According to the Nielsen ratings, we follow Donald Trump as though he were a comet, and yet grouse about having to glean one more column about this matchless political P. T. Barnum. But groan away, perhaps we Americans can at least extract an element of self-understanding from our hypnotic fascination with the New York real estate mogul. Let Sigmund Freud be my witness: Trump is a mirror that we can find ourselves in.
A century ago, the father of psychoanalysis famously argued that our belief in God is a telescoped projection of our need for protection. Fragile and self consciously vulnerable creatures that we are, humans crave protection. As such, we are primed to believe that there is an all-powerful being that can and will defend us in the valley of the shadow of death, and in all the horrors that precede it. No doubt, Freud was guilty of the genetic fallacy, of supposing that the truth of an idea is discredited by its causes; of mistakenly concluding that, because belief in God springs from a need for God, the belief must be false.
And yet, Freud’s insight into the connection between desire and cognition was epiphanic. We are indeed put together in such a way that our wishes are easily converted into beliefs. And in the present age we can count on the god of the internet to provide us with at least the simulacrum of a reason to believe whatever we hanker to believe.
Many Americans, especially disenfranchised men, ardently want to believe that there is some kind of postmodern Alexander the Great type figure who could shield us from the many-pronged dangers of the world as well as domestic problems and disappointments. Primitive as it might seem, it is no mistake that in the U.S. anyone who aspires to the Oval Office must first present him- or herself as a fighter—as someone who will defend you to the end against anything and everything. We, or at least some of us, feel too small and too weak. As children, we were invested in the fantasy that our parents were all-powerful and capable of protecting us against anything and everything. And many of us fall for a different iteration of that fantasy now.
Our heroes are prosthetic devices. Maybe Trump’s bluster is rooted in his own hidden insecurities, but be that as it may, he has channeled and promised to mitigate the insecurities of millions of Americans who feel powerless and angry—angry at the system, and angry with themselves for not being able to work the system.
Freud also taught us that the world loves, or is at least charmed by, a narcissist. Though the verbal coinage has lost it value from overuse, narcissists in the non-clinical sense are people who unabashedly see the world as orbiting around them. According to Freud, such people bedazzle us because they recall the innocence and much-missed self-centeredness of childhood. Most of us are haunted with doubts about ourselves. We lack that I’m-a-winner-you’re-a-loser mentality. For many, someone who possesses that confidence—or who at least succeeds at projecting it—is a spellbinder.
Millions of Americans find the likes of a Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama depressing. These Hamlet-like figures remind us of what needs to be done but fail to reassure us. Their capacity for self-criticism and insistence on inconvenient facts are a bummer. As Trump’s primary victories reveal, it’s reassurance that we featherless bipeds most desperately want.