The refusal of millions to wear face masks in the heat of our pandemic is another deadly skirmish in the battle for the soul of America. This spurning of face masks reveals important details about human nature.
This unsafe behavior by so many of President Trump’s supporters provides a vital clue to his appeal and why his political movement is ultimately self-defeating. (Please bear in mind that my intention here is to be analytical, not critical.)
At a deep level, Trump’s appeal is based in psychological resistance to the process of becoming more conscious and better connected to one’s authentic self. This resistance, mostly unconscious, has a powerful influence upon us all. (Read more about resistance here, here, and here.)
People who avoid pursuing their individual betterment are more likely to resist or sabotage social progress. This resistance is centered in the human ego, which is the mental and emotional operating system for a great many people. The ego can become a rigid identification, meaning it is believed to be one’s authentic self when we refuse the call to self-development.
The core allegiance of face-mask repudiators is not to Trump but to the mentality he represents, which is resistance to inner growth and adherence to the ego and its superficial reckonings. The rigid ego takes over the mind, falsifying reality.
MAGA is really saying that we can go backwards, regress psychologically, and still be great. Trump and his supporters are rallying around the flag of militant self-ignorance. Coded from the dark side, his “philosophy” says, “There’s no need to address our self-ignorance. The ego is everything we need.” His supporters identify with his flamboyant ego, which denies the inner life and the benefits of self-knowledge. “If Trump can be great while taking the low road,” the feeling goes, “so can I.”
In his everyday shenanigans, Trump displays the values of the undiffused ego: attention-seeking, stubbornness, magical thinking, self-deception, self-aggrandizement, hostility to truth-tellers, compulsive scheming, and malice toward opponents and outsiders. His rigid ego, itself a kind of face mask, hides behind a charming persona while protecting his brain from incoming rationality.
People who identify with their ego are entangled in the illusion of separation, alienation, and divisiveness. According to this mentality, science (think Galileo, Darwin, Freud, James Hansen, Anthony Fauci) must be denounced when it contradicts the assumption that ego knows best.
People who have refused, whether consciously or unconsciously, to grow psychologically and develop their humanity typically have more resistance and more ego-identification. Both these traits keep intact white supremacy, white fragility, and income inequality. It is some consolation, as I see it, to recognize that Trump and the GOP are unwittingly serving a psychological role: they’re acting out the resistance that occurs in everyone’s psyche. The resistance we each feel to our psychological growth has, at the national level, its social-political counterpart in the MAGA movement. When people understand this, they can feel less anxiety about Trump’s presidency. With patience and equanimity, we focus our energy on gaining personal insight and strength while building alliances. We would not falter even if Trump were to remain president in the coming years.
We all have an ego, yet people who are growing and evolving are breaking away from their identification with it and aligning themselves with their authentic self. The Black Lives Matter movement is a struggle to honor the true, authentic self. As well, laws that give civilians access to assault weapons are influenced by an emotional undercurrent that gives precedence to individual ego-satisfaction (translated as “personal rights”) over the wise sense of restraint and balance that the self, our secular soul, is able to access.
In the abortion debate, too, the pro-choice side represents the desire and determination to trust the wisdom of one’s own self, versus being restricted by arbitrary authorities with suspicious motivations that they don’t recognize in themselves, or even faintly realize are driving their beliefs.
Anti-mask agitators don’t want to change or to accept change, yet the pandemic represents a shocking level of change. They fear that masks require them to cover up their individuality and to become sensitive to the wellbeing of others, which is antithetical to the ego. When people decline to wear masks at a Trump rally, they’re not only being scornful of science, they’re also mocking their better self. This unconscious brandishing of the ego as one’s essential identity is resistance on steroids.
Trump’s presidency rests on the corruption of the people, in the sense of exploiting human nature’s resistance to striving for excellence. He doesn’t ask anything of people other than to go on maintaining and fomenting their grievances. I’m not saying all of Trump’s supporters are neurotic in this way. Like the coronavirus, neurosis doesn’t discriminate. Also displaying neurosis, of course, are liberals, progressives, independents, moderates, and libertarians.
Why is the ego so strong? Classical psychoanalysts claimed that infants and babies are in the grip of megalomania. This condition creates the illusion of being at the center of existence and the source of all that happens. It does make sense that an infant, in complete lack of worldly experience, might be under the impression that its own existence is at the center of everything. Children do, of course, become increasingly attuned to reality. Yet it takes several years before they’re even aware that surrounding events occur beyond their own causation.
The ego is a remnant of this megalomania, and even sophisticated people remain under the influence of its infantile associations. The ego keeps trying to put itself at the center. Consider that most of humanity, until rescued by science, once believed that the earth and its people were at the center of the universe. Later, the ego was shocked and upset to be informed that we were descendants of lower animals. Egocentrism still rules, often in a passive form as self-pitying victimization: “The world’s against me and out to get me.”
It can feel like death to let go of the ego, yet letting go, when correctly managed, is a process of death to the old, rebirth to the new. The new sense of self beyond the ego liberates us from cravings, resentments, bitterness, loneliness, self-rejection, and other negative emotions.
The ego is both conscious and unconscious. As mentioned, the conscious ego functions as a mental and emotional operating system and as our sense of who we are. We also have an unconscious ego. It can be recognized as inner passivity, a part of our psyche through which we experience weakness, self-doubt, defensiveness, and an appetite for self-punishment. Like the inner critic, this passive aspect mostly operates outside of our awareness. People who are most egocentric will tend to have the largest deposits of inner passivity. We can see this in narcissists who fail to feel or appreciate the value of others. Narcissism is a psychological compensation for one’s inability, due to various factors including inner passivity, to connect emotionally with one’s intrinsic value and authentic self.
The ego often serves as a last-stand refuge from underlying humiliation. Author and columnist Thomas L. Friedman writes that Trump’s appeal is based largely on the “the politics of humiliation.” Trump was elected, Friedman writes, not because of his policies but because many people are “attracted to his attitude—his willingness and evident delight in skewering the people they hate and who they feel look down on them.”
Yes, they are attracted to his attitude, or, more accurately, his “successful” management of his blatant dysfunction. The problem, though, goes deeper. For one thing, many people have, through inner conflict, an unconscious readiness to feel looked down upon. Hatred is a byproduct of this inner conflict, and that hatred is projected onto others. In supporting Trump, people unwittingly use projection as a psychological defense to cover up how their humiliation is generated through inner conflict, mostly as self-criticism, self-rejection, and even self-hatred.
Most people are ensnared in some degree of inner conflict. A common inner conflict occurs between inner passivity and the harsh inner critic. A person’s inner critic frequently accuses him or her of being a loser or failure. The accusation is usually experienced through one’s random or nagging thoughts and feelings. “Look at you,” the inner critic might imply, as one example, “all those people of color in the news are doing much better than you. And there’s nothing you can do about it! What kind of loser are you!”
As a defense against this accusation, people tend to blame others. Or they blame themselves, but for the wrong reasons. We’re all compelled to hurl at others the same degree of mockery and belittlement that we absorb from our inner critic. This dynamic of extending to others what is inwardly being absorbed serves as an unconscious defense that goes like this: “They’re the bad people, the unworthy ones, not me! I’m not passively absorbing disapproval and condemnation from my inner critic. If anything, I’m the aggressor. I’m the one who condemns them. They’re the unworthy ones, not me.” This cunning self-deception, an aspect of resistance, keeps the ego intact, though awash in negativity.
Trump is quick to identify certain people, even fallen soldiers, as losers. It’s all projection: he “sees” in others a mirror-image of the hopeless loser he has repressed in his psychic depths. Many such individuals use drugs and alcohol for their (temporary) ego boost, while Trump gets his kicks from attention, acclaim, power, wealth, and projections. This keeps his ego intact, yet it can’t protect him from outbursts of rage.
The ego itself, when rigid and undiffused, is something of a loser, a thin-skinned shadow of our true self. Identifying with it produces a resonance with weakness, not strength. The ego is super-sensitive, and it can’t stop clinging to fresh or ancient hurts and grievances.
To serve its purpose, the ego misuses the notion of freedom. Trump supporters say the wearing of masks is a matter of individual rights and freedom. This is a psychological defense based on a pseudo-moral: “Isn’t it good and proper to be free and to make our own personal decisions?” Yes, it’s good, but life is not this black and white and there’s a greater good to consider. Hiding behind this pseudo-moral is psychological mischief, namely the attempt to rationalize as cold facts the ego’s presumptions and to cover up one’s indifference to the wellbeing of others.
Nobody else, with the exception of hangers-on or enablers, gives two hoots about your ego. It means nothing to them. You’ll only generate endless anguish trying to get others to notice it and honor it. Do yourself a favor and get to know your real self. Enjoy the beautiful world out there beyond the ego.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.