Published on http://www.counterpunch.org
“The reptilian brain always wins in the marketplace.”
— Clotaire Rapaille
What do we now see as the expressions of this reptilian brain?
+ Illusions of individual autonomy: self-empowerment, controlling agency subduing the play of chance;
+ A resulting demand that one assume personal responsibility for winning and losing and for reckless and illegal actions, such as entering the U.S. illegally;
+ Personal striving for success in a competitive arena where for you to win, someone has to lose, loss that should not nullified by governmental assistance;
+ Antipathy to any governmental or societal intrusion in personal life and business;
+ A sense of society reduced to selected social media friends, and thus a privatization of the social;
+ Disdain of leaning on others for one’s own well-being;
+ A concomitant disdain for those who expect others will support them;
+ Preference for and a privileging of one’s own opinions as an expression of a freedom to choose we grant ourselves;
+ Suspicion regarding any claims of authority regarding what is true and what is real;
+ Deep rooted incomprehension as to why differences from one’s own identity matter and should be welcomed as somehow related to one’s own pursuit of life, liberty and happiness;
+ Drawn to a gut response rather than a considered, documented one;
+ Readiness to collapse the complications of politics, economics and the environment into a conspiracy drama with villains and heroes;
+ A view that the poor are either criminal or lazy or both while the careers of the wealthy are models to be emulated;
+ All things American “crush” all things foreign, which by virtue of being foreign are un-American;
+ A growing antipathy to the weak concessions and unwanted allowances of democracy and a growing respect for the forceful purpose of strong leadership;
+ A growing fearfulness on the edge of paranoia sparking a blind anger in search of justification.
Every part of this profile of the American mass psyche is personally recognized and represented, confirmed and actualized by President Donald J. Trump. In short, he is a pure product of that psyche.
Trump doesn’t pretend that winning isn’t the only thing or that government exists to help those losing or lost, or that winning isn’t an accomplishment of a personal will to win, or that inter-dependence is a better thing that independence, that what is foreign in any way should be elevated as something other than just being foreign.
The Republican Party has pitched its tent in this camp long before Trump came along. He differs only in that, like an unleashed figure from the primal Id, he openly declares what Republicans masked or camouflaged. They have done so to allow Americans room for more compatible Judaic-Christian and humanitarian affirmations. Apparently, we all love our neighbors as ourselves, beg them to “just lean on me,” expect the poor to inherit the earth, expect everybody to get together. And so on. American exceptionalism has needed a great deal of Pecksniffian pronouncements, something other than economic and military superiority. It has needed a mythos of an historical fight for democratic freedom, of emancipation and enfranchisement of the oppressed everywhere, of noble hearts and minds leading the human race toward a luminous future.
And so on.
Trump is now showing us that all of that can be laid aside, in fact, mocked and laughed at, and there are no dire consequences. The sky’s not falling, Henny Penny. And, anyway, who is now left to establish and execute those consequences?
A great part of that postmodern attitude and mindset I have been writing about for decades had already shown us that the Emperor was clothed in more holes than cloth. Donald J. Trump screamed out “But the Emperor has no clothes!” What Emperors of authority there were, whether of the legacy press, the U.S. intelligence community, political parties, our dictionaries and encyclopedias of meaning and understanding, the empirical/rational search for truth, the historical register, fact as opposed to fiction, reality as opposed to narrative — all this has tumbled or is in some stage of tumbling.
And there is no — as corporate America loves to express it — accountability.
This is an amusing word employed in a society in which vast sums of money is made unaccountably, or, if you will, accountable only to the Goddess Fortuna turning the roulette wheel in Vegas and on Wall Street. A middle class that bulwarked a democracy always threatened by its own plutocratic-making economic system has unaccountably vanished. A permanent Underclass has unaccountably appeared. Perhaps that middle class democracy was not such a big deal in the eyes of every community it marginalized. But one asks the question as to whether or not the present plutocracy serves the marginalized any better? You can observe that in South Africa resolving the conditions of apartheid have not resolved the issue of a wealth divide which marginalizes most cruelly.
The collapse of a respectable degree of egalitarianism achieved because wage earners had a share of capital has turned out to be a traumatic, tragic event. Failures to start a business or get into the arena and compete are not reasons but propaganda. What has established such conditions as the determinants of success, nay, survival, in a society begun with egalitarian democratic intentions?
You need a judge, or some form of authority, to determine where accountability lies.
In the age of magic, every expression of Nature could account for every occurrence, from a toothache to death or survival. In an age of belief, the view expressed in Proverbs that one “trust in the Lord with all your heart” counsels not to “lean on your own understanding.” That leaning began with the Enlightenment, which located your understanding in a reasoning universally shared. And although our reasoning has stepped back from establishing universal and absolute truth, it yet remains fixed on the incremental progress of empirical, verifiable evidence leading to shared notions of truth.
That such progress itself emerges from changeable cultural narratives had already weakened the path to a common grasp of truth and reality before Donald Trump appeared.
He has, like a clever salesman who gets one foot in the door and sizes up his customer instantly, sized up an electorate distancing itself from shared truths and falling back on their own personal determinations. Who is accountable and for what had become a matter of personal judgment. All that was needed was for you to grandstand your person, or, find a surrogate, a presence that reflected your views and could do so in a celebrity way, your life but scaled so much larger.
Whatever fears of authority, which would hold you accountable for expressing that entire attitude bullet pointed above have been steadily dissolving since Trump the campaigner kneecapped his challengers with barroom tactics and no one, showed up to slap his wrist. That he could go as low as the boys in the backroom or the locker room and not be stopped was not only instructive but also winning.
His behavior then and continuing now remains a shout out to everyone who wanted to puncture the hot air balloon of politics and who sought retaliation for blows struck against them. How the imagined blows were identified varied, from abortion advocates to job taking immigrants to the Liberals giveaways and muzzling policies of political correctness, the venalities of Hillary and the “uppityness” of Obama, to the downsizing of American superior identity.
Trump tweeted what the blows to the disaffected and angry were. He also tweeted who was delivering them.
If his worldview expressed in day and night broadsides of tweets were mere sound and fury, as his critics repeatedly charge, why then has not a terminating deconstruction emerged, one that would detach his supporters from his side?
Once again, if the ground had not already been prepared for the situation we now find ourselves in, namely, that all truths are narratives, all narratives can be countered, all countering is left to our own personal construction, we would have reached a consensus after the first Republican primary debate. The legacy press would have offered critiques that would have ended Trump’s ambitions. Or, during the debate itself, his challengers would have exposed Trump’s presumptuous buffoonery in a decisive fashion.
None of that occurred.
The Emperor of determination and accountability had already left the stage of American politics. Anything proclaimed loudly enough and often enough and broadcast instantaneously to everyone by someone who fit the bill of what fame and fortune looks like could not be stopped from winning votes in the post-truth America.
The problem Democrats will have in November has a twofold dimension within the exposition I am presenting.
First of all, I believe that the litany of American mass psyche aspects mentioned in the first paragraph have a subliminal force emerging from forbidden thoughts and desires not representable but more powerfully determining than sops and alibis our journey from the abyss has taught us to make. In politics as well as the marketplace, the reptilian brain always wins. It is where our ruling passions, mostly low and dark, lie.
That President Trump has been able to represent that which previously could not be represented in rational, sane society and continues to do so gives a kind of legitimacy to, in a tweak of Lincoln’s phrase, the worst devils in our human nature.
I do not know if Trump is a producer or a product of the descent into an authoritarian politics we see emerging all over, from Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Austria, and most recently in Matteo Salvini’s Northern League. So-called nationalist People’s parties are popping up all over, the populist dimension that we see in Trump, repeated elsewhere.
What all these People’s parties have in common is a release, rather like the fall of the Bastille, of hatreds and animosities, fantasies of offense and offenders, a turn toward nationalistic pride and cultural identity preservation and disgust for a cultural politics of difference and global recognition and inclusion of such.
Liberals do not tap into the wellsprings of this American mass psyche I portray.
Theirs is a politics of rising above this abyss of dark affinities and dark imaginaries. They cannot, however, rely now on any commonly held apprehension of what is high and what is low, of when we are rising and when we are falling. Michelle Obama urges us to go high when they go low but the psychic truth is that the reptile brain always wins. We go so easily low in the dark recesses of our cultural imaginary because we have not risen to any height since the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964.
The Democratic Party discourse in the late 20th century amounts to a kind of quiet détente relationship with capitalism up until Bernie Sanders reached the national stage and urged, along with Elizabeth Warren, most notably, that a plutocracy making economics be forcefully challenged. For the last few decades, however, Liberals have centered a loud, repetitive politics of inclusion of all stripes of difference and marginality.
Confronted with the disposition of the American mass psyche, it does not much matter what Democrats decide to emphasize, race or economics.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez believes she won her primary because she combines a concern for race and economics, the two inextricably tied. Everything, not just race, however, remains inextricably tied to economics. But in the mass psyche of Americans, economics is not a bubbling confrontation of socialist and capitalist views. Economics is already sewed up in that psychomachia, that reptilian, psychic drama, as an endless, necessary competition in which everyone has a chance to win if their will is strong enough.
In short then, whether or not Democrats campaign a la Bernie Sanders in November does not much matter because no aspect of the economics of plutocracy, from the drastic wealth divide to the erosion of any safety net, is a concern in the drama that rules the American mind.
If the Democratic Party manages to contain Sanders’ “Let Americans accept Democratic Socialism” push, then they face not simply disregard and disinterest, “So what” and “Whatever” but real anger. For it may very well be that our lip service to “love thy neighbor as thyself” translates on the pre-reflective, gut grasp level as “beware of your neighbor, especially if he or she is different, or different than either he or she.” Why give to those you choose to ignore or disdain an equal share of anything?
Yeats may write that there are not strangers here, only friends we have not yet met but on our deep psyche level, the stranger is unknown, and the unknown is what is different from the identity we are framed within. And if that identity has no reason to question itself because there is no authority that can be recognized as outside it and superior to it, then difference in all its forms has no attracting power. Neither in our personal lives nor in politics.
Thus, the Liberal call to personally and politically expand toward what is different, foreign to us, perhaps inconceivable and never represented in our own lives, is no longer obediently and patiently accepted but objected to. It angers. What would we be obedient to beyond our own personal opinions? Why patiently accept all manner of difference that may distort, diminish, and corrupt the cultural identity we prefer?
Whether or not our deep passions are more in line with Hobbes than Rousseau is a question that holds our nature as abidingly natural either way rather than constructed and narrated within a cultural time and place.
The bullet points above of the American mass psyche in the time of Trump is a product of conditions, begun with the economic and extending to the philosophical and the psychological, which, once responsive to Obama are now shaped by Trump.
If you look at the historical line, you see that Reagan brought to the fore a view that the contentment of a middle class democracy did not increase profits half as well as a rule by wealth and power.
Liberal response to that never brought that momentum to a halt, and, in the case of President Clinton, tied itself to that momentum and so sent the opposition of labor and capital into a hazy confusion.
President Obama’s eight years did more to create the dark vengefulness of the American mass psyche, racism visible, than slow down the momentum of plutocracy building. For the sake of some 80% of the population, that erosion of a middle class democracy, that unrelenting momentum of profit not people, left them without a representing party.
It left them open to the entrance of a man who lived in the dark corridors of mind their anger and frustration had led them to, a dark, avenging presence who quite clearly can do nothing more than lead the populace reached by populism all into further darkness.
Whether or not an electorate in November is ruled by thought and not passion and overwhelms an electorate arrayed reversely has much to do with Liberal’s recognition of how dark the place is that the American mass psyche has descended into and how suicidal it is to pretend that Trump isn’t tapping into something real in the very way we now construct the real.
Perhaps most importantly Liberals cannot pretend that a politics mindful of some degree of economic equality finds a welcome home in the same psyche in a war with others. Any form of equality does not fit in this mass psyche that privileges only selfhood.
It may be that the Millennials and Generation-Z shape a new mass psyche but they would have to do that before they need to adapt for economic reasons to the one Trump is a hero within. They would also somehow have to distance themselves from a media of endless and inchoate transmission through which the reptilian brain now finds a freedom of abysmal expression and alliance unleashed and unchecked, as if truly a Pandora’s Box had been opened. In such a situation both the message and the messenger are a winning duo.