Trump, Sanders and the Longing for Authenticity

Election '16

There is a saying that, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In the political sphere, we are all so used to canned speeches, talking points and stage-managed and inauthentic personalities that when someone like Donald Trump comes along, his offensive speech passes for authenticity. Similarly, Bernie Sanders’ down-to-earth rhetoric and wildly gesticulating arm gestures also suggest that he is being real, and as a result, breaks through the mind-numbing conformity of today’s political discourse.

The messages of these candidates are radically different, of course, but the delivery and optics that communicate authenticity are similar and at least as vital to each candidate’s appeal.

Trump and Sanders fill auditoriums and create electricity in their followers. Hillary Clinton and former Trump rivals like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush don’t generate such excitement because they mirror the robotic self-presentations of politicians and those talking heads in the media that cover them. By robotic presentations, I’m referring to the way politicians and their media interpreters appear to lack passion, repeating rehearsed lines with a smooth fluency that sometimes deadens the spirit of those listening.

This is why we like unscripted moments, remarks caught on a so-called hot mic when a public figure doesn’t know he or she can be heard. We are drawn to people who say things they’re not supposed to say. Donald Trump attacks political correctness directly and continually in the form and content of his racist and provocative public remarks and demagoguery. He says things that are forbidden and he isn’t apologetic about it. He comes across as a complicated and flawed but authentic person. People forgive the content because they vicariously experience the seemingly unscripted spontaneity behind it.

Now, we all know that, in reality, this is a myth. Trump fashions his persona with the best of them; he is the ultimate made-for-TV character, and his provocations are deliberately strategic as well as temperamental. It doesn’t matter. Trump sells the persona of one who shoots from the hip without guile extremely well. The media and his fans can’t get enough of him. They are excited and energized, I think, by Trump’s sheer rudeness, because his ill-mannered style is experienced as a marker for authenticity. Politicians are supposed to go down easy, reciting talking points that have been tested in focus groups by experts. Trump breaks the mold.

Bernie Sanders also appears unscripted. There was a moment at a Sanders rally in Portland late last March when a bird was flying loose in the auditorium and landed on the podium. The YouTube depiction of this event got over two million views. The people—and their YouTube cohort—were startled by the sheer spontaneity of the bird and Sanders’ interaction with it. Startled and delighted. The crowd went wild in response to the wildness of the moment.

We are delighted by spontaneity because it breaks through the deadness that governs our public lives. Most of us live lives in which we need to make a good impression and shapeshift ourselves to fit what is expected of us. We don’t expect to be really known or understood as unique or special. We’ve given that up in the interest of adaptation, of fitting in. And since everyone else is doing the same thing, we create a hollow social circle devoid of vitality. We do so at the price of isolation and loneliness, for sure, but it’s worth it to keep ourselves safe from the imagined critical judgment of others.

We become desperate for the oxygen of authenticity and experience it in a Trump or a Sanders who seem not to care what others think of them, even if the reality is otherwise. To the degree that they project a persona that doesn’t care, we respond vicariously to their irreverent independence. We wish we didn’t care what others thought as well, because such sensitivities lead us to abandon our real selves and feel empty. We’re so hungry for something authentic we even see it in Donald Trump’s carnival barking.

The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott developed and wrote about the concepts of a true and a false self. Winnicott used true self to describe a sense of self based on spontaneous, authentic experience, and a feeling of being alive, of having a real self. For Winnicott, the false self was a defensive façade that rendered a person without spontaneity, and feeling dead and empty, behind the appearance of being real. The false self develops to retain a connection to parents who are unable to see their child as a loveable, special and precious being. The child adapts and fits in as best as she can, but such adaptation—especially given that everyone around the child is doing the same thing—leaves a residue of disconnectedness and a longing for spontaneous recognition of some kind. When a public figure seems spontaneous and real, this longing is activated and vicariously fulfilled.

One has only to watch cable news to see this dynamic re-enacted over and over again. The so-called experts filter reality through their cynical know-it-all lenses and derive a false authority by their apparent ability to decode the reality behind appearances. But rather than reflect authenticity, they layer on another level of alienation. They tell us how and when politicians are pivoting or doubling-down—a special type of insider language that keeps the broadcasters' real feelings and authentic selves as hidden from view as the candidates they are covering. Political life is a horse race, a charade, a kabuki dance, and reality is further obscured from our view.

In his book, Another Way of Seeing, critical legal studies scholar Peter Gabel argues that our most fundamental need as human beings is the desire for authentic mutual recognition—a notion similar to Winnicott’s true self. But with Winnicott, Gabel explains that the child’s fear of being rejected or used by his or her caretakers—misrecognized, in other words—leads us all to withdraw behind false selves that protect us from other people at the cost of true fulfillment.

The fact that a right-wing, racist demagogue like Donald Trump appeals to our longing for authenticity is a testament to the psychological alienation deeply embedded in our culture. This may be why he could potentially win the election. He is speaking to another, deeper level of our experience that can’t be refuted by rational argument.

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