The meteoric rise of Donald Trump as the Republican front runner for American president is undeniably one of the oddest events in US political history. Despite his showy lack of experience, proud unfamiliarity with the concept of policy, flagrant disregard for the existing political structure, and dutiful violation of every conceivable standard of political and social decorum, he continues to mesmerize the American people. Political pundits are scurrying to explain the Trump phenomenon. These attempts, in so far as they logical, are destined to fail, for Trump conspicuously overbrims the containment of contemporary narratives and historical space. We cannot begin to understand Trump except by initiation into the mysteries of mythological space.
In a 1936 essay titled “Wotan” – a variant of Odin, chief of the Norse gods – famed Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung, with full academic gravity, proclaimed that Adolf Hitler was possessed (or seized) by the awakened “ancient god of storm and frenzy”. He went on, with unabated sobriety, to elaborate: “[t]he impressive thing about the German phenomenon is that one man, who is obviously “possessed”, has infected a whole nation to such an extent that everything is set in motion and has started rolling on its course towards perdition.” With such an otherworldly narrative tendered in solemn appraisal of a historical crisis, the 21st century perspective – with its mounting adoration of the logical – is bound to dismiss Jung as an overzealous and schizophrenic philosopher. Nevertheless, it would do us well to pay close attention to the Jungian verdict.
What are we to make of Jung’s contention that Hitler was possessed/seized by the berserker god Wotan? To answer this, we must first understand what Jung meant by god. In “Wotan” he asserts that although “[a] mind that is still childish thinks of the gods as metaphysical entities existing in their own right, or else regards them as playful or superstitious inventions”, the gods, properly considered, are “personifications of psychic forces”. This is an insightful perspective which harmonizes with the mythological treatment of the gods as circumscribed within clearly demarcated zones of action. Even the most psychologically complex gods inexorably lack the nuance of ordinary human personalities. In the language of Jungian psychology, we may say that the gods represent archetypes of the collective unconscious.
Jungian archetypes are fundamental psychic structures that serve as the substratum of all human personalities. They frame perspectives and guide action. As operational as they are, the archetypes are typically consigned to the shadowy dungeons of the unconscious and only episodically gain entrance into the vanguard of consciousness.
The aspect of the personality which interfaces with reality may be termed the ego. It represents a particularization of the archetypes under the circumstances and contingencies of space, time, and causality (that is, of geography, culture and history). Since it is the ego which negotiates the terms of reality, it must accordingly meet the exigencies of survival and the vicissitudes of everyday life. The heavier the demands of the banalities of existence, the more prominent, complex and adaptive the well-developed ego and the more restrained the archetypal manifestations. We can get a sense of the complexity of the ego by the intricacies of its narrative excretions. In the 21st century, characterized by its infinitely nuanced narratives and symbolic excess (there are more signifiers than things signified) so vehemently lamented by Baudrillard, the archetypal reality is buried beneath an impenetrable mountain of narrative webs and symbolic debris.
The interment of its archetypes under an insoluble nexus of narratives and infinite layers of symbolic excess is typical of the normal individual (even though by this he is plagued with neuroses and is need of catharsis). His normality and sanity is gauged exclusively in terms of alignment between his ego and the institutionalized dictates of the real world.
The world is, however, not without personalities born without the buffering effect of a well-developed ego – personalities who essentially interface with reality by way of their archetypes. Contrary to the multiplicity and nuance of the ego, these personalities are typically simple, monomaniacal and intense and usually manifest extraordinary willpower. However, because they do not negotiate the world via the agency of the ego, they are invariably categorized lusus naturae (freaks of nature) – remarkable personalities who are nevertheless viewed as foolish, delusional and schizophrenic; even sadistic and psychopathic. Notwithstanding their abnormality from the perspective of the banalities of everyday life, the archetypal personality – if it has not yet succumbed to the seductions of suicide – may find refuge in commitment to certain vocations that welcome and normalize expressions of the pathological – war, commerce, politics and the priesthood.
But what is more, despite the general abnormality of the archetypal personalities in times of normalcy, these lusus naturae are the inevitable demagogues, heroes and gods in times of crisis. A crisis may be interpreted as a distortion in the fabric of historical space which makes the mythical possible. This historical focal point acts as a conduit for the entrance of the gods – with all their madness and depravities. It may be said that here the mythical narrative is injected into historical space. But it is not so much an injection into history as much as it is that the distortion of historical space by crisis creates fissures in that space and offers glimpses of the archetypal abyss buried beneath it. As the cracks widen and the earth quakes, the sky darkens, and centuries of nuance and subtlety are blown away. Now the shadows of the archetypal netherworld climb out in droves. History comes to a standstill. The mythological has invaded the space of the real.
It is not hard to understand the apotheosis of archetypal personalities in times of crisis. The mythologist Joseph Campbell once proclaimed with characteristic profundity that “the psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight”. Those who have customarily negotiated life via the ego, after the banalities of the rational order have been blown away, discover that they dwell in a strange land which they are unable to navigate. It is only natural that they turn to those who have always inhabited the archetypal spaces and who know its every contour – those who are not merely unfazed by the new order but who actually revel in it; psychopomps to guide them in the land of the dead.
Within the framework thus established, it is easy to assimilate the rise of a genocidal psychopath as Führer of Germany. We have only to invoke the cataclysmic world of the Weimar Republic (particularly the hyperinflation initiated by the financial demands of the Great War and intensified by the brutally punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty and the austerities of the Great Depression) to establish the context of crisis. As for the archetypal personality, it was quintessentially expressed in the person of Adolf Hitler. We know it by the radical simplicity of his motive and the intensity and absurdity of his vision – lebensraum for the master race, mechanized extermination of a scapegoat people, and a regime to span a millennium.
Today, the radical simplicity has resurfaced. The dramatic rise of Donald Trump on the American political scene is a patent confirmation that America is wounded and in crisis, for Trump epitomizes yet another dreadful archetype – the Trickster. The Trickster is fundamentally a liminal figure – a boundary-crosser who fluidly navigates between worlds and who, by magic, trickery and/or thievery, subverts the rules of the social and/or natural order. Typical Tricksters of myth and folklore include Hermes, Prometheus, Loki, Lucifer, Eshu, Odysseus, Reynard the Fox and Anansi.
America seems especially fertile ground for the growth of the Trickster. In the form of Coyote and Raven, it has haunted the American landscapes for millennia and significantly infiltrated the folklore and literature of early America (Davy Crockett, Huckleberry Finn, Herman Melville’s Confidence-Man etc.). The Trickster (in the form of such figures like Br’er Rabbit and the Signifying Monkey) also featured prominently in the narratives of 19th and 20th century African American writers as a tool for circumventing and deconstructing the institutional blockades and violence of White America. Today, a multiplicity of pop culture icons like Bugs Bunny, Deadpool and the Joker convey that the Trickster is alive and well in America and that the postmodern era is its proper habitation.
From the perspective of Western culture and its domination by binary hierarchical opposites (good/evil, masculine/feminine, master/slave etc.), the Trickster eludes categorization. It is both good and evil, cunning and foolish, superficial and profound, frivolous and deadly serious. It openly jeers at authority, yet establishes itself as a (shifting) center of power. It laughingly stokes the flames of violence and chaos, yet, on the same platform, it preaches the path to a better world. These ambiguities (and more) are manifestly present in Trump.
We may gain access to a more enlightened perspective of the Trickster if it is contrasted with another archetype – that of the Outsider. Despite the name, the Outsider never exists on the outside of society. It exists smack in the middle of it but simply does not partake of it. It walks cloaked in the archetypal space, speaks its simplicities and eschews the nuances of the real world. To this camp belong both Christ and Adolf Hitler (as transcendental and dialectical variants, respectively). The Trickster, on the other hand, does not avoid the nuances of societal existence but welcomes it and subverts the status quo by becoming a hyperbolic expression of the selfsame nuances. As such, we may imagine the morphic variability and mercurial inconsistency of the Trickster as an exaggerated, punitive and mocking imitation of the actional and narrative labyrinths of the societal order.
As an incarnation of the Trickster, Donald Trump is no doubt a dynamically entertaining personality. But he is not to be underestimated. Concealed beneath his playful comicality is a profoundly nihilistic and destructive personality. It is easy for the experts to dismiss him as sociopathic, as short on policy, as a buffoon. Whatever the truth of these proclamations, they are immaterial, for his success is visibly real. If, as Adolf Hitler, Wotan made the whole world quake under the terrible thunder of his battle cry, are we not to shudder even more at the thought of Loki/ Trump – buttressed by the narrative infinitude and symbolic excess of our age and its generous offerings of instruments of war – at the helm of the most powerful nation in the world? If America is to be salvaged from total chaos, it must find the courage and determination to heal its wounds by other means. Trump is not the path to its recuperation. He is the exact opposite – the harbinger of its possible annihilation.