From Scapegoat to King: Trump’s Election as a Purification Ritual Gone Wrong

The result is one of the great tragedies of human existence, what we might call the need to “fetishize evil,” to locate the threat to life in some special places where it can be placated and controlled. It is tragic precisely because it is sometimes very arbitrary: men make fantasies about evil, see it in the wrong places, and destroy themselves and others by uselessly thrashing about.

—Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil, p. 148.

There is a question that lingers on the lips of everyone watching the unfolding of Donald Trump’s rise to the Presidency of the USA. Skimming through television broadcasts, newspapers, twitter feeds and internet blogs, one big question seems to rob the liberal West of its sleep: is Trump totalitarian? Or, at least, how totalitarian is he? Is it plausible to compare him to Hitler? On the other hand: is it even admissible to not compare him to Hitler? Whenever experts and analysts give a negative response to such pressing worries, perhaps even pointing out their silliness and lack of perspective, this seems to leave the person asking the question rather perplexed, even disappointed, as if he who had the task of confirming Trump’s presidency as a sign of the End Times had gone awkwardly off-script. But can anyone be blamed? A quick internet search with the keywords ‘Trump’, ‘totalitarian’, and ‘fascist’ spews out an avalanche of thousands upon thousands of articles that delineate the apocalyptic scenarios of a Trump presidency: Trump and Authoritarian Propaganda (Forbes); Trump the Totalitarian: How He’s Gaining Power By Following a Historical Script (Paste Magazine); Donald Trump Just Summed Up His Totalitarian Vision for America in 4 Words (The Nation); 24 hours in Trump’s terrifying, totalitarian America (Dazed); Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality (The New York Times); This is how fascism comes to America (The Washington Post); Robert Reich: Trump’s Totalitarian Tendency (Newsweek); Donald Trump, 13th Nuclear Dictator of the United States (The Huffington Post); Is Donald Trump a fascist? (CNN); Yes, Donald Trump is a fascist (New Republic); Donald Trump is an actual fascist: What his surging popularity says about the GOP base (Salon). No words are minced to convey the totalitarian, apocalyptic danger of Donald Trump: he may be ‘genocidal’ (Will Donald Trump Commit Muslim Genocide As President?, International Business Times), planning an ‘ethnic cleansing’ (Donald Trump’s ethnic cleansing program, The Week); the ‘most dangerous man in the world’ (Donald Trump Is the World’s Most Dangerous Man, Der Spiegel); and is altogether a ‘monster’ (Trump Is Exactly the Monster We Feared, and Republicans Are Enabling Him, New Republic).

We are told that to understand what a Trump presidency means for the USA and the world, we must become familiar with Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Orwell’s 1984 (a suggestion that thousands of people have gladly picked up); we must look at Hitler’s rise to power and how he worked his way up to genocide, because the only thing standing between Trump and the next Holocaust is us ‘giving him a chance’ to enact it. In a lengthy article appeared in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that makes the case for Trump being the ‘most dangerous leader the USA has ever had’, the former permanent secretary of the Nobel Academy and holder of a PhD in history, Peter Englund, answers the question of the reasonableness of the Trump-Hitler comparison by pointing out that ‘The Donald lacks Der Führer’s destructive intelligence’, although he ‘shares Hitler’s aggressive temper and lack of interest in the practical side of politics’, as well as ‘Mussolini’s self-control, Stalin’s honesty, Gaddafi’s modesty, Mugabe’s interest for money, Mao Zedong’s burning greed for facts, and Homer Simpson’s ability to concentrate’. In other words, Trump reunites all the worst traits of the most demonic people of the 20th century, but is too stupid to act on it. Trump is so thoroughly bad, that he is bad even at being his own bad, authentic self. Trump’s ‘evil’ is not kept in check by any kind of goodness or empathic capacity, no matter how small, but by just another type of badness that affects his intelligence. An argument constructed in this way cannot loose: either Trump proves his detractors right by turning out to be the next Stalin, or he does so by demonstrating that he is too stupid to realize his genocidal dreams. Judging by the news coverage on Trump’s electoral campaign and presidency it seems like an outright miracle that the whole world has not yet been obliterated by a hailstorm of hydrogen bombs, that the Atlantic slave trade has not been reinstated, that women still have the right to vote, and that Jews are still allowed to walk around without yellow stars sewn on their clothes. The ‘Trumpocalipse’ —as the leftist predicants have called it while extending the same breath to accuse the conservative parties of basing their appeal on ‘politics of fear’— seems to be just around the corner, only not just here yet.

Being subjected to such a frightening narrative day in, day out, makes it impossible to escape its polarizing effect. During the campaign, it seemed as if Trump’s detractors were in a competition to see who could paint him in the more dire, frightening and outrageous way. And, to be sure, Trump’s vulgar, smug and caricaturesque persona did provide the perfect canvas for such extravagant characterizations to take hold. But very early on, the vilification-race got out of hand and acquired an inertia on its own, wherein caricaturization and mockery seemed to provide a festive enjoyment that went far beyond the attempt to assess Trump’s political orientation or to contribute to rational political debate — to the limited extent in which political debate can be rational at all. The media seem to be conducting a race to see who can come up with the most sensationalistic and distressing take on what a Trump presidency might mean for the US and the world, and the resulting narrative became so prevailing and autonomous that those upholding it ended up galvanizing each other’s fears, originating a vicious circle of positive reinforcement that struggles to reach bottom. Trump quickly became a ‘fascist’, a ‘dictator’, a ‘Nazi’. How can a position be negotiated after it has operated a radioactive characterization of the opponent? Where do you go once you have fired the biggest semantic guns at your disposal, evoking the most demonic evils that mankind has ever produced?

The lightheartedness with which terms such as ‘totalitarian’, ‘fascist’, or ‘dictator’ are being thrown around in the mainstream liberal media to describe Trump’s government since before his election are not without consequences for the social fabric and for the individual psyche of those that compose it. Equating Trump to Hitler or Stalin shows a deep lack of understanding and compassion for the fate and plight of the countless millions of real victims of real totalitarian regimes of the past and the present. It uses ridicule as a way to deny the radical evil that the ideological monsters of the 20th century brought into the world, with the dangerous consequence that it trivializes vital thought categories such as ‘totalitarianism’ and ‘fascism’, preventing their recognition when they actually emerge in the ideological landscape — Islamism being one such example. But there’s another risk connected to the banalization of these concepts, one that affects each of us individually: to not know what fascism and totalitarianism mean, leads to the incapacity to recognize, and therefore tame, one’s innate totalitarian tendencies within oneself. The so-called ‘Antifa’ movement serves as a paradigm of this mechanism: organized into mobs, clothed in black, their faces concealed and waving black flags, its members set about taking violent action to silence opinions that don’t coincide with their own anarcho-socialist Utopia. Exhibiting an open contempt for the social contract, their ‘political statements’ are expressed by destroying property, assaulting people, and setting cars and shops ablaze — all in the name of ‘anti-fascism’. The dark irony they embody is lost on them because they deny the aggression within themselves and project it into a social environment that, by becoming the container of their aggression, also becomes deserving of violent destruction at their hands. The gratuitous throwing around of epithets and buzzwords so politically, historically and emotionally charged as ‘fascist’ and ‘dictator’ is not just ludicrously out of context, but it also substantially contributes to the creation of a climate that can quickly become so loaded with fear and hate that civic society may become imperiled by it. If an individual or a group can convince themselves to be holding a position of undisputable moral superiority over an enemy that is defined as radically evil, all social constraints can be lifted: violence becomes an encouraged prima ratio response, debate is suppressed in the name of urgency, the rule of law is dropped ‘for the greater good’.

The general impression is that there is an impelling need for Trump to be ‘totalitarian’ — albeit in an entertaining, post-modern, ironic and innocuous sense that would provide all the heroic excitement of antiauthoritarian struggle without any of the real dangers of facing a true totalitarian regime. A real-life simulation of partisan resistance, as it were, to be waged from a Starbucks armchair, from the classroom of an elite Ivy League university, or by marching around with vagina-shaped hats to listen to multimillionaire pop celebrities calling for the bombing of the White House and chanting the odes of menstrual flow. The social role assigned to Trump is that of a totalitarian ruler in disguise; his true essence only revealed by the keen intellectual acuity and moral clarity of the Left, and his despotism exposed by his loud mouth and bad manners. A brutal dictator in essence, although acting within the institutional parameters of the American law, accountable to the Senate and Congress, ripped to shreds by a free press that is overwhelmingly hostile to him, limited every step of the way by the opposition coming from both his own party and the democrats, abiding the Constitution, and bound to give up his seat after four or eight years at the most, via democratic elections, as is to be expected in an open society. But ‘literally Hitler’, nonetheless.

How did such a general loss of perspective come about? How can this hysterical frenzy be understood? It is beside the point to try and argue in this instance in favor or against any of Trump’s specific policies, tasteless comments, or rude behavior. Rather than a defense of Trump, the argument put forward in what follows —namely, that part of the mass hysteria surrounding Trump’s campaign and his electoral victory can be seen as a consequence of a misfired purification ritual— should be understood as a general observation about the Left’s pathological overreaction to Trump’s election, and as a possible way to look at the political climate we are witnessing in the light of Trump’s inauguration as president.

Scapegoating:

The practice of scapegoating has deep roots in the history of humanity and is arguably one of its most ancient rituals, with records as old as the Ebla texts from 2400 BC or the Levitical celebration of Yom Kippur attesting to its remote origins. While traditionally embedded in the domain of religious myth —just think of the Christian crucifixion—, the logic behind it extends to the wider sphere of political myth and group dynamics at large. The reason for it is that beneath its ritualized expression there lies a psychological need that drives it; an intrapsychic tension between love, aggression, envy and guilt, that seeks relief by means of a collective psychodramatic representation. The basic structure of scapegoating is most likely familiar to everyone: a carrier is selected by an individual or a group to embody the group’s sins, and is then sacrificed in a vicarious act of atonement. In so doing, the individual and the group that he belongs to undergo a process of symbolic purification whereby the ‘inside’ is purged of its ‘badness’, which is externalized and projected into an external container where it can be safely destroyed without compromising the integrity of the group and that of its members’ egos.

Culture provides a wide array of opportunities for the acting out of this process in a sublimated way: sporting competitions, art, movies, folklore and religious rituals are some of the many ways in which a group may bring its ‘badness’ into play, project it into a carrier, and defeat it symbolically, thereby solidifying and renewing intra-group bonds and their positive emotional investment. But scapegoating may also acquire a paranoid ideological dimension and in extreme cases derive into a pathological degradation of ritual in the shape of dehumanizing political violence or genocidal practices. The Holocaust, the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, the witch-hunt of the Inquisition, or the Soviet purges, all have in common the same quest for decontamination from a corrupting agent portrayed as being the carrier of a badness that is deemed foreign to the group and that spoils it from within, sabotaging its otherwise pristine goodness.

The criterion for the selection of the scapegoat may be based on external traits or on ideological difference: whereas the Nazis and the Hutus based their genocidal logic on racial and ethnic arguments, the Soviets or the Islamists attribute their lack of group-purity to the existence of an ‘other’ whose difference with respect to them is not phenotypical, but ideologically determined. Either way, it is the value system upheld by a particular group’s ideology that defines the ‘worth’ of a certain category trait, or the lack thereof: for a Nazi, the Jew-hatred serves an ideological end that is expressed in racial terms; just as for a Hutu it was the value attributed to the Tutsis that justified their killing, rather than their different ethnicity as such. What is at stake on a deeper level is the narcissistically invested worldview and value-system that the individual shares with the group, with which it identifies, and on which it relies to sustain his positive identity and sense of self. By ritualizing, expelling, and ultimately destroying its badness, the group can reaffirm its own goodness, reduce the built-up paranoid components that are inherent to every group, and solidify the social ties that hold the group together. Democratic elections, besides their obvious pragmatic administrative function, also serve as a sophisticated low-intensity purification ritual through which the members of the community can regularly exert control over its ‘badness’ and vanquish it in regular intervals of a couple of years. When social strain and ideological fervor intensify, however, the capacity to delay satisfaction decreases drastically, and the political landscape becomes more and more permeated by absolute claims and Manichean thinking. In the setting of a solid institutional framework, this may lead to a transitory populist process; in more fragile ones it risks to bring about a populist movement that derives in authoritarian rule as time goes on; and in the case of already severely unstable and fragmented political institutions it quickly degenerates into violence. The group’s size directly influences its behavior and its proneness to aggression. Mass rituals, among which we may include national electoral processes, are particularly apt for the expression of aggressive drives, since they inhibit the individual’s moral norms and offer the large group’s ‘colossal body’ as a nearly invulnerable container for its members’ projections and narcissistic identifications.

Paranoid magnifying of the scapegoat:

The triumph over evil is only as great as the evil it defeats. Little would be gained from a purification ritual where the demons to be slain amounted to trivial aspects of the self. The bigger the ritualistic scenario, the greater the promise of its success, the more we are inclined to dare and evoke our deepest fears, for we are confident that the symbolic frame set up for their manifestation will withstand their destructive power, and ultimately prevail over them. It seems fair to assume that the degree of projections involved in the characterization of Trump would have been far more restrained, had he been seen as holding a chance to actually gain the presidency. Probably blinded by their own bias and the constipating effects of ideology on thought, however, the polling agencies insisted until the very end in writing off a Trump victory almost completely, with some giving Hillary a 99% chance of winning even two days before the elections. The atmosphere during the electoral campaign was one of ecstatic anticipation of the impending sacrifice. The woodpile of outrage grew with every news report; the bottle of inebriating confirmation bias was joyously passed around from talkshow to comedy monologue to op-ed column; liberal academia went into a self-righteous ideological overdrive that had more in common with sexual arousal than with the fearful concern it so desperately tried to convey. The climate was not one of impending doom, but of imminent electrifying redemption; a magnificent act of atonement that promised to allow for the collective purge of ever-present historical guilt and present-day aggressive drives.

Had a prospect of a Trump presidency been seen as plausible, celebrities wouldn’t have been so quick to pompously announce their emigration from the US in the case of Trump’s victory. The preemptive dismissal of his arguments might have been replaced by active engagement with them, thus humanizing both Trump and his supporters in the eyes of his detractors beyond their characterization as deplorable, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, racist white supremacists. But the left-leaning media, academia, and entertainment establishments had convinced themselves of Trump’s certain electoral immolation to such a degree that they let go of the restraining leash of their projections and left them to roam free, feeding off each-other and growing out of control in the process. Boosted by the certainty in its demise, what had started out being a laughing stock opponent was thus quickly turned into an outright enemy, with the implication that while an opponent can be defeated, an enemy ought to be destroyed.

Trump’s narcissistic personality also contributed to his paranoid overinvestment: instead of showing himself hurt and aggrieved by the accusations and insults hurled at him, he arrogantly ‘owned’ them. Instead of rejecting them and adopting a defensive stance, his general response was a defiant one, as if to say: ‘Yes, whatever, I am what you say I am. So what?’. While on the hand this attitude pleased a large spectrum of the electorate that had grown tired of the raging soft authoritarianism of political correctness and its corollary of microaggressions, safe-spaces and trigger warnings, from the point of view of those in favor of the ideologically-determined regulation of thought and language by the State it conveyed a different message: ‘He does not vehemently object to being what he is accused of, therefore he actually is whatever he is accused of being’. The sanctimonious attitude of the liberal left with its self-proclaimed monopoly of moral authority prevented it from being able to digest Trump’s vulgar irony directed at their attempts to pull him into their ideological domain in order to submit him to its judgement. Trump’s arrogant character and flamboyant attire —his narcissistic ‘armor’— functioned as a magnet that attracted all sorts of projections, but his unforgivable sin was that of refusing to play the game of the hegemonic leftist consensus, by smugly laughing at its set of rules. In this sense, Trump is an anomaly in the ideological frame, a glitch in the homogeneity promised by the ideological cohesive of the group. And as with any discordant element that threatens the ‘group illusion’, he became the outcast embodiment of the group’s badness.

Scapegoat King:

What is peculiar about the scapegoating of Christ is that he forgave mankind after having been persecuted, flogged, beaten, crowned with a crown of thorns, crucified, and left to die under the scorching sun. By this very act of forgiveness, he remained ultimately good, thus forcing man to recognize his own evil. But he also accepted to carry the crushing weight of man’s original badness and reciprocate it not with retaliative anger, but with forgiveness, which is what turns Christ’s sacrifice into a religious path to redemption. Now picture a less divine, more human scenario: what if Christ had been buried after his ordeal, only to rise from the dead to take revenge over those who wronged him and those who did nothing to stop the abuse he had been subjected to? What if he had exited the Holy Sepulcher blood-soaked, emaciated and filled with vindictive rage, after having been killed? And what if outside awaited him the King’s throne and a golden crown to take the place of his crown of thorns?

It is a terrifying fantasy along these lines that seems to have gripped the collective imagination in the wake of Trump’s election as president. Trump’s terrifying persona has been conjured mainly by those who were convinced that he would lose the elections and, in compliance with the agreed-upon liturgy, walk his way to the top of the woodpile to be burned together with the badness he was chosen to incarnate. But not only did the designated scapegoat not do his part in the ritual and allow to be destroyed: infinitely worse than that, once it climbed on top of the sacrificial altar it smugly sat on the throne and was crowned the group’s King. All that was projected into him suddenly acquired the dimension of the persecuting real when he was invested with the institutional power to preside over the country’s government. From the Left’s viewpoint, the presidential campaign with the subsequent electoral victory of Donald Trump was a scapegoating ritual that backfired in the most spectacular way, resulting in the confluence of projected ‘badness’ and the mighty power of the State. The festive sacrificial buildup was carried out flawlessly, but the longed-for cathartic relief was denied.

What now?

Trump’s presidency confronts the liberal Left with a serious dilemma: where to with all the badness, if Trump is not that which he was made up to be? Instead of being exorcized, the group’s badness and aggressive fantasies are being reflected back to it, magnified by both the general political climate and the implications that a Trump presidency has for the ideological cohesion of the group, since the aspects that had been conveniently relegated to the outside of the ideological bubble were suddenly laid bare and are now retaliating against the circumstances that exposed them. The American Left will have to come to terms with the fact that it is being ruled by its projections that it tried to suppress, deny, regulate externally, and ultimately congregate and defeat in the figure of Donald Trump. This does by no means imply that vehement criticism of Trump should be seen purely as a manifestation of unresolved conflicts. Trump’s impulsive personality makes a steady pushback against his impetus and a close observation of his policies absolutely crucial. But the constitutional framework of the USA was engineered precisely to contain the impulsivity of its leaders, and to limit to a minimum the damage they might inflict. While trust must not necessarily lie in the person of Trump, it can rely on the structural resilience of the US’s political institutions in withstanding the shakeup of an unusually irreverent president. The dwelling in near-apocalyptic paranoid fantasies, however, bypasses the civic plane of dialogue and jumps to an action-driven, fight-flight worldview in black and white. If the institutional framework is discarded because it is seen as not being suited to adequately respond to the challenges faced by the community, violence may quickly become the tool of choice to achieve social change and exert political control. Reflective self-implication in the gradual move to a possible unraveling of this sort should be the first step in its prevention.

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2 comments

  1. Nicolas Demertzis · · Reply

    Pheadon, you are a brilliant writer and a deep-going man of difficult thought. I am impressed by the unfoldings of your argumentation. I find, however, your analysis unbalanced as to the post-democratic threat Trump confers to American politics and to the injection of cynicism into public life. To blame the “Left” for its projections is one thing; but is actually the Left to be blamed for in view of his style of governance? As you say at the end much depends on the resilience of the institutional setting but one should have firm and detailed knowledge of this setting before claim anything on this (personally, I am just remaining at a wishful thinking level of abstraction). In addition, one should condemn Trump’s post-truth cynical style of politics which strips altogether the value content of democratic governance (toleration, civility, meritocracy). Last but not least Pheadon, you cannot get away with the Left-Right division. Sometimes you give me the impression that you critically sympathize with the “Left” whereas oftentimes you seem to flirt with conservatism. Least: I have a gut feeling that Zizek would like your piece.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts and to reply! I agree that the piece may come across as an unbalanced analysis, and it surely is – if only because I focus almost exclusively on a very narrow aspect of an extremely vast and intricate topic for the purpose of getting across my essential point concerning the nature and magnitude of the “left”‘s action and reaction during and after the presidential campaign. I also agree that the left-right issue is obsolete and oversimplifies the political landscape. As I see it, Trump is neither really ‘right’, nor ‘conservative’, nor is he ‘republican’ (talk of an ’empty signifier’…). The fact that plenty of people that had voted for Obama ended up voting for Trump, and that many Republicans supported Hillary over their party’s candidate goes a long way to show how a left vs. right interpretation is inadequate. I guess in my case the use of ‘left’ and ‘right’ reflects the polarization in US politics on my own thought and analysis of the issue. And I surely do not think that only the ‘left’ and its projections are to blame for it, but that Trump’s character and the ‘projections of the left’ operate like a dysfunctional, pathological couple. What I am critical about, however, is the apparent lack of awareness of the ‘left’ of its aggressive drives, considering that it is not beyond the charge of having promoted politics of resentment under the guise of palatable terms that are the product of a radical line of thought within the so-called ‘New Left’ that I find highly problematic and, unfortunately, ever more influential and scarcely challenged. What goes around, comes around – often displaced beyond recognition onto an ‘other’. I would go as far as calling this trend a present-day illness of the Left, that I hope it’ll recover from soon. That Trump’s style, character, and attitude are to be condemned, contained and closely watched is absolutely the case; I hoped I had made that clear enough in my writing. The reason I didn’t dwell on it is that I didn’t want it to turn into another Trump-bashing, and wanted to attempt precisely to shift the focus from the ‘projective magnetism’ of Trump onto the ‘other side’. Left or Conservative? As Ortega y Gasset wrote: “To be of the Left or to be of the Right is to choose one of the many ways available to people for being an idiot; both are, actually, forms of moral paralysis”. I don’t know what Zizek would think of it all, but judging by his latest outings, I’m not sure he does either. And I myself am far from convinced about anything, anyway. Thanks again for the input Nikos, I appreciate it!!

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