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.’
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.