Empty Phantoms: Trump’s Ghost That Never Was

By Gregory J. Stevens

A campaign rally at Williamsport Regional Airport, May 20, 2019 in Montoursville, Pennsylvania.  (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

I will disappoint you – and this will bring you to life. These articles will leave you wanting and keep you alive. This newsletter will fall short of your hopes, as will your colleagues, this field, your life – and your ache from each of these shortcomings will further enliven you. For this is part of what makes us human – our ability to envision impossibilities that keep us striving and fuel our dreams of the next impossible with every letdown.

Generations of psychoanalytic thinkers, including Freud (1911/1973) and Bion (1962), have theorized that our capacity for thought results from our uniquely extended helplessness as infants. We begin in wombs where most of our needs are preemptively met to the point of having little to no cause for want and as a result, we are near-constantly satiated into a coma of consciousnessless. That is until what is for most of us, our first trauma – birth. Compared to the womb, postnatal life is an eye-opener and therefore a mind-opener. Regardless of whether this trauma starts with an unprecedented squeeze or extraction, cold is experienced for the first time, blankets and clothes serve as coarse substitutes for amniotic fluid and rub our waste against us, and then comes hunger. The literal cutting off of our prenatal food supply leaves a physical hole that will eventually scar into a permanent representation of the experiential hole that expands and contracts inside of us throughout our lives. These external and internal attacks are only an introduction to the discomfort of life and with them introduce the desire for a return to our prenatal satiated bliss. While difficult to compare with other animals, the length of our infantile dependency combines with the impossibility of perfect parenting to require that we grow a mind to think our immediate suffering and longing for the experience of our lost uterine paradise. We get to be as thinking beings because of the inevitable disappointments in life.

Although Freud and Bion viewed disappointment as preceding thought, Lacan saw thinking as having come first. For Lacan (1953/2002), thoughts are our imperfect symbols of experience and retroactively create an idealized past that never existed and never can exist. Imagining this impossible past drives us into being with an undying quest to re-experience what never was. Regardless of where one falls in relation to the Lacanian chicken and Bionian egg dilemma, our thoughts and desires are inextricably linked. Whether our lost paradise was in utero or imagined, our inability for total satisfaction motivates us as thinkers. Herein lies our conflict – if we were ever totally satisfied, we would have no need to think or be. Although we long and strive to satisfy ourselves more, to do so fully would be to nullify our very existence. So, a tolerable level of dissatisfaction actually satisfies us more by validating our experience as necessarily lacking.

In recent years, McGowan (2016) has proposed that the combination of our impossible ideals and need to be bearably dissatisfied in order to exist, largely powers capitalism around the world. Our fantasies of complete satisfaction pull us to chase the next product or experience, as if satisfaction was attainable and present in something that we do not yet have. Being disappointed when this process inevitably falls short of satisfying us affirms the limits of our existence and turns us toward the next product or experience to chase and inevitably let us down. This is the unconscious power of capitalist systems. We look to products to fill the inner emptiness that brings us to life and can never be filled, disappointing us into continued being. We consume to dissatisfy ourselves, haunted by the desire that creates us – and we search well beyond material goods for this aching satisfaction.

Fortunately, life overflows with shortcomings! Limited services, experiences, relationships, professions – these are even part of what makes erotic bondage, submission, and masochism enticing or makes someone a glutton for punishment or have a self-defeating personality. This pursuit of endurable displeasure is backwardly and unavoidably at play in every aspect of our lives and apparent attempt to improve them, including our choosing of elected officials – speaking of bondage and masochism!

Albeit sadly laughable, the state of our political climate has grown rather frightening as of late. Two years ago marked the 50th anniversary since Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, and America continues to be plagued with White supremacy and the murder of unarmed black men. This recent epidemic involves sicknesses of all sorts and seems to have coincided with the election of our current president. Before Donald Trump was inaugurated, many warned of the woes that his presidency would heap upon us. During his campaign, Trump was branded with a host of personality disorders and as a demagogue who threatened us with fascism. Despite all of this, he won – and since then, many have tried to explain why.

The media portrayed the phenomenon of Trumpism as an anti-establishment revolt by the working class. Psychoanalytic thinkers began to consider Trumpism as a symptom of some cultural problem that had yet to be articulated and otherwise addressed. In this vein, Gentile (2017) connected Alt-Right and Neo-Nazi supporters of Trump as both rising from working class men who have lost jobs, displacing their shame onto minorities. Similarly, Altman (2017) highlighted the parallels between Nazi nationalism having been threatened by Jews as a displaced nation and Trump having campaigned for an America where Muslim immigration is banned. Moreover, Serwer (2017) made two profound observations – the first being that Trump was not elected by the working class, but Whites across every level of income. His second insight was that Trump campaigned for discriminatory policies while outright denying their discrimination. Through this denial, Trump upheld a longstanding American tradition of contradiction in which our country was “founded by slaveholders on the principle that all men are created equal” (Serwer, 2017). Secondly, Trump embodied a rage felt toward feared others that he fueled as entirely acceptable. Such stoking of rage explains the surge in hate crimes that started the day after Trump’s election and has continued since (Mindock, 2017; Williams, 2018). Although one prominent theme spanning these separate writings is that of White-Christian-American nationalism, I do not believe that Trump is  conscious enough of his prejudices for him to view them as such.

Two years ago, Trump referred to himself as “a very stable genius” (Diaz, 2018). If Trump is a genius, I see him as an accidental one. What I mean by this is that he seems more impulsive than would be expected of someone who is intentional with their intellect. Any one of Trump’s many tweetstorms is ample evidence of his instability. While his relative successes as a businessperson, celebrity, and presidential candidate seem to have involved engaging others emotionally, this skill appears to operate on a preconscious level. Trump presents as too much id without enough superego – and it is the pleasure principle where he has been most successful. His activation of our desire has perhaps been most evident in the campaign slogan of, “Make America Great Again,” which begs the question of exactly when America was great. Was America great during the invasion, murder, and displacement of Native Americans? What about their enslavement alongside Africans? Was America great when Japanese Americans were imprisoned in American concentration camps, or minorities were not afforded civil rights? Was America great without marriage equality for same-sex couples? With the recent separation and detention of immigrant families, or the countless other American atrocities that I have the privilege of not naming? The truth is that America has never been great, not even for the White men who committed and benefitted from most of these cruelties. If America had been great, it would not require such violence.

By implying that America was once great and no longer is, Trump invoked a paranoid-schizoid split that simultaneously exploited our nature to idealize the past and necessary dissatisfaction with life. This splitting also created an unbridgeable gap between that ideal America and our varying yet ever-present displeasure. Trump’s campaign promises to replace our disappointments with his American dream pulled many Americans to support him. Due to the impossibility of ever filling our sense of emptiness, these promises are empty. Furthermore, his blatant prejudice as a wealthy White man has summoned the ghosts of White supremacists and Nazis that turned his dream into a nightmare – and idealizing a past America as great incites hatred against others who are perceived as responsible for making America un-great. In this paranoid-schizoid split, if wealthy White Trump is the solution, the un-wealthy and un-White are the problem.

The real problem is that there is no solution, or at least no fully satisfying one. If our desire creates us, the answer is not in chasing an unattainable satisfaction, but accepting the limits of our capacity for pleasure and mourning them as needed. Such acceptance offers relief from the pressure to surpass these limitations in ways that make life’s discomfort more tolerable. This also makes us more likely to cooperate with others to compensate for our individual limits. Regardless of how much we accept our limits, they activate us. One difference that our levels of acceptance makes is whether our activation tries to reach the unreachable alone, disappointing us into a vicious cycle of further activation and displeasure, or draws us closer to others.

While acceptance helps us bear life, this does not mean that we need to accept everything. Through working together, we accomplish more. Although America will never be great, this does not mean that America does not have good mixed in with its bad. America can be better and is worth fighting for. Fighting together to make America lack – to accept our longings and work toward more endurable lives with one another. This is the stability that Trump does offer. By reasserting the old order of White nationalism, he has confronted us with what our country still lacks. We have needed Women’s Marches and the Me Too movement and Marches for Our Lives and Families Belong Together protests and Climate Strikes and the other movements that I have the privilege of not listing. Trump did not create these problems. Though, his endorsement of them has seemed to be a tipping point for our need to address them. Together, we are proving that Trump’s White supremacist and Nazi phantoms are as empty as his promises. Trump is the symptom that we need to make America better.

While I expect to disappoint you, I hope that this article still has value and makes you better.




Altman, N. (2017) Nazism, Chaos, and Order. The Psychoanalytic Activist. https://theactivistblog2.wordpress.com/2017/12/02/nazism-chaos-and-order/, accessed 2 December 2017.

Bion, W. R. (1962) The Psycho-Analytic Study of Thinking. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 43: 306-310.

Diaz, D. (2018, January 6) Trump: I’m a ‘very stable genius.’ CNN Politics. https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/06/politics/donald-trump-white-house-fitness-very-stable-genius/index.html, accessed 23 March 2017.

Freud, S. (1911/1973) Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning. Standard Edition 12. London: Hogarth Press, pp. 213-226.

Gentile, J. (2017) Trump, Freud, and the Puzzle of Femininity. The Philosophical Salon. http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/trump-freud-and-the-puzzle-of-femininity/, accessed 13 November 2017.

Lacan, J. (2002) The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis. In: Écrits. Translated by B. Fink. New York: Norton, pp. 197-268.

McGowan, T. (2016) Capitalism and desire: The psychic cost of free markets. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mindock, C. (2017, November 14) Number of hate crimes surges in year of Trump’s election. Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/hate-crimes-us-trump-election-surge-rise-latest-figures-police-a8055026.html, accessed 23 March 2018.

Serwer, A. (2017) The Nationalist’s Delusion. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/11/the-nationalists-delusion/546356/, accessed 23 March 2018.

Williams, A. (2018) Hate crimes rose the day after Trump was elected, FBI data show. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/03/23/hate-crimes-rose-the-day-after-trump-was-elected-fbi-data-show/?utm_term=.03abf19dc8e9, accessed 23 March 2018.


  1. Hi Greg,

    Unfortunately, I was not disappointed with what you wrote. perhaps that is because you cautioned all of your would-be readers that we would be disappointed. lol. Your points are particularly original and on target. Specifically speaking, I was impressed by your analysis of intellectual and emotional growth, namely your contention that we grow precisely because we are disappointed. In psychoanalysis, something akin to that happens. We become frustrated. And, in so doing, we learn to delay gratification, learn to deal with not knowing, and tolerating suspense. Disappointment, in many ways, as you suggested, requires all of us to be able to grieve the loss of our fantasized Shangri-La or Paradise Lost. So–in terms of disappointment…
    Yes I was utterly disappointed. I expected something quite horrible, but found instead, something quite thoughtful and stimulating.

    Burton N. Seitler, Ph.D.
    Editor-in-Chief, JASPER
    Faculty, Gordon Derner
    Postdoctoral Program,
    Adelphi University

  2. I found this article intriguing and stimulating, and I find little to differ over. As I read it, a few days after Super Tuesday, I am struck by its relevance to the coalescence of the Democratic Party primaries around the Biden-Sanders contest, with powerful supernumeraries, organizations, and retiring candidates throwing in their support most demonstrably for Biden. Sanders has campaigned on his initiative to realize ideals of peace, democracy, cooperation, and actual security (food, shelter, tolerance), whereas Biden’s primary assets seem to be his claims to experience in the Executive Branch, black voters as “a firewall,” and presumed “electability.”

    Whereas Sanders has gathered enormous mounting enthusiasm over recent months and years for his own candidacy and his widely shared values, opinions, and goals, Biden has a better reputation for looking appropriate among government and business powerhouses while compromising with wealth, conservatism, and corporate power. Sanders has appeared more likely capable of defeating Trump in an election, according to polls of the voters, but pundits and officials expect Biden to manage this objective better, perhaps because he will be better able to raise funds from wealthy corporations and other contributors he is unlikely to offend or challenge. Money and reputation are expected to carry the day. Most voters will be disappointed in their own share of those goods. We will just muddle patiently through hard times to come, as usual, while the global environment’s accelerated recalibration escalates its own catastrophic disappointment to life and safety.

    On Super Tuesday, it appears that many registered Democratic voters overcame Sanders’ momentum toward social and economic justice and instead leaned toward moderation of potential rewards and the assured pathways to disappointment, whether that is to be a familiar morass of quietly accumulating disappointment under a Democratic president, or a catastrophically renewed demoralization under the Republican incumbent, rather than sustaining a forceful, energetic support for their ideals, hopes, and dreams being realized through a relatively independent administration. Disappointment seems destined to reign supreme in the land, along with the survival of a fundamentalist capitalist economy to hegemonic supremacy, hastening collapse within the climate emergency’s coming eclipse.

    Even outraged activation has its limits, and the body politic appears committed to accepting them. Relief and compensation will have their day.

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