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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