Many have commented on the shock of this election. And, many are asking themselves now—how could this have happened?
Psychoanalysis has its own contribution to this political analysis.
Let us look at voting as, for example, the formation of a group, a statement of the way in which one affiliates himself or herself with a group, or the way in which people assimilate into a group.
The Clinton campaign based its strategy on a series of positive identifications. The Democratic party is pro-African-American, pro-Latino, pro-minority, pro-LGBTQ, pro-women, and so forth. In that way, the party situated itself as a series or a group of positive points of identification. And, indeed, identification was, for psychoanalysis and for Freud, in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, itself the logic of group formation. One group, however, did not see its representation in that group of identities gathered together under the Democratic campaign, namely the white, blue-collar families of the upper Midwest who have seen such economic devastation (loss of manufacturing jobs) with the rise of global capitalism over the past 30 years—a group whose departure from the Democratic party to vote Republican was decisive.
And what about the Trump campaign? This campaign formed itself on the basis of an identification as “American”, yet not on a series of positive identifications, but rather on a series of negative attributions, attributions of what one is against, or what one is not. Not a foreigner, not a woman, not the member of a minority group —the various positive attributes that were attacked in one way or another during the campaign. Some voters were drawn to this, not just those that came from traditional Republican groups, but independents and Democrats (especially midwestern blue-collar Democrats) who crossed over and voted for Trump. How might we read this development? I believe that we might find one approach to this in the work of Lacan, from 70 years ago, in his paper on Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty.1
Lacan had something to say about what he termed “collective logic.” He stated that individuals situate themselves within groups not on the basis of positive attributions (for example, “I am X because I have some positive attribution of X”). Rather, individuals assimilate into groups on the basis of what he refers to as a negative attribution (for example, “I know what NOT X is”). The example Lacan gives is the following:
“(1) A man knows what “not a man” is;
(2) Men recognize themselves among themselves as men;
(3) I declare myself to be a man for fear of being convinced by men that I am not a man.” (Lacan, Écrits, page 174).
Out of anxiety, individuals will rush to declare themselves a member of a group for fear of being left out and rejected by the group. I believe that this logic was in play with many Trump voters. It is a time of anxiety and fear among many in the United States, and people felt that they were being left out and jumped on board with Trump partly out of fear and anxiety to situate themselves under the signifier “American.”
The old points of identification based on one’s ethnicity, religion, geography or work seem to be weakening somewhat in the United States. Those old points of identification (or, what we might call semblants today) were never truly permanent, or as permanent as people believe they are. These points of identification are always changing. But, there had been greater stability in them in past, especially during the great pax Americana that reigned from the end of World War 2 through, say, 1980 and the beginning of neo-liberalism. We might think of these identities as like balloons. And if the 60s to a certain extent cut the moorings holding the balloons down, the winds of global capitalism unleashed over the past few decades are pushing them about here and there. A politics which is based on such points of positive identification may not be as powerful today, especially in a time of great anxiety and social change. And, it may be that in an era of change, the collective logic that Lacan identified in 1946 might better describe collective logic today2.
All this said about the logic behind the support for Trump, I would add that the Democratic party was given an opportunity to follow the same collective logic. The campaign of Bernie Sanders was, prior to the general election, perhaps no less a surprise than the Trump primary performance. He was remarkably successful in a way that shocked the Democratic establishment. And he too built his campaign on a negative point of identification. We might say that for Sanders, the Democratic party is a party based on the fact that its members are not the “One Percent.” The conflict or antagonism articulated by Sanders was based on a negative assimilation that “what makes America great” are all those who are not in that rarified economic elite, or those advancing the interests of the One Percent. And, it was this negative logic of assimilation that drew some of those most anxious Americans in the same way that Trump did, but with a very different outcome that might have been realized had Sanders faced Trump.
1 See Eric Laurent, Racism 2. 0, http://ampblog2006.blogspot.fr
2 All this is said quickly, for some identifications, such as race for African-Americans, remain strong and very linked to group formation and voting choices, which I suspect is probably a legacy of the greater and continued racism present at various levels of American society.