By Nancy Caro Hollander
I thought I was inoculated. I was convinced that unlike everyone I knew, I would not suffer shock at the electoral outcome and its aftermath. During the campaign, I had consistently argued that Trump would win, that the prior five decades has produced social and economic conditions that made this country ripe for an authoritarian leader/movement. Even though I worked for Bernie, mourned his demise at the hands of a corrupt Democratic leadership and then went door to door for Hilary, I never believed she was going to win. Not with the power/s arrayed against her. Not with the damage that years of neoliberal policies had wrought on so many peoples’ lives and futures. The night of the election, those of us who’d gone to Nevada to canvass and take people to the polls watched the returns. And while others collapsed in stunned disbelief, my own fears were warded off by a compensatory reassuring idea that my analysis had been correct and that I had, indeed, seen this coming! So, I told myself that I would not be surprised at the inevitable assault on democratic process and institutions that Trump and his alt right buddies were going to wage. This, in retrospect, was a fleeting manic defense, comforting and protecting me from experiencing overwhelm at what the future was to bring.
That sleight of mind has not endured, and the current political situation has revived deep anxieties from years past when I lived in Buenos Aires during the period leading up to the Argentine Dirty War. I’m not saying we’re facing state terror, but that we’re threatened by our U.S. version of an authoritarian strategy to maintain incredibly inequitable social and economic structures in the face of the massive outrage at a system most people don’t understand but know is hurting them, their kids and their futures. As the real nature of the system we live in makes itself felt in the lived experience of millions, its political overseers must find ways to ideologically harness as many as possible to American traditions of xenophobia, nativism, racism, sexism and homophobia to prevent a crisis of collective consciousness about the real source of the threat to their wellbeing. In a perfect storm of systemic dysfunction, Trump is history’s gift to the powerful, whose support for an authoritarian leader emanates from considered self-interest and with full knowledge of a good deal when they see it.
Living in Argentina I witnessed people’s varied responses to their society in crisis as it plummeted toward a human disaster in the form of a draconian military dictatorship that disappeared, tortured and murdered tens of thousands in order to preserve free market capitalism. Argentina would become the envied role model in Latin America for neoliberalism (at least before it collapsed years later in a complete economic meltdown in 2001). In the period leading up to the coup, political consciousness was related to and manifested in psychological states and defensive maneuvers depending on citizens’ positions as perpetrators, victims or bystanders. The political crisis in Argentina, as well as that in neighboring Uruguay and Chile where centuries-long political democracies also fell victim to brutal military regimes, took place in the Global South. But I learned important lessons about how similar processes function here in the U.S. Superpower as well. Especially how hegemony and its ideological repertoire work to wed people to a system that betrays them. And also how tenacious is the human capacity to employ unconscious defenses that protect us from seeing what we see and knowing what we know in order to escape the experience of traumatogenic overwhelm. As my friend and colleague, Uruguayan psychoanalyst Marcelo Viñar, put it when describing what it was like for most people living in his country during the several years prior to the military coup: “The process of political change and the capacity to subjectively absorb and understand this change operate at distinctly different rates…It’s as if I continued to believe in democracy when I was living in a country that was already totalitarian. I believe that it is characteristic of the period of transition between democracy and dictatorship that people function by denying reality.” Marcelo might as well have been describing life in the U.S. during the decades leading up to the triumph of Trump, a time when people still believed in American Exceptionalism and in the sacrosanct notion of our inherent right to rule the world and the earth because we, above all other peoples and cultures, are the embodiment of good. Constant wars with others have played their part in this social imaginary as the foil to our perfection – chosen enemies functioning as the evil other, all of whom have been rendered as threats to democracy, liberty, pursuit of happiness [read property, goods, capital, money] to keep this ideological myth alive. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all endorsed this myth of our exceptionalism and it drove foreign policy during their administrations. Trump is utilizing it, along with his friendly amendment that the U.S. is actually a victim: our allies exploit our generosity and good will, a situation demanding that at long last, the U.S. must begin to take care of itself – America First — rather than everyone else around the globe.
I have been writing about such things for thirty years to challenge the customary political science wisdom that Latin America and the rest of the Global South will move through the various stages of development characterized by European and U.S. histories toward the realization of similar democratic and egalitarian achievements. I have argued that the same neoliberal system that has undermined democracy in Latin America has been corroding it here in the heart of Empire for decades. The social, political and economic structures of the U.S. over the last 30 years or so have come to structurally resemble those of Latin America, albeit in more subtle ways. Argentine psychoanalyst Juan Carlos Volnovich once told me after the 2001 economic meltdown of his country that he hoped his North American and European colleagues would see Argentina as “the canary in the mines”, its crisis a warning of the disastrous consequences of neoliberal globalization that would ultimately affect the U.S. and Europe as well. Juan Carlos was right, of course: our version of meltdown came in 2008, leaving an ongoing legacy of systemic inequities that are producing a near civil war here manifested in ideological, economic and political fissures deepening by the day.
Too many of us did not see this coming, especially if we could depend on the crumbs from the emperors’ tables to insulate our lives from the trends that have robbed so many of their human rights to stability, opportunity and welfare. Bystanders are a potent force in sustaining the status quo, their political role facilitated by the mobilization of psychological mechanisms that dissociate their lived experience from their ability to perceive and integrate the many obvious indicators that things are not what they seem or at least what our political leaders and media pundits depict as reality. Already by the mid-1960s, Dylan was crooning: “…Something’s Happening Here and You Don’t Know What It Is…Do You, Mr. Jones?” He could have literally screamed the same admonition early in the new millennium, but how many would have listened?
So, as I said, I was one of the ones who could proudly claim I did know something about what was happening, what it is that sickens our body politic. I was, indeed, prepared for a Trump victory. But alas, my intellectual assessment of political reality functioned as a defense, a fragile psychic armor that over the past several months has corroded, leaving me as vulnerable as the next to the horrific fascination and terror produced by the daily drama that threatens life as we’ve known it. But a caveat is in order, for the “we” who tend to feel traumatized are perhaps those who have shared in the benefits of our country’s neoliberal culture, even as many of us have been committed to radical politics. We are shaken as American Exceptionalism is shattered and we find this society openly struggling with class warfare and extremist politics that characterize much of the rest of the world. For me, alongside this disaster is a new possibility though, one that emerges in the fact that “we” — progressives in spirit but privileged nonetheless — have the chance to understand through our own experience something about the real nature of the system in which we live, one that as political, economic and cultural contradictions intensify, has become much less clouded by denial. Our own experienced terrors can make us more receptive to the voices of our brothers and sisters — Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, working class men and women, poverty-stricken youth, gendered non-conforming people and all those who have lived this country’s nightmarish underbelly. “Welcome to my world,” they say, sometimes with empathy, sometimes with irony and at other times with resentment. I’ve been in groups in which dialogues are taking place with the hope that coalitions can be built with enough durability to endure beyond the immediate goal of containing Trump and his damage to our democracy and civil liberties.
On the theme of denial, I still feel myself too close to Marcelo Viñar’s description of his Uruguayan compatriots who continued to believe they were living in a democracy as their society transitioned into a totalitarian mold. I must in some way not know what I know about the fragility of our democratic institutions in the moments I actually can’t believe that we have a President and his cohort who are so crude, so ignorant, so manipulative, so unencumbered by reassuring bourgeois codes of behavior and discourse. I am shocked that I still feel stunned in the face of the irrationality and mind-numbing discourses emanating from Power. I feel a helplessly astonished outrage at Trump’s grandiosity and entitled assaults on our national interest as he pursues his own personal empire-building, flabbergasted that we don’t have laws that protect the body politic from a president’s potential conflicts of interest (what? No laws? Only traditions and customs?) All the while, I know that the focus on Trump’s psychopathology occludes the real threat: the collusion of alt right, military and wealthy elites in their project to eviscerate what Bannon calls the “administrative state” through daily elimination of regulations that have marginally protected citizens and the earth from their obscene profit motives.
Thankfully, the “we” who are shocked are making common cause with those less fortunate for whom this is business as usual. And call what you will the political threat we now face– right wing populism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, neo-fascism – the good thing is that more of us are making common cause against it as we take a stand to participate in a collective Resistance. Let’s hope we are strong and numerous enough to infuse a genuinely progressive turn in our national political life. It could take quite a while. We might learn lessons from our Latin American counterparts who have managed to overcome identifications with hegemony and the psychological seduction of denial to struggle against their own Trumps throughout the region for much longer than we. And after decades, they are still at it!!!!