Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The ‘perversion’ of Donald Trump’s popularity

A lot has been written speculatively about American presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s popularity, which has seemed surprising to many if his outrageous statements about women or about Mexicans are taken into account.

Until recently when he did an egg-dance on the question of women and abortion, trying to correct what he had suddenly realised had been potentially a strategically disastrous stance, he had evidently scored with the American public precisely because he had not stuck to being “politically correct”.

One might wonder why his refusal to be politically correct appeals to a large proportion of Americans on the Republican side of the spectrum. The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that his pronouncements and actions are, in psychoanalytical terms “perverse”. The meaning of perversion in this context may surprise most people because it is counter-intuitive until one really wraps your mind around it; then it starts making a lot of sense.

Consider Freud’s comments (In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud – Complete Works, Ivan Smith e-book, 2011, p. 1484) on the “perversion” of sadism, which he claims amounts to “ … the desire to inflict pain upon the sexual object … ”, which is biologically explicable by the need (on the part of some men) “for overcoming the resistance of the sexual object by means other than the process of wooing”, and which therefore appears to be linked with an “aggressive component of the sexual instinct”. Sadism in the sense of perversion “proper”, though, is recognisable by the fact that, instead of only comprising ONE constituent of the “normal” sexual instinct, it has become dominant, if not “independent”. Freud’s further remarks shed more light on this claim (2011, p. 1484):

“In ordinary speech the connotation of sadism oscillates between, on the one hand, cases merely characterised by an active or violent attitude to the sexual object, and, on the other hand, cases in which satisfaction is entirely conditional on the humiliation and maltreatment of the object. Strictly speaking, it is only this last extreme instance which deserves to be described as a perversion.”

Add to this Freud’s reminder that children are characterised by an as yet “undifferentiated sexual disposition” (In “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria”, Freud – Complete Works, Ivan Smith e-book, p. 1387), and that one should therefore regard a “pervert” not as someone who has changed their sexual disposition, but who has remained “the same” in this respect as what they were like as children, and things become even clearer. What I mean, is that, as conventional education and its inculcation of conventional morality in individuals progresses, it covers up their (by then repressed) originally “perverse” sexual disposition – those early, easily forgotten sexual experiments among children that start with something like “Show me yours then I’ll show you mine!”

It seems to me that this clarifies a great deal about Trump’s campaign-trail behaviour — not as far as sex is concerned, of course, but at a different level. How so, you might ask. Think about it: just as one with a “normal” sexual disposition (note the scare quotes; both Freud and Alfred Kinsey demonstrated that “normality” is a myth – no one is “the same” as anyone else in their sexual tastes and practices) has repressed their “original” infantile “polymorphous sexuality” for the sake of being accepted in convention-oriented society, most people have, by analogy, repressed their more aggressive, if not “savage” infantile tendencies towards others for the sake of living a reasonably “civilised” life. This, despite the fact that, as children, one had to be taught to refrain from assaulting your brothers, sisters or friends when squabbles about toys broke out – interestingly, Jean-Francois Lyotard (in The Inhuman, Polity Press 1991), wrote about “the savage soul of childhood” in this regard. Civilisation means first of all learning, through education, to repress one’s more “savage” (as well as “perverse”) instincts.

What many American voters find so appealing about Trump is the fact that he appeals to their originary (original and being the origin of), albeit largely repressed, “perverse” tendencies to shatter the bounds of conventional political behaviour, or “political correctness”, to be more exact, and allow themselves to return to their “polymorphous” aggressiveness regarding other people – particularly the (immigrant) other in the guise of Muslims. In a nutshell – Trump’s flouting of the niceties of political correctness demanded by the currently prevailing ideology of multiculturalism (particularly its exhortation to be “tolerant” of cultural differences), allows his followers to tap into their raw, “perversely aggressive” prejudices towards the cultural other and give free rein to them.

This is why his egg-dance on the topic of women’s abortion rights has damaged his campaign; instead of remaining resolutely “politically incorrect” – that is, foregrounding his “perverse” stance on issues – he tried to satisfy the demands of political correctness regarding women’s rights, and kept on changing feet, as it were. This was bound to disappoint those followers who have found in his “perverse” expression of their deepest fears and hostilities something that simply shattered what is often experienced – even by voters not supporting Trump – as the hypocrisy of the “political classes”.

Trump’s stance as “perverse” becomes even clearer when Jacques Lacan’s “revision” or reformulation of Freud’s notion of perversion is considered (to avoid reading all the relevant Lacan texts, see Dylan Evans’s indispensable An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, New York, Routledge, 1996, p. 141-143). Lacan formulates his stance on perversion (which he sees as a “clinical structure”) differently from time to time, and in one of these he claims that, unlike the hysterical subject, who questions the symbolic order of society, the perverse subject is the personification of this symbolic order – metaphorically one might say that it is a matter of being “more Catholic than the Pope”.

Put in different terms, the perverse subject – someone who is subject to the clinical structure of perversion – identifies fully with what Lacan calls the “phallus” (not the penis as male organ, but its symbolic counterpart, which represents fullness of being), as a way of disavowing or denying the “lack” that characterises every subject. However, because the phallus is unattainable, the pervert has to make do with a fetish of some kind to hide the gap where the phallus should be (Freud regarded fetishism as the “perversion of perversions”). In so doing, the perverse subject becomes the fetishistic representative of the “full” symbolic social order, whereas the hysteric questions and challenges it precisely as being lacking.

How does this apply to Trump’s politics? Trump refuses to see the symbolic order of American society in any way as “lacking” (at least in principle); everything is really hunky-dory (the “phallus” or fullness of being), except that it is he who will demonstrate this when elected as president. Because this fullness of being that Trump identifies with at the imaginary level is really unattainable, he has to resort to a fetish of some kind, which is why he makes pronouncements like “Make America great again!” Or, in economic terms, “I will wipe out America’s debt” (of trillions of dollars)! Every time he uses an expression that indicates the replacement of a lack or shortfall of some kind in American society, it functions metonymically as a fetish representing a substitute for the (inaccessible) phallus of American plenitude or fullness that he identifies with.

Moreover, everything that may undermine this symbolic fullness, such as “problematic” Muslims and Mexicans (or women who want abortions), have to be removed (or at least disciplined). And his ardent followers buy into this because he is the spokesperson for the projected symbolic order they feel part of – that of “America will be (ie is) great (again)!” (By contrast, Bernie Sanders is the paradigmatic hysteric, who foregrounds everything that is lacking in the American symbolic order.)

A recent report on Yahoo, pertaining to a satirical denouncement of Trump’s claims in the Boston Globe, may be read as a strong indication that some people in the US have cottoned on to what I here conceptualise as Trump’s “perversity”.

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    • Richard

      There are so many ways one could interpret contemporary American political life. What you write here makes perfect sense, and may well underlie what is becoming normative in American politics.

      It seems to me that there are other issues at play here, too. The most salient of these is the gradual coming to consciousness of the meaning of the poles of “self” and “other”. The US has, of course, been through this process in the past, with waves of non-Protestant, non Anglo-Saxon arrivals in the Nineteenth Century (Irish Catholics, for instance, or Jews from Eastern Europe) who were strongly “other” but this was resolved by their embracing of the American dream, and what is likely the creation of ethnic stratification that mirrors class-division (Catholic immigrants falling to the bottom of the hierarchy, Jews rapidly climbing, though in a parallel-fashion, and the Anglo-Saxon and old settler patricians on top). Gradually these newcomers were accepted as part of the “self” of America, which had consciously turned into a very much more capitalist-defined “self”: in the absence of aristocracy, money could even buy social elevation into the halls of power, putting to death the notion of kinship ties equating to power. Merchants and capitalists in Europe were much more circumscribed.

      What has happened subsequently is that many people from entirely different cultural backgrounds have moved into this gradually-constructed social space, without necessarily conforming to the general American pattern, of financial success. Their behaviour has, by-and-large, not conformed to the previous immigrant patterns, and this is accompanied by attendant overwhelming social problems. Statistics do show that levels of criminality among these later immigrant groups are higher than the national average, that cannot be disputed, but the basic narrative is that they define themselves as “other” by their non-adherence to the American pattern of assimilation. This becomes increasingly noticeable as their numbers increase. The melting pot is turning into a stew.

      As the oil of money is harder to come by, differences become more apparent. America was not founded in reality on the notion of “freedom” but rather on the desire of a settler-colonial entity to seek advantage by having unfettered access to less sophisticated people – the American Indians – from whom they could extract financial reward. An historical aside: the real prompt for the American Revolution was the Royal Proclamation of 1763, drawn up after the cessation of the French and Indian Wars, by means of which the Crown reserved to itself the right to negotiate land treaties with the Indians (there had been complaints that local settlers were “cheating” them out of their land, and it threatened to cause further conflagration) and then present the outcome to the local settler population for purchase. In other words, the US was founded on the notion of self-enrichment supported by bogus treaty, and that model has applied consistently (note the respect given to the “self-made man” in American culture, for example) and has become the definition of “American” in its most basic form.

      What Trump has done is to iterate the “self” by showing the “other” in terms of this real definition of America, not the definition to which many pay lip-service but actually ignore. America is a country at whose gates you are supposed to leave your previous incarnation behind, and into which you are supposed to buy. That means it must present itself as a model, an argument, and must have a raison d’être. European or African countries and identities grew from conflict and tribal affiliation, they are not “created” in the same way. The belief among some is that this is not happening, that certain groups are retaining non-American ways of life.

      In many ways, Trump represents the reality of America as distinct from the myth. It is like extracting the real theme in piece of music, around which sub-themes revolve and have their development. Or, to use a literary analogy, the myths are the red herrings. It seems to me to be seminal, therefore, because the outcome will help further clarify just what America sees as “us” and “them”.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      Having been to the ‘South’, you may be overthinking this. The use of ‘them vs us’ is not unique to American politics but their ability to foster paranoia is unrivalled.