Notes on a Contemporary Demagogue: A Social-Psychological Account of Right Wing Populism
The rise of the campaign of Donald Trump has resulted in a sort of phony panic within the mainstream American political establishment. His campaign of hatred, bigotry, and general crudeness has managed to introduce into media-produced mainstream political debates a level of discourse previously unthinkable even as it was constantly and perpetually hinted at within the largely theatrical reality of American political life. This underbelly was previously only part of the game, it was combined with a wink. Trump has taken the radical step of bringing it to the light of day, introducing it to the smoggy air of the American public sphere. This final move, which is in some sense analogous to screaming what was before limited to a whisper, has scandalized the mainstream liberal wing of the Democratic party and even lightly embarrassed the right. They prefer less direct terminology and institutionally protected forms of hatred and vitriol as opposed to the theatrical, populist, bizarre, and outsiderish hatred represented by the statements of Donald Trump. He represents the danger (probably unfounded) of something that might not be so easily controlled. The ravings of the mad man have always been uncanny precisely because they evoke, at moments, something recognizable.
The results have been both entertaining and deeply serious. Another curious feature of political ideology today is that things seem to have a short circuit from being a joke that everyone is in on to a quite violent reality. It is even unclear where the one begins and the other ends. The Trump follower, who experiences the black protester as a projection embodying everything that is wrong and who must be destroyed, demonstrates his outrage through committing a violent act. The generalization of “phoniness,” that ‘no one really believes any of this’, is one of the distinctive ideological patterns of contemporary political life. That ‘it is all just a game’ is something that is cynically acknowledged basically by everyone. What is strange is that this realization itself becomes a sort of propaganda tool by the likes of Trump—he simultaneously enacts/perpetrates a theatrical political reality in the same gesture that criticizes it. This is just one bizarre manifestation amongst many signaling how political life is largely subsumed to a moment of the objective semblance-character of social life today. That act becomes an image to be circulated by the media industry so that it might be transformed into a joke we are all in on. The follower becomes someone to laugh at, a projection just as the black protester was a projection of the angry white man. None of it is so very serious until it suddenly is.
While the scandalized liberal’s mixture of disbelief and stunned trepidation is itself a reaction worthy of social-psychological reflection, especially considering that one of Trump’s simplest formulas is take the small step to openly and (libidinally) say what many people were barely able to thinly veil before, we will focus not on a rational critique of the positions or statements of Donald Trump, an activity which can be carried out far more thoroughly by the well-funded propaganda organs of the mainstream Democratic party. Instead, we will consider what the rise of such a campaign can tell us about the beliefs, feelings, and unconscious fantasies of Americans today. The choice to interpret the Trump campaign as a symptom is further justified by the fact that he is manifestly a standardized, even cartoonish personality. He is a special case because, whereas most other candidates who do not emerge from a career in politics come as saviors from the “real life” of the business sphere (the pizza president Herman Cain in 2012, Fiorina in 2016, etc.), Trumps’s entire political career is tied up with the culture industry. It is unclear if he is campaigning as a businessman or as the culture-industry produced imago of the businessman. It has already been pointed out by many mainstream commentators that Trump’s business career is far from stellar. The associations of success which surround his name are ideological devices tied up with the fact that the perceived-value of his actual real-estate holdings are to some extent inseparable form his real-estate Tycoon persona. All this, to be clear, is wholly within the realm of ideology. That the entire performance can be so easily deflated does not seem to be inhibiting his appeal.
His campaign in particular is of special social-psychological interest because it is so manifestly dependent on stirring irrational, psychological effects in its followers. While we normally look upon the psychoanalysis of public figures with skepticism, Trump can be counted as an exception insofar as his entire identity seems largely reducible to a bundle of symptoms. Trump is perceived as a person without an unconscious, or even an inner life—he cannot think without saying, and his entire life seems to be a never ending process of externalizing. He appears tireless. We hope therefore to consider how his own psychology mirrors that of his followers in an especially pure, spectacular form. One assumption of mass psychology is that, insofar as it is largely the massification of narcissism, the leader, in replacing the follower’s ego-ideal, cannot be so far from the follower’s own ego but proves to be only a purer, more orally-associative form. Trump “knows the good words,” as he once put it. We hope to consider how such a campaign is possible and what sort of fantasies it might be triggering in the inner life of Americans today. We will thus attempt through both formal and content analysis of the campaign precisely what sorts of socially-produced psychological elements are being activated and how.
One assumption underlying studies of fascist agitation is that the material is so stereotypical, so standardized and reducible to a handful of techniques, that it can be theoretically summarized and analyzed through only a small handful of speeches. Today things are not so simple. While it might be the case that the psychological forms are essentially the same rigid forms with a few changes, the formal and technical qualities of propaganda are, objectively speaking, far more complex. Today propaganda exists as a ceaseless multi-media assault on the individual from all sides: video, speeches, social media, the mainstream press, blogs, headlines, etc. all form this complex of phenomena. How can we cut through all this to find the essence of what is taking place psychologically in the individual?