Updated: Mar 21, 2019
First published July 21, 2016
Unconscious. It’s a bad word. We use it to talk about people who walk around blindly, without a thought in their heads, people who aren’t motivated by logic.
Who cares about the unconscious anyway?
We all should care. It matters because we’re in the middle of a heated, and very strange election season, and the traditional, original meaning of the unconscious is popping up all around us. But, because we don’t have the language to describe it, we are completely blind to its existence, like a color in the infrared spectrum, it’s there affecting things- but we can’t detect it with our eyes, so we have no insight into what is happening.
The meaning of the noun unconscious, as offered by psychoanalyst Carl Jung, is something more like “under conscious”. Its difference is a matter of scope, power, and influence. The conscious mind has the executive power of laser focus. It can see things rationally, balance pros and cons, and complete cost-benefit analyses of what the whole individual needs… it is “the executive self”. In contrast, the personal unconscious is the psychological landscape made up of all of the individual’s fears, feelings, unarticulated emotions, love, devotion, desires, memories, and primal feelings that motivate the person under the surface of the conscious mind, the “primal self”.
If you think of it in geographical terms, the primal self, or unconscious is the size of say, Texas… and the executive self has a boundary, more like Austin. The personal unconscious is vast, because it holds the first memories that occur before language, the feelings that cannot be articulated. The personal unconscious has an inner border with the executive self, but it has no outer boundary. The unconscious has the capacity to expand towards infinity, while the conscious mind has a clearly defined boundary that allows it focus on just a few things at a time.
This matters in our election season.
Why do many Republicans say that Obama is the worst president we’ve ever had? They aren’t responding to his failures or accomplishments. They are responding to a feeling. Why are so many voters who formerly voted with evangelical Christians flocking to Donald Trump as a candidate? Feelings.
For the last hundred plus years as a culture we have put feelings in a corner. We have told people that logic matters, pretending that we can control the unconscious. To return to the geographical metaphor, we prefer to believe that the sensibilities of Austin are running all of Texas (if you’ve ever been to Austin you’ll know that’s not true!). We have elevated logic, and denied fear as a meaningful way of addressing the public’s needs. As a culture we have asked people to follow instructions that told them to put their feelings aside… to banish their feelings to the borderlands of the unconscious. Send those feelings out to the prairie, the unconscious doesn’t deal in logic; it operates on feeling.
The anger that we are seeing in the voters supporting Donald Trump isn’t new. This is an old anger, one that has been built over decades of political correctness- the idea that the feelings and fears of the middle and working classes have had over race, social inequality, education, taxes, religion, and change in general. Over the years, our culture dictated that these topics shouldn’t be discussed in polite society- it wasn’t “politically correct” to discuss race, welfare, or the structural inequalities that exist, so they weren’t discussed.
The members of the working and middle classes listened, (some of them) for a while, trying to see if their silence would bear fruit. Before long, political interventions and dog whistle politics took over as will happen with the unconscious, it will find a way to work its will in the world. And still, these working class people have seen the dismantling of their ideals and their disconnection from the structures of society: gay marriage, gender equality, religious plurality, and multiculturalism, all marching forward untempered against “traditional American values”.
The people I am talking about are marginalized, white voters. Their parents had factory jobs and pensions. These are folks who found honor in honest labor and work done by breaking your back for the good of your community. They like things to be simple, i.e. black and white. And what they have seen is that nothing that they believe in seems to matter anymore. They have pushed their fears into the corner for thirty years and are tired of being told what to believe, and what is good for them.
The reason they follow Trump is because he has resonance with their collective unconscious. He sees what the demons are, and he calls them by name, like Harry Potter using Voldemort’s name. The people who support Trump love his unbridled, flagrant prose, because it gives them permission to liberate the demons from their own personal unconscious. They can say, “I’m angry, I’m afraid, why hasn’t anyone seen that my way of life has been turned upside down?”
It is difficult to discuss white privilege with white people who have experienced very little tangible privilege in their lives. They have worked hard, and been talked down to for being red necks, working class, uneducated, or bigoted. They don’t see any privilege in their lives, despite its presence. They feel ostracized from society, in a culture that they also think should belong uniquely to them because they are the descendants (even if only philosophically) of the farmer class of original patriots who settled this country and broke free from British rule.
If we want to understand the appeal of Trump, we must first understand the unconscious, both personal and collective of the people who are supporting him. He has hit a nerve. He resonates in their truth. The truth that he resonates is fear, and he brings the solution by fulfilling an archetype, the strongman.
Archetypes are interesting things. They are eternal patterns that emerge in the collective unconscious, all cultures have these patterns, and many archetypal patterns overlap across cultures. Donald Trump’s success in this election season is a perfect alignment of his rhetoric resonating with the fears of the people who support him, and his embodiment of a desired archetype.
The people who support Donald Trump have an image in their collective unconscious of the strong, successful capitalist. To them, this is the ideal father for the modern United States. This person understands their fears, understands their heritage, and isn’t afraid to stand up to terrorists or pick a fight to get his point across. They don’t care that he’s not a statesman. They see the image aligning with the archetype, it fits‑‑‑ hits that note of resonance, and they’re off to the races. Logic, follow-through, these don’t enter the fray, because they aren’t the realm of the problem.
You can’t reason with the unconscious, unless you are intending to do so… and even then it is very difficult.
The unconscious, whether personal or collective responds to feeling, spectacle, art, emotion… it is moved by those things that are not logical. The executive self is driven by logic, by words, narrative. But the executive self can’t grasp the sublime, that’s the primal self… the one ruled by the unconscious. Trying to change the unconscious through logic is like trying to write a twenty page academic paper on love, and expecting to stir in the heart of the reader the same feelings as the lover. No, only art can do that, only actual love can do that- in some primal form.
If we want to address the fear at the heart of our social problems we can’t do so with logic, we must address it with feeling. The people of this country are afraid, and the people supporting Donald Trump are afraid AND angry. They aren’t stupid, and they aren’t blindly getting behind a buffoon. Trump is tapped into their fear. He validates it, and has a response to it.
Trump empowers these voters by telling them that they aren’t crazy, that what they feel has merit, and that he is the one to make their America the one that is in charge again. They don’t care that the vision will set the country back fifty or a hundred years. These angry voters feel disenfranchised, and they don’t like it. They’ve tried to get behind religion to express their preferences and it hasn’t worked- so now they’re going with anger.
To understand how to win against that, you must first understand it- the enemy isn’t ignorance or hatred, it’s marginalization and fear. Bringing Austin to Texas will be a challenge, but every Texan would pick up his rifle and fight for his capital. You don’t inspire that with threats, or more fear. You do it by appealing to their love of the Longhorns, good barbecue, the Texas flag that flies over the state building, and the pride over the weirdest place in Texas… you go to the feelings, love, pride, compassion- that will defeat fear in the end every time. Happy endings usually win, people can only survive on a diet of hatred for short periods of time.
Living in the unconscious doesn’t last very long without psychopathology taking over. So we have to ask ourselves how do we listen to the real, genuine fears of these voters? Education is not an option, that is the realm of the executive self, and we’re not in Austin, we’re at the borderlands. We need some new tools, a new archetype, one that carries with it the compassionate understanding of fear of change, but doesn’t tolerate hatred and bigotry. We need an archetype that is bigger than the bully… and we need it now.