One of the most confounding things about Trump supporters, never more than now, is their comfort with mutually contradictory beliefs.
- They love and hate the police (some will even beat a cop with a Thin Blue Line flag).
- They’re committed to moral values and to an immoral leader.
- They believe the election was rigged, since Trump lost, and that it wasn’t, since other Republicans won.
And so on.
Of course, Trumpists aren’t alone in being inconsistent. Think of the widespread belief in homeopathic medicine among people who also believe in facts and logic.
But in Trumpism, the self-contradictions are so radical that they seem to be of a different order. And I think they are.
We tend to assume that people with irrational beliefs are simply mistaken, or have been tricked.
But what if irrationality is what they want? What if they want to live in a dream?
In a dream, nothing has to add up. One moment you’re running down a street, the next you’re flying over a forest.
And you’re free: free of any constraints, even those imposed by rationality.
Part of us — a powerful part — wants that.
The absence of any limits whatsoever is more a psychological than a political goal, and it’s very different from the “ordered liberty” on which democracy is based, especially within the conservative worldview that Trump claims to share. But for many of us it seems to have become the American definition of freedom.
Psychology, more than political science, may help us understand it.
Sigmund Freud realized that dreams provide important clues to how the mind works, especially when it’s ruled by unconscious desires, as it so often is. He described the logic of dreams in the story of a kettle (told in The Interpretation of Dreams and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious):
A man borrowed a kettle from his neighbor and returned it damaged. When the neighbor complained, the man made these arguments:
- The kettle wasn’t damaged.
- The kettle was already damaged when he borrowed it.
- He didn’t borrow the kettle.
No more than one can be true, and maybe none of them is true. It’s dream logic (dubbed “kettle logic” by Jacques Derrida).
In dream logic, the Capitol riot was the start of a patriotic revolution led by Trump. And it was an anti-American plot led by Antifa and BLM.
Dream logic not only doesn’t have to make sense, it destroys sense — and thereby destroys all constraints. If you want to live in a world of dream logic, the more flagrant the lie, the better. A lie isn’t a shield, it’s a weapon. When Trump makes everything a lie, he makes everything true.
Similarly unbounded freedom is promised by drugs, ecstatic spiritual practices, anti-rationalist art like that of Rimbaud or the Dadaists, and transgressive subcultures like those of sadomasochists or bikers.
But as seductive as Trumpian dream logic may be psychologically, it’s disastrous politically.
That’s because at the center of the dream of absolute freedom is the lone individual, ruling a dream kingdom of absolute narcissism: “His Majesty the Baby,” in Freud’s phrase. That phrase spookily matches the impulsive, fretful, supremely needy Trump, down to his weirdly pursed lips.
But you can’t make a polity out of millions of tyrants. If you want to be the unchallenged king of the world, your world can only have a population of one.
Hence a major part of the appeal of autocracy: at its core is infantile narcissism. An autocrat is essentially a baby who has been given great power and no constraints. It’s striking how often, including during the Capitol riot, that authoritarian violence involves throwing shit. Even toilet training must be overthrown.
In her brilliant book Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, philosopher Susan Neiman describes the shocking degree of narcissism among Nazis, even highly educated ones like the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the legal philosopher Carl Schmitt.
Neiman recounts how, after the war, Heidegger bitterly complained that “the Allies’ refusal to allow him to return to teaching was ‘a greater brutality than any of Hitler’s.’” Think about that for a moment.
Meanwhile Schmitt “refused to undergo the denazification process he and his friends called ‘terror’… Schmitt’s rants against the ‘criminalizers in Nuremberg’ and the “constructors of crimes against humanity and genocide” were founded on his critique of the concept of universal value as liberal hype.”
As a Nazi intellectual, Schmitt rejected all Enlightenment claims of universal principles, including human rights and equality. There was only power; all else was a lie. You can call this view radical, as many have, some of them (on the left as well as the right) approvingly. But it’s also infantile.
Neiman notes as well the rampant self-contradiction uttered by postwar Germans in trying to justify their Nazism, whether active or complicit:
How many knots can the psyche tie itself into to defend itself against moral truth? Quite a number of subjects declared themselves free of anti-Semitism, though many of them followed their declarations with anti-Semitic remarks… After 1945, said one participant, we wanted good relations with the Jews, and we reached out our hand—but they didn’t take it, so now we owe them nothing.
The parallels with Trumpism are hard to miss. While hundreds of thousands of Americans needlessly died from COVID due to his self-obsessed negligence, Trump complained about how unfairly he was being treated. He has constantly complained of being treated unfairly, while occupying and exploiting the most powerful position on earth — the closest anyone can come to being the actual king of the world.
And Trumpists are up for it. At a rally in Vladosta, Georgia Dec. 5, they cheered when he told them, “We’re all victims. Everybody here, all these thousands of people here tonight, they’re all victims, every one of you.”
Many of Trump’s supporters feel powerless for good reason. His promise to give them power is hollow, and some may well know it is, but his performance of seizing power for himself is satisfaction enough, since they can live the dream through him.
At the same time, many others are quite powerful — it’s a myth that Trump only succeeds by fooling working class, “low information” voters. Many Trump supporters are well-off and well-educated. They just have a hard time focusing on much beyond their own needs.
The rise of the Baby Boom generation in a thriving postwar economy was accompanied by a dramatic rise in narcissism across the population.
At the same time, academic postmodernism found an eager popular audience, which adopted it in the form of radically subjective definitions of truth and morality: what’s true is what I feel, and what’s good is what I want.
As they’re being arrested, the Capitol rioters seem genuinely shocked to discover that their actions have consequences.
Babies are nearly pure subjectivists, with little awareness of a boundary between themselves and the world. They live within dream logic all the time.
Growing up is a process of waking up from the dream.
Unless it isn’t.
As a culture, we seem to have embarked on a project of eternal childhood, within a consumer economy devoted to satisfying our desires — while stoking endless new ones. If satisfying our desires comes at the expense of others’ needs, we may just not care — or even notice.
If we never leave the world of dreams, every one of us can be king.
An earlier demagogue, Huey Long, promised to make that dream come true.
Trump tried to make the truth become a dream.