Election 2016

A Psychotherapist’s Take on Donald Trump’s Outrageously Unfiltered Rhetoric

In Trump’s presence, it’s not only OK to be racist, it’s patriotic.

Photo Credit: Darron Birgenheier/Flickr CC

When Trump brings his authoritarian speech to a large rally, you get what the GOP always only politely implied. Trump makes overtly racist, misogynist and xenophobic statements that for his followers, previously groomed by decades of dog-whistle racism, seem more “honest.” Followers love Trump because he supposedly says what he means and rejects “political correctness.” To put it another way, he says whatever comes into his mind. For a psychoanalyst, this is Trump’s primary process.

Primary process, aside from referring to the selection of Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, is also a psychoanalytic term that describes the source or wellspring of the unconscious. Primary process is the flow of impulses, urges and gut reactions that are all translated directly into words and ideas before self-censorship occurs. It’s the thinking that happens before we are even aware we are thinking. It’s what people mean when they say, “I was thinking with my mouth.”

Of course as children develop and become socialized the primary process is gradually tamed by a conscience; a self-aware, mature kind of thinking that Freud called, naturally, the “secondary process.” The secondary process is how one thinks about consequences before talking or acting, and how one feels shame after saying something unkind. You could say that the old Republican Party operated using the secondary process, but Trump speaks pre-shame.

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Trump speaks and tweets in pure primary process: short, childish, repetitive sentences conjuring simple images and feelings to make his points rather than using logic, facts or argument, e.g., “Sad!” or “Dummy!” His lizard brain simplicity lures people at a pre-rational level of good/bad, with us/against us, we have no shame/the other is bad. So for Trump supporters, racist beliefs about African Americans, anti-Muslim prejudice, and xenophobia merge into fear and hatred for all non-whites, and non-whites are all interchangeable. “They” are taking our jobs, “they” can come over the Mexican border (but not the Canadian border), a black protester at a Trump rally could be ISIL and President Obama is black so he is a Muslim. This is the logic of a dream or a child’s fear of what’s under the bed. And what better way to appease childish fears of non-whites than to build a big wall? The wall is the simplest and most powerful symbol of Trump’s father-god status as protector.

Trump’s psychological draw, the centerpiece of his policy and the hallmark of shamelessness, is the idea that “political correctness” is harming the nation. People who use racism and xenophobia to explain their own strife find Trump redemptive for this reason. Trump’s primary process telegraphs to his followers the message that they can let their shame go. The way their story goes, they have tried to be responsible all their lives, but now the deck is stacked against them and they won’t let the “other” take away their livelihood. This is no different for people of color and Muslims who support Trump: You identify with the charismatic leader and find your own version of the “other” to hate.

The group experience of a rally acts to magnify shamelessness. In Trump’s presence, it’s not only OK to be racist; it’s patriotic and even an act of love, belonging and self-esteem. The Trump rally group psychology transforms secret, shameful, irrational beliefs into an open, shameless cause for pride and connection. Followers thrill to the relief of no longer holding back.

Psychotherapy helps people cope with shame and heal from it. In my consulting room, I know that I have successfully established a strong and close working rapport with a patient when he no longer holds back, when he feels safe enough to share the thoughts and feelings that make him feel ashamed and less-than. These are feelings about the anxiety of losing social acceptance—feelings we all have and we all often pretend that we don’t have. A crucial point is that such ugly feelings also include what is no longer socially acceptable in polite society, such as homophobia, racism and misogyny. An old Alcoholics Anonymous saying captures this perfectly: “You’re as sick as your secrets.”

Group therapy is very powerful when it comes to helping people accept shame as part of a growth process. This is why mutual aid groups like Alcoholics Anonymous offer such an intense experience. A group is telling you they have the same ugly feelings you have, and that you are still accepted and supported. In 12-step groups, as I see them, the individual accepts a “higher power” into her life, a kind of better self who will help with recovery and healing. The 12-step group helps the individual connect with kindness, understanding and tolerance. A member of a 12-step group carries the goodness of that group dynamic in her mind and heart even when she isn’t sitting in a meeting. Out in her life, she uses the 12 steps and the Big Book as a moral standard to repair herself and her relationships and help others.

Trump rallies, however, are the exact opposite of a 12-step group. Trump rallies use shame as fuel. The rally becomes an experience of Trump himself as the higher power, modeling and reinforcing feelings, acts and speech that one would, under other circumstances, find shameful. Here’s the awful truth: Expressing shameful, taboo feelings in the presence of others is an intensely gratifying experience. I think this is why Trump has begun referring to the “love” that is shared in his rallies. But what Trump calls “love” is really a kind of group mania built on hatred of the other and a bond with the leader. The psychological state induced in Trump’s rallies foments animalistic and murderous hatred because when people step into the rally, they give up their personal moral sense to him. Unlike a 12-step group, Trump provides no guidelines for moral actions—no 12 steps, only a bond with him, his whim, his ridicule of others, his narcissism. Followers leave activated with resentment and a kind of righteous hate without the brakes of shame on it.

Since Trump followers are bonded to him through pre-rational identification, they use words in whatever way they can to maintain that shameless bond and reject the “other”—which is why there’s no arguing with them. Speech becomes a nonsense mosaic of feelings and impressions of good and bad. So when a Trump follower says, “I’m voting for Trump because he’s going to build a big wall… we need to be protected and it’s not racist to say that—just not politically correct,” it makes perfect sense to him because he’s using Trump’s primary process. By embracing nonsensical contradiction and a belief that Trump is correct no matter what, the individual follower is demonstrating a basic psychoanalytic principle: He says one thing and does something entirely different. We can only hope that one day he will end up feeling ashamed for it.

Richard Brouillette is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City.