The Shakedown Of The American Psyche
What does Trump’s presidency say about us?
From that historically brief quite opaque moment, came the chaos of our material history, an anarchy of chronology, of mismatched remnants that delighted and horrified investigators. ―China Miéville, The City & the City
The City & the City is the dystopian tale of two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, which co-exist in the same physical location via a psychological high-wire act their citizens are always performing. They arrived at this strange and unstable condition to address unresolvable political and ideological conflicts between the two peoples.
The residents of the Beszel and Ul Qoma have learned to ignore the fact of the existence of the other, even when half of the very street they are walking on is divided into parts which belong to Beszel, and parts which belong to Ul Qoma.
The residents accomplish this through a form of radical dissociation, a psychological act splitting reality into pieces which aren’t connected with one another. Imagine you are walking down the street and you actually don’t see the traffic and crowds of people a few feet away. You have been trained not to, under heavy penalty, since birth. Miéville calls this act “unseeing”, echoing the Orwellian concepts of “newspeak” and “doublethink”. Infractions of the law are enforced by secret police, who materialize out of nowhere when someone breaks the collective hypnotic spell of unseeing. Presumably the police are also there all the time, hiding in psychological blind spots.
One Nation Under God?
The 2016 Presidential Election was a shock and a triumph, a collective trauma and a jubilant and overdue victory. Compared to the progressive victory of Obama, Trump represents a reactionary correction which should have been predictable, but somehow was not. Since then, reality is altered, truth is altered, mind is altered. Something fundamental has shifted and we don’t yet know the shape of things or really have any idea of what might happen. The uncertainty is unprecedented in our lifetime.
There has been an enormous focus on Trump’s person, and a debate about psychiatric diagnosis — whether the President is mentally ill, just a “bad person”, “not my president”, a business and organizational genius, a Messiah for the White working class, a genocidal dictator in the making, a brilliant entertainer, a buffoon, a kind of P.T. Barnum on overdrive. These compelling ideas distract from dialogue about our society’s jigsaw puzzle pieces, and how they don’t fit together right. Maybe there are a few similar puzzles mixed up in the same box. Over the decades, it looks like we’ve gone from melting pot, to tossed salad, to shattered glass. After all, our country has roots in contradiction — freedom, slavery, genocide, equality. Is social diagnosis called for at this point?
It is familiar and normative to go along with partisanship, taking sides and joining one team against the others. When this happens, we run the risk of losing our identity to the group, and eroding the capacity to empathize. Having a single perspective facilitates rapid action, builds group cohesion and membership, and gets work done and the expense of thinking. Stopping to think is dangerous when there is a threat. That is the mythic American identity — rugged individualism, strength in unity.
However, as useful and appropriate as it may be, taking sides necessarily gets in the way of developing a middle ground. Taking sides shuts down dialogue among groups, in fact make it inconceivable and unwanted, and impede progress on a larger level. In fact, people who want a more moderate approach may be demonized by more radical groups for being non-committal and making things worse. Are we addicted to competition, finding collaboration bland and tasteless even if it is our best long-term interest?
The Path to Collaboration
In her remarkable work in Humiliation and Human Dignity Studies, Evelyn Lindner spells out how the loss of human dignity and the experience of humiliation drives a wedge between groups in conflict. Unaddressed humiliation drives extremism and shuts down collaboration, undermining peace and egalitarianism. She notes that an alliance among moderates is the place to start:
Triple strategy for third parties wishing to ensure peace For third parties who are trying to secure peace around the world, yet another threefold approach seems helpful. First, it is important to identify the fault lines between what may be called moderates and extremists in opposing camps. To give an example, not the Hutus or Tutsis are the parties to reckon with, but the Mandelas (they could be called the moderates) as opposed to the humiliation entrepreneurs (here called extremists) on both sides. Second, third parties need to facilitate alliances between the moderates of all camps with the aim to transform extremists’ violent responses to feelings of humiliation. Third, humiliating living conditions of the broad masses must be minimized, because otherwise frustrated masses will be vulnerable to recruitment by humiliation entrepreneurs.
The current social, political and economic environment in the US is bringing the extremes out into the open at an ever-accelerating pace. It is a frightening time when hidden fears have been revealed, and amplified. Peoples’ opinions on the same subject are routinely so radically different as to appear irreconcilable, and efforts to undermine factual reality are profoundly de-centering. Is our survival at stake, or are things going to be just OK, or is this the beginning of making America great again?
Many mutually exclusive versions of reality are now out of the closet. Before the election, these narratives were there for all to see, but we were mainly “unseeing”. Now, there is a “breach” in the veil of dissociation we’d been living under, and everything which was walled-off is flooding us. That breach gets filled up with fears and fantasies, with rational concerns and efforts to address them, with hope, with hate and aggression, and much, much more. And bizarrely, Donald Trump is standing at the center of it all.
Philip Bromberg, PhD, a master of trauma theory and treatment, authored a book called Standing in the Spaces: The Multiplicity of Self and the Psychoanalytic Relationship. To Bromberg, the process of therapy requires that the interactive therapist gets involved with the patient’s system of fragmented, disconnected self-states. Once engaged in the patient’s system, the therapist can start to interact in ways which begin to make connections among disparate parts.
Having a multifaceted personality is a good thing — it gives flexibility, allows one to shift how they are to fit different situations and relationships, and so on. However, when the many facets of ourselves are not communicating properly, we run into problems. There are symptoms and dysfunction, difficulty dealing with our inner conflicts and with the external world. Internal coherence is required for external function. In becoming involved with the patient, the therapist catalyzes a developmental process leading to greater internal cohesion and access to one’s full capacities.
In some cases, severe childhood trauma leads to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) — formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD). People with this condition have two or more distinct self-states, or personalities, which can direct what they do, often without the knowledge of other parts of themselves. DID is often a diagnostic chamleon which can look like other conditions, because different aspects of the personality may present as depressed, as narcissistic, as sociopathic — and on top of that there are often co-morbid conditions such as addictions and difficult to explain physical symptoms.
And this is what I think all this has to do with our \nation. Viewing the US as a unitary system, it looks very dissociate, to a pathological extent. There is a tremendous amount of fragmentation, massive chronic traumas recent and historical, and little, if any, real repair. Civil rights violations, terrorism, failed economic promises, loss of faith in our political system, ongoing bias on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, hate crimes, the effect of social media (for better or for worse), sexual identity, class, and moreover living with the double-standard of the American Dream…on the surface equality and freedom, beneath slavery and genocide…and the mask is slipping. Our culture is facing a tipping point. We have many potential choices, but I fear we are on auto-pilot, like a traumatized patient who compulsively acts in self-destructive ways.
The Crazy Ape
What, if anything, can we do, when there isn’t yet a “we” to think about what to do? will that alliance among moderates start to take shape, even as action is taken to ensure immediate safety? Fight the good fight (whichever is yours) in the true American spirit, but keep part of your mind open.
In the words of Nobel Laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi, author of The Crazy Ape (1970):
We are forced to face this situation with our caveman’s brain, a brain that has not changed much since it was formed. We face it with our outdated thinking, institutions and methods, with political leaders who have their roots in the old, prescientific world and think the only way to solve these formidable problems is by trickery and double talk, by increasing our atomic arsenal…