The Projected Masses

If we wish to consider a policy or position the question must always be “Will this make the affected person’s life better or worse right now?” We have no right, as outsiders, to request suffering before freedom.

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The adage that ‘not all Trump supporters are racist, but all racists are Trump supporters’ is probably as succinctly accurate an assessment of the relationship between racism and this election that can be made. In my previous post I discussed the inability to separate bigotry from real policy concerns as a dangerous mistake that the left must not commit. In this post I wish to provide a corollary and brief analysis on the obvious and not to be ignored degree of white support for Trump and his policies.

In psychiatry the prevalence of racism and other forms of intolerance is not an enigma. A recent neurobiological study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience revealed that the human brain is predisposed to forming negative connotations. Assessing the veracity of this study is not my aim, and I feel is probably a redundant exercise. There is a well-researched and acknowledged psychological mechanism that explains this behaviour without the need to invoke biological correlates – it is called projection, and it is everywhere.

Projection is often misunderstood. It is not simply that you see or put bad things in another. It is that the unconscious, destructive and negative thoughts that you harbour about yourself are perceived as emanating from another. Projection is often referred to as primitive paranoia, and on the surface they appear similar. The more extreme extension of projection is projective identification, which means that the person into whom you have cast your dangerous, self-critical impulses, begins to actually feel, think or act in accordance with those impulses. The projected material has induced actual changes in the other person, not just your perception of them. Both projection and projective identification are primitive defence mechanisms and are the ultimate psychic way of not taking responsibility. Instead of addressing your own dark fears about yourself, you simply throw them into another. This isolates people from themselves, from core information about who they are and how they fit in the world and, most critically, from their emotions.

In psychiatry and mental health in general you must always assess the patient in context, and the wider and more detailed the context the better your understanding of the patient. And so it is that we must contextualise the racist, sexist and intolerant impulses of white America, no matter how deplorable they are or how unsavoury an exercise it may seen.

I do not believe for an instant that people are born prejudiced, we all arrive innocent and we all die alone. And so it is incumbent upon us to understand the bigoted trajectories that can develop as we grow, and seem to be developing more and more in front of our very eyes. Trump did not invent bigotry, he simply fanned the flames of a smouldering and very deep racial hatred that sits like a worm at the core of America’s professed ideas of liberty and justice. This behaviour is utterly reprehensible and the day-to-day impact of this normalisation of hate will be acutely felt by minorities across the nation.

Keeping this point clear in one’s mind is a critical task, as previously stated our privilege (in this case that means not being in America) makes us prone to forgetting the horrible prejudice that is likely to worsen and that the weakest will have to face. If we wish to consider a policy or position the question must always be “Will this make the affected person’s life better or worse right now?” We have no right, as outsiders, to request suffering from these people before they achieve freedom. This is why I do not agree with well-meaning progressives, especially those who are white and don’t live in the United States, who believe Trump is equivalent to “ripping off the band-aid”. Ripping off band-aids risks pulling off scabs, and like all righteous revolutionary proclamations and movements, from the French Revolution to the Russian, this usually ends in pain and bloodshed.

Trump’s largest voting bloc of non-college educated white males is not surprising to most of us. Aside from carrying within them a generational predisposition to racism, this group has seen a decline in their living standards and more shockingly in their life-expectancy. They hark back to time when they felt they were on top and are acutely aware that they have fallen from grace. As we know, the causes for this decline are neoliberal policy, and for the most part Trump’s electorate responded to this concern. But it is naive to deny the boiling hatred for others that a proportion of his followers feel, and the unsettling ideas this election has thrown up. For instance the reminiscence of a better past is not dissimilar to the re-writing of history in Nazi Germany – the past was seen as an era of Teutonic knights with valour and strength through racial purity. Their delusion even went as far as concocting fake excavations of ‘ancient’ Nazi artefacts to bolster this fantasy. And the most obvious and insidious message, ‘Make America Great Again’, is quite clearly a coded version of ‘Make America White Again.’

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But this fall from grace, real and imagined, has had a ruinous affect on their self-esteem. The lack of genuine and co-ordinated mental health services in the United States, coupled with soaring rates of opioid addiction, homelessness, a 24 hour news cycle that seems indifferent to facts and many other factors ensures that a relatively minor narcissistic injury is not addressed and indeed is allowed to fester, mutating into self-loathing, failure, intolerable emasculation, and the perception that the foundations of one’s precarious ‘secure base’ are beginning to erode. The seeds have already been sewn for projection and it is this state of self-hatred that is the primary driver of racist or otherwise bigoted attitudes. The unacknowledged and unconscious fear of displacement, physical and psychological, by the other is magicked into righteous hatred against them, which is an easier emotional state to govern than insecurity. This is an unconscious abrogating of responsibility, and a more severe reading would be psychological cowardice. In essence it allows these men to define what they are not, as opposed to what they are, which is always a harder task.

Some of these are men raised in stern, disciplinary families plagued by intergenerational trauma, parental conflict, drug use and pre-existing racial bias. For a child, even an infant, in these circumstances the preservation of safety and security becomes absolutely critical, indeed it is literally a life and death matter. One of the most under appreciated facts of human existence, the enormous role childhood experience has in moulding future outlooks and behaviours, will then lead to an adult with a pathological sense of insecurity, an acute susceptibility to paranoia, an extreme fear of rejection, chronic emptiness, impulsive behaviours and an extreme tendency to bouts of rage. Sound familiar? These are not just my descriptions, all of these symptoms are well-researched and often found clustered together in people for whom childhood was one long adverse experience, lacking in love and support.

Of course, this state of affairs is very common, indeed more common among non-whites also. Whites don’t have a monopoly on injustice, and indeed are far behind all other peoples in how much of it they have accumulated over the centuries, which makes their current claims seem all the more absurd. The difference in the degree of racist sequelae that develop from such difficult upbringings is that at a national level, white supremacy remains subliminally embedded and tacitly tolerated. There is also a long, violent and sordid history of racist oppression – in other words there is a precedent, meaning there is a pre-formed culture with which a racist developmental trajectory can align itself.

What Trump did was to validate the genuine grievances while cravenly permitting and exacerbating their intolerant consequences. He gave these people a simple message that also happened to be true – the establishment doesn’t care about you, the mainstream media lies all the time and politicians are corrupt, subservient puppets of corporate power. In this case there is no need for projection – the outrage felt and directed towards the establishment was deserved. There are few real liberals who will disagree with this observation and the monumental success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign is proof of that. What Sanders did was recognise this pain, but attempt to redress the projection onto others by concentrating on the real enemy. But Trump, lacking the moral character that should be essential for any person of authority, realised that if the people’s overwhelming feeling was that something had been stolen from them, then why not parade a litany of additional potential thieves?

And so, in order to foment a feeling that they wisely suspected could lead to electoral success, they tacked on more bogeymen – the Mexicans, the Blacks, the Arabs, the Jews, Women, Gays, – anyone who could act as a vessel for the self-loathing of the precariat, and especially the white precariat. Presenting those people with a brick and pointing them in the direction to throw it is political child’s play – and who better to achieve this than a imbecilic, bloated child?

Finally, it should go without saying that attempting to understand what motivates someone has nothing to do with whether one disagrees or not with their behaviour. I am not attempting to get anyone “off the hook” for their vitriol. The best response, and one that I feel incorporates the best tenets of an existential psychiatry, is to acknowledge the wounds inflicted in a state of innocence, but recognise one’s autonomy, power and freedom to change their thoughts and actions right here and now. Unfortunately, this is not an easy task and it takes courage on both sides – for the racist to understand their hidden pain and its unacceptable consequences, and the healer to overcome their distaste and prejudice. Locking out such understanding is a prescription for disaster.

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The Unexamined Nation

The sunny, liberal, globalist dream has brought a steady stream of nightmares to the working class and swelled the ranks of the new population often referred to as the ‘precariat’ – those that eek out a shaky and uncertain existence above the ever-threatening abyss of bankruptcy and destitution.

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As I sit on the deck of my partner’s family’s bach, gazing over the tops of the harakeke and out towards the water I am impressed by the insulation that such privilege provides. While the average wage for a New Zealand worker stagnates, while a full-time job does not guarantee economic security, while child poverty and crime continue to increase, and while a nation wakes up to Donald J. Trump as their President, the harakeke still blows back and forth, the blue inlet shimmers on and despite my best intentions to solidarity my thoughts turn to lunch, or that new purchase, or to the frustrating instability of my wi-fi.

These preoccupations aren’t egregious per se, in fact they are very normal and very human. It is entirely possible to enjoy the fruits of a broken society and bemoan that such a society is so terribly unfair. You’re unlikely to be canonised a saint, but that is a rare honour. But what is intolerable, and what the ascendency of Donald Trump in particular has revealed, is that it is not acceptable to be surprised that people have turned against this society.

I do not mean that to be dismayed about Trump’s victory is wrong, indeed it is the first legitimate response, along with anger. But to plaintively pine “how could this happen?” is to betray a startling naivety. It is reminiscent of the intellectual waste bin that George Bush threw the national discussion into following September 11 with his “why do they hate us?” speech, a question promptly answered by himself and the supplicant mainstream media – “because of our freedom”. Aside from the fact that hating freedom makes little sense, this kind of sanctioned denial ensured the country could avoid having to look directly at itself. Today, the United States cannot afford to make such a mistake again. To admit an analogy, like Perseus, we must shine our shield, steel our hearts and bravely venture into the Gorgon’s lair.

The first thing to squarely face is that the left must disabuse itself of the notion that a legion of ignorant, sexist racists wrested this election from the Democratic Party and the forces of tolerance. Were some people motivated by these factors? Of course. Were they the main factors behind the outcome? Of course not. What should be obvious to anybody paying attention is that these people were given the chance to smash a style of economic and political governance that has steadily ruined their lives and jeopardised the future of their children’s lives. Thirty years of neoliberal diktat, globalism and vulture capitalism has eroded the social contract, frozen wages, siphoned off larger dividends at the expense of investment, accelerated climate change and exploded the gap between the rich and poor to levels not seen since the Gilded Age. The sunny, liberal, globalist dream has brought a steady stream of nightmares to the working class and swelled the ranks of the new population often referred to as the ‘precariat’ – those that eek out a shaky and uncertain existence above the ever-threatening abyss of bankruptcy and destitution.

In the richest country the world has ever seen, 50% of the population is poor or in poverty. It is these conditions that bred the resentment that propelled Trump into office, and the more the left obfuscates this with shrill generalisations about half of the country, the more they begin to imitate those they seek to defeat.

At a time in history when it is more crucial than ever before to understand people, the reaction amongst those liberals, right now, for whom these people are purely misogynistic, racist cretins is not “Why did they do this?” but rather an incredulous “How could they do this?” This is a dangerous response and all but precludes the ability to really learn anything. The fact of the matter is that liberals overestimated the extent to which Trump voters actually cared about his horrible statements and behaviours, and this is because these voters simply did not see racial harmony or minority rights as more important than the destruction of the status quo. Of course many did, and voted specifically for the racist and sexist aspects of his policy, but the majority did not. The reason that despite constant gaffes and politically toxic acts Trump’s support did not diminish is not because his base broadly supported that kind of behaviour, but rather they were willing to turn a blind-eye for what they saw as the greater good. Poor judgment? At the least. Malice? No.

It is perhaps an uncomfortable thought, but those on the left must also realise that the Democratic Party, and in particular the Obama administration, is well aware that a deft way to divert attention from regressive economic policies, extra-judicial killings, drone attacks, environmental abrogation, the repeal of habeus corpus, the persecution of whistleblowers (including the disgraceful torture of Chelsea Manning), the persistence of Guantanomo Bay, and the TPP is to tout your enlightened stance on social issues and individual or minority rights. Before I am misunderstood – the acquisition of rights for LGBT groups, the adoption of gay marriage and the calls for more religious and ethnic tolerance are obviously progressive decisions that a mature world should embrace. If I were being gracious I would say that Obama, Clinton et al. do honestly care for the rights of these people, but then that immediately raises the question, almost never asked by the mainstream media, about those rights around the world.

Hillary Clinton loved to discuss her passion for women’s rights, LGBT rights and children’s rights. Is she aware that there are women and children in other countries? Is she aware that some of her closest friends and donors, such as the leaders of Qatar and the UAE preside over authoritarian regimes where oppression and violence against women is systemic and where homosexuals are thrown from buildings? Is she aware that her unfettered rhetoric in favour of the current right-wing, racist and extremist Israeli government stands at odds with her professed love of tolerance and children, over 800 of whom were murdered in the latest Israeli incursion into Gaza? Is she aware that women and children also drink water, a precious commodity threatened by the expansion of fracking, technology Clinton hoped to “export to the world.” Indeed arguments can be made for these groups inside America also. When she sat on the board of Walmart for seven years, was she aware of the starvation wages they pay to their employees, and that those wages disproportionately affect women? Is she aware that a lack of universal healthcare, something she said would “never happen”, also disproportionately affects women and children? Is she aware that the repulsive behaviour of the pharmaceutical companies threatens to limit the access to crucial antiretrovirals for LGBT people and others living with HIV AIDS?

The answer to these rhetorical flourishes is that of course she is aware, as are all of the politicians on both sides of the aisle. The question then is why they don’t rescind their support for these purveyors of injustice and the simple, brutal answer is that they genuinely don’t care about minority rights. Or at least they only care about them for Americans and not others. As George Carlin put it the only way he can, “they really don’t give a fuck about you.”

It is this that made the blind endorsement of Clinton, Obama and the Democratic Party in general by these minorities a somewhat painful thing to watch. Because what is critical to understand is that the success of these struggles for social equality under recent Democratic administrations is substantially enhanced, perhaps only ever achieved, because the demands of these groups often, but not always, don’t come into conflict with the demands of the Democratic Party donors. It has nothing to do with a gradual enlightenment of the political class, although of course it has a great deal to do with the gradual enlightenment of everyday people, but is rather a kind of no-risk giveaway and a smokescreen for the nefarious practices that simply continue on, or even worsen. The very sad reality is that minorities gained these rights not because they are owed them by the constitution and by moral decency, but because it didn’t upset the flow of money into the Democratic Party.

The primacy of these corporate interests over the people’s interests is best illustrated currently by the Dakota Access Pipeline. There can be no doubt Obama is aware that Native Americans are right now being violently suppressed by paramilitary groups at the behest of corporate power. But because this perpetually oppressed people are up against the will of the Democratic donors, then the heartfelt platitudes about minority and ethnic rights simply do not apply to them.

This craven and unprincipled mode of governing needs to be held firmly in mind when the impulse to label Trump supporters as x,y and z arises. And it needs to be held because it reminds us that the real battle is not between Republicans and Democrats, but between the people and the ‘principle architects of society’ as Adam Smith put it, in his time the landed gentry, and in ours corporate power. As long as politicians remain beholden to this power any notion that their social ‘evolution’ on certain issues represents a genuine progressive attitude is laughable.

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We gain little and lose a great deal by buying into the narrative, sure to solidify over the next few weeks, that Trump’s horrendous statements should have disqualified him and that support for him is tacit support for this discrimination. It is not – Trump supporters are responding to a very real and very deep pain, felt all over the world by the victims of neoliberalism, skilfully manipulated and funnelled into fear of the other by whichever charlatan has the gall and moral depravity to do so.

If you are someone who fights hard for the rights of your particular minority you must be cognisant that the majority of Trump voters are not your enemy. Trump doesn’t care about you, but neither does Hillary, and neither did Obama. The recognition you received from the Democratic Party was simply a politically expedient policy decision, and you and everybody else’s needs will always play second fiddle to the gravy train.

Of course, there was a candidate who recognised the anguish of average people and believed in the right for all Americans to be free from discrimination and intolerance. Bernie Sanders represented the best aspects of both candidates, and it is in the spirit of his candidacy that people must come together to forge a new political movement. Trump supporters must understand the concerns on the left about the rhetoric employed and tolerated by his voters, and Clinton supporters must understand the real concerns of Trump voters and recognise that they share those concerns too. Trading in divisive black and white narratives only gives power to the monster. Medusa must be shown her horrible visage, turned to stone, and smashed by the hammers of a new progressive future. And we must all shine our shields and enter her lair together.

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