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From Bill Maher to Sigmund Freud: A Very Unfunny Look at the Enduring Politics of Hate

Posted on May 8, 2017

By Bill Blum

  A Donald Trump opponent in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

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I don’t always agree with Bill Maher (witness his views on Islam and the death penalty), but the comedian was at his best on the April 28 installment of “Real Time,” his Friday night HBO talk show. In both his opening interview with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and his closing “New Rules” monologue, Maher admonished liberals to stop trying to win over Trump voters, especially his white working-class backers, with facts.

“You’re wasting your breath,” Maher quipped. “Trump supporters aren’t changing their minds because the problem isn’t in the mind. It’s lower. It’s emotional. He could have Ann Frank’s skeleton in his closet. They’d all vote for him again.”

True to Maher’s observations, notwithstanding Trump’s buffoonish ineptitude on the job and the many ways he has already undermined the objective interests of his working-class supporters—appointing a cabinet stocked with right-wing billionaires and zealots committed to destroying public education and environmental protections; promoting a tax plan that is a shameful giveaway to the wealthy; pushing an Obamacare replacement bill that will strip millions of health insurance; backing proposed legislation that will end overtime pay, to cite just four initiatives—the president’s GOP base hasn’t deserted him. To the contrary, despite an overall approval rating that hovers at historic lows just above 40 percent, only 2 percent of those who voted for Trump in November say they now regret doing so, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll released on April 23.


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If anything, in focusing on emotions, Maher touched only the surface of a complex and critically important dynamic that to date has left activists and pundits flummoxed, stunned and appalled. The question thus arises: If the key to understanding Trump’s core support lies in grasping its emotional underpinnings, what kind of emotions or attitudes are at work?

Is the thrust of Trump’s allure based on racism? Is it a derivative of misogyny? Is it related to the fear of changing demographics, and the frustrations and anger engendered by the economic losses inflicted by globalization and neoliberalism?

Clearly, all of these attitudes are very much in play across the land. I’ve written before in this column of the widespread appeal on the right of “racial and gender-based nostalgia’”—the longing for a mythologized past that harkens back to the pre-civil rights era following World War II.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan masterfully channeled this mythology. At the heart of Trump’s presidential run was a hyper-nationalist vision of America drawn from distorted allusions to the wisdom of the founding fathers, the infantile narcissism and individualism of Ayn Rand and, on a more mundane level, patriarchal 1950s sitcoms like “Father Knows Best.” In the vision, America prevails über alles internationally, while white Christian men hold all positions of authority at home, and women and racial minorities happily accept their second-class citizenship.

But in the wake of Trump’s first three months in office and prompted by Maher’s musings, I’ve come to think there’s something far deeper going on at an emotional level among Trump voters.

What is that something? Bluntly put, it’s this: Trump’s base has given him unwavering support because he professes to hate the same people, institutions and values they hate.

I’m talking about hatred of immigrants and Muslims (the all-purpose sociological “others,” who can be easily scapegoated as the source of our collective miseries); distrust of the press and the “fake” media; rejection of science and the disquieting truths it pursues; distain for judges and the rule of law, and the repudiation of civil rights. Many Trump voters also loathe the super-rich, having been flimflammed into believing Trump, one of the gaudiest and most predacious men on the planet, isn’t part and parcel of the despised global elite.

Hate is central to Trump’s power, and for good reason: Hate is a primal passion. Hate is part of our inherent makeup. We’re hard-wired for it and can never entirely free ourselves from its grip.

No one understood this better than the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, as elaborated especially in his later texts—and I apologize for simplifying an extraordinarily intricate body of work and bypassing the contributions of later analysts who amended and critiqued Freud’s ideas—human beings are driven by two basic instincts: the life impulse (Eros, from the Greek god of love) and its opposite, the death impulse (dubbed by later disciples, though not by Freud himself, as Thanatos, the winged Greek demon of death).

Eros in this conception is directed at self-preservation and the quest to prolong life, both individually and socially. It embraces not only sexual gratification, but also life-affirming impulses and behaviors associated with communal engagement, harmony, collaboration and cooperation.

Hate is an expression of Thanatos, as are the impulses to destruction, sadism and masochism, envy, fear, violence, and above all, war. Freud’s genius was his recognition that the life and death instincts don’t exist in isolation. Rather, they overlap and interpenetrate, forming an inseparable duality, forever clashing and vying for dominance.

Freud laid out his instinct theory most concisely in a relatively unknown and underappreciated batch of letters exchanged with Albert Einstein in 1931-32. Although the correspondence between the great thinkers took place in the brutal aftermath of the First World War and during the uneasy quiet before World War II, it remains vitally relevant to Trump’s America.

Einstein and Freud met only once in person in 1927 and didn’t have further contact until 1931, when the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation, an advisory group to the League of Nations, invited Einstein to undertake a cross-disciplinary dialogue on war and peace with a scholar of his choosing.

Einstein selected Freud, to whom he wrote in April, 1931. He asked Freud to reflect on the “evils of war” in light of his theory of “how inseparably the aggressive and destructive instincts are bound up in the human psyche with those of love and the lust for life.” In a subsequent letter written in July, 1932, he asked directly if there was “any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war” once and for all, and if hate could ever be erased from society.

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