The Mythos of Trump and Clinton: A Crossroads for the American Psyche
Originally published on November 8, 2016.
American mythologist Joseph Campbell had once said, “Myths are public dreams; dreams are private myths.” But, abnormal public frustration about this year’s election campaign suggests that “public nightmare” proves a better description. Growing sentiment about uncertain voter behavior, the ethical integrity of candidates, and mistrust with public institutions obscures debates about what this year’s election means to the American public.
Few candidates have been as enigmatic and “disliked” as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Having been overseas throughout this presidential campaign, I believe the widespread indecision and confusion surrounding this election suggests more implicit issues are at play beyond just two candidates. I shall investigate that ambiguity in hopes of grasping the spiritual impasse that persists.
The Politics of Beliefs
In my academic work, I have grown interested about how beliefs permeate public consciousness and, in doing so, construct reality. My research at the LSE examines public imagination and how narrative-construction, as a consequence of belief-making, reveals deliberate choices about the kinds of realities people choose.
Considering this, I believe the political arena, and the issues which populate it, represent a living drama about the existentiality of the broader public psyche. I view the political arena as a deceptively spiritual platform where the intentions of peoples contest to swing the tide of reality and the power to construct it. Elections are a profound exercise of collective consciousness and provide an intentional event for experiences to be resolved (and hopefully evolved).
In describing my perspective, I hope to challenge ideas about politics which discount the unassuming power that beliefs yield in constructing our social world. These perspectives include technological- and institutional-determinism as well as cynical, apathetic, and conspiratorial attitudes. The gestalt of politics as an incarnation of our social reality is far more complex than we may realize.
Exploring these issues, I am guided by questions relating to what we intend to learn from experiences we choose and why. Focusing on this election, I ask:
- In choosing Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as major party candidates, what do the American people hope to learn about themselves?
- As avatars of the American public, what do Trump and Clinton reveal about the American psyche?
- How do these experiences change the ways people’s relationship with government?
- Broadly, what does this election psyche contribute to the American mythos?
Drawing from psychoanalytical, mythological and communication theory, I offer a critical interpretation about what this year’s presidential election means for American public consciousness.
While few things are sure about this election, it is fair to consider it a referendum on the Obama presidency. Barack Obama remains an elusive figure in the minds of the American people because of his many complexities. As a result, the American public has yet to adequately contextualize and process the significance of Obama’s election. I believe it to have been such a fundamental shift in power and political theory that several generations remain before we begin to adequately theorize how Obama has redefined politics itself.
The president’s policies have also been a subject of perpetual controversy and moral dilemma for a variety of reasons both intellectual and irrational. While this topic will be addressed in a separate post, I mention it to suggest that this complexity, and the ideas which anatomize it, sets the context for this election. Both Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s candidacies are distinct consequences of Barack Obama, resulting from conflicted ideas about his significance. Clinton has defended the virtues of an “Obama nation” whereas Trump’s legitimacy is defined by his view that the president is an “abomination.”
The results of this election will thus represent people’s assessment of Obama’s presidency. Whether people are meaningfully deliberating on this issue is an entirely different issue. The complexity of Barack Obama and what his presidency represents had set the stage for what has been a convoluted and surprising campaign.
Hillary Clinton: Beyond the Veil
Having lost the Democratic nomination to Obama in 2008, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy this year has been legitimized by her tenure as Secretary of State in the Obama administration. Her time there has been a central source of public perceptions about her merits and vices. She is widely understood to be the anointed successor to Obama’s legacy.
Clinton’s position of power has substantially evolved before the American public over the past thirty years. This is unlike any other female public figure in American history — a phenomenon that leaves many in a patriarchal, masculinist, capitalist country puzzled. This confusion has been channeled by opponents to radically shift the public’s opinion of Clinton from being a “badass diplomat” to a “corrupt opportunist” (e.g. the Benghazi congressional committee). Building on unpopularity during her time as the First Lady of Arkansas and the United States, Clinton is quite possibly the most mistrusted politician in modern American history.
The evolution of Hillary Clinton fundamentally challenges a patriarchal-masculinist conception of femininity. Reflective of the heroine’s journey, Clinton has transcended her expectations as a wife and mother into the unfamiliar new space of individuality, uninhibited by imposed ideas about femininity. Writing about reclaiming heroism in contemporary feminism, Dr. Kathleen D. Noble notes how feminine heroism has developed from the void of masculine heroism. For this reason, much of Jungian and Campbellian gender theory has been criticized as sexist. However, Campbell notes how women were never expected to venture on a “hero’s journey” because women have historically been conceived in myths as “complete.”
As a result, Hillary Clinton’s individuality, her very brand, has been the source of public anxiety. She is more than a mother, a wife, a daughter, a First Lady, a Secretary of State, etc. The complex simultaneity of Clinton’s roles challenges archetypal conceptions of gender, power, and story. Clinton’s presentation in the popular news media reflects this apprehension and, as a result, may be the most misrepresented public figure in recent memory.
Despite history and evidence, many Americans continue to understand Hillary Clinton as an abnormally corrupt, corporate-friendly, anti-environmental, and opportunistic politician. Her accomplishments do not reflect her media representation. She tends to tread a fine line on many policy issues; a characteristic not unique to Clinton or the presidency. Consequently, she has been criticized for being “numb” and impartial on many issues. But, wouldn’t publics with narrow ideas about women expect Clinton to veil herself and her honesty? We forget that, like the tradition of slavery, the tradition of misogyny is alive and at the back of the minds of many American families who trace their ancestry to the Puritanical era of witch-hunting.
I raise these exhausting questions about gender to suggest that Clinton represents a wholly uncharted era of the American myth; where female power fairly rivals male power. We are in a time starkly different from that of Founding Father John Adams who had once dismissed First Lady Abigail’s ideas about women’s suffrage. Clinton’s candidacy contributes a more complex conception of American femininity.
A former professor of mine, who has researched gender, once remarked that, “Hillary is an honorary male.” While a provocative and debatable idea, I believe it helpfully illustrates how Hillary Clinton represents a concept of gender that transcends binarity. Clinton is not an “ideal” woman as defined by patriarchal masculinity. She has been identified by characteristics that have been archetypically associated with masculine power. What results is a characterization that many would find unattractive (which many have unwittingly described Clinton as being).
If elected president, Clinton will be expected to fulfill these many roles and will likely challenge such expectations. I am reminded of an impression I had about her attendance at the George W. Bush Library induction where she had joined all of the living presidents and first ladies. Despite being Secretary of State at the time, Hillary Clinton seemed to carry herself as only a First Lady, nothing more. To me, it was a telling moment about the awareness Clinton has about what is expected of her at a given time, despite her individual circumstances. When candid moments of individuality do arise, they are looked upon by the public as unfavorable (e.g. the Benghazi hearing, the Gaddhafi update, and finding her voice in 2008).
Despite the many investigations into her ethics, Clinton presents a fresh morality to American political life. The forgiveness and mercy she had expressed to her husband during the Monica Lewinsky scandal is telling. While interpreted by many as an act of political calculus, the choice to defend and her marriage and help it survive demonstrates a compassion that is unusual of presidents — and unusual of what is expected of men in a patriarchal masculinist culture. Most will be unaccustomed to the rationalities and strength involved with such a decision. I mention this to suggest that the American imagination would have much to learn from the energy of forgiveness that Hillary Clinton has carried throughout a life marred by public scrutiny, dispassion, and condemnation.
Is the American public prepared to imagine Hillary Clinton beyond her many roles, and accept her individuality? Works on female heroism and identity suggest that Hillary Clinton, in her aim for self-actualization and individuation, is a living challenge to a gendered American reality. I suspect a Hillary Clinton presidency would inspire much turmoil to those clinging to increasingly invalidated ideas about women in America and, ultimately, the collapsing boundaries of gender and power.
Donald Trump: The Hacker
Regrettably, I had predicted in August 2015 that Donald Trump would win the Republican Party’s nomination — a ludicrous idea at the time. My suspicion was informed by what I understood as the Republican Party’s transformation from a policy-based agenda to one that became merely an anti-Obama one. I had wondered whether there was a public figure that was more anti-Obama than Donald Trump.
While not the first person who actively sought to delegitimize President Obama, Trump certainly became the patron-saint of this effort and Birtherism. In response to this fervor which reached its peak in the Spring of 2011, President Obama publicly humiliated Trump first by releasing his longform birth certificate and then deriding Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. To top it off, the president announced the capturing and killing of Osama bin Laden by American special forces (what’s more American than that?). The scars of this humiliation, which was at odds Trump’s brand of “success” and “exceptionalism,” led to a presidential candidacy.
As a candidate, Trump went from being completely dismissed by the media to winning the Republican Party’s nomination by a historic margin while “breaking” all the laws of political convention. He has been criticized for uttering whatever he pleases, careless of the consequences. His rhetoric has blurred partisan policies while capitalizing on public phobias and prejudices. He has even been called a “bullshit artist.” However, I believe Trump’s unique ability to literally and figuratively capitalize on systemic disruption represents his role as a contemporary trickster or hacker. He breaks conventional rules to his own muse.
As evident in myths from around the world, the hacker-trickster is a worrisome archetype because their intent goes little beyond their inclination to disrupt. Damage is done for the sake of damage itself, without a master plant: a devil, fool, and creator of the world. We must respect Trump’s profound ability to illustrate the vivid conceptions of reality to which his supporters prescribe: the sense of a disenfranchised power beckoning for revenge. By definition, the trickster-hacker is ambiguous in form and cause. This characterization reflects the moral contradictions of Trump’s rhetoric that horrify many people.
I am also reminded of the figure of kirtimukha from the Hindu lore and ouroboros from the Greek lore: the cannibalistic serpent eating its own tale. These figures represent the animated manifestation of the ego. They have such an unquenchable hunger that it leads to self-consumption. Similarly, many critics have suggested that Trump’s contradictions and catering to violence would lead to eventual self-destruction. But, coupled with the trickster-hacker archetype, Trump in fact thrives on self-sabotage — what his supporters characterize as his lack of “political correctness” whether it is “locker room talk” or other typically reprehensible remarks and behaviors.
As a candidate, Trump represents the will of a dying constituency: middle-aged white Americans without higher education. The desperation of this community has yielded an impassioned, irrational support of the candidate. Trump’s supporters will follow him to the death because they are already dying in many ways. Trump’s rhetoric reflects this despair and an uncompromising dismissal of a changing America and democracy itself.
Regardless of his support, Trump remains an ambiguous figure as many remain skeptical about his true intentions. His policy positions have been incomprehensibly vague, contradictory, and disastrous. Many critics have gone so far as to characterize Trump as a “national embarrassment” and, using his own words, “Brexit plus, plus, plus.” Trump is a fascinating figure because of how his candidacy has collapsed many virtual worlds together; entertainment, politics, finance, etc.
Trump must be understood not merely as a consequence of human deplorability but a byproduct of American society itself. Without the legacy of American capitalism, racism, and elitism Donald Trump would not be the same person. But, are Americans willing to take responsibility for him?
The False Equivalency of Opposing Realities
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have occupied the American imagination for nearly the same amount of time, since the late 1970s. But, their representations of vision for the American imagination — the ethereal beliefs which animate our sense of cause and possibility — are distinctly opposite. Many Americans have expressed their distaste with this year’s campaign and don’t see much virtue in either candidate. Evidence suggests these sentiments to reflect a false equivalency based on intellectual disengagement. Simply put, this campaign is testing the mettle, wit, and soul of the American public. Without critically engaging with these candidates and the issues, it would surely seem like a chaotic circus to many.
But make no mistake: this election will be a decisive moment for the trajectory of the American imagination. It will build on the legacy of Barack Obama and the many historical conflicts that occupy the American political conscience. We may be going through this collective nightmare, but today we must wake up.
This article was originally published on my website on November 8, 2016.