I had a dream last night, perhaps occasioned by the upcoming meeting between Prime Minister (at least for now) Netanyahu and President Trump. Even Netanyahu’s most vehement detractors have never construed him as exceeding the limits of political discourse. They may critique arch-manipulations and spins, but these are political problems for which political solutions are suitable.
I fear it is not so with President Trump. In my dream I had the sudden insight that Trump’s election and presidency-so far-have little to do with political discourse. The proper realm for investigation is religion.
In my dream I tried to talk myself out of this insight. After all, he was elected with some fancy bending of political rules, and now he is implementing his own political vision.
But, I argued with myself, what political vision are we talking about? I had spent a lot of time on Foucault’s work in preparing my recent discussion of the place of pyschiatry in Western political discourse, Losing It. Clearly Trump is no reversion to a pastoral mode, like the Emperors who felt responsible for the salvation of their people. Trump speaks forcefully against a great number of his citizens. Well, maybe this is just a completely transparent “Westphalian” president, who openly uses his citizens to keep the economic and military balance with neighboring states? Westphalian presidents come to office with a plan, perhaps distasteful to many, but a plan. For example, a plan to educate the population to contribute to economic and military strength. DeVos? Nope. Or a plan to strengthen the military- again, no plan in sight.
So, I argued with myself, the internet that is critical of Trump tends to use outlier political terms, like “Dictator” or outlier mental terms like “Narcissist” or just “Mad.” Neither of these discourses add very much. Dictators come with a plan, they are cunning from the beginning, usually they do not openly announce plans like the Mexican Wall before they have established power. Even Hitler did not announce or even finalize his most destructive plans in the first 100 days. Hitler used terror against his own people to make them frightened. Trump has no such organization and who on earth is afraid of him? Well, then, mad? That happens to be my field, and I do not think any diagnosis of a human being who does come to you for help is in order. In a helping relationship you get to understand a person, including the tragic man of narcissism. Trump is asking for help from someone? Aside from insulting our patients, what do we get by lumping him with suffering souls trying to heal?
So, I started to get more together with myself, practically everyone needs some non-political kind of discourse to discuss Trumpism. So maybe we are not in a political discourse. Political discourse involves, as Hanna Arendt taught, plurality. It has to do with how one thinks and acts towards large groups of diverse people. Plurality is very distant from what concerns the public Trump.
So, I thought with a start, let us try to examine Trumpism from the point of view of religious discourse. After all, the campaign ignited a great deal of religious fervor for a figure whose sins are in exorbitant and public excess of his merits according to any modern relgious standard. But maybe, let’s just say, well, perhaps he sees himself as a god? Not God, but a god, you know the way later Roman Emperors saw themselves after the West got over the shock of Persian deification of the ruler and began to see its merits.
Come on now, I guffawed at myself. You took your ancient history concentration half a century ago in college too seriously. A god?
But I admit I could not just drop it. A god acts capriciously and answers to no one. A god never has any need for a rational plan. Rationalty does not appeal to a god. A god is inconsistent. A god looks for attention and strikes his critics with lightning (tweets). Above all, a god needs to be worshipped. A god immediately declares holidays in his honor. A god competes with any other deities in the neighborhood but worships any stronger god. A god determines the facts. A god proves his sexual prowess endlessly but has no profound respect or even love for women. A god uses anyone he pleases. A god does not answer to any human law (say, a constitution or court).
Whoa, I thought, this list is getting out of hand. It is one-to-one since January 20th, but this simply cannot be true! America has brought upon itself not a president but a god? Has weakened monotheism opened the USA to a polytheistic solution for a craving for closeness with divinity?
I decided I had better wake up, because this line of thinking leads to the frightening conclusion that political tools may not be able to cope with a fundamentally religious phenomenon.
And for once, I thought, I prefer Netanyahu any day. The worst politician trumps a god any day. But their meeting sure should be instructive.