By Nancy Burke
I recently created a meme on Facebook. It never went viral (sigh), but it did capture my take on the election: “Donald Trump does not want to lead America; he wants to own America. There’s a difference.” In order to lead, one must be capable of concern, of encountering objects outside of oneself and making independent judgements as to what is best for them. He does not have this capacity. To imagine he does is to make a glaring category mistake. The only things outside of him, by his account, are bad things, damaged things, the things he has spit out. Perhaps it seems like he has relationships, at least with women, but these are not object relationships, but rather encounters of ownership; of identification. He IS the beautiful women he uses, just as he IS the powerful men with whom he associates. In short, all intermediate space, the space of symbol formation, of thinking and feeling, of relating to others, of imagination, of art, of humor, of empathy, has been collapsed, transformed into another kind of emptiness we commonly refer to by the metaphor of a black hole. All capacity for the sort of passivity involved in reflection and reception is gone, and what is left is the simulacrum of a Greek god, all activity all the time.
But the state of Trump’s psyche or lack thereof is not our concern. Our concern has to do with why the presence of this character on the American stage appears to have the catalyzing power of Ice 9 from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, why one drop of Donald Trump in the vast ocean of our country has turned all our waters to ice. Some of the reasons for this are obvious: There are measures of pleasure to be had in the identification with his anal-expulsive power, his voracious greed, his rejection of passivity in favor of pure activity. For those who have been failed by our culture and are already half-seduced by image (see DeBord — “capitalism is the fading of being into having and having into appearing“), to find someone who is only image can be greatly reassuring, at least in the moment. We have been given a golden credit card, and are relieved at the absence of a future in which the debt will be owed. The failure of our institutions, most importantly the structures of parenthood and education, along with a digital world of immediate gratification that deprives us of opportunities to develop the capacity for relating, for meaning, for creative responses to the world, the deflation of a belief in universal expansionism, the displacement of things from the realm of need to the realm of want, the fact that the job of destroying ambiguity and transitional space has already been half done via pervasive exposure to the overlapping triumvirate of Hollywood, violence and fundamentalist/evangelical religion, all contribute to an environment in which people are more vulnerable to trauma and its after-effects, in which the capacity for metabolism of difficult states is gone, and in which depths collapse into surfaces.
We as analysts are in a unique place from which to appreciate what it takes to grow out of such disastrous psychic situations. We sit with people in our offices every day and witness the transformation of stone into ice and ice into oceans. And we know how hard it is to do this. Our theories help us to carry on, and they are reassuring, enlightening, organizing, but there will be no substitute for the sometimes grueling work of listening, of holding even the most hate-filled and empty of human reactions, of seeing the potential for psyche in the places where psyche has not yet made an appearance. Should we be doing everything we can on the political level, in the streets, in the press, through art and writing and donating? Of course, but the most important thing we can do is not to collude with the Trumps of the world in devaluing the catalytic power of psychoanalysis, one person at a time.