No one in this world, so far as I know…has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby. – H.L. Mencken, 'Notes On Journalism,' Chicago Tribune (19 September 1926)
On the eve of the November 8 election, I posted a series of photographs of Donald Trump plying his misanthropic trade on my Facebook accounts along with a comment in which I confidently asserted the following:
This is not who America is. This is a distorted caricature which draws its raw materials from America's Shadow. But in our haste to avoid the implications of this Shadow, let us not demonize Mr. Trump. He is merely exposing the seamy underside of American culture. Trump violates the rules by speaking our unspoken secrets in public. He is not the problem. Trump is merely the symptom. The real question is whether we are willing to deal with our pathologies as a people. As of this election, we no longer have the luxury of denial they exist.
In retrospect, I should have been a bit more circumspect in my analysis and nuanced in my assertions. As it turns out, my diagnosis was on target even as my confidence in how would Americans would respond to it was not well placed.
Maybe Mencken had it right after all.
The Shadow Comes Out to Play
While Facebook is rarely the best place for critical reflections, it is the place where ideas can be readily launched into the orbit of public consideration, as the many purveyors of false news stories have already figured out. Indeed, a recent study by Stanford researchers reveals that few of our Millennials appear able to tell the difference. But while hindsight is always 20/20, my assessment on election eve was blind-sided by a new development few predicted prior to the election – the birth of a phenomenon called Trumpland composed largely of America’s Shadow content.
Carl Jung and subsequent generations of depth psychologists have taught us that there are no human beings who do not create a Persona, a facade which we offer to others as the image of who we truly are and who we want them to believe we are. To do so requires the suppression of our worst aspects, our Shadow, and the emphasis of our most socially acceptable characteristics. Think of Procrustes with his famous bed who cut off the parts of its occupants which did not fit and stretched those who were too short to fully cover it.
There are no human beings who do not create Shadow content in the process of building their cherished facades of Persona. Indeed, Jung often remarked that the brighter the Persona the darker the Shadow.
While Shadow content is usually repressed from consciousness in favor of the Persona - our best qualities displayed for public consumption while serving as a façade to hide our Shadows, our worst qualities whose existence we deny – Shadow content never actually goes away. It is when the Shadow is denied and repressed into our unconscious minds that it becomes the raw material for some of the worst kinds of scapegoating through projection.
The 2016 election was a textbook example.
A Poultice to Draw the Toxins to the Surface
Like every good demagogue, Mr. Trump served as a poultice for a toxic body politic. A poultice is an old folk remedy in which a mass of plant material contained in a warm, moist rag is placed on bruises, stings and infections to draw the poison to the surface and out of the body.
Human history has had no shortage of such moments when the toxins of the body politic have been drawn to the surface through the skills of a competent demagogue and exploited for political gain. Think the Daisy Girl ads run by LBJ. Think the Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon. Think Reagan’s Welfare Queens in Cadillacs. Think Pappy Bush’s Willie Horton. And now think about the flood of bogeymen used to stimulate the fears of the baby souls of America this past election.
There is a good reason that Trump has been so regularly compared to the demagogues of the 1930s in Germany and Italy.
For the sake of fairness, we must recognize that it is no more accurate to assert that the Shadow qualities which Mr. Trump so consistently embodied and evoked from his followers are “who America is” than to deny they are at least a part of who Americans have always been. It is also fair to recognize that Mr. Trump's opponents evoked their own share of Shadow content from the electorate as a political strategy.
What distinguishes this election is not that America’s Shadow played a major role. That has been a constant in every American election since the beginning of the republic. Indeed, it has played starring roles in every election since the Citizens United decision paved the way for unlimited dark moneys to fund unlimited anonymous negative advertising.
What is different here is how this election encouraged the Shadow to not only come out of hiding to be consciously acknowledged, it invited Americans to actually celebrate the Shadow.
This ought to give all of us pause for thought when we recognize that historically eruptions of the Shadow like this often precede a descent into the demonic. Indeed, the analogies generational cohort historians Strauss and Howe have drawn to this present Fourth Turning include the Great Depression which preceded WWII and prior to that the Dredd Scott decision era which set the stage for America’s last Civil War.
But America has always been this way….
It is also important to note that some observers of this election have actually applauded the owning of the Shadow that rode a tide of racism, class resentment and patriarchy to victory. The essential defining aspects in the rise of Trumpland were race, educational attainment and authoritarian tendencies. Some observers were quick to suggest these have always been the dividing lines in America.
One respondent to a mournful essay on Bill Moyers’ site entitled “Farewell, America,” argued
America didn't die. It's having a reality check. The Trickster came to town and upended the banquet table. He held up a mirror to what was hidden. Now we must own it- all of it. The country built on native genocide, racism and misogyny is getting a painfully good look at who we are. We now have an opportunity to change that.
A blunter version of that sentiment came from a writer self-identifying as Arab who offered the following:
[W]e weren’t very excited about a Clinton victory. Nothing would change. America would continue to think itself a progressive democracy that voted in first a black man, and then a woman. The demon would continue to wear a passable face, remain…presentable.
We do not think Trump is any better, but we think a Trump victory would force the USA to admit to what it has become, and would allow other countries around the world to react appropriately now that the cover has been blown…
Face yourselves, see yourselves, and then maybe, maybe, things will change…
Perhaps. I certainly understand the sentiments. But I see two problems in these comments.
Reality Checks on American Ideals
The first problem is in the premise that America was in complete denial of its Shadow prior to an election that forced us to acknowledge it. That’s an arguable assertion at best.
The America I grew up loving and which I have spent my life serving was defined by ideals which always served as “reality check[s]” on its Shadow. It was a country that began with an enormously idealistic assertion that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…,” a standard that has measured all of our clumsy, faltering attempts to actualize that ideal since it was first articulated by Thomas Jefferson.
The disparity between the ideal and the actual was always evident to me as a child when we pledged allegiance to a flag which symbolized “liberty and justice for all” in a Central Florida which segregated people by race in schools, restaurants and bus stations. That disparity became particularly noticeable as we lived through the excruciating process of dismantling America’s apartheid state. And I was hardly the only one who noticed it.
As a lawyer, I was always clear that America’s best qualities were summed up in provisions in its Constitution which promised “equal protection under the law.” I took these promises seriously. They elicited my best efforts as an attorney to ensure the impoverished Americans under my care received the best legal representation they could get even as they and I both knew the system was largely stacked in favor of the powerful and the wealthy and almost always against them.
As a young instructor of American Government at the community college where I first taught as an adjunct 40 years ago, I made no pretensions about the level of perfection of the American experiment in democracy. My students learned that while our ideals were sublime and had served as the model for many experiments in democracy around the world, our own attainment of them had always been a work in progress.
Such a democracy requires constant critical self-reflection. It requires an educated, well-informed and socially responsible electorate seeking the common good that Jefferson observed to be the conditions precedent for a healthy democracy to survive. Even today my classes always end with the question “Is democracy safe in your hands?” The responses of my current group of students, many of them members of groups targeted by the prejudices of Trumpland, were not terribly encouraging after this election.
In the Shadow of the Eagle
I should hasten to add here that I do not see my own life experience to be somehow normative for my fellow Americans. It isn’t. But in my 63 years of life, I have run across enough people of my homeland with more than a modicum of awareness of the Shadow cast by the American eagle to say that while denial of that Shadow may be widespread, it is hardly universal.
Clearly there have always been uncritical thinkers who are unwilling or perhaps unable to distinguish critique from condemnation. They tend to see any tear in the sheer, shimmering façade which touts America as the world’s greatest nation to be cause for alarm. Those of us who would dare lift the flap of the circus tent up to give the public a glimpse often become the target for ad hominem attacks.
Such is the lot of the prophet in every generation.
We have always had our philistines who have operated out of simplistic mantras such as “My country, right or wrong.” Ironically those who challenge the patriotism of critics with this false dichotomy demonstrate their ignorance of the remainder of the actual quote by Carl Schurz, an immigrant who was ultimately elected to the US Senate: “…if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
But while this kind of adolescent thinking has perhaps been the mainstay of much of the infotainment that passes for news today and what many foreigners have experienced at the hands of self-focused American tourists, it hardly represents the thinking of most Americans.
And herein lies my second concern with this “reality check” argument.
Not only are these statements premised in an assertion that America has not previously acknowledged its shadow, an assertion which is at best only partially true, it also seems to presume that now that the Shadow has come out to play, it will somehow prompt the Americans to summon the critical self-reflection necessary to deal with these cancers in the soul of our body politic.
What I fear is that the exact opposite will occur. With this election, America’s Shadow definitely has come out to play.
[Continued with Part III]+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
© Harry Coverston, 2016