Spending a few minutes on Facebook, or the internet in general, puts one squarely in the crosshairs of three camps: those who think Donald Trump is the greatest thing to happen to politics since Sarah Palin, those who think he is the second coming of Hitler, and the media, who are snacking on popcorn while watching the clicks roll in. Although “the Donald Trump Controversy” is only a few months old, its origins are nothing new. We are witnessing the latest incarnation of the age-old battle between the Id and the Superego.
According to Sigmund Freud, the Id represents the life stage of the infant: singularly oriented toward avoiding pain and gratifying any impulse immediately, by any means necessary. Whether or not you agree with Sigmund Freud’s theory of the Id, it’s not hard to see the resemblance between the description and the “policies” espoused with vigor by Donald Trump. What is harder to understand is the number of people who appear to support these statements. Where is this coming from? Has society gone crazy, or is there a method to the madness?
When it comes to questions of humanity, I’m hard pressed to disagree with Kurt Vonnegut’s assessment that perhaps our brains are too large for our own good. More often than not, the products of our society – technologies, trends, and the like – amount to little more than window dressing on a series of base desires that can either be in balance with, or in opposition to each other. Perhaps we are not so much further along from apes as we’d like to believe. I’m not sure whether that idea is frightening or comforting – perhaps it’s both.
Looking at Donald Trump and his supporters as the Id requires us to look at the Id’s natural opponent, the Superego. If Freud’s Id is the infant, his Superego is the parent: singularly oriented toward social appropriateness and control of base instincts, primarily through regulation and guilt. Today, the Superego is perhaps best exemplified by the trend of “trigger warnings.” Once designed to prepare (not excuse) readers who may be suffering from PTSD, it has morphed into an attempt to eradicate anything that could potentially cause distress or discomfort in any form. To quote a recent article in the Atlantic criticizing the misuse of trigger warnings, words have become “forms of violence that require strict control” (Lukianoff & Haidt).
It’s important to note that although the Id and Superego are naturally in opposition to each other, the one thing they share is that they are both largely unconscious. Lack of reason is a hallmark of unconsciousness; the ideas above are governed by impulse much more than anything that could be described as “thought.” Historically, this type of situation does not usually end well, to put it mildly. Historically, we also know that without dialogue, unconscious processes have no hope of seeing the light of day. Achieving dialogue is like making a meringue – it requires the right ingredients (facts), adjusted to the environment in which the dish is being made (awareness of self and other). Failure to consider either component yields failure.
It appears that two important structures in our society – our political system and our institutions of higher learning – are caught in the grip of unconscious processes. They are getting at least one, and in many cases, both, of the components wrong. To me, this suggests that it is important to take actions that, above all, succeed in the task of achieving dialogue.
Humanity is messy, but predictably so. If advertisers can come to understand the predictability of human desires, and use this knowledge against us, surely those of us who remain dedicated to reason can learn the same, and use it for good? Instead of doubling down on one component of dialogue at the expense of the other, which is what my instinct wants me to do, I am taking “the Donald Trump Controversy” as a personal challenge to overcome barriers to dialogue one person at a time. I encourage you to do the same. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.