What’s Really Going on with Trump and Sanders

I don’t know if psychologists have written about this, but even in the days of 24-hour Cable News and the Internet, democracies “choose” their leaders in ways that are as bound up in weird Golden Bough depth psychology as they were in the days when kings went into battle themselves, swinging swords that a lesser man couldn’t lift off the ground.

I was thinking about this the other day, when Nate Cohn was explaining why the pollsters hadn’t read Michigan right. His explanations have been technical up to this point in the race (bad sample, late movers), but this time he threw up his hands (“no great explanation”).  Mine is that this election is no longer about politics per se but archetypes–we really are a society/culture in crisis, and the way to understand us isn’t through polling but depth psychology. Both of the outlier candidates are offering Redemption and Restoration–Donald Trump as a king would, through his big penis and his puissance as a deal-maker. Follow me, he says, and some of my greatness will rub off on you. His mode, for lack of a better word, is the Shakespearean–his divine destiny is ours too.

If Trump is royalty, Bernie Sanders is a Prophet–the white-haired outsider who speaks truth to power, saying what everyone knows but no one dares to acknowledge: that our leaders have sold our birthrights and that our country has lost its way–and that the way back is not through him but through the foundational values that they betrayed. His mode is the Biblical.

The message that the pundits should be taking away? That we are in deep, deep trouble as a polity–and we know it. That’s what it means when there are such signs and wonders, and both of these men are wondrously semiotic.


4 thoughts on “What’s Really Going on with Trump and Sanders

  1. This is on the mark, with one caveat: Sanders doesn’t read as an “angry prophet” figure the way, for example, Ralph Nader did. Sanders comes across as a fairly cheerful person by nature who’s indignant about a civic problem. Imagine a favorite uncle who keeps writing to the local paper about how the school crossing needs a traffic light installed, and why can’t we have a crossing guard there the way we used to when I was young? And he’s got a petition for City Hall if you’d be willing to sign it, which you would because he’s your Uncle Bernie. Demonstrably, young voters respond favorably to a “kindly uncle” archetype (partly I think because popular culture has a distinct shortage of positive representations of seniors so young people feel starved for any good ones that come along).

  2. Very interesting take. Another depth psychology paradigm is the Freudian. Trump is more pure id than any American politician since George Wallace. Sanders plays to the superego, he’s all about fairness. That leaves poor Clinton in the unglamorous, dispassionate middle, the ego trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. Who really roots for the Reality Principle? It plays as resignation and settling for second best.

  3. Check out this analysis from the Boston Globe editorial page:

    By Roland Merullo Globe Contributor March 21, 2016

    AFTER ALL THIS time, all these debates, all these primaries and caucuses, the pundits still don’t truly understand Donald Trump’s appeal. I have in mind the TV talking heads — highly paid, well-educated men and women, white, black, and Hispanic, who make their living trying to figure out what the average voter is thinking. As a political junkie and son of a one-time politician, I watch them obsessively, and I’m continually amazed at how distanced they are — with their laptops, Twitter feeds, and ‘‘inside sources’’ — from the millions of people who cast votes for Trump.

    I should mention that I will not be one of those millions. I’m trying to explain his appeal here, not endorse it.

    There is no question that bigots and racists have found a home in the Trump camp, and little question that he says things to give them fuel. But it’s a gross oversimplification to suggest that most of his appeal is bigotry and racial hatred. That line of reporting increases ratings, but also fans the flames of the country’s racial divide.

    Likewise, it’s another oversimplification to assert that his appeal is purely the result of anger. In his Salt Lake City speech, former presidential candidate-turned-establishment-hitman Mitt Romney said, “I understand there is anger out there,” but it was said with about as much familiarity as a Martian saying, “I understand there is water on Earth.”

    Trump’s appeal is not primarily grounded in racism or anger. It’s primarily grounded in humiliation. And this kind of humiliation is impossible for most of the talking heads and for someone like Romney to understand.

    Donald Trump is a liar.

    But he follows a path laid by other Republicans.

    Do Trump’s manners matter?

    I grew up in the working class. We were not poor, but we knew people who were poor and, even now, with my upper-class education and the middle-class status it has afforded me, I’m close to people who are working, and poor. There is a particular kind of humiliation involved in their lives, though many of them are too proud to use that word.

    They’re not hungry. They have a decent place to live. But every hour of every day they’re shown images of people who have things they will never have. Virtually every TV show and Internet site offers ads featuring relaxed families sitting in nice-looking dining rooms eating a meal together and laughing. These TV families own a home, have new cars, take cruise-line vacations, and use the kind of electronic gadgetry that would bankrupt the working poor.

    If they are white and straight, the people who watch these ads are also continually hearing news reports about the difficulties of minorities and gay people. Here’s the key point: Most of the working class and poor people I know — and many of Trump’s wealthier supporters — have no objection whatsoever to the idea of African-Americans and gays getting fair treatment. They do not want innocent black men to be shot. They do not care if two gay people get married. As is true of just about everyone else on earth, while they do care about others, they care about themselves and their own families first. The idea that these people have what is commonly referred to as “white privilege” may be generally true, relative to the horrible plight of many nonwhites in this society. But imagine what it’s like to come home from working a job (or two jobs) you hate, that exhausts you, that leaves you five dollars at the end of the week for a child’s birthday gift, and hear someone call you “privileged.” Imagine what that feels like. This is a territory into which the Mitt Romneys and talking heads of this world cannot stretch their thoughts.

    And then along comes a tremendously successful guy who speaks your language, not candidate-ese, and who tells you he’s going to make America (i.e., you) great. Most of his voters don’t have time to go to a political rally. So when they see protesters disrupting the speech of the candidate they hope can change their lives, and when they hear him say, “I’d punch that guy in the face”— the kind of language they grew up with — and when they listen to him talk about the decent-paying jobs that were moved to China (something Trump says more often than any other candidate), is it really a surprise that these people go into the voting booth and cast a ballot for The Donald?

    But the pundits keep shaking their heads in amazement that this candidate — who doesn’t use the scripted language of Washington, who isn’t bursting with memorized, specific plans and knowledge of various bills, who says things they find offensive — keeps winning. To some of us, it’s no surprise at all. If James Carville were advising Trump in 2016, instead of Bill Clinton in 1992, he might say, “It’s the humiliation, stupid.” And he would be right.

    Roland Merullo’s recent novella is “Rinpoche’s Remarkable Ten-Week Weight Loss Clinic.’’

    JAMES S. FRANCHEK Lawyer 30 Bayfield Road Wayland, Massachusetts 01778-4206 (T) 617.645.5007 EMAIL: jsfranchek@gmail.com Massachusetts BBO# 177030 Michigan P-55342

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