In a piece at the Guardian on Friday, Oliver Burkeman set out to explain “How Donald Trump took residence in our anxious brains .”
Burkeman began by warning the reader that, the end of Trump as a public figure on the electoral landscape will not mean the end of the anxiety, uncertainty, and fear into which he has tapped.
Even assuming Trump loses, the relief will be superficial: Trumpism will remain, and the world will have to contend with the fact that about 40% of the US electorate saw little wrong with his racism and misogyny, alleged sexual assaults, business scandals, lies, misrepresentations of his wealth and charitable giving, probable failure to pay taxes, lack of impulse control, profound ignorance and tiny attention span.
In a way that feels unprecedented in modern politics, Trump has burrowed deep into our psyches, stimulating anxiety that isn’t confined to the borders of the US, or to those who are the direct targets of his bigotry.
So, how to explain the abiding strength and popularity of this candidate uniquely ill-qualified to take the reins of power on the world stage?
In answering this difficult question Burkeman appeals to the deeply disturbing concept psychologists call “transference.”
For Jonathan Shedler, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado school of medicine, Trump’s appeal is better understood through the lens of “transference”: in times of stress, whatever the complex blend of causes for that stress, people revert to a childhood desire for an omnipotent protector – an understandable need in young children, but dysfunctional in adulthood.
“Trump is benefiting from a childlike fantasy of being rescued by an all-powerful, larger-than-life father figure, so all of these qualities get attributed to Trump,” he says. If the candidate’s serially outrageous behaviour fails to alienate them, that’s at least partly because the appealing qualities they’re seeing aren’t really in him; instead, “they’re in the minds of the people who are doing the attributing, expressing their not-quite-conscious yearnings.”
Making choices from “not-quite-conscious yearnings,” whether for personal life commitments or for marking a ballot in a democratic election, is a dangerous undertaking.
The choices we make from unconsciousness become particularly toxic when they are mixed with the “desire for an omnipotent protector” who we believe has the power to rescue us from fear and uncertainty. When we locate our sense of well-being in a human “omnipotent protector” we are setting ourselves up for a world of grief.
Fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and discomfort are inevitable realities in any life lived in this tenuous, fragile human realm. There is no force on earth that has the power to protect us from all suffering. Our failure to come to grips with this difficult reality and to seek to avoid or deny the inevitable pain of being alive, has been perhaps the single most consistent force for dysfunction in the human community.
When we look to any leader or any relationship to insulate us from pain, we are heading down a road that will eventually lead to disillusionment and chaos. There are no external solutions to the imperfections and failings of human beings and the unavoidable pain to which these realities give rise.
We are healed, not by orchestrating life to always run smoothly, but by choosing to see clearly and honestly the realities of our situation.
We are all driven to some degree by “not-quite-conscious yearnings.” When we allow these yearnings to shape our lives, we create pain for ourselves and others. When we look to other people to satisfy these yearnings, we create dysfunction and suffering.
We will be protected from unnecessary pain to the degree that we give up looking for solutions outside ourselves and become conscious of and honest about our own yearnings. Tragically, we seem to be too often unwilling to do this hard work of self-awareness and honesty that are the foundation upon which lasting and stable human community is built.