Blog, Politics, Psychology

On The Psychopathology of Arguments

Originally published November 16, 2015 on the Huffington Post

One of the prime lessons of psychoanalytic thinking is that there are extremely strong and persistent parallels between people’s inner and outer worlds or lives. The particular issues with which a person is struggling in the “external world” (e.g., loss of a job or spouse), and especially the distinct ways in which he or she is attempting to deal with them (drinking, taking drugs versus reaching out and getting help), are strongly related to the primary issues with which one is struggling in one’s “internal world” (chronic low self-esteem, difficulties in forming close relationships, controlling anger). In short, the inner and the outer are not just bare reflections of one another. They interact so strongly that they are important determinants of one another.

Although there is little doubt that PTSD is often the direct effect horrific disasters, this does not mean that the inner necessarily causes the outer, or vice versa. Rather, the inner influences strongly how one deals with the outer. In certain cases, one’s inner states of mind directly affect what happens in the outer world such as causing or being involved in serious accidents.

Because so much is riding on the outcome, the arguments of the Presidential candidates are important to analyze from a psychoanalytic perspective. Most people naturally accept that arguments are anything but “purely objective, true or false statements about the state of the world.” Instead, arguments are in fact one of the best windows into the minds of their proponents and followers. If as Freud said that dreams are “the royal road into the unconscious,” then arguments are “the royal road into the anxieties, fears, and threats” of their advocates.

While many of the candidates’ arguments pander directly to the tremendous anxieties, fears, and threats of their respective bases, at the same time, they also reflect the tremendous anxieties, fears, and threats of the candidates themselves. While the candidates are the public persona of the deep-seated anxieties, etc. of their constituencies, the candidates do more than merely articulate such fears. They amplify as much as they give voice to them. For this reason alone, it behooves us to examine some of the major pronouncements of two of the front running Republican candidates.

Consider one of Trump’s major “outbursts”–I cannot dignify it by calling it a “argument”–namely that he wants to build a wall thousands of miles along, which he will of course force Mexico to pay, that will keep “all criminals and undesirables out!” Why it’s in Mexico’s self interest to pay for such a wall is beside the point. Indeed, it’s obviously intended to punish them for allowing so many criminals to “infect us.” Oh I get it: if they don’t go along, then we’ll cut off trade with them, as though that would hurt them more than us!

In short, one needs to build a wall so strong, so long, and so high that it will keep all underlying anxieties, fears, and threats regarding “them” at bay. Without such a fortress for protection, one cannot contain and thus manage one’s deepest fears. Forget about the near financial and physical impossibility of building and maintaining such a monstrosity and focus on the fact that fortresses appeal to the most fragile and primitive recesses of our minds. Forget as well that it’s virtually impossible to keep out those who are literally willing to die in undertaking long and perilous journeys in the hope of better lives. No forget all of this and focus instead that fortresses offer the illusion of complete and perfect protection–they thus revert back to childhood feelings of omnipotence–from a exceedingly dangerous and hostile world. The fact that so many share such fears and will do almost anything to get rid of them is cause for great alarm.

Take another of Trump’s repeated assertions, namely that he will “be so good at anything he does that you won’t believe it.” For all his outward blustering, bullying, and blatant narcissism, one can only imagine the terror a person suffers from if deep down he or she feels that that one is really not “up to the job,” especially the most important one in the world which of course is particularly appealing to a supreme narcissist. No wonder one continually has to shore up one’s low self-esteem by means of the most pathetic outbursts. It’s not that narcissists are too much in love with themselves, but rather, it’s exactly the opposite. They don’t love themselves enough.

What’s truly frightening is that in times of great danger people are most at risk of buying into the ramblings of those who promise that they and they alone can protect us.

There is no question that outwardly Dr. Ben Carson is immensely likeable. Unlike Trump, he is neither brash nor harsh. But this is precisely why I find him the scarier of the two. Once one considers some of his assertions, another much more problematic side emerges. It’s akin to Fascism with a friendly face.

Dr. Carson takes great pride in the fact that he is not schooled in the basics, let alone nuances, of domestic or international politics. If we wouldn’t for one moment dare to let someone operate on our brains who didn’t have years of advanced medical training, why would we then let someone apply for arguably the most important job in the world who prides himself in not knowing much, let alone in caring, about the intricacies of government? What indeed are his qualifications for “operating on the body politic?”

No less troubling is Dr. Carson’s repeated assertion that gun control prevented the Jews from standing up to the Nazis. Really, what good are all the guns in the world against planes and tanks? Further, he lied outright when he said that he was not deeply involved in the promotion of a harmful dietary product. For another, even after bitter pushback by both black and white women, he still refuses steadfastly to withdraw his comparison of abortion to slavery. And, his latest assertion that the Chinese are in Syria is just bizarre.

What’s especially disturbing is that outright distortions and lies have no bearing whatsoever on those who are drawn to Mr. Trump and Dr. Carson. The more distortions and lies, the more their followers like them. For instance, the fact that Trump’s campaign is not completely self-financed has not caused him in the slightest to retract his repeated assertion that it is. Nor do his supporters seem to care.

Virtually all of the Republican candidates and their followers have chosen, unconsciously of course, to live in a world of utter fantasy. Another of the prime characteristics of living in times of great stress is that underlying fears and anxieties that have not been dealt with adequately before rise to the surface and take over people’s reasoning and good sense. Thus, enormous anxieties and fears having to do with: (a) unresolved racial and ethnic differences, (b) the fact that older white men in particular are no longer in complete control of the U.S. and the world, (c) a world that is so complex that no one can fully explain, let alone control it, (d) the ever-present danger of terrorism, and (f) the seemingly loss of power and influence of the U.S. in world affairs–all of these and more are sufficient to drive sizeable numbers of people into the most bizarre fantasies. Gaining control by whatever means of an uncertain, dangerous, and precarious world becomes paramount. And understandably, the anger is immense towards those that they feel have betrayed them through the abuse of power.

For these reasons, I cannot emphasize enough that when people are strained to their limit, they revert to the most primitive, earliest stages of human development. That is to be expected. Nonetheless, the extent to which the Republican candidates and voters have regressed to primitive thinking is absolutely scary. It’s nothing less than mind-boggling.

One does not overcome basic anxieties and fears by facts and logic alone. If anything, cold facts and logic only drive people deeper into fantasies. One requires calm, soothing voices that can address deep underlying anxieties, fears, and fantasies not by naming them directly, but by telling stories that provide reassurance. But this requires candidates that are strong enough to face reality in the first place, and then to fashion stories that make unpleasant truths palatable. True leadership is telling people what they can’t bear to hear. Sadly, I see no evidence of this whatsoever in the current crop of Republican candidates.