This post is not about Donald Trump the person, but about Donald Trump the symbol. Human beings are complex and multi-faceted, but symbols are stereotypical, monochromatic and uni-dimensional. When an individual becomes a symbol, this monolithic picture becomes so overpowering that even the individual concerned becomes its captive. His/her own multiplicity gets lost in this all embracing picture. In such a situation, it is reasonable to assume that the individual is carrying this picture “on behalf of” the collective. In other words, it is the collective’s difficulty in engaging with a certain part of its own psyche which is carried by the person who gets symbolised.
Let us first look at the nature of this symbol in case of Donald Trump and then examine why it is becoming problematic in the present day world. For many people, Donald Trump has come to symbolise all that is antithetical to our notions of civilised decent behaviour. He is seen as a crude, domineering, intolerant, opinionated, self-centred creature with insatiable appetites and one who generates considerable repulsion and disgust in us. However, there must be something attractive about his raw energy and indomitable spirit which has propelled so many people to place him in arguably the most powerful position in the world. In fact,It has often been suggested that it is his “bull in the china shop” image which has made the electorate prefer him over the more sober, suave, articulate and reasonable Clinton, who would merely preserve the status-quo. In many ways, one can see the presidential election as a contest between our primal and civilised selves.
There is a part in each of us which neither listens to the voice of reason, nor easily submits to social and moral conventions. It carries the seeds of both our heroic potential and our destructive villainy. Through the process of socialisation we learn to tame and control this part, but rarely do we learn how to integrate it with the rest of us and how to actualise its heroic potential. In my book, Child Man, I had speculated that the prevalent conditions of human existence are such that this part of ourselves is being simultaneously awakened and suppressed. The end result is that we encounter only its negative side and hence push it into our psycho-social underbelly.
Through Donald Trump, our primal and primitive side seems to have moved out of the dungeons and occupied the centre stage. Sadly, what we are seeing is only the negative and ugly side of this primal self. I believe this is so because we have never graced our primal self and only scoffed at it in the name of being mature and civilised. Take for example, our notion of being a “global citizen”. It is primarily based on the notion of a liberal, inclusive, broad minded, secular individual who is primarily governed by what Ayn Rand would call “enlightened self interest”. Any thing which does not fit into this is dismissed as narrow, communal, parochial, reactionary and host of such invectives.
The question which needs to be asked is, what are we doing with those parts of ourselves which do not fit into this pretty but sanitised picture? Where does the anxiety of living in a world with increasingly fluid boundaries go? What happens to our need to feel protected in a safe haven? What happens to our need to belong to a community of familiar people who are not just faceless/nameless entities? It is sometimes assumed that these needs belong only to the relatively backward and lower/middle strata of the society. It is further assumed that people like Donald Trump are able to manipulate the “masses” by pandering to these sentiments. Perhaps the reality is more complex than that. Perhaps the elite are able to take care of their “clannish” needs as also anxieties in a more subtle manner and are hence able to maintain the facade of being open and liberal. It is for this reason that people like Clinton come through as pretty but fake, which in turn leaves the space open for likes of Donald Trump to take the counter location of being ugly but real.
Perhaps both Clinton and Trump are products of this split between “pretty but fake” and “ugly but real”. It is not that Trump is any more real and authentic than Clinton, but it is the certainty of Clinton’s falsity that enables Trump to claim authenticity for himself. Similarly it is the certainty of Trump’s ugliness which entitles Clinton to claim the tag of being nice and pretty.
If this split is to be healed, we will need to revisit some of our notions around being backward and progressive. So long as we hold certain aspects of being human (e.g. need for community) with disdain, we will continue to awaken and simultaneously suppress Donald Trump within us both individually and collectively. Sometimes he will break free from the chains which shackle him and ruthlessly destroy everything which comes in his way and leave us wondering as to how could we have let this happen.
The healing of this split will also entail rediscovering the virtues of the “householder” whose reach is bounded, whose vision is limited, whose concerns are petty and who is content in his small world pursuing his small wishes, desires and dreams. The more we look down upon the ordinary and the mundane, the more we will be engulfed by the megalomania of the grandiose . Not knowing what to do with the energy which has got unleashed within us, we will then look for an external symbol like Donald Trump to act on our behalf.