In a post-election episode of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough and political analyst Mark Halperin insisted that the Trump victory should have been foreseeable by anyone watching and thinking rationally. The signs of disaffection with Washington were everywhere, and the antipathy to Hillary Clinton—and the Clintons as an institution (and foundation!)—glaringly saturated the electorate. If, again, our elites and the elite media had simply listened to the average American, whom they supposedly condescendingly ignore and even disdain as they huddle up in their bubbles of polls and self-involved punditry, this outcome would have been obvious. So the story now goes—as it is now told by that same supposedly elite media covering its tracks.
In fact, though, the more I study the situation, reflecting on the prospective rubble in the election aftermath, the more difficult it is to find a purely political rationale for voter behavior and I believe we need to probe deeply into a collective American psychology, produced out of our nation’s history of violence, genocide, and exploitation, to understand the severe trauma of the American experience that gave rise to this vote.
Let’s think about it. The rational explanations and political logic being offered to account for Donald Trump’s election don’t really compute.
The American people were supposedly fed up with the establishment, yet the senate did not flip to the Democrats as many Republic incumbents were re-installed, reconstituting, for the most part, the perhaps most obstructionist senate in American history, a senate that refused to fulfill its constitutional mandate to hold a confirmation hearing on President Obama’s Supreme Court Justice nomination. So it’s hard to buy the argument that people were voting against the establishment.
The American people were also supposedly voting against Wall Street. Hmmm. Do I really need to go into this one? Well, ok. I’ll just point out the obvious. Donald Trump is the living embodiment of Wall Street and of a corporate America that has routinely defrauded the American people and fiddled destructively with the economy and financial systems, leaving average Americans with the bill while suffering themselves not at all. The “elite” media did tell us enough about Trump University, Trump’s multiple bankruptcies, his anti-union and anti-worker behaviors, his opposition to raising the minimum wage and simply to having a minimum wage, that this dimension was patently obvious. That a vote for Trump should be rationalized as a vote against Wall Street could indeed be characterized as a story from media not paying attention to reality.
The American people were supposedly voting against Clinton because of her long history of untrustworthy behavior. Again, hmm. Trump never showed us his tax returns, was clouded in rumors about his mysterious connections to Russia, was the subject of routine reports of cheating in business deals, engaging in housing discrimination, and—say it again!—bilking people of thousands upon thousands of tuition dollars for his fake university. Was this really about trust? Pfff.
So how do we account for this irrationality? The quest is not a new one. In his notable work What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank underscored voter irrationality as a reliable hallmark of our political culture: “People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American life is all about. This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all rests.” Frank argues that this “derangement” can be understood as people placing so-called social values or non-economic issues—pro-life, anti-elitism, national security, to name a few—ahead of their economic interests. But even this is too rational.
The rationality needs to be found deep in the American psyche, in the trauma that is part of everyday life for average Americans living on the edge, feeling desperate and powerless amidst their suffering.
The American people voted out of a long and intense experience of abuse. Using a term like “economic inequality” doesn’t begin to comprehend the suffering people have gone through as wages stagnate and even decline, as people work harder and longer with less and less prospect of meeting their families’ needs, as tax cuts for the wealthy leave their communities with poorer schools and less social programs and services and thus less hope for the future, as political power is concentrated in the fewer and fewer hands of the wealthiest leaving people feeling powerless and desperate. This political economic system is perhaps not so gradually extending its abusive behavior to more and more of the population, and Americans are voting like the victims of intense systemic abuse that they are.
Victims of abuse typically often take actions, even or perhaps especially when seeking change, that replicate the conditions of abuse they have been enduring. As counselor and author Michael Formica explains, writing in Psychology Today, “Sometimes for the victim there is also a sense of familiarity and comfort in an abusive relationship, which is why victims will often return to an abusive relationship or, leaving one, will unconsciously seek out another.”
To say that Trump ‘s behavior, speech, and demeanor are abusive is an understatement. It’s what appeals to people. They call it, “Telling it like it is,” which suggests they are unconscious of gravitating toward an abuser and reconstituting an abusive scenario for themselves. The reporting on his behavior tends to reveal little other than his own pride in cheating, defrauding, disrespecting, and preying upon others—what he calls “winning.” In short, he celebrates his abusive behavior.
The thing about trauma, as Freud explains, is that we tend to repress the traumatic experience of abuse that caused it. Until we can recover that repressed experience through psychotherapy so we become conscious of it and can deal with it responsibly, we will seek to repeat the experience or to put ourselves in the conditions to have it repeated.
The vote for Trump was a vote for abuse—to re-experience it and to have it inflicted on others, a “let’s make others small so I can feel big and powerful” dynamic.
Looking at the situation most sympathetically, we can see Americans want a way out; we as a people genuinely want something different but don’t know how to get it.
We need a psychotherapeutic approach to our politics, as it is only when we fully confront this nation’s past as a history of abuse that continues to the present, coming to terms with our own suffering and that of others, will we find that way out.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.