As a general rule, I’m not a Freudian, and I usually think that psychoanalysis in general is interesting and compelling but pretty much bunk as far as an actual explanation for human behavior. That being said, there are a few aspects of psychoanalysis that I find useful to think with, including the notions of Eros and Thanatos, the pleasure principle and the death drive. The former is that which encourages humans to engage in pleasure, sex, and all of the things that keep us alive. The other, equally powerful force is what drives us toward death, toward the absolute inorganic state from which life first emerged.
The death drive explains in part the self-destructive behavior in which people engage, whether that be the thrill-seeking of a carnival ride or (to take this somewhat further) drug addiction. It is not, I would stress, the only explanation for these phenomena, but it is at least one of the causes. After all, is not death the universal thing toward which all of life moves (to slightly paraphrase Freud)? No matter how much pleasure we take in life, we cannot escape the fact that death waits for us all, and this is as true for civilizations and nations as it is for individual human beings.
For some — myself included — the ever-present awareness of death’s inevitability sometimes provokes a wish to get it over with already. I do not say this lightly, however, for there is a very strong biological and cultural imperative to remain alive at all costs. So strong is that imperative that it is in many ways the foundation of culture itself. From religion to medicine, we have erected a vast apparatus to ensure that the fundamental drive toward death — the telos of the narrative of every life — remains as submerged as possible. And thank goodness for it. After all, how difficult would it be to live if you were constantly, consciously aware of the inevitability of death?
Every so often, however, an awareness of the death drive bubbles to the surface of a culture’s collective consciousness, and sometimes it brings with it not just a dread of the perils of no future, but a positive desire for that oblivion. Sometimes, both are present in equal measure, fundamentally intertwined at the heart of the psyche. Such was certainly the case in the aftermath of the atomic bomb in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s (and arguably beyond) and such, I would argue, is the case for the 2016 election.
As the aftermath of that event has slowly unfolded, leading us closer and closer to absolute chaos and possible mass annihilation— nuclear war, catastrophic climate change, outright fascism — I’ve had a lot of time to ponder how strong an influence the death drive is on collective humanity, particularly those of us living in the United States. And, despite myself, I’ve become convinced that Donald Trump, in all of his buffoonery and stupidity, his cruelty and seemingly uncontrollable malice, is indeed the embodiment of a significant part of humanity’s collective desire for self-destruction.
Now bear with me here. These are some very rough thoughts about the possible utility of using the concept of the death drive to provide an explanation for why it is that Trump rose to power and why he continues to hold such an appeal for many. Of course, there are probably as many explanations as there are supporters, but to me at least it seems pretty obvious that there is a sort of mass psychosis at work in American culture, and it is to our benefit to think through all of its various permutations in order to begin grappling with the full import of the truly deadly strain that has permeated the collective American subconscious.
Consider, for example, the fact that, on some level, people had to know that Trump’s promises to utterly undo the Affordable Care Act would exacerbate the opioid crisis that afflicts so many of the states and communities that voted heavily for him. One cannot help but wonder if they knew that he really wouldn’t do anything but make it worse, and so to indulge their desire for misery — and their desire to make others miserable — they elected him. Though they profess surprise at the fact that he will betray them, I suspect that on some subconscious level they knew that he would blow an enormous hole in the safety net on which they rely (it’s just that it’s okay, as long as others aren’t getting the benefits either).
Consider the many ways in which Trump’s election has been described by the commentariat. How many think pieces described the the election of Trump as a primal scream of rage from those who had been “left behind” by the cultural changes that have been taking place in the United States, even though doing so would destroy the very things that they claimed to hold sacred. Think about how he was understood to be a figure that would take a wrecking ball to the supposedly corrupt institutions that had betrayed Americans (but had also, ironically, managed to keep the worst of the chaos at bay). People allegedly different care whether said institutions were replaced; it was enough that they were destroyed. The pleasure of seeing complacency and “smugness” and “political correctness” shattered and cast to the winds was more than enough pleasure for many, and what would replace them wasn’t nearly as important as the act of demolishment itself.
Or, consider the fact that he has driven his own party to the brink of ruin. It’s not just that Trump isn’t really a Republican in any sort of concrete sense; it’s that he has no policy agenda other than completely obliterating the legacy of his predecessor. So deep was the psychic wound of Obama’s presidency to the fragile collective white male psyche that they catapulted Trump to power so that he could rip it up root and branch, burn it to the ground and salt the earth. Nothing may grow out it, no vibrant future may emerge, but that’s partly the point. If we can’t turn the clock back, then we might as well trample the clock under a steel-toed jackboot.
Or, more materially, think of the bursts of violence that frequently erupt from his rallies, expressions of a primal urge to destroy. The man who punched a protester, the visceral screams of “lock her up!,” and even, if we’re pushing beyond the scope of the rallies themselves, the rallies of white supremacists and the death of a young woman in Charlottesville. Or the many GIFs showcasing his propensity for violence: the train barreling forward, the punching of CNN, and the like. It’s hard not to see these as expressions of a profound desire to inflict pain on others, even if (and possibly because) doing so will also inflict pain on his supporters as well.
Or, think of all of the saber-rattling that’s been going on between Trump and Kim Jong Un, neither of whom seem to have any interest in or ability to restrain their rhetoric before it plunges their countries — and probably the entire world — into a nuclear conflagration. We all knew that Trump was a man who, as Hillary Clinton trenchantly put it, could be baited with a tweet, and yet people elected him anyway, precisely because that statement was true. It would seem that, at some deep level, we might have wanted the sort of nuclear conflagration that could well translate into a catastrophic war in which there will be (and can be) no winners. Better to go down in a glaze of glory (or, in Trump’s phrasing, “fire and ruin”) than to acknowledge even the possibility of defeat. Strength is great, even if it means taking us to the brink of extinction and beyond.
For some, there is a simple sort of pleasure to be gained through the annihilation of the self, even if that involves taking down numerous others in the process. For these people — and there seem to be far more than we ever thought possible — the annihilation of the self is not enough. Instead, it must be spread out as far as possible, a primal blast that will wipe out all who they see as a threat — white elites, people of color, queer folks, women, even themselves. And, unfortunately, Donald Trump seems more than capable of bringing their darkest desires come true, though sometimes not in the form that they might have expected.
Donald Trump has become for many not a person, per se, but instead an icon. There are some darker corners of the internet that refer to him as the “God-Emperor,” as the new Prometheus that will rescue benighted mankind from its enslavement to the Other. Like the great forces that have periodically emerged from the American consciousness to subsume and express our darkest fears and desires — the atom bomb, God, technology, robots, AI — Trump promises both salvation and destruction. We crave it, even as we’re also terrified of it.
All of this, of course, may be complete bunk, but to me it helps make sense of why so many people seem to continue supporting him, even though the things he does at the level of policy will actually hurt them in very material ways. Trump is many things, but he is in many ways the embodiment of our collective desire to destroy ourselves. And who knows? At the rate at which he is hurtling the entire planet toward either climate catastrophe or nuclear conflagration, we may well get our (death)wish.