Guest Opinion: Trump’s dangerous appeal
There have been various attempts to explain Donald Trump's appeal. Any adequate explanation needs to recognize how he summons within us a set of instincts which, if we are not careful, can override our more advanced processes of thinking and judgment.
In Western society, inspired by the Enlightenment and organized into nation states, we have moved beyond the idea that society is guarded by divinely appointed kings. The idea remains compelling on a level deeper than intellect, though, and retains its power to woo us when we feel our best ideas and rational solutions have failed.
More than we realize, we depend on sets of instincts and patterns for behavior to tell us what to do next. These patterns come to us, in ways we only partly understand, through our genetic endowment, our cultural, religious and family heritage, and our individual experiences.
In the language of Jungian psychology, we live in a world of archetypes — basic forms that seem to underlie our experience of reality. We do almost nothing from scratch, but instead call up from these available templates and turn control over to one of them or another. It is like choosing from programmed scripts on a computer or a self-driving car.
Extreme anxiety can cause us to grab for scripts that may not be the most helpful ones, but we are frightened at what might happen if we don’t come up with something quickly. In emergencies, templates that tell us how to survive at any cost can clog the flow of other templates that might actually be more useful. Until the alarm of emergency can be turned down, we may not be able to access these more helpful scripts.
The experience of not being able to access a useful set of instincts can be terrifying, rendering us vulnerable to people who offer to fill the gap and give us a game plan — their own set of instincts and templates for behavior — so we can be saved from the discomfort of not knowing. Such people can be masters at activating and turning up the volume of our alarm for emergency, giving them power to persuade us that we need what they offer.
What exactly does Trump offer us? He seems to constellate (another Jungian term) within us archetypes related to the "great man." Trump has been compared to Hitler. It may be more accurate, though, to recognize that Trump and Hitler share certain archetypal characteristics, which hark back to examples earlier in history, like Napoleon and — even earlier — Julius Caesar.
The great man is someone who brings a new direction to the world, not through ideas, words and persuasion, but through sheer force of personality and action. They are not bound by normal rules or morality, because they are seen as possessing something in their essence that is more important than what these rules protect. They enter the world like a force of nature, and move history with the gust of their presence. They are bigger than nations and governments, which are merely the result of ideas and plans.
It is obvious that we, in our culture, are anxious regarding what script we should entrust ourselves to now. This puts us at risk. Whatever templates we eventually entrust ourselves to, we may be compelled to live with their consequences for a very long time.
Trump offers the possibility of settling into a set of instincts that seem to absolve us of the profound anxiety of having to clean up the mess we have made of our society. It feels good to believe our challenges can be swept away by someone who is not bound by society's rules.
The cost of giving ourselves over to these relieving instincts, though, is that society will break in the process. At the end of our expensive vacation in fantasy, we will have plenty of work to make up.
There is no guarantee that what is reassembled after such a break will be better than what we have right now. The reconstructed world can only be as good as the people involved in making it, and we are those people.
Rob Skidmore is a licensed counselor who lives in Ashland.