Narcissus, by Michelangelo Caravaggio, painted circa 1597–1599
To say that Donald Trump has “stirred a lot of emotions” is perhaps an understatement, so it makes sense that many of us would welcome a better understanding of why that is the case.
The American Psychiatric Association declares that it’s unethical for a psychiatrist or psychologist to diagnose a public figure without evaluating them, so contributors to the new book, A Clear and Present Danger: Narcissism in the Era of Donald Trump, focus instead on narcissism itself and the underlying and unconscious factors at work in both individuals and the culture, notes Steve Buser, MD, who is a psychiatrist, co-founder of the Asheville Jung Center, and also the publisher of the new book from Chiron Publications which Buser co-edited with Leonard Cruz.
What is actually far more interesting—whether or not Donald Trump has narcissistic disorder—Buser asserts, is to look what is going on in the unconscious of our country today, which is exactly what the 18 psychiatrists, psychologists, and university professors who wrote articles for the book sought to do.
Seeking to understand the unconscious through symbols, dreams, and archetypal perspectives is the work of many of the contributors (including Clarissa Pinkola Estés, James Hollis, Tom Singer, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Leonard Cruz, Nancy Swift Furlotti, Kathryn Madden, and Susan Rowland, among others), who have a depth psychological orientation based on the work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung.
Tapping into Unconscious Fears
Trump—and even the election itself—may be seen to tap into some of our unconscious fears, for example. In the book, psychiatrist and Jungian analyst, Tom Singer, writes about unconscious cultural complexes that are activated. Some of it is around violence at the campaign rallies. As Singer indicates in his chapter in the book, slogans or phrases associated with the Trump campaign, including “Make America Great Again” – or “Get ‘em outta here!” or “America first” tap into deep seated fears and unspoken thoughts that many people may have.
“Get em outta here” connects to a fear of “other” and makes us fearful of infiltration—that is, anyone other than oneself or the status quo. It speaks to themes Trump has often insisted on, such as banning Moslems, keeping “dangerous” Mexicans who are “rapists and thieves” out of the country, and keeping the “other” at bay including Syrians or refugees. In Jungian and depth psychologies, this kind of response is representative of the shadow, that is, when the things we can’t see about ourselves are projected onto other.
“Make America Great Again” taps into fear that our dominance has fallen. In the 1950s and 60s we appeared to be on top of the world, Buser suggests, so our perception is that our corporations, our military, and other established and lauded institutions have declined. In fact, many people feel the political system has gone awry. It is perceived as power-based and arrogant, so it’s easy to sense that narcissism is woven into all elements of that current structure. While most candidates and politicians—indeed, all of us—fall somewhere on the spectrum of disorder at any given time, Donald Trump has become lightning rod by making frequent and ongoing controversial statements that draw attention in his direction.
Greek Myth Meets Depth Psychology
Narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool and ultimately died because he could not tear himself away from it. To better understand how narcissism is a growing theme in our culture, Buser proposes we look to the selfie phenomenon, where a growing number of individuals take a multitude of self photos and post them to media so they can be seen. The mirror isn’t all bad however, Buser indicates, as we can either look and see grandiosity, or we can reflect and see shadows and possibilities.
Narcissism relates to vanity, he explains, but when we reflect, there is also a depth psychological response, which is to tap into something transcendent. When we do that, what was previously a “scary” other turns into a “calling” that pulls us into a new transcendent space, a deeper awareness, which is a significant aspect of what C. G. Jung called the individuation process.
The opposite of narcissism is therefore depth. It contrasts with a shallow reflection, where one can’t see anything but one’s self. It’s about community in which we can share power, deepen into experience, grow together, and welcome the “other” instead of judging or rejecting them. From a depth psychological standpoint, it is our responsibility to look for ways that our culture can be transformed. Our current political-social-cultural tendency toward narcissism is not sustainable as it is. We need to question it, to contemplate expressions of self-grandiosity when they arise, to actively seek more empathy and acceptance of the “other.”
As a clinical psychiatrist who sees patients seven or eight hours a day, Steve has noticed how this particular election cycle is the most anxiety-filled cycle he has ever seen in over 30 years doing his work. People come in with symptoms of clinical anxiety—and much of it comes from the news or social media where many are watching too much TV or media. The good news, if any, he submits, is that it is raising awareness in the public eye for people who may never otherwise think about the cultural norms (and extremes) around narcissism we now find our culture and we can talk about it from a depth psychological standpoint. Why is the country moving toward such an unlikely candidate? he asks. There is a cultural complex in play that needs to be addressed.
Narcissism, the Ecological Crisis, and the Savior Complex
The tagline for the book, “Narcissism in the Era of Donald Trump” makes me think of the “age of the Anthropocene”—a term increasingly proposed by social scientists and some others to describe how humans have become the dominant force on the planet where everything revolves around us. It is the dawn of new geological epoch following the Pleistocene, and most recently, the Holocene. We have had such a significant impact on the planet—most of it detrimental— I wonder about how narcissism applies to the ecological crisis that seems to be mounting by the day.
Buser emphasizes that narcissism is often related to the idea that “it’s all about me”—or in this case, perhaps, about “us” as humans. It follows that the narcissistic stance would be almost oblivious to the ecological damage that’s being caused. The narcissistic individual leaves a trail of damage to individuals and systems around them, he emphasizes. They’re not looking empathically at how they are going to affect others because they’re focused on themselves. Clearly, as a collective or as individuals, if we are in a narcissistic space, we’re not going to be aware of the damage we’re doing to the environment.
During the conversation, Buser and I also discuss whether there is a “Savior complex” at work when presidential elections roll around, as if we are collectively looking for someone who can “save” us. Steve describes how Trump carries this projection in a very unique way, both as a “John Wayne” archetype and also as “General Patton” where the hero rides in, shoots the bad guys, and ultimately saves the day with intensity and bravado, throwing propriety and political correctness to the wind.
Seemingly, in this election, Donald Trump has tapped into a pivotal piece of the American psyche, and many have become collectively caught in the archetypal wake. Whether you plan to vote for Donald Trump or not in November, seeking a depth psychological perspective will help you begin to understand your own unconscious leanings and those of our culture at large.
Steven Buser, M.D. trained in medicine at Duke University and served 12 years as a physician in the US Air Force. He is a graduate of a two-year Clinical Training Program at the CG Jung Institute of Chicago and is the co-founder of the Asheville Jung Center. In addition to a busy psychiatric private practice, he serves as Publisher of Chiron Publications.
Watch the video interview with Steve Buser and Bonnie Bright here