The Problem is Not Trump: The Problem Is Trumpism

Dateline: February 15, 2018

By Ted L. Cox, Ph.D.

Part One   

The fact that the electorate of the United States of America voted for Donald Trump; the appeal of Trumpism, should be our focus today rather than the individual who occupies the White House.  We need to understand why he is there.  Otherwise, the electorate will likely replace him with the same kind of person at the next election.  They didn’t elect him on rational grounds and they won’t evaluate him that way either.  We need to examine the roots of the problem if we are to have any hope of restoring some semblance of sanity to the White House.  This essay is an attempt to begin that kind of an examination of the deeper meaning of the phenomenon of Trumpism.

What I am labeling here as Trumpism is the unbridled pursuit of objects and sensations first encountered in infancy; broadly speaking, this is infantile or primary narcissism.

We all experience our parents and/or caregivers in infancy (and by extension, ourselves) as god-like objects.  Parents seem to be all-powerful and all-knowing and the objects they wield are supernatural.  As we grow a bit older, we learn that these interpretations are questionable and we file them away as a part of our history.  They come to be remembered as fragile and uncertain, as exemplified by the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty, the over-confident egg/ego that breaks.   But, in times of stress and status anxiety, like today with all the talk of the earth dying, nuclear wars and epidemics and the waning efficacy of religions, we yearn for the return of those good old infantile sensations in a desperate attempt to secure escape and comfort.  But these are false hopes; we cannot have our infancy back again; we need to grow upwards.

As we struggle with our day-to-day anxieties, retreating more and more to the pursuit of infantile sensations, it reinforces our fantasies and gives us encouragement to see some one popular living out those fantasies in social reality.  It gives us permission to do the same.  That is the appeal of Donald Trump; he legitimizes our desires to return to those comforting aspects of infancy when we felt magically safe and powerful.


So, what’s the answer?  Growing upwards!

There are many problems in our world today but chief among them is our limited ability to simply grow-up; to leave behind our craving for our infantile past (or at least, to limit it to brief periods such as the Sabbath or a meditation); to accept our relative insignificance in the over-all scheme of things.  When we can stop, or at least attenuate our desperate, frantic struggle to prove we are powerful and god-like, then we can have the opportunity to rest a moment and “smell the roses.”

Growing-up, or rather upwards, is utilized here in the sense of developing, over time, an independent sense of what’s worthwhile in life and “realistic hopes” for achieving a share for one’s self and others.  It goes “hand-in-glove” with building a self.  That is, “developing the habit of skepticism and the capacity to put it into practice.” (Deresiewicz, 2014:79)  One who is growing upwards will question the norms and values underlying the human behavior he/she is embedded in.  It is the opposite of cooperating with the power elite[1] throughout life without questioning the structure of the power that sustains them and the norms and values that control our behavior.  It is inherently skeptical.  There are no virtuous politicians.  And yet, we do have choices and the more grown-upwards an electorate, the better will be the leaders they elect.

None of which is to suggest that growing-upwards is easy.  To the contrary, if it feels easy, it’s not growing-upwards.  The process requires a separation from many previous beliefs, (especially our infantile/narcissistic/religious ones) which although false, may have provided some support and comfort for many years.  The person growing upwards will experience some instability, anxiety and fear.  The fear will produce anger; the age-old companions.  They are age-old companions because anger has become (or always was) our universal treatment for our fear.  Anger replaces some of the fear and makes us feel powerful and important: Trump with his status anxiety being the example par excellence.  There may be some periods of despair and apathy in growing upwards.  In order to persevere, one must be committed to the process; convinced of the benefits of a free and independent life which includes sharing joys, sorrows and beauty and contributing to the common good.  Sharing and connecting are the key words here.  That’s as good as life gets.  That is the good life.

If a lack of capacity for growing-upwards is the problem I think it is, then it is a basic issue underlying many other problems we face today such as political corruption, environmental degradation, crime, murder, suicide and even war.  Since the issue is germane across so many different social areas, even a slight improvement in a society might have a significant impact.  Likewise, even a slight “growing downwards” (which seems to be happening today) will have severe adverse effects.[2] 

The problem begins in infancy when we first become aware of ourselves; when self-consciousness begins to dawn.  We can only be aware of ourselves as somehow a sentient being at the center of the universe with all other god-like beings around us tasked with our safety and happiness.  We learn also to expect that we will always be rescued (eventually) by some seemingly magical and omnipotent adult when we are in need.[3]  These perceptions attenuate and complicate over time and we begin to recognize dangers, conflicts and the possibility of our insignificance.[4]  But they persist in various forms throughout life (especially the good memories) and sometimes influence our decisions from the unconscious, especially in times of stress.[5]  Many adjust to the dawning awareness of insignificance and the lack of power and magical rescues, by a life of angry lusting after prestige.[6]  This is perhaps the primary obstacle to “growing-upwards[7].”

A sheltering/nurturing family of origin gives the child more self-confidence so they are better equipped to entertain other and more dangerous possibilities about life.  They may have the courage to be skeptical and to open themselves in such a way that they can experience the essence of other people and the beauty and pain of others and themselves.  There is also beauty in the environment and in the very process of growing-upwards, if we can summon the courage to abandon for a time our own narcissistic concerns.  “… art instills the fundamental moral lesson: That you are not the center of the universe.  That others were not created for your benefit” (Deresiewicz, 2014:163).  Or, from Kafka via Phillips; “art is the axe that breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us” (Phillips, 2016:249).

But a child raised more in chaos and excessive tragedy dares not let go of that deep-seated security-blanket-fantasy of super-self-importance, power and ultimate rescue by gods, which is left over from infancy (the religious fervor of those who feel dispossessed).  This desperately defended sense of self-importance, rescue,[8] and power is a large part of our unrealistic hopes for the future and guarantees (unless death intervenes) some degree of subsequent disappointment perhaps followed by fear,[9] anger and violence (physical and/or psychological).  Life is, indeed, not fair.  Life will not live up to our infantile expectations, which are unrealistic.  And without the courage to open one’s self to others and beauty, the main consolations for the pains of living may never be discovered.

On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the rich kid is taught that he/she is special and can expect more from life than others.  But this “more” always encompasses more than just social status, wealth and power.  There is also the expectation that life will be free of tragedies, conflicts and ambiguities (since I’m so special I can have my infantile past).  And so, when at some point he/she/we have to accept that life is never devoid of these painful things, again fear and anger follow.

Rich or poor, everyone strives (to greater or lesser degree) to verify their infantile sense of importance (it’s who we feel we really are) which leads to constant competition and friction.  We all battle against the prospects of reality and insignificance or what feels like a social death.  The competition is typified by the comment/question: “Who in the Hell does he think he is?”  Institutionalized racism and caste systems are notorious ways to ensure a feeling of superiority for some in order to counter the fear of insignificance. Talking loud and often is another long-standing method of proclaiming one’s importance.  “An empty kettle makes the most noise” is a quote from the ancient Romans.

Finally, there is always the temptation to give children unrealistic hopes (like Santa and the Easter Bunny) because it makes it easier to manage them and some of their hope rubs off on the adults.  A child with “great expectations” will find it easier to conform and tolerate the rigors of socialization.  For instance, In the U.S. South where I was raised, when a little girl scrapes her knee, she is often comforted by the phrase: “Don’t worry honey, it’ll get well before you get married.”



The great truth to be explored in this essay is that every life, contrary to what we’ve been taught, is hard; lives are always fraught with tragedies,[10] “intractable conflicts”[11] and ambiguities.[12]  The simplest example is death; our own and the death of others (people and pets).  “How is it possible that I am so special and can always expect rescues and yet will one day die (perhaps even slowly and painfully) and people will even forget all about me after I’m gone?”  Or a treasured pet suddenly becomes a bloody, inert corpse.[13]  The Whiffenpoof Song (1909) includes a line (second verse) that sums up our dilemma: “Then we’ll pass and be forgotten with the rest.”

Ernest Becker, and more recently Sheldon Solomon, et al.,[14] have thoroughly explored the violence that our denial of death leads to but the concept of unrealistic hopes, as outlined here, gives us another handle on human disappointments, fear, anger and violence.  We can even accept our death and those of others and still expect too much from life; become disappointed and angry as a result and, again, pursue violence in any of its multiple forms as balm for our fear.  What frequently happens, is that among a person’s unrealistic hopes is that they will never die; death is denied.  But this attempt never successfully quells the fear and anger that inevitably rise to the surface (especially in times of stress) and influence our decisions in many subtle but powerful ways.  Also, denial is not “free,” it requires large amounts of energy to keep those fears in the unconscious part of the mind; energy that could be used for constructive and enjoyable purposes.

Social commentators as disparate as Samuel Johnson and Sigmund Freud have struggled valiantly with the inherent difficulty of growing-upwards; Freud most famously in “Civilization and It’s Discontents”.[15]  Adam Phillips does a remarkable comparison of Johnson and Freud in his recent book “In Writing”.  But one would never recognize any of these misgivings about life-expectations in popular culture in the U.S. or anywhere else on earth, I suspect.  At least in the U.S., the land of “excellent sheep”[16] the consensus is that far from there being any difficulties in life, we are all happy here and if you’re not happy you need to buy something or take a pill that will make you happy….now!

We have even created the equivalent of “happiness police” in order to ensure conformity to the happiness norms. Unhappiness is interpreted as a threat and a challenge to the status quo and may elicit some kind of punishment from the power elite.  This constitutes a barrier to growing upwards, a process which intrinsically involves some sadness and even despair.  But the “powers-that-be” want us to stay with our infantile, narcissistic investments because in that state, we are more easily manipulated.  Promises of power and significance (implicit and otherwise) are the “carrot on the stick” used most often to win support from their constituents.  Racism and wars guarantee a following from a population that has been led to believe that they are important and life should be fun.   Anything else, any reference to life as intrinsically hard, is “rocking-the-boat.”

Thus, unrealistic hopes are endemic to our culture and any attempt to modify this boiling caldron of “great expectations” and resulting disappointments, fear, anger and violence, must contend with this deeply ingrained nature of our culture; this “conspiracy to keep [ourselves] from the truth.”

Not least among our concerns must be the prospects for the economy.  If people suddenly decided to accept some modicum of conflict and disappointment in their lives the market place would be severely affected.  But this helps to show the severity and magnitude of the problem.  If we are to bring more reason to bear on the life-threatening emergencies confronting the world today, we will need more people that are growing-upwards.  If we succeed in this, buying patterns will be different but the alternative is even worse.  Perhaps we could switch some of the Madison Avenue advertising writers over to writing copy which would encourage our growing-upwards?

Finally, a very short poem from Gwendolyn Brooks: “Truth-tellers are not always palatable.  There is a preference for candy bars.”  This essay is an attempt to present truth which is painful and complicated in a palatable format.  I make no attempt here to claim knowledge of all of the difficulties, exceptions and reservations involved in this broad brush-stroke attempt at truth-telling.  This is more of a shrinking down of truth for the purpose of making it understandable enough that a large swath of our population may be helped and encouraged to comprehend the essence of life in order that they can then open themselves to the beauty that surrounds us as well as the world-wide peril that confronts us.  We are, all of us, trapped to greater or lesser degree, in the great happiness myth.  If you have read this far in this essay, chances are you have the courage to tolerate truth-tellers.  (To be continued in the next issue.)


* * * *

Ted L. Cox is a an 87-year-old sociologist and psychoanalyst (retired) who until 2018 divided his time between Park Slope, Brooklyn, N.Y. and Sainte Agathe des Monts, Quebec, Canada.  In 2018 he married his Quebecois partner and applied for a residency in Canada.  He was born in an upper middle class family in Albany, Georgia, grew up (partly) in New Orleans but, a chronic misfit, has moved sporadically northward ever since; often changing careers and partners.  His odyssey might be called a search for truth.  In Quebec he lives near ski slopes, cross-country trails, hiking/snow-shoeing trails and a 200 kilometer bike path.  When winter ice melts, numerous lakes and streams beckon for canoeing.  He and his wife spend some time in nature almost every day.  He is the author most recently of The Real Enemy Is Reality: A Challenge for us All.


[1] “The Power Elite” by C. Wright Mills, 1956.

[2] The current emphasis in colleges (even elite colleges) on technical proficiency in some professional area rather than self-building represents a lessening in the opportunities for growing-upwards. The meritocracy threatens to take over.  See for instance, “Excellent Sheep” by William Deresiewicz (2014), the subtitle of which is, “The way to a meaningful life.”

[3] This is probably the origin of the idea of Gods and angels that might rescue us.

[4] Again, Humpty Dumpty represents our attempt on a cultural level, to accept and explore our universal fear and vulnerability.

[5] For instance, “I don’t care if the world ends; I’m going to be rescued by God and spend eternity in heaven.”

[6] “Lust for prestige” is a quote from “Excellent Sheep” by William Deresiewicz (2014:113).

[7] Growing-upwards will be used throughout this essay in the sense that, as the challenge of maturation can never be completed, we are never “grown-up;” we can only be a “work in progress” or growing-upwards or building a self.  The basic population of psych wards is people who have failed at growing-upwards.

[8] The rescue fantasy is embodied in many religions (just pray for help) but also in more mundane institutions like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Madison Avenue advertisers and Hollywood movie-producers know well how to support these fantasies and to exploit them for their profits.  “Just buy something or chill out; you’ll feel better.”

[9] It is the fear and anger that leads to such things as voting for political leaders that legitimate anger.  The anger is basically a cover-up for the fear but since it’s a “cover story.” It needs large amounts of continuous external support.

[10] Yeats’ pronouncement that we begin to live when we conceive life as tragedy, sums it up.

[11] “In Writing” by Adam Phillips (2016:74).

[12] See “Reason’s Grief” by George Harris (2006).

[13] This happened to me at age 5 when a car ran over my dog and killed it.  I still remember the sound of the “thud” of that impact.

[14] “The Worm at the Core” by Sheldon Solomon, et al. (2016).

[15] [We all demand consolation] “the wildest revolutionaries no less passionately than the most virtuous believers. I bow to [their] reproach that I can offer no consolation.”

[16] “Excellent Sheep” by William Deresiewicz (2014)

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2 thoughts on “The Problem is Not Trump: The Problem Is Trumpism”

    1. Thank you Leonora, for your encouragement. I am trying to finish a piece on sexual harassment which, with luck, will be posted soon. Peace and wisdom, Ted

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