What this 20th century armchair philosopher teaches us about Trump's evangelical supporters
This diary is part of my series Philosophy Matters, which examines the ideas of some important philosophers and their relevance to politics. You can find the other parts by searching the #PhilosophyMatters hashtag on DK.
This time we’ll look at the 20th-century French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan was not a professional philosopher. However, he’s a major influence on the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who used to be all the rage within some lefty academic circles, and Lacan’s ideas continue to influence philosophical discussions within literary criticism and similar fields.
This diary focuses on one Lacanian concept: the Real. I’m no expert on Lacan, so take what I say here with a grain of salt.
The Symbolic Order
Lacan calls language “the Symbolic Order.” The name makes sense because a language consists of symbols (for example, spoken and written words). Because society gives us our language and language, in turn, is the foundation of the social order, social norms and institutions are inseparably intertwined with language. Hence, social norms and institutions can also be considered part of the Symbolic Order.
Lacan thinks that once we learn a language, we think in words. This doesn’t mean that we can think only about things we can completely put into words, but it does mean that our language limits the thoughts we can form. Because the Symbolic Order consists of language, we can say that the Symbolic Order limits the thoughts we can form.
Since Lacan was a psychoanalyst in the Freudian tradition, I should probably touch on his theory of the unconscious.
Lacan thinks that we repress thoughts that we can’t bear into an unconscious part of our minds, and he thinks that this unconscious contains words. Remember, Lacan thinks that we think in words. When we repress a thought into the unconscious, we repress the string of words that we used to form the thought.
A conscious mind can play with words using metaphor, puns, etc. Lacan thinks that the unconscious plays with words in the same way. For example, a dream that’s really about someone who annoys you might include a bug that keeps buzzing around you. Why? Because another word for “annoy” is “bug.” In constructing the dream, your unconscious has replaced an annoyance with a literal bug.
Remember, the Symbolic Order limits the thoughts we can form. We can’t recognize or grasp some parts of reality because of the Symbolic Order’s limitations. Lacan calls these parts of reality “the Real.” In short, the Real is where the Symbolic Order breaks down. According to Lacan, trauma occurs when we come face to face with the Real—when part of reality that doesn’t fit into our normal way of thinking forces itself past the barrier of the Symbolic Order and into our awareness.
At least that’s one interpretation of Lacan’s Real. Slavoj Zizek, whom I mentioned earlier, interprets the Real differently. For him, the Real isn’t something outside the Symbolic Order that causes the Symbolic Order to break down; instead, the Real is the breakdown itself: the Real consists of all the tensions and contradictions within the Symbolic Order. On that interpretation, an experience of the Real is an experience that reveals the tensions and contradictions within language and society.
Why it matters
If Zizek’s interpretation is right, then an example of the Real might be Trump support within white evangelical society. Back in 2016, several publications reported a dramatic shift in white evangelical views:
In a shocking reversal, white evangelicals have gone from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office. Today, in fact, they are more likely than Americans who claim no religious affiliation at all to say such a moral bifurcation is possible.
A strong emphasis on personal morality is a traditional part of religious conservatism. But many evangelicals were willing to sacrifice this principle to support Trump.
I view evangelical Trump supporters as a revelation of the Real — of the contradictions that have always existed within white evangelical society. In their eagerness to promote religious conservatism by means of political conservatism, many white evangelicals have nearly identified evangelicalism with political conservatism, to the point where they would throw religious conservatism under the bus in order to support whatever candidate seems most politically reactionary—that is, to the point where they would discard religious conservatism in order to defend it. The evangelical Trump movement did exactly that, revealing the contradictions at the heart of white American evangelicalism.
This isn’t just a problem for white evangelicals. There are contradictions and antagonisms within every society and subculture. No Symbolic Order is completely seamless and free of internal conflicts. Not even mine. Or yours.