In his Politics, Aristotle claimed that man was a political animal. By this he meant that the human was predisposed to life within a certain polis, a group, through which all the constituent members could flourish. Noting that other creatures had the same traits, Aristotle added a caveat. What distinguished the polis of man from that of bees or cranes, (who have the same tendency to group together) was the man was not just political, but also rational. The human animal is in possession of the logos that allows for the formation of community but for humanity to speak, to argue and to reason. Politics then is supposedly a collection of individuals brought together and then through rational discussion finding a way to flourish collectively. At its best, this is what we wish to believe about the political process, but there is one single sentence than destroys this image of what politics is and can be. Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee of the Republican party for the US presidential election. Donald Trump. Donald. Trump. Trump’s nature has been well documented so it hardly bears repeating here, but from this to this to this (all in the space of this last week) the nature of who this man is seems ever more clear.
Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for US president. There is a disjunction; politics is for the rational speaking animal, and yet a racist, economically illiterate, orange coloured waxwork in a bad hair-do is now in the running for the most influential job in the world. Never has there been a more glaring failure of the rationality of communicative politics. The response to Trump from those invested within the mechanisms of politics have reflected this disjuncture— the Trump movement simply does not make sense. It is against the idea of the political as the rational spoken environment that commentators and political establishment figures have found themselves tied into conceptual knots to deal with things — witness Paul Ryan, a bland faced Randian drone of the political establishment forced to admit that yes, Donald Trump’s remarks were a textbook example of racism but that no, that would not stop him from endorsing the man for President of the United States.
This is not a rational moment in politics and it reveals in the starkest terms the unreliability and illogicality within the political realm that Aristotle did not acknowledge. So, how to understand this phenomena? If politics is irrational, or rather perhaps, sub-rational (a fact which seems increasingly difficult to deny) then it is to the thought which maps this that we must turn. Last year I wrote a short piece that suggested a Freudian reading of Republican politics, positing Trump as the id of the Republican party. A year or so on, with no seeming end in sight for Trump’s candidacy, the question becomes what impact does this have on the wider political climate of the United States? Why would people confronted with scandal after scandal, with faux-pas after faux-pas, with virulent misogyny, racism, xenophobia and a military fetishism that valorises war crimes, still want to support this man? To phrase the question slightly, why, when confronted with a man who would take away religious liberties, decimate civil rights and destroy economic opportunity, why would people still be prepared to support him? In short, to understand Trump, the question of concern becomes the same question that preoccupied Wilhelm Reich in his landmark 1933 study, ‘The Mass Psychology of Fascism”, namely, why do the masses desire their own repression? Such a question is one which American and British peoples have been reluctant to face — fascism is after all something which is supposed to happen over there, something which is their problem, something which could never happen here.
But couldn’t it though? Couldn’t it? If Trump embodies anything it is that Nietzchean ressentiment that builds to such a level as to define the Other as evil and thus they, his supporters, as good. What this creates is a politics of enormous self-justification, self-affirmation and self-righteousness. A politics that is blind to affirming life, but cares only about itself.
It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, heats and eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id.
The great corrective offered in Anti-Oedipus is to consider the political economy and the economy of libido (the philosophy of Marx and the therapy of Freud) as not separate systems but rather one single economy of flows. With this understanding in place it becomes more possible to understand what we might term the politicized movement of the id in American politics and thus to comprehend what Trump has normalised within political discourse. Freud, in his short but thought provoking work, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1922) argued:
“that in a group the individual is brought under conditions which allow him to throw off the repressions of his unconscious instincts. The apparently new characteristics which he then displays are in fact the manifestations of this unconscious, in which all that is evil in the human mind is contained as a predisposition.”
What the rise of Trump has revealed is not the prejudices of the man himself, but the long repressed deviancies of his supporters. The world of Trump is the liberation of the individual from that great regulating force of soziale Angst or what Freud calls the fear of society. Within a group that will not condemn out comes all the personal, private and repressed prejudices, phobias and disgust that American politics aims to expel. The personal prejudice has become the politically accepted position. How is such a thing to be combatted? Perhaps through a louder and more forceful reiteration of spoken, rational politics? A tempting answer maybe, but one that misses the fact that Trump’s popularity is not predicated upon rational appeal, but on libidinal investment. Anti-Oedipus blows open the flows of desire from the environment of the family and sees it everywhere. As the personal is political, so too is desire:
“The truth is that sexuality is everywhere: the way a bureaucrat fondles his records, a judge administers justice, a businessman causes money to circulate; the way the bourgeoisie fucks the proletariat; and so on. And there is no need to resort to metaphors, any more than for the libido to go by way of metamorphoses…Flags, nations, armies, banks get a lot of people aroused” (Deleuze and Guattari)
US politics has seldom provided a more perfect visual metaphor, where capitalist lust and fear meets political desire.
To turn back to Reich for a moment, he noted that “the formation of the authoritarian structure takes place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and sexual anxiety” — Trump and his supporters perfectly embody this dualism. From Trump’s comments about women to the pathetic feverish alt-right and their epithet of “cuckservative” which neatly brings to the surface the interrelated sexual and political neurosis fuelling Trump’s rise. His policy proposals, such as they are, are constant calls for “Us” to be “smart,” to be “tough,” to bomb, and to build, all in the name of Making America Great Again and are all inseparable from his libidinal investments. Behind every investment of political time and effort an investment of desire and vice-versa.
And so, to conclude with some words of Freud, we begin to see what the new political demographic that Trump has brought together looks like:
Inclined as it itself is to all extremes, a group can only be excited by an excessive stimulus. Anyone who wishes to produce an effect upon it needs no logical adjustment in his arguments; he must paint in the most forcible colours, he must exaggerate, and he must repeat the same thing again and again. Since a group is in no doubt as to what constitutes truth or error, and is conscious, moreover, of its own great strength, it is as intolerant as it is obedient to authority. It respects force and can only be slightly influenced by kindness, which it regards merely as a form of weakness. What it demands of its heroes is strength, or even violence. It wants to be ruled and oppressed and to fear its masters. Fundamentally it is entirely conservative, and it has a deep aversion from all innovations and advances and an unbounded respect for tradition. In order to make a correct judgement upon the morals of groups, one must take into consideration the fact that when individuals come together in a group all their individual inhibitions fall away and all the cruel, brutal and destructive instincts, which lie dormant in individuals as relics of a primitive epoch, are stirred up to find free gratification.
Trump has liberated the desires of a certain section of the polis and as a result such desires will not be easily repressed again when the election is over. American politics can no longer necessarily be thought of as the community of speaking and rational peoples. What it will become, whether Trump wins or loses in November, is perhaps the next question to consider. Perhaps the rise of one new political group will be mirrored by a group that seeks the negation of the Trump-desiring machine. Perhaps there will be a renewal of the struggle for emancipation, equality, and justice that frees the desires of the many into a liberating political fight. Perhaps this will be the case. As Reich argued back in the 1930s, “If the psychic energies of the average mass of people watching a football game or a musical comedy could be diverted into the rational channels of a freedom movement, they would be invincible.” Perhaps this will be the case. But win or lose in November, what can no longer be repressed is the desires within so many that Trump has now set loose.