The First 100 days: Elections on the Couch

By Orna Guralnik



After the elections I headed to the office, relieved to spend the day with fellow citizens. Nothing prepared me for the profound collective breakdown awaiting me. Patient after patient was derealized, crying, insomniac, panicking, and confused as to how to continue their lives… With no exception and very little variation, people were deeply shaken as if by a very terrible event that was happening to them personally. Collectively, reactions were similar if not worse than in New York City following the 9/11 attacks. The threat represented by the rise of a new politics now came from the inside, and it was terrifying.

Four weeks later and the tumult had not subsided. Instead: colds and flus that will not get better, irritable bowels, a general parade of restless legs and agitated bodies on the couch, have become the new reality. Miriam, who had never shed a tear throughout eight years of treatment, was now sobbing, “Everything I believed in is now gone! My entire upbringing, the high-school I went to, my college, my profession (she is a physician), the way we raise our kids -, its all been centered around the core values of human rights, tolerance and respect for others.  It’s gone to shit! I am totally devastated.  I had no idea this even mattered to me so much.  I just took it for granted all these years.   Turns out these values are not shared by all of us, a horrible realization”.

Before the elections, Suzanne was in the process of revealing to her family her long struggle with having been raped in high school; “Knowing everything that happened to me and claiming that she cared, how could my mom still vote for Trump?! He boasts about being a sexual predator, does she deep down think that it is okay?!”.

Kurt had never dared to address his parents about his father’s alcoholism and serial abuse of his kids. But Thanksgiving post-election everything was different; “I could not go down there and be quiet anymore… We had an epic fight that lasted the entire weekend. It was the first time I had ever confronted my dad, and his brothers… Enough is enough! They claim to be Good Christians but they were all just waiting for someone like Trump to restore their bigoted world view”.

Sitting with my patients made it clear that on the night of the election, an implicit trust in the State’s commitment to protect the rights of the vulnerable and to safeguard democratic values, was shattered. I was struck by how deeply people were affected, as if the bottom had dropped out from under them. People were absolutely terrified by the perception that the country voted to lose its very foundation, the commitment to egalitarian human rights and democracy. With Trump’s rise and coronation, large-scale resistances to liberal democracy were brought into light. The distinction James C Scott makes between ‘secret transcripts’ and ‘public transcripts’ (the official ideology of those in power) is helpful;  the beliefs that many of us assumed were the foundation of American culture were turned upside down with the rise of a man whose appeal rested largely on hailing those who had all along resisted the integration of marginalized communities into the American mainstream with the use of a paranoid-schizoid rhetoric.

Listening to my patients after the election, I conclude that this election obliterated the unconscious hegemonic status of human rights and democratic principles. But further, people were also confronted with a violent eruption into consciousness of the very centrality of ideology to psychic life. I believe this is a rare moment for Americans, who are typically spellbound by the ‘market rationality’ of extreme capitalism, that works to powerfully delink the individual from her socio-political-collective identifications (as articulated in Lynne Layton and Philip Cushman’s work).  If ever there was a moment that validated that the personal is political is personal, it was now. With this collective crisis the curtain was drawn.

I can assume that what now feels like a shared ideological space between patients and I, will over time reveal itself to have concealed other nuanced stories, conservative strands within liberal leanings, and other more hateful identifications. But meanwhile, as threats and violence are tightening up the camps. A growing, shifty sense of lawlessness has begun to permeate the news, as waves of hate crimes erupt in the city and across the country.  Patients keep coming in with reports of groping of women on the subway, schoolyard bullying of minorities, swastikas and racial intimidation on NYC college campuses, including the ‘progressive’ New School.  Kurt was in despair after a policeman demanded identification and taunted his black friend, saying: “Obama will no longer be here to protect you.”  Wendy, a public school teacher, has been anguishing over her young students’ very immediate fears that their families were about to starve once food stamps were taken away, or be deported.  One of her middle-school African American students asked the chilling question: “Is slavery gonna come back?”

Is slavery gonna come back? It’s not like Trump is unfamiliar to people. Transferentially he stands for the return of dark forces any patient becomes intimately familiar with.  A reactionary, he has been all about going back to something that was (i.e. making America great again).  The Rorschach of what this ‘again’ means to each person can be artificially organized by demographics.

For women Hillary Clinton had been a motivating beacon, a way they could imagine themselves into a new and different future, in which they finally had a seat at the table. Clinton’s loss meant a disappointing crash, an injury doubled by Trump signifying a return to misogyny, and a ‘pro-life/anti-choice’, rape culture. Trump’s pre-election bragging about his own predatory behavior, his ongoing objectification of women extending to his teenage daughter, and ongoing sexist denigration of Clinton and other women throughout the campaign were deeply offensive for women and wreaked of malignant misogyny.

Jewish patients were most explicit about the eerie feeling of being haunted-by the return of repressed trans-generational trauma, hearing imminent ‘Final Solutions’ to the hatred of others in Trump’s rhetoric; his boasting about how he would ”deal with African Americans”, make a “registry of Muslims”, and deport “illegals”, directly tapped the imaginary concentration camp.

People of color, already exhausted by the difficult and important conversations that were developing around the Black Lives Matter movements, were rendered hopeless with the roaring return of KKK White supremacist sentiments in the wake of Trump’s campaign rhetoric.  The queer folks in my practice suffered a similar whiplash, in being pulled back from an important conversation developing in the wider culture about more fluid ways to articulate gender and sexuality.  Instead they faced a regression into ‘conversion-land’ and the loss of protection they only recently began to hope for, most amplified by the appointment of Mike Pence as VP.

A similar blow was suffered by those deeply identified with global environmental efforts to reverse destruction, with the denial-of-global-warming rhetoric, most drastically announced with the appointments of Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry.

The simplistic segregation I just did into identity groups is a misrepresentation, as in reality most of my patients are personally identified with the struggles of all of these groups.  Yet keeping with identity politics I want to say something about gender.  What may seem less obvious is why the straight white men in my practice were also devastated.  Was there not a part of them that felt affirmed by Trump’s rhetorical promise to restore their supremacy and resurrect the ‘beached white male’?   It turned out men were imagining a better future “with her” too.  Let us recall Freud’s century old descriptions of the mechanisms by which a President calls for powerful ego ideal projections and identifications. Obama’s era was the fruition of many years of feminist, postcolonial, and queer struggles, which combined to offer men the option to shed the kind of masculinity that has a deep split and alienation in its core.  Obama stood for a new kind of masculinity, one not based on the performance of brute patriarchy and domination, but on the integration of previously disavowed qualities, such as the acknowledgment of mutual vulnerability.

Thinking about gender with this link between psychoanalytic and ideological discourses, we can assume that the gradual collective psychological efforts to integrate disavowed vulnerabilities will find expression in people’s preferred ideological leanings, specifically in a principled commitment to humanitarian struggles. It was striking to see men in my practice horrified of the return of a traditional and patriarchal kind of gender subjugation, the kind Trump performs so grotesquely. “It took us a long time to get here” Boaz summarized it, ”I don’t want to see us sliding back to that repulsive kind of man”.

The degree to which the political situation continued to rattle my patients surprised them. Some kept apologizing for being “emotional” and preoccupied with the elections, as if it pathological. Some assumed they were expected to return to personal concerns, such as family drama. This was when questions about the function of the analytic space as mediating between the subject and the Real began to emerge:  is this what one should talk about in therapy?    What is a patient to do?  I found that the use of the analytic space for political explorations could feel like a surprising act of freedom; Ranciere (2009) sees what is at stake in the question of equality as precisely the power to get involved in something other than one’s own affairs, to escape some assigned and proper way of being.

As one arm of the ideological state apparatuses (Althusser), or the supposed arbiter of mental health (Foucault), people looked to me, the analyst, to tell them if their preoccupations with the elections were ‘psychologically-legit’ or a problem? What was my take on the ‘healthy’ boundary between individuals and the political world? Further, patients wanted an arbiter of reality:  how bad was it really?  How should they tag their anxieties and fears about Trump?  Irrational and requiring ‘analysis’, or a proper response to frightening circumstances?  And if this really was happening, what should they do about it?   Where does psychoanalysis stand on the question of political action?

Guided by my belief in the centrality of ideology to psychic life, I have consistently stayed with people at the register in which they had been speaking, and refrained from rushing to ‘translate’ from the political to the personal. There have been many points of convergence and urgency, where outrage about the Trump predicament paralleled early experiences. I often find myself wondering about the price of not analyzing such psychodynamics and staying with the political discourse, but keep concluding real work was being done exactly at the large-scale political stage upon which events were unfolding.  The political implications of these ‘technical’ choices are striking; will I employ the psychoanalytic method to reduce tension, contain and transform anxiety and rage, and mobilize a depressive-position organization? Will my interventions help patients mobilize the ‘storms in their head’  towards political action?  And the forever and acute psychoanalytic/political riddle:  Which master are we serving?  These elections have certainly brought my patients and I to the edge of our illusion of the sovereign self.