people vote attitudinally, not by examining a candidate’s positions and plans rationally. That’s just how people are. But in Trump’s case, it’s amazing how little his supporters care about this stuff. Most candidacies bring out the magical thinking in the masses (‘memba Obama the Lightworker?), but Trump is just off the charts. Why?
Consider the take on Trump that Corey Pein offers in The Baffler. Pein says trying to understand Trump by conventional means makes no sense. Trump is better understood as a religious phenomenon. Excerpts:
Something more profound is occurring. An election is, at its core, a form of mass ritual. What dreadful forces are being summoned this time? Tremors ripple through the noosphere. Can you feel them? It’s eerie, as though the dogs have all stopped barking at once, the birds have flown away together to parts unknown, and the sky has turned green.
The strangeness of the moment exceeds the descriptive capacity of what passes for civil discourse. Even the people who are right on the particulars are wrong on the whole. What’s worse, any attempt to explain Trump’s popular ascent is doomed because these events cannot be explained in the empirical fashion to which modern people are accustomed. The election is nothing less than a psychogenic storm. As such it can only be discussed in metaphysical terms that sober, prudent, smartphone-having people are unwilling to countenance.
The press in particular is doomed by its methodology, which assumes that human events are dictated by discrete, quantifiable forces. Watch how desperately they cling to the mistaken belief that some combination of polling data and campaign finance-flow explains the dramatic subversion of expectations that is the looming Trump nomination. This is all in vain!
The key to understanding this election cycle—and its energetic locus, Trump—is to accept that we are not dealing with an ordinary man, bound by the rules of decorum and the presupposition of coherence. I have another idea. I propose that Donald Trump is the personification of a Norse god named Loki.
Think about it. Everyone keeps asking, how does he do it? How does he get away with the outbursts of expletive and blasphemy, with cruel mockery of disabled people and torture survivors, with the rambling incestuous fantasies? What I am saying is that Trump doesn’t need to play by the rules because he is the fabled shape-shifting trickster wearing the orange skin of a man and the hair of a wily red fox. That is how he gets away with it.
Pein is not saying that Trump is literally the incarnation of a mythological Norse god. He’s saying, following Jung’s interpretation, that the gods are symbols of psychic forces active in society. Pein concedes that you might think “it’s unfair to attribute disagreeable voter behavior to mass psychosis. To which I say, keep watching the news.” He continues:
The only contemporary observers who fail to grasp how dire economic circumstances might inspire irrational and destructive impulses in wide swaths of the public are the fortunate few who’ve managed to avoid job loss, eviction, a health crisis, or any other potentially life-destroying random event over the duration of what has amounted to an eight-year depression. Such lucky bastards abound within the ranks of the clueless political press corps and the establishmentarian loyalists in both major parties. Once upon a time they were called the bourgeoisie but it might be simpler to call them “out of touch.” Loki pities them not.
Pein says that if terrible Wotan represents the German national spirit (as Jung believed), then Loki is quintessentially American:
The trickster god has visited this young nation before, in the person of P.T. Barnum and in the character of Tom Sawyer. Even the foundational myth of George Washington and the cherry tree bears Loki’s mark. Little George did a bad thing, but his candid admission earned forgiveness from the father figure. Now, highfalutin’ historians might tell you that the cherry tree story is a fabrication and that Washington did tell lies, but the power of the myth stands, impervious to those facts. Similarly, journalists may lose their breath trying to keep up with Trump’s constant fictions, but his supporters don’t seem to care about something so trifling as veracity. Like Little George, they forgive him because he at least gives the impression of honesty and doesn’t hold back.
Read the whole thing. Yeah, I know, it sounds like Joseph Campbell lit up on a barstool, but there’s something to this. Back in 2007, Caleb Stegall circled a similar point about American political culture, and how we are at a loss to explain forces at work in our culture because we are strangers to the primitive. Excerpts:
It is true that we have not and cannot escape completely from the pagan world full of gods. However, Weber was right that the gods have been dispersed.
To put it another way, our late-modern existence is characterized just as much as any age by magical thinking. Just look at the rhetoric surrounding Iraq. Or your local lottery ticket sales. The problem is in who people craving some magic turn to as witchdoctors. Armies of materialists: therapists, experts, politicians, scientists, etc.
The foremost problem is that Christianity as a depaganized political religion is Liberalism, radicalized and out of whack with reality in which one must at times do evil and even commit mortal sins for temporal goods that are the charge of those with political power. And then seek absolution in the magical appeasement of the gods. The medieval church allows, or found a way to admit and cope with this. It is a deal with paganism. Take it away and you get a devolution from Protestantism into liberalism. You get the new American personal faith Christianity (evangelicalism) with the magical thinking of overbought homes on ARMS and credit cards and daycare and building democracy in Iraq and all the other delusional magical thinking of late-modernity in the capitalist-state. And you get a whole new class of materialist therapeutic witchdoctors rising up to give the newest incantations: your best life now! your purpose driven life! or whatever.
Or “Make America Great Again”. More:
This is completely flattened out in a rationalistic modernizing deracinated disenchanted liberalizing protestant culture. And the inchoate need for magic and appeasement of the gods gets shifted in very unhealthy materialist directions which can be exploited by those who understand the psychology. Just read some of the high-end literature on advertising today.
Read the whole thing. And take a look at this short 2009 Stegall post on Front Porch Republic, which looks prophetic today. He talked about “dangerous” state of our politics, given that both the underclass and “boomers” (by which he means not Baby Boomers, but rather in the Wallace Stegner/Wendell Berry sense), have degenerated. Excerpt:
What both the underclass and the boomers have in common is dependence on the State (they are relationships of mutual exploitation) and, in my judgment, the inability or refusal to work. America has ceased being a people who work for themselves. Self-government cannot long last in this climate. For if you won’t work for yourself, eventually you will be enslaved, perhaps even willingly.
In the Trump case, it’s like people want to be lied to. Heidegger famously said, toward the end of his life, “Only a god can save us.” What if the god people look to as savior is … Loki?
When you point to Carl Jung and Martin Heidegger to shed light on Donald Trump, you can be assured that you are overthinking things. On the other hand, the magical thinking aspect of Trumpism, and the imperviousness of Trump to standards of logic and, well, standards, does make you wonder the language of election as “mass ritual” and “psychogenic storm” have something to tell us about a phenomenon that defies conventional analysis.
Remember over the weekend I told you about a conversation I had with a Texas man whose working-class male relative’s life was flying apart, and who was (therefore) susceptible to radical magical thinking to try to make sense of his world, and who was a big Trump supporter? Said the man, “Trump is talking to people like him, not people like you.” Think about that, and think about Loki as a symbol of a force rising in the body politic. Discuss.