Monday, July 23, 2018

A Dangerous 'What If'

Some pundits in the national liberal media are getting a bit closer to the view I have espoused for a long time:  that Trump's followers subconsciously crave a dictator who pushes white nationalism (hence their impervious loyalty).  See, for instance, Richard Cohen's latest op-ed:

However, the national pundits are still missing some crucial psychological dynamics.  Below is an op-ed I wrote.  It was rejected by the largest newspaper in my state because, in the words of the Editor:

I generally avoid pieces that attempt make psychological diagnoses or analysis of people. That's something I feel only a person's personal counselor can do.

I think this is wrongheaded.  It mistakes a psychological theory for a diagnosis.  Theory is subject to both reinforcing and negating evidence.

Anyway, here is my op-ed.  Thanks for your time.


A Dangerous 'What If'

In mainstream media, political leaders and followers are usually viewed as at least somewhat privy to their own motivations.  The voyage of democracy hangs its sail on the competency of voters, those who steer their own fate and, together, the course of the country.  It is a noble ethos, grounded in the autonomy of humanism.  In regard to enlightened liberty, reflective decision-making is vital.

However, there is another side.  Enter the field of psychology.  We humans can be subconsciously driven.  Marketers rely on this, knowing that what people say, or even think they believe, is often different than the truth.  In the mental health professions, it is taken for granted that the mind can fool itself.  Denial.  Compartmentalization.  Projection.  We don't like to admit it, but the icon of a deliberate thinker  is only part of a much larger picture, one in which our reason often bows to murky or intangible forces.  

I want to consider what some would consider an outrageous if.  Namely, what if both Donald Trump and his followers are driven by motives they can't see?  We live in pivotal and perilous times, ones that are also mystifying to many, and there is a lot a stake.  It seems prudent to take at least a moment to ponder the full potential of human frailty, and its grave cost.

Although many have called Trump inconsistent, he has pushed a steady theme of white nationalism.  It hardly seems necessary to justify this anymore.  It is evident in his rhetoric, which is laced with dog whistles, many of them not so insinuative.   The MAGA motto is brilliant in this context as a subliminal ploy.  What if Trump is fueled by a powerful desire to become a dictator, a cynosure of infinite adulation, and white nationalism is his ticket?  And what if his hardcore followers have a corresponding wish, to dwell in a police state that revives and secures a nostalgic white patriarchy?

It would follow then that Trump--who has been described as a narcissist in an anthology co-authored by over two dozen experts--would push a racist agenda to increase his gratification.  Many commentators have noted that Trump fishes about for ways to push the edge, testing to see what coaxes his base.  A feedback loop emerges between orator and constituency.  Trump titillates a deep-seated need and vice versa.  It is a loop in which neither player knows (and so can not admit) what drives them, even as they are pulled into a closer orbit, step by step.  If this is what is happening, the taboo against openly racist views is itself under assault in our country, and subject to grievous and constant decline. 

It would be wonderful, frankly, if all this wrong; if Trump has no implacable desire to be a dictator; if his millions of fans are not anchored by psychic chains to white nationalism.  Hopefully there is no mutual seduction going on.  However, Trump has already declared that he can shoot someone in the street and not lose loyalty.  I won't enumerate the abundance of rude and vicious things he has said, attacking a wide range of previously untouchable targets.  He lies openly and copiously at rallies.  His fans don't flinch. 

The next test will be the Chinese tariffs.  If Trump's base suffers monetarily, yet still backs him 100%, it is another indication of complete trust, as in an adored father figure.   The 'outrageous if' gains force the more evidence accrues to support it.  On the other hand, a counterexample would undermine it.  So far, to my mind, no such counterexample exists.

As a final caveat, research tells us that ignorance is smart.  The difference between ignorance and awareness is not intellect.  It is how intellect is employed.  Denial is not only strong, but superbly deflective.  Taking a psychological perspective adds to a sense that things are far worse than generally thought.  On the other hand, facing the darkest alternative could be galvanizing, and allows for the best, strongest defense of democracy.