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Donald Trump


Trump and the Paranoid-Schizoid Politics of Ideality

  Noëlle McAfee



The phenomenon of Donald Trump’s ascendency to become the 45th President of the United States is surely overdetermined, meaning that there are likely many different causes for this. The one I entertain here is I believe significant, though I do not argue that it is the main or only cause. But it is one we should consider and address. In short, I argue that the rise of Trump is in part due to a paranoid-schizoid politics found both in the personality of Trump himself and in a large-scale regression of many in the populace to a more primitive state of denial, splitting, and demonization, coupled with a syndrome of ideality. In other words, both Trump and his supporters split the world into good and bad (or SAD!!!! as Trump likes to tweet). In his inaugural speech he repeatedly demonized foreign powers and idealized America. His America first policy is textbook paranoid- schizoid: “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.”


The Trump phenomenon shares much with many other nationalist politics on the rise around the world, but mostly an inability to tolerate difference and loss, including loss of a romanticized past or idealized future. Hence our politics today needs something that psychoanalytic theory has tried to offer: an understanding of how to work through trauma, loss, and persecutory phantasies. A politics of working through difficult choices and misrepresentations of others in our midst could help allay the paranoid politics that dominates politics today.


After giving an account of the concept of working through in Freud, Klein, and Kristeva, I turn to the Trump phenomenon and then close with a brief account of a politics of working through.





Freud grappled with the process of working through in his 1914 essay, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through,” and later in his 1926 essay, “Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety.” In the former he gives the first direct account of the process of working through trauma, loss, and remember-less repetition. He found that catharsis and knowledge were insufficient in overcoming neuroses, especially in the case of repeating, the phenomenon where the “patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out. He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it.” In repeating, there is a powerful resistance at work that the analysand must work through.


Even if the ego decides to give up resistance, he notes, repression can remain because of unconscious sources of resistance, and so the analysand enters a period of “strenuous effort, …the phase of ‘working through’” because “the compulsion to repeat—the attraction exerted by the unconscious prototypes upon the repressed instinctual process—has still to be overcome.” [1]


In the 1926 essay he returns to the matter of resistance, especially the resistance that emanates from the id, the most primitive part of oneself. And also here he is considering anxiety more than repression. In fact, he has reversed the formula: rather than repression leading to anxiety, now anxiety leads to repression. Anxiety arises after a trauma in which one has been rendered helpless and bereft. All subsequent anxiety is a “repetition of the situation of danger.” [2] But why repeat this and not simply forget it? In order, perhaps, to master it, undo it. Maybe this time it will turn out differently. Undoing, Freud also notes in this essay, is the obsessional neurotic’s attempt to “blow away” the original event. Akin to a magical act, repeating offers the possibility of trying again in order to undo what was done, to undo the terror of the loss of the primary object, mother. [3]


So each fresh bout of anxiety, that is, repetition, offers an opportunity to undo the damage done. What is different going forward is the formation of neurotic symptoms, which, according to a view that Freud seems to favor, are “formed in order to avoid anxiety: they bind the psychical energy which would otherwise be discharged as anxiety. Thus anxiety would be the fundamental phenomenon and main problem of neurosis.. [4]

Or in other words, “symptoms are created in order to remove the ego from a situation of danger.” [5]


Most people grow out of their childhood terrors—of the dark, of being alone—but many do not, and they hang on to their neurotic mechanisms of defense against anxiety. The former have worked through the loss of light and of the mother’s constant presence; they have somehow internalized the good objects that can see them through. But in various situations any one of us, or all of us, can be thrown back into terror and once again we need to work through loss. As I will now begin to tie together, working through resistance and working through loss operate hand in glove with effects that are both personal and political. Without these processes, we are stuck with infantile phobias and delusions. A politics that defers the work of mourning and trades in idealities is a politics on a treacherous periphery of fanaticism.


 Coming on the scene a generation after Freud’s first initial discoveries, Melanie Klein identified the need for mourning at a very early point in the infant’s development, when the infant begins to experience awareness that its “objects” are complex and whole and that the child’s earlier sadistic rages against the absent “bad breast” could lead to loss of any love and its own death. In the earlier “paranoid-schizoid position,” the young infant experiences the world at one moment as nourishing and fulfilling and another moment as terrifying and death-dealing. It imagines revenge through annihilating the persecuting bad breast, devouring the good breast, depositing its bad parts in the other, or any number of infantile splitting and projection towards these good and bad others. As the child begins to fathom that the good breast and bad breast belonged to one complex person, sometimes present and sometimes not, it begins to see this other person as a whole object, begins to introject this whole other, and then feels anguish and guilt about its sadistic impulses. Now the child pines for the internalized whole object, wants to make reparations, and feels intense grief. This Klein calls the depressive position. In this second position, if all goes well, the infant’s internal world becomes populated with good introjected objects, first mother, then father, then others, and the infant also begins testing these internal realities against external ones.


But this is not an easy path. In the process of coming to terms with its earlier and perhaps continuing destructive phantasies the infant becomes a bit manic. “When the depressive position arises, the ego is forced (in addition to earlier defences) to develop methods of defence which are essentially directed against the ‘pining’ for the loved object. These are fundamental to the whole ego organization.” [6] Klein calls these the manic defences. Worried that its loved object or even itself will be destroyed by its own sadistic tendencies, the ego builds up “omnipotent and violent phantasies, partly for the purpose of controlling and mastering the ‘bad’, dangerous objects, partly in order to save and restore the loved ones.” [7]

While the journey is perilous, it can and often does go well. By populating its internal world with good objects, the infant can come to have a more integrated sense of self. Our internal good objects become a ballast through life. Internal good objects validate oneself, keep one from feeling entirely alone and unmoored (and, as Winnicott observed, allow the baby to play happily alone in the next room), provide validation of one’s own worth and experiences. But then the journey might not go well. “Who or what accompanies or deserts one on this journey through life,” writes Eric Benman, “makes all the difference.” [8] If there is a failure early in life, due, for example to a parent’s illness and long absence, the infant may not be able to introject the good object of a loving parent. The child may grow up and become manic, melancholic, or obsessive. [9]


Like Klein, Julia Kristeva argues that the paranoid-schizoid position is a constant temptation throughout life, but also that it appears in adolescence where a similar but exponentially stronger form of splitting occurs between good and bad objects. Where the small child is a researcher and questioner (“Who am I?”, “Where do I come from?”, “What do I want?”), on the path toward object relations, the adolescent is a believer: “Faith implies a passion for the object relation: Faith is potentially fundamentalist, as is the adolescent.” [10]


But because of the sadomasochistic nature of he drives, the adolescent’s belief in the ideal object is constantly threatened. Accordingly, Kristeva argues, “the adolescent is a believer of the object relation and/or of its impossibility.” [11] This gives rise to the ideality syndrome, the belief that there is a Great Other that exists and can provide absolute satisfaction. This is not just a syndrome that plagues teenagers: “We are all adolescents when we are enthralled by the absolute.” [12] Just as anyone can regress back to a paranoid-schizoid position, the temptation of ideality or its flip side of nihilism can tempt any adult as well as political bodies.




Trump and many of his followers are perfect examples of both the syndrome of ideality and the repetition compulsion, caught up in playing out over and over an attempt to undo what they imagine they have lost, whether a good mother or a perfect country.

The cry Trump repeats at every opportunity—“Let’s Make American Great Again”—taps into a dual wager: (1) that those who imagine themselves as the dominant and quintessential “American” people need not mourn the loss of their presumed dominance at home and abroad and (2) that those who are undermining the old status quo can be undone, thrown out, excised from the body politic, making possible an ideal and perfect state. Those who will not mourn their losses nor tarry with indeterminacy, uncertainty, and democracy demand a politics of black and white and good and evil; and they presume that those who oppose them are the enemies of all things perfect and true.


Let me offer a psychoanalytic, though hypothetical account of the genesis of Trump’s character:


Just after his second birthday, his mother gave birth to a baby brother and then she almost died. After childbirth she got an infection, had to have a hysterectomy then several other surgeries. What trauma. First there was this brute fact that his mother was going to give birth to a rival, then there’s possibly some murderous rage for her doing this, then after that murderous rage she does in fact almost die, and then she’s gone—for how long?—in the hospital, almost dead, almost gone. The boy’s one true love has first defied him, then in fantasy been killed by him, then almost dies and is gone, perhaps he felt terrible guilt that he could not repair and so he could not internalize a good mother.

He grows up to be a bully. At his private school where his wealthy father is a benefactor, he becomes a troublemaker and tyrant, and eventually his teachers persuade the father to send him elsewhere. At military school, the boy learns the lessons that he is special and great and, in the course of this, he almost kills his roommate for not folding the linens correctly. He becomes fastidiously neat and develops a fear of germs, of anything that might invade his body. He goes on in life to purge any imagined invaders, including in his fantasies Muslims, Mexicans, and those who’ve deigned to ruin his imagined perfect kingdom.

And he imagines that he is the king! He takes up the great defense of undoing. This is the defense against felt harm that involves trying to do something all over again in a way that turns out better. How to undo mother’s death from his life when he was just beginning to become a little self? Maybe he could be a big self, maybe he could be so perfect and important and big and great that she would finally notice and love him. Maybe he could be so important and smart and wealthy that she would love him more than anyone else in the world.

Maybe also he could avenge his father’s loss, his father who had to grow up and take over the family business as a young adolescent when his own father died, the grandfather who made his wealth as a poor immigrant by setting up brothels where fools went looking for gold. And in the process maybe he could avenge his mother’s shame, a poor immigrant “domestic” from Scotland, leaving home at 17, arriving at 18, with only $50 in her pocket.

So the child who suffers these losses and sets out to avenge and to undo the harm. He cannot help himself; he isn’t even conscious of what he is doing. His loss turns into narcissism and grandiosity. At his rallies, he throws out protesters and crying babies. He doesn’t see his effects on other people, though most everyone around him is painfully aware of this great malformation. There’s an immense disjunct between how he acts and how he thinks of himself.

Something is terribly wrong. In public he makes great proclamations about his greatness, intelligence, and bigness, and has no sense of how bizarre all this sounds. He insults other people for their “smallness,” and seems totally oblivious that he is exhibiting his own obliviousness. In this respect, he is delusional.

He has no tolerance for criticism, no ability to appreciate other points of view, no capacity for self-reflection. He is like a person play-acting being a person, a person who is big and great and wonderful, whose enemies ought to be purged or imprisoned.

In all his attempts to purge his imagined perfect world of invaders, he purges his own internal shames and demons: the mother who entered the country as a poor domestic servant, the grandfather who made millions by prostituting land and women, all those immigrant foreigners who are trying to infect us. He purges anyone who interrupts him. He befriends those like him, other authoritarian figures. He belittles anyone who doesn’t try to be as strong as him. And because of his appeal to all those in his country who harbor similar wounds, who feel cheated, infiltrated, abandoned, and wronged, the people project their own anxieties into his anxieties and identify with his ways of acting out. He does for them what they cannot do for themselves. Where they are trapped in powerlessness, he can be their power player, their avenger, their hero. And so they nominate him to be their candidate for the presidency of their country.


The Trump phenomenon taps into a global political problem: a lack of public and shared means for working through ambiguity and loss, for coming to understand the strangers in our midst, that is, for moving from a paranoid-schizoid politics to and through a Kleinian depressive kind of politics.




In her work on revolt and the adolescent syndrome of ideality, Julia Kristeva calls for a process of such work. The iconic scene is the analytic space: patient on the couch, analyst behind, and the analytic third to their dyad where Manichaean divides can transform into shades of grey; where projected demons can be taken back and metabolized; where the adolescent selves we all are at one time or another might grow up and realize the world is not made of saints and sinners but of complex and imperfect people; and most importantly that there are no perfect solutions that will solve all our troubles. The task is how to take this micro-politics to a macro level, how to move to a politics of mourning and working though.


To deal with the adolescent syndrome of ideality, Kristeva argues that, first, the analyst must recognize and not dismiss the need to believe, for this idealization is in fact a source of extreme pleasure. This allows for a positive transference that the analyst can use to model another way of thinking that is also pleasurable. As Kristeva writes, “only the analyst's capacity to see through the idealizing course of adolescent drives will allow him to provide a credible and effective transference—and thus be capable of metabolizing the need to believe not through acting out but through the pleasure that comes with thinking, questioning and analyzing.” [13] In other words, to overcome the syndrome of ideality, we need to transform the need to believe into an urge to question and think, that is, to move from seeing the world in black and white to seeing its variegated and complex hues. In a dyad of analyst and analysand, this can occur through the transference.


What might be the analog for the political body, when the adolescent syndrome sweeps up broad swaths of people? As I discuss elsewhere, public discourse of a certain frame can provide something close to, however imperfect, a “talking cure” that involves mourning the loss of ideality through the kind of deliberation that elucidates what is gained and what is lost in any course of action we might take. In all our deliberations, private and public, we have to weigh, as on a scale, what will be gained and what will be lost. In making a choice to go in one direction rather than another, we also need to metabolize the loss in advance thereby giving ourselves the will to move this way rather than that. Otherwise we will be glued in place, unable to take either fork in the road. Despite what a lot of political philosophers say, political deliberation is fundamentally an affective process that helps people work through fantasies of denial, splitting, and revenge and toward a position that can tolerate loss, ambiguity, and uncertainty, that is, the human condition.



Noëlle McAfee

Professor, Department of Philosophy, Emory University
President, Emory University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors
Editor of the Kettering Review



The Kristeva Circle Stockholm, Sweden, 2016


[1] Freud 1926, 159. Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XX (1925-1926): An Autobiographical Study, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, The Question of Lay Analysis and Other Works, 75-176.

[2] Freud 1926, 137.

[3] Freud 1926, 137-138.

[4] Freud 1926, 144.

[5] Freud 1926, 144.

[6] Klein 1986. The Selected Melanie Klein. Edited by Juliet Mitchell. New York: The Free Press,151.

[7] Klein 1986, 151.

[8] Eric Brenman 2006, first page of chapter eight (pages not numbered). Recovery of the Lost Good Object, Edited by Dana Birksted-Breen, London and New York: Routledge.

[9] Klein 1986, 173.

[10] Julia Kristeva, “Adolescence, a Syndrome of Ideality,” Psychoanal. Rev., 94:715-725. (2007), 717.

[11] Kristeva (2007), 717-718.

[12] Kristeva (2007), 717.

[13] Kristeva (2007), 724-725.



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