Diagnostic Politics and National Psychoses - Part 1

So I have been thinking in psychiatric terms about a number of topics over the past few weeks, in relation to my own work in data management and the contemporary news of the day, which is inescapably about Donald Trump and the American political world in 2016.

As the prospect of Trump becoming the Republican nominee for president in 2016 becomes increasingly certain, I’ve started to see a few characteristic stories published. For one there is the story which says that Trump is just like some person from another country. So there are articles comparing Trump to Berlusconi from Italy, and Sharon from Israel. Then there are stories which reach back farther into history, usually to make some connection between fascism and Trump.

But the oddest story I read recently about Trump and the one that struck me as revealing a strange truth was Donald Trump, Trickster God by Corey Pein at the Baffler. Dragging up the ghost of Carl Jung, Pein makes a connection between Trump and the Jungian archetype of the trickster, the god of mischief, who upsets the current order. To support this idea Pein links back to an essay that Jung wrote in 1936 on the then current rise of Hitler in Germany. Jung saw Hitler as Wotan, the “ancient god of storm and frenzy.”

The key insight Pein wants to import from Jung and bring back into our current conversation is the idea of irrationality and the unconscious.

Crucially, Jung argued that modern people could not accept the reality of any manifestation of the unconscious; and that is what caused all sorts of problems. This is as true today as it was eighty years ago—perhaps more so, in this tech-obsessed time of data journalism, STEM supremacy, and quantitative hegemony. The more adamantly people deny the influence of unseen forces—that is to say, unconscious impulses—over their own behavior, the more power those forces exhibit.

By now you might have guessed where I’m going with this. And you might be thinking that it’s unfair to attribute disagreeable voter behavior to mass psychosis. To which I say, keep watching the news. Is it really so far-fetched to suggest that America has literally gone mad? And if it indeed may be the case that the nation, or a large part of it, has lost its mind, then how do we even begin to talk about it? This is where armchair psychomythology becomes useful.

All of the research on cognitive bias, heuristics, and mental failure supports the view that most of us just are not very good at thinking rationally. Accepting this is a much harder task. The recent episode of Radio Open Source talked about some of these ideas. Dan Ariely kicked things off, and his book, Predictably Irrational, is as good a place as any to start reading about the weird things the human mind does.

The next guest Benjamin Kunkel was even more interesting. He mentioned his essay on Politicopyschopathology during the interview. The essay argues that the Republicans are psychotics and the Democrats are neurotics.

He starts with John Stuart Mill and free speech. On Liberty was one of the best books I read during high school, it is almost perfect for that age, with its laissez faire attitude of letting a million flowers bloom. Certainly a much better distillation of freedom than anything Ayn Rand ever produced.

But Kunkel correctly argues that the so-called “marketplace of ideas” is a delusion. Mass media and legal decisions like Citizens United mean that anyone with a lot of money and a political ax to grind can flood the public sphere with lies, slanders, and misrepresentations of reality. He says that campaign strategists tend to be as mendacious as they can get away with, so for most people the policies discussed in the public sphere are messy melanges of lies, fantasies, and innuendo.

And we all know it. It is the basis for much of the rage currently being enacted by Trump supporters on one side and Sanders supporters on the other. We know that politicians lie and conceal more than they ever reveal or illuminate. So the only way to counter the problem, according to Kunkel, is to start looking at the “hidden dream-work” behind the public discussion of politics…