I watched MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show this past Monday, and I was frustrated. She’s brilliant and patriotic, but like journalists everywhere she tends to see people and world events somewhat superficially. I’ll explain why.
Ms. Maddow was bemoaning the fact that so many people are tolerating Donald Trump’s recent eruption of particularly incendiary language. Despite his fascist terminology, they’re not prepared to abandon him.
She asked repeatedly why it is that Trump is using the terminology Hitler employed during the 1930s, especially in references to immigrants and bloodlines. Trump resorts to such language because it works, she kept saying. People are susceptible to it.
As I watched her show, I asked myself, “Okay, right, but why does it work? Tell us why it works!” Rachel, bless her, didn’t even begin to address my question. She didn’t do so because the assertions of depth psychology, which has the answers, are not generally accepted, or officially sanctioned.
In large measure, political and social dysfunction originates through inner conflict in our psyche. Trump appeals to neurotic people who are afflicted with inner conflict. He can appear charismatic to those who have a weak connection to their better self. They are deeply and emotionally impressed that, despite his compromised character, he has what appears to them a powerful sense of self. They see Trump steamroll over personal self-doubt and any sense of inadequacy or failure. They experience this brazenness as personal power, and when they align emotionally with it through allegiance to Trump, they’re able to absolve themselves temporarily of the self-punishment their own inner conflict generates.
Before saying more about this deep concept, let’s consider the nature of inner conflict. This conflict involves a tendency to experience doubt concerning one’s essential worthiness. Often, inner conflict involves not just self-criticism, but also self-mockery, self-condemnation, and even self-hatred.
Of course, this is not solely a problem on the Right. Liberals and progressives can also experience troublesome inner conflict, as I describe further on.
Here’s a one-paragraph clinical synopsis of the heart of the problem, after which this essay is easier to understand. The main expression of inner conflict occurs in our psyche between the subordinate, unconscious ego and the superego or inner critic. The superego is primitive and authoritarian. It tends to function as the unconscious master of the personality. It directs aggression toward our unconscious ego, which strives with mixed success, through a variety of defenses, to keep this aggression at bay. This conflict was addressed in much of Freud’s writings.
The superego lays a heavy trip on neurotics. They become desperate to defend themselves from the superego’s attacks on their weaknesses and foibles. Their largely unconscious defenses claim they’re innocent of wrongdoing. Their failures in life, neurotics claim, are largely due to the malice of unsavory people or adverse circumstances beyond their control.
So, neurotics are desperate to blame others for their disappointing circumstances or for why they feel so bad about themselves. Almost any target can serve this purpose. Absurd irrationalities are employed, if necessary, in the process. In righteously or aggressively blaming others, they can get their punishing superego to pause temporarily from blaming them. Often people adopt crude aggressive behaviors toward others to convince their superego that the fault lies with others.
Trump becomes for his followers a psychological “savior.” He “saves” them from having to take responsibility for their life circumstances. He blames whomever for his followers’ misfortunes. He sees his followers as righteous. Trump, the great denier of objectivity, legitimizes their denial and irrationality. His people, he says, suffer innocently from the crimes of the elite. His “powers” of retribution will slay the enemy.
If they identify with him, they have powerful ammunition to get the superego off their back. Their unconscious defense, their desperate claim, now is, “I am powerful, I identify with power. I’m not an inner weakling.” Any risks to democracy in supporting him are secondary to neutralizing self-recrimination. Trump uses them and they unwittingly use him in their escapism from personal responsibility and resistance to inner growth.
Trump loyalists are largely covering up inner weakness. They do so by using their fealty to the “strongman” figure as “proof” (in their battle of the unconscious) that they are not emotionally aligned (identified with) their inner sense of weakness. In this way, their fealty feels like an expression of their own strength. Their aggressive hostility toward liberals or Democrats is mustered within for the purpose of feeling an intoxicating pseudo-aggression that denies inner weakness.
Such people are enthralled by the prospect or possession of political power. They are more desperate for a sense of power to override their inner identification with weakness. This makes them more willing to circumvent civility and constitutions in their pursuit of political power and in their hold upon it. Because their psychological weakness and dysfunction produce a lack of inner freedom, they are unwittingly resistant to granting expressions of freedom to others.
Trump is the poster boy for the refusal to look inward to see oneself objectively. His people are “inspired” to follow his example. Trump apparently has no connection to a better self. He connects to a pompous, idealized, vacuous self through money, fame, power, and attention. These worldly “blessings” are the malignant narcissist’s backbone. His followers are loyal not so much to Trump as to an infantile, self-preoccupied, egotistic perspective, the opposite of how one’s better self sees the world.
The most neurotic, the most conflicted, of Trump’s followers are consciously or unconsciously disposed to having their own inner chaos expressed in the world around them. Those who are most angry, bitter, cynical, and fatalistic are tempted to support Trump because he’s most likely to fulfill their malign spirit of revenge and retribution.
Despite this, people have, in a psychological sense, a claim to innocence in acting out their folly. The world is uninformed and ignorant of these inner dynamics, including the elites in politics, business, and science. Everyone would have access to this knowledge if it were taught in schools or even universities. People would have the chance to test or know its benefits for themselves if the psychological establishment hadn’t naively, foolishly abandoned depth psychology in favor of superficial cognitive-behavioral approaches to treating mental health. It was all in keeping with the fatuity of consumerism.
Not all neurotic people support Trump, of course. Many liberals and progressives are neurotic. Among their many psychological blind spots, they’re prone to identify compulsively with victims. This is not pure compassion but instead an unconscious readiness, induced by their unrecognized inner passivity, to identify with—or resonate emotionally with—a victim’s real or alleged weakness. That passivity lingers from the extended experience of infantile and childhood helplessness. Keep in mind that we replay and recycle whatever is unresolved within us, even when doing so is painful and self-defeating.
The Left and Right battle mainly across a psychological divide, and that divide is played out socially, economically, and politically. We’re in this mess because we’re so resistant to escaping the myopia of our ego. Our ego is highly resistant to acquiring the humbling realization of inner conflict’s influence upon us. In this context, we lack free will. Our mind is passive to our psyche, and we become passive to our mind and ego. We might be technical wizards but we’re psychological dummies. Yet all this inner conflict (a prime instigator of disunity, violence, and wars) can be overcome as our intelligence penetrates the vital inner frontier.
Neurosis exists on a spectrum, and almost everyone is somewhere on that spectrum. As classical psychoanalysis claimed, inner conflict is a primary disturbance contributing to neurosis. A few basic examples of inner conflict include: the wish to feel loved versus the expectation of being rejected; the wish to be strong versus the susceptibility to feeling and acting weak; the wish to get versus the expectation of being deprived or refused; the wish to be seen as special and competent versus the anticipation of being seen as a loser. (Read this 2022 post of mine for a fuller sense of how inner conflict contaminates our mind.)
People go back and forth in painful inner disputation trying to ease the agony of this conflicted mental-emotional system. It’s time now to liberate ourselves from this glitch in human nature. We can do so with our consciousness rather than, as in neuroscience, with our technology.
What could be a greater tragedy than Trump getting back into the White House through our needless ignorance. And what about us bringing artificial intelligence into the world when our own intelligence is stripped of vital self-knowledge.
This knowledge is available free on this website. More than 270 articles are posted here that weave together the elements of unconscious functioning. I have made it comprehensible—and accessible to all. It’s a portrayal of our noble humanity struggling to evolve. It’s essential knowledge that can raise humanity to a new level of wisdom. Eleven books on this subject, written by me and my late wife, can also be ordered from the Books link above.