The Hurt Child, the Inner Father, and a Few Unanswered Questions about the 2016 Presidential Election
Shortly after 3:00 AM on November 9, 2016, Donald J. Trump, age 70, took the stage at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan to accept victory after a bitter presidential campaign. He thanked his supporters and called for unity, promising to be president of all Americans. He mentioned the hard work ahead, listed a few of the things he planned to do like fixing the country’s infrastructure, then added, "You're going to be so proud of your president."
What kind of leader tells the electorate they're going to be proud of him? The kind who’s seeking approval, that's who. But from whom?
If you watched Frontline's "The Choice" in the weeks leading up to the election, you know that Donald’s father, Fred Trump, was an exacting workaholic who taught his kids to be winners and killers. Never losers. You also know from the documentary that Donald, unlike his older brother, rose to the challenge even after being sent off to military school, where he was removed from daily expressions of parental love. He went out of his way to prove himself a winner to get that approving love—only to find as an adult that his flashy nouveau riche real-estate success was not enough to win social acceptance from the denizens of New York's old-money establishment. After all the hard work of building the first Trump Tower, something he desperately wanted was still being withheld. From an outsider's point of view, the story of Trump's insatiable id-driven drive to acquire and impress has all the earmarks of a hurt child in need of the unconditional love he never received. To be loved, you had to be a winner. Because Daddy doesn't like losers.
Once you’ve grown up and your parents no longer have the same role in your life, what do you do? You keep trying to get the love you failed to get as a child by creating life situations you hope will finally satisfy a need that can only be fulfilled by you. If you lack the introspection, reflection, and contemplation necessary to do that, you keep seeking it in the outer world, repeating the same things over and over. But even if you achieve huge, fantastic results on the outside, the inner need is never met.
"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are,” wrote Anais Nin in Seduction of the Minotaur. In that novel, she was working with Freud’s idea that there is a “monster” in the subconscious mind confined by a labyrinth. Since you cannot slay your own mind, repressed feelings must be seduced by developing conscious insight. People who don’t learn how to do this wind up believing that events in the outer world happen to them when it's really a projection of innermost reality playing itself out. As Bonnie Raitt wrote in Thing Called Love, "Whether your sunglasses are off or on, you only see the world you make."
If these things are true, one wonders if Hillary Rodham Clinton, that highly capable woman with the daunting resume and impeccable policy credentials, might have been haunted by a similar issue with her father. The Frontline documentary shows how Hugh E. Rodham never gave his wonderful daughter the approval she deserved. A businessman who once ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Chicago Board of Alderman, Rodham told his daughter when she was still quite young, "If you're getting straight A's that must not be a very good school you're going to."
So what does Hillary do? She attends two of the best colleges in the country, Wellesley and Yale Law, but fails the DC bar exam. No matter what she achieves, it's never quite good enough. Put your own political career on hold to support your husband, change your appearance to fit in with the wifely image expected of you in Arkansas, and it's not enough—the man cheats on you with a string of women.
Become First Lady and win two terms as United States senator from New York, but it's not enough to win the presidential nomination in 2008. Even after you become Secretary of State, the position and title are not enough to get you into the president's inner circle where the big foreign policy decisions are being made without you. In 2016, you become the first woman to receive the nomination from a major political party, and despite all you've been through and learned - it's still not enough to get free of that inner monster put there by your father, which says you’re not good enough.
In their analyses of how Clinton lost the blue-wall states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, pollsters claim she failed to put enough campaign resources into those areas, taking them for granted perhaps. But how could an otherwise brilliant woman make that kind of mistake? Did her own inner monster orchestrate yet another scenario in which she would once again not be good enough?
Hillary had another problem that may have had the same root cause. She failed to convince millennials that she had the two qualities they most care about—transparency and authenticity. She got caught in too many lies. Her campaign cheated Bernie Sanders. Donna Brazile leaked debate questions. The candidate came across as someone willing to say anything, do anything to become president. Here’s what Full Frontal’s Samantha Bee said about Hillary just before the election:
Unfortunately, millennials did not believe in the inner kick-ass Hillary the way Samantha Bee did. Post-election analysis on NPR shows they could not get excited about her the way they did for Barack Obama. Millennials stayed away from the polls in double-digits.
Life is process. What you do is what you become--it's what you are. Psychologist Tara Brach says, “How you live your life today is how you live the rest of your life.” That quote was on my daily calendar for October 26, 2016, the day Hillary turned sixty-nine. Could it be that her long-practiced effort to fit into what others expected or demanded eventually robbed her of her true self and became a kind of self-sabotage fed by the inner monster that she was not good enough the way she was? Whatever happened to that wonderful Wellesley graduate who chastised Senator Edward Brooke during its Commencement program for looking only at what's possible? How did she become the very thing she was so passionately against?
Whether you're on the world stage or not, it’s what's inside that counts. But this is all just so much speculation on my part. As Henry James says in The Portrait of a Lady, “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” Why talk about it then? Because maybe these two people—Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton—can help us understand ourselves better.
Of course, there’s more to the 2016 election than all this conjecture about the psychodramas of two presidential candidates.
Donald Trump has articulated and stirred up the darkest aspects of rural and non-college-educated whites who feel left behind by the rapidly changing world. His victory has emboldened racists and misogynists. But now that he has become a rallying point for their resentments and bigotry, the question facing the new president is whether he can soothe the savage energies he has helped release.
Trump has promised to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, cut taxes, and rebuild the country's infrastructure. He has threatened to withdraw from trade deals like NAFTA and bring jobs back to the US. He says women who get abortions should be punished. He wants to build a wall and institute extreme vetting to keep terrorists away from American shores. His promise to “make America great again” sounds a lot like “make America white again.”
It turns out that the president can in fact abrogate our trade agreements without the consent of Congress. But it's unlikely that automation and the lure of cheap labor in other countries will ever bring high-paying, union-protected jobs back to non-college-educated whites who are so angry about having lost their solidly middle-class incomes.
Of the president-elect's short list, about the only thing he can do immediately to create jobs that may assuage his base is put them to work building bridges, repairing roads, and replacing the outdated infrastructure in something akin to Roosevelt's Work Progress Administration (WPA) during the New Deal. But will a Republican-led congress hell-bent on deficit reduction and shrinking the government approve spending for that? Not likely.
Which begs this question: What can be done about the divide that separates college-educated Americans from the non-college-educated? What's going to happen when the president's base discovers that his ill-defined campaign promises cannot help them?
Lacking a solution to the education gap, we are stuck with the same problem Richard Hofstadter wrote about in his 1964 Pulitzer Prize winning book, the Anti-Intellectualism of American Life. Professor Catherine Liu of U. C. Irvine provides a fresh look at the same issue in her 2011 book, American Idyll, which reveals that recent anti-elitism does nothing to redress the source of its discontent—namely, growing economic inequality and diminishing social mobility. Sadly, the current mistrust of urban intellectual "elites" by rural exurbanites has been fueled in part by talk-show windbags and politicians seeking to exploit rather than heal the rift. As long as people like that keep the feud going, we remain locked in red-state/blue-state rivalries that belie and obscure the truth.
Surely you noticed that Hillary wore a purple blouse beneath a jacket with purple lapels during her concession speech on November 9. Bill Clinton wore a purple necktie, and Tim Kaine’s wife, Ann Holton, wore a purple duster. Coming from a campaign that won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, the message was clear: We are a purple America. Not nearly as divided as the pundits, politicians, and election-night maps would have us believe. Still, if you compare Mark Newman's 2008 Purple America Map on the left with the one on the right showing results of the 2016 election, there certainly seems to be more red in the mix this time around.
The resurgence of right-wing populism is not specific to the United States, as Brexit made patently clear. Voters everywhere who feel left behind by the rapid pace of technology-driven modernity seem mad as hell and don't want to take it anymore. But are the solutions they reach for like angry toddlers likely to bring about the change they hope for? Look at what happened - Donald Trump flouted the fundamental values of American democracy during his campaign, and his supporters did not care. They voted for him anyway. This is different from any other election in American history. We've never elected a president who did not value the principles the country was founded on.
"Beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions, people carried with them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them."
Maybe the whole world is looking for a father now. A benevolent breadwinner who will put a roof over your head, protect you from evil, and navigate the difficult waters of 21st-century modernity. It was Barack Obama who reminded us in Dreams from My Father about his own hunger to become reconciled with that all-important figure. Not everyone is willing to travel to Kenya to do this as he did. Many aren’t even able to drive a few exits down the interstate to come to terms with Obama’s realization: “…beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions, people carried with them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them.”
In 2008, the Obama campaign offered a vision of hope. Eight years later, Donald Trump presented one of hatred and despair. The political pendulum is supposed to swing from liberal to conservative to keep the country balanced. But I doubt if even the Founding Fathers were able to foresee this 2016 version of Yeats’ "rough beast," its hour come round at last, slouching toward Washington to become the 45th president of the United States.
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