From Bill Maher to Sigmund Freud: A Very Unfunny Look at the Enduring Politics of Hate
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.
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.Freud’s response was less than sanguine. “All my life,” he told a League of Nation’s official about Einstein’s effort to reach out to him, “I have had to tell people truths that were difficult to swallow. Now that I am old [he died in 1939 at age 83], I certainly do not want to fool them.” Still, he promised to answer Einstein’s query.
In September, he penned a lengthy and wide-ranging reply. “Conflicts of interest between man and man,” he explained, “are resolved, in principle, by the recourse to violence.” After summarizing his dark view of the instincts, he added, “The upshot of these observations … is that there is no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity’s aggressive tendencies. … It is all too clear that the nationalistic ideas, paramount today in every country, operate in quite a contrary direction.”
But all was not lost, Freud cautioned. Although war and aggression could never be completely eliminated, mitigating measures could be taken, emphasizing reason, culture, empathy and community. “From our ‘mythology’ of the instincts,” he wrote, “we may easily deduce a formula for an indirect method of eliminating war. If the propensity for war be due to the destructive instinct, we have always its counter-agent, Eros, to our hand. All that produces ties of sentiment between man and man must serve us as war’s antidote. … All that brings out the significant resemblances between men calls into play this feeling of community, identification, whereon is founded, in large measure, the whole edifice of human society.”
Becoming more concrete, Freud cited the “satisfaction of material needs and enforcing the equality between man and man” as additional components of tempering aggression—goals, he added, the Bolsheviks had pursued in vain. He also endorsed the League of Nations as an international arbiter of justice.
The exchange between Einstein and Freud was published in pamphlet form in 1933. The rise of Hitler, however, limited the press run to 2,000 copies, causing the correspondence to fall into obscurity.
There are at three basic takeaways to be drawn from the correspondence to burnish our efforts to combat and counter Trumpism:
First, to return to Maher, there is a pressing need to appreciate the full gravity of the hatred Trump represents. Attitudes of hate among Trump’s base cannot be assessed simply as a regrettable but rational response to the depredations of Wall Street and globalization, as Elizabeth Warren and even Bernie Sanders have argued. They are decidedly more than that.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), in the spring issue of its quarterly Intelligence Report, warns that “After half a century of being increasingly relegated to the margins of society, the radical right entered the political mainstream last year in a way that had seemed virtually unimaginable since George Wallace ran for president in 1968.”
The SPLC estimates there were at least 917 hate organizations active throughout the U.S. in 2016, to go along with another 623 extreme anti-government groups. They are but the most obvious manifestation of a much larger phenomenon.
Second, while progressives may never convert the KKK, skinheads, the Oath Keepers and other entrenched extremists, larger segments of Trump’s base can be reached, and turned around. The lies behind Trump’s faux populism can be exposed—and in this essential enterprise, facts, faithfully and accurately presented, still matter.
The hate Trump has directed against immigrants, constitutional rights and egalitarian values can be turned against him through clear expositions of his hypocrisies, conflicts of interest and his obscene quest to gut the social safety net for the purpose of enriching himself, his family and his cronies. Although the progress made on this front has been uneven, elements of both the mainstream and alternative media—from The New York Times and the Washington Post to The Intercept and Truthdig—have accomplished a good deal, publishing articles and analyses that have helped to arouse and fortify resistance movements the across the country. Those efforts must redouble.
Finally, and most important of all, in the spirit of Freud’s Eros, the left will have to fashion and promote a positive, life-affirming vision of the future to rival and displace the death instinct behind Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra.
Every major movement of social and political transformation, in addition to championing specific short-term reforms, has been animated by higher principles promising both solidarity and liberation. The American Revolution was moved by the demand for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The French version was driven by the ideals of “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” The civil rights movement was propelled by Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” of racial harmony and justice. Even Obama’s 2008 presidential run was keyed by a single word of inspiration: “Hope.”
What, then, in this critical hour is our shared vision of the future? I don’t pretend to have the answers, except to say that in the broadest terms it will be communitarian, diverse, inclusive, respectful of democratic institutions and the environment, and welcoming toward individual freedoms. It will not, if it is to succeed, call for a restoration of the hierarchical neoliberalism of the recent past. Try as Hillary Clinton might to convince us that she, too, is part of the resistance and perhaps worthy of another bid for high office, she isn’t. Period. Full stop.
In the meantime, Donald Trump remains the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. We remain mired in the politics of hate. And that, as Bill Maher has already told us, is anything but funny.