The American poet Robert Bly, in his 1992 edition of the seminal book “The Rag and Bone Shop of The Heart,” offered the following observation: “It’s possible that the United States has achieved the first consistent culture of denial in the modern world. The health of any nation’s soul depends on the capacity of adults to face the harsh facts of the time.” These prophetic words and their import for this year’s presidential election demand exploration, particularly in view of the rise of Donald Trump.
In the face of complex losses brought about by a decades-long restructuring of the American economy, our national leaders have failed to honestly address the distress experienced by a large number of Americans. Instead, most politicians and their parties pretend American ingenuity, technology or work ethic will lead to solutions and a new prosperity that is just around the corner. They contribute to a profound cultural denial.
Trump has punctured a hole in our cultural denial. He bluntly speaks to the underlying anger, disillusionment and fear of those being left behind by the new economies. And he speaks to those who often feel unmoored by women’s movement toward equality, sexual and gender rights advocacy, de-unionization and a loosening of religious anchors that helped ground earlier generations.
Yes, he says he’ll make us “great again” without offering any coherent plan. But not even Trump, in all his audacity, admits that many of these jobs and the standard of living that accompanied them are not coming back. The suggestions that Trump is a global joke and that he is regarded in most foreign capitals as a dangerous buffoon, seem to misread the roles Trump is playing in U.S. culture.
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Trump indeed is playing the roles of clown, jester, buffoon and trickster. He has a long and well-known history of wheeling and dealing in business and politics. Trump has allowed himself to appear to be used for short-term political gain by one faction or another while amassing power and a substantial fortune. The politicians who underestimated Trump’s tenacity and cunning are now wringing their hands in outrage at his willingness to continue to be who and what he is in the face of their displeasure. They underestimated the power of his narcissism and his willingness to manipulate economic fear, anger and despair for his gain.
In earlier times, the court jester served a vital service to his king and country. The jester could say things that needed to be said in a way that would be heard by the attentive ear. He had permission to speak truthfully and humorously in the context of maintaining his role and value as a fool. Even then, he was sometimes punished for insulting the wrong dignitary. The jester understood his power, but he never mistook that power as license to rule the kingdom.
For the jester, there was an ironic dignity in this arrangement. Trump long ago dispensed with the need to maintain a sense of dignity.
What makes Trump most dangerous is not what he is saying, although it is offensive and provocative, but that he actually believes his role is to assume power over the nation. His self-centered view discards the honorable jester role for that of a flamboyant prince, who has no understanding of his place in the culture or, more frighteningly, on the world stage. Trump is willing to be the first 21st century American public figure to lead others across a threshold of social constraint regarding speech and implied action that has been in place for at least a generation.
Mark Granovetter’s 1978 research on thresholds in group behavior helps explain the effect of Trump on the culture and growing cohort of citizens who support him. When denial breaks down, significant change can occur but often is accompanied by much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Trump both punctures our national denial, feeds it with his vitriol and, unbelievably, benefits from both.
As a nation we have for too long been able to deny that optimism and aspiration have deteriorated for many of our citizens. The awareness of the growing gulf between the 1 percent and everyone else painfully highlights and strengthens this disillusionment. Our political reluctance to shift some of the vast upper income gains into meaningful job training and assistance for displaced or misplaced workers means economic restructuring will continue to defer American aspiration and erode the soul of our country. An eroding core is fertile ground for the usual forms of cultural denial: nationalism, racism and scapegoating. This deferred dream can, as Langston Hughes noted in his 1951 poem “Harlem,” explode with devastating results.
If mainstream political and civic leaders, many of whom understand the depth of our economic restructuring and losses, cannot as adults work honestly and with compassion to mobilize national support for healing and genuine recovery, it will be us, the American people and our leaders, not Donald Trump, who are the fools.
Doug Jennette, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Raleigh.