(Credit: Zdorov Kirill Vladimirovich via Shutterstock)
Under the presidency of George W. Bush, the so-called “Daddy Party” failed spectacularly on all major adult-male-gender-stereotyped fronts.
On the economic front, its record was terrible, even before it brought us the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression; on the military/national security front, its failure to prevent 9/11—the worst foreign attack on American soil since the War of 1812—was only compounded by its fighting-fire-with-gasoline response, turning both Iraq and Afghanistan into incubators for new generations of jihadists. On the science front, it presided over a widening war on science. In short, the entire framework of the “Daddy Party” construct fell into disrepute by the time Bush left office in 2008.
But now—thanks to the terrorist attacks in Paris—there’s a full-on rush to try to resurrect it. Only of course it’s an incoherent mess, with more focus on spreading fear than countering it. Donald Trump has benefited most on the GOP side, with his quick-draw tough talk, but it was similarly mindless, fact-free tough talk that made such a mess of things post-9/11 in the first place, and this time there’s not even a hint of an actual plan—it’s all just heated bluster, and denouncing Democrats for not frothing at the mouth just like them.
The panic over Syrian refugees is particularly revealing in this regard. Not one American has died at the hands of a refugee either during or since 9/11, although there have been 745,000 of them. Yet, irrational fear of these refugees has defined the only “coherent” policy response the GOP has come up with—both among myth-driven governors and in the shutdown-happy Congress. But when it comes to actually confronting ISIS, they’ve got nothing unified except a PC rampage against Democrats not using the phrase “radical Islam;” aside from that it’s a smorgasbord of proposals ranging from basically endorsing Hillary Clinton’s position (John Kasich) to cutting off their money (Paul and Fiorina) to grandstanding in Congress (Cruz), to reinvading Iraq, with a side of Syria (Bush, Graham and Santorum), to total war (“destroy them”—Carson) or multi-front bellicosity (Trump).
Overall, it skews heavily toward an amped-up front-line war, which is exactly what the terrorists want. It’s what they wanted from the 9/11 attacks, and it’s just what we gave them, and we only got a vastly stronger terrorist enemy as a result. So the “Daddy Party” script is already a proven failure. It’s done. It has no foundation in the adult world of facts, only in infantile, fear-filled imaginations, which is why there’s been so much GOP focus on circulating discredited scare stories.
In fact, the only time that such an all-out-war strategy genuinely has worked in modern American history was World War II—in part because our enemies were ruled by the same kind of flawed hypermasculine ideology, and in part because we made a just peace afterwards with the surviving populations, so that the enmities that led to war in the first place were not reborn.
It’s the remarkable post-war peacemaking process we need to pay far more attention to—and a truly adult attitude, male and/or female, would clearly recognize that. But what stands in our way most dramatically now, like an 800-pound gorilla, is the GOP’s wild-eyed phantasy of omnipotent male power. And if we want to understand that, we need to dig deep into early childhood psychology, exemplified by the work of Melanie Klein, who used that spelling—’phantasy‘ with a ‘ph’ to distinguish unconscious cognition from conscious daydreams. That phantasy world is profoundly dichotomous—me/not-me, omnipotence/powerlessness, bliss/despair, or even terror—and ruled by its own internal logic, confused and contradictory as it may appear to us, that has nothing to do with the outside world, and everything to do with managing imaginary hopes and fears.
As Kleinian therapist Chris Minnick writes, “It is often said that if Freud discovered the ‘child’ in the adult human personality, then Klein discovered the ‘baby’ in Freud’s child.” The tendency for fearful conservatives to posture as strong and attack liberals as weak is sometimes seen as an example of projection, a Freudian defense mechanism where an unwanted feeling or quality is defended against by projecting it onto another. But Klein—discovering the “baby” in Freud’s child—uncovered something more primitive, what she called “projective identification,” which is not directed onto another, but into them, opening the doorway to a much deeper, richer, more complex world of psychodynamic relationships. Minnick’s website contains a wealth of information about Klein’s approach, but before delving into it, it’s helpful to review some other findings first.
I’ve written before about advances in understanding liberal/conservative differences in terms of conservatives’ higher levels of threat sensitivity or “negativity bias” at the physiological level, summarized in the paper “Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology,” by lead author John R. Hibbing of the University of Nebraska. According to this line of research, liberal/conservative differences represent a normal range of human cognition, which has proven itself through evolution.
I quoted part of the paper which advanced the notion that population mixtures of different sensitivity levels had a group adaptive purpose, similar to how “groups of spiders benefit from having a mix of social and asocial members and virtually all species benefit from having individuals with different immune systems.” Consequently, “If this were true, the polarization that afflicts many modern democracies may be a vestige of the mixes of the behaviorally relevant, biological predispositions that worked well in small-scale societies.”
But that doesn’t mean that ideological polarization today is similarly benign, much less helpful. Threat level responses that may be in a normal range when surrounded by a diverse mix of people can quickly become pathologically abnormal if a group is surrounded by others who are equally sensitive to threat, and who feed off of each other’s fears, creating a dynamic based on shared phantasy, rather than any actual real-world threat. Something akin to this is clearly at play in societies where racial or ethnic hysteria breaks out into sustained episodes of mass violence, ethnic cleansing, or genocide, and while political leaders in such situations doubtless posture as strong protectors, their actual base of support is wildly out-of-control fear, fear of a sort that is normally only found in helpless infants who have no ability at all to provide for their own needs.
In America today, this is where “Daddy Party” politics now stands. Which is why Kleinian insights need to be drawn into our discussions in order to fully grasp what’s going on. Gone are the days of actual policies, however deeply flawed they might have been, and we only further confuse ourselves by insisting on trying to understand things in policy terms, when something much darker and more primitive is actually going on.
Minnick’s website is called “Minnick’s Klein Academy: Melanie Klein’s Models for Understanding the BabyCore of Personality,” and a subsection, “The ‘Baby Core’ of the Personality,” takes us right to the heart of what all the “Daddy Party” posturing desperately tries to avoid: “Although most adults behave much of the time in a ‘mature and rational manner,’ ALMOST NOTHING WE ADULTS THINK, FEEL, OR DO IN THE COURSE OF OUR DAILY LIFE IS LEFT UNTOUCHED BY ‘BABY’ STATES OF MIND.” Minnick isn’t normally given to the use of all caps. He really wants to drive that point home. So what are “baby” states of mind? For one thing, they’re something we’d rather not think about:
Being helpless, understanding almost nothing, being utterly dependent on of others for one’s very survival (which depends on these “others’” willingness and capacity to “sacrifice” on behalf of an infant) hardly represents a state of affairs that anyone would stand in line for a chance to experience again.
As a result of this painful state, Minnick notes, there is “a need in early infancy to bring order to the chaos of life outside the womb. This order is achieved by trying to hold ‘good’ experience (i.e. pleasurable) separate and apart from ‘bad’ experience (i.e. painful).” This is where the most basic psychological processes emerge: “This separation leads to a division or partitioning of ‘self’ and ‘objects’ (in psychoanalytic parlance, ‘objects’ refers to people, not things), in which self and object are quite literally divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects or ‘parts’.”
This process, commonly referred to as “splitting,” is one of two terms often associated with Klein—along with projective identification. Minnick goes on to say:
This division into ‘parts’ that are generally held separately in the mind, will usually include the evacuation of the ‘bad’ versions of self and object, into the outside world, on a semi-permanent basis, via projective processes, and this whole process will continue to be active throughout the lifespan.
“Projective processes” is Minnick’s preferred alternative for projective identification, which he calls “simultaneously the single most important concept in all of psychoanalysis and simultaneously the most confusing and misunderstood.” In fact, “projective processes” include introjection (imagining another—or aspects of another—inside oneself) as well as projection—or even both, simultaneously.
As Minnick points out, the first example Klein herself ever gave of projective identification was precisely along these lines, in a case of “envious reversal.” Elsewhere he explains:
In this envy driven “role reversal” (or ‘envious reversal’ for shorthand), two processes take place instantaneously and simultaneously. The first is that the projector rids himself of the unwanted baby state, by projecting it into the ‘container’ [the recipient of the projection]. Simultaneously, the projector steals the desirable state of affairs (i.e. some aspect of the “container’s” identity) from the container and takes it in for himself.
Situations like this, in which “the projector’s unconscious motive has a large component of a desire to exchange positions in life with the container,” are “also so common in infancy with mom,” Minnick notes—an indication of their primal power.
Now let’s consider the situation of the “Daddy Party” post-Bush. Everything they once pretended to be had gone bust. The first time since Herbert Hoover that they controlled the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court had ended in utter disaster—disaster so bad that they no longer even knew what conservatism was. On the theory that “conservatism cannot fail, it can only be failed,” many conservatives simply stopped counting Bush as one of their own. And yet, although they adopted that conscious dodge, a deeper part of them, subconsciously, could not escape the sting. Which is part of why there was so much animosity toward Obama, and such eagerness to lay blame on him for things that were actually Bush’s responsibility, or the fault of conservatism more broadly, such as rising debt/GDP ratios, a trend dating back to Ronald Reagan.
The fact that Obama tried to reach out and work with conservatives only made matters worse for them at this deeper level of subconscious animosity, intensifying the driving need for an envious reversal. Projecting blame for conservatism’s failures into Obama as the liberal “other” was a move made more difficult by every act he took to try to court cooperation—by including tax cuts as more than one-third of the stimulus, for example.
Such actions by Obama, clashing with their original projections, required more follow-on phantasies to rearticulate the envious reversal. The simplest involved flat-out negating what Obama had done, the more imaginative reinterpreted his actions as deceptive—”setting up Republicans” or conservatives, one way or another. Of course, there was already a phantasy template at hand to help generate these as needed—the birther phantasy, which held that Obama himself was entirely a fraud.
Conservatives had always been comfortable with blacks as other, as containers for their most unwanted projections. But before blacks were demonized, the pattern was initiated with Native Americans. Another Kleinian theorist, Robert Young, has written about racism and projective identification (here and here, for example), noting that “the price of admission into a culture is the acquiring of its projective identifications.” Young cites the example of a 1503 decree by Queen Isabella citing Native Americans’ purported “hard habits of idolatry and cannibalism” as justification for authorizing slavery:
The European charge of cannibalism was unfounded. Harmless and helpful natives were bad-mouthed as wild and bestial, thus legitimating the activities of a master race. The savagery of the conquistadors was projected onto their victims, who could then be seen as subhuman and could be treated in subhuman ways — which they extravagantly were.
A similar dynamic applied to enslaved blacks, regardless of the colonizing power involved. The savagery of conquest was projected into the conquered. However, when situations allowed, there was often a place for a few “respectable” tokens who served a variety of different functions for white slaveholders, and later white leaders who followed them—to endorse their views, make them seem more reasonable, provide pacifying “leadership” for the masses, etc.
Obama was threatening for a number of reasons, not least that he adopted a form of respectability politics, while remaining relatively loyal to the black base, and running as a Democrat, whose policies were anathema to movement conservatives. Hence, at the overt level, he disarmed the demonizing projective processes, particularly in courting conservatives outright—praising Ronald Reagan, inviting Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration, reaching out to conservative opinion writers,dining with them within weeks of taking office, etc.—but he would not validate the projection of otherness onto other blacks as a whole, which is a core purpose of the “respectable black” figure. And thus the need to otherize him (and project white evil acts, impulses, phantasies, etc. into him), as blacks had always been otherized, needed to find a new form, a new rationale. Which is precisely what the birtherphantasy did. It said that everything about him was a lie, so nothing he did could make any difference. It invalidated any action he might take, leaving it to be reinterpreted by those who most despised him, without any regard to the facts.
Once established, the core birther phantasy could be applied in any situation. It took the place of a totalizing ideology to unify the conservative base, even as they remained adrift with the wreckage of the “Daddy Party” legacy. But in a sense, this move only made matters worse, deeping the hold of negative partisanship on the GOP. Defeating the monster Obama effectively took over the space where some semblance of a positive policy agenda ought to have been—if only conservatives had a clue what that might be. “Repeal and replace Obamacare”… with what, exactly?Romneycare? Really?
The more obviously hollow the the GOP’s policy side became, while Obama’s wonkish side was increasingly on display, the more compelling the projective dynamic became—all the conservatives’ incoherence, cluelessness and destructive rage were repeatedly projected into their image of him, and the more reasonable he acted, the more adult he tried to be, the more intense their infantile rage became. Nothing made them feel more like helpless infants than seeing Obama act presidential—especially when he reached out to them, inviting a mature response, which they were utterly incapable of, boxed in by their own intricate structure of lies about him, prisoners of their own dark projections.
In 2011, Donald Trump made his first serious play for a presidential run, using birtherism as his calling card. It ended disastrously, when Obama released his long-form birth certificate, and then teased Trump in public at the White House Correspondents dinner, while secretly preparing the raid that killed bin Laden. And yet, some nine months later, more of the GOP base than ever believed in the birtherphantasy. It had absolutely nothing to do with empirical evidence.
Fast-forward to this year, when Trump almost accidentally stumbled onto his new ticket to the top—demonizing immigrants—just one of several topics he vaguely rambled on about, but the one that immediately caught fire, and the one that’s really still dominant in a very real sense, since anti-immigrant policies—this time directed against Syrian refugees—are the only consistent form that GOP anti-ISIS politics has taken since the Paris attacks. This is yet another sign of the “Daddy Party” decay: anti-immigrant phantasies run wild, driving actions by Congress and dozens of governors, but there’s no sign of any coherent anti-terrorist strategy aimed at actually defeating ISIS.
The driving force of anti-immigrant animus is racism, of course. But it’s intensified by the size of the demographics trends involved. After losing the 2012 election, GOP elites saw the need for a work-around, a way to blunt the inevitable political impact, give themselves space and time for repositioning. But the phantasy life of their base simply left no room for that.
Once again, the “Daddy Party” had no actual policies to offer, and it fell back ontophantasy-based fearmongering instead. Also, once again, Obama had played the role of adult, bending over backwards to meet Republicans halfway. Deportations evenreached record highs under him—causing a fair amount of anger from his base. And so, once again, Republicans responded with an envious reversal, painting Obama as eagerly flooding the country with “illegal immigrants,” and utterly denying their own lack of responsible action.
That was the field on which Trump built his phantasy-fueled racist campaign, propped up by his ludicrous claim to be a builder, rather than someone who hiresbuilders, and his equally ludicrous claim that building a 95-story building (there are more than 30) is more difficult than building a 2,000-mile wall (there’s just one).
The situation with fighting ISIS that erupted after the Paris attacks was strikingly similar in several ways. The envious reversal to place blame on Obama moved on two main levels. First, the problem was created by Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but Obama is evil, so he had to be blamed for that. Ergo, erase the fact that Obama was only following Bush’s blueprint when he withdrew forces from Iraq, the thread that’s used to try to shift the blame to him.
Second, last year, after the explosive spread of ISIS, Obama began trying to craft an adult response, balancing the need for military action with the realization that deploying substantial U.S. ground forces was both counterproductive and politically unsustainable. There are problems with Obama’s plan, to be sure. But it is an adult plan, and can be debated as such. In February, after months of delay, Obama asked Congress for authorization of military force to support his plan. Two months later,GOP leaders said forget about it! They didn’t come up with their own counter-plan. They didn’t do anything adult at all. They just—as almost always—did a big fat incoherent nothing.
Here, then, is the substance of the second envious reversal: Obama has a plan, the GOP does not; Obama cares a great deal, and has put a lot of thought and effort into it, the GOP has not. Suddenly, the Paris attacks happen, and it’s envious reversal time: Obama’s the one with no plan, and no interest, no effort fighting ISIS, the GOP—heck, they’re the “Daddy Party,” remember?
Every day it seems there’s a new wave of over-the-top GOP claims, mostly inflating fears and attacking others who won’t do the same. This is not a matter that’s open to debate. It’s not a matter of “opinions may differ.” It’s not even a matter of fact-checking individual fact-claims. It’s not a case-by-case kind of situation. Their entire framework of thinking is grounded in deeply-buried phantasies of helplessness and omniscience; it has no relationship whatever to the real world.
At the Washington Post recently, Daniel Drezner wrote a piece, “Donald Trump is constantly lying.” There’s nothing new about this, of course. He’s been lying constantly all along. But it’s gotten more acute, more noticeable since the Paris attacks. At the conclusion of his piece, Drenzer writes:
Trump has lied so many times about so many things during the past week that it’s difficult to keep track of all of them. But it doesn’t matter whether one focuses on Trump’s attitudes about crime or American Muslims or trade policy. He lies about all of these issues. And he will continue to lie as long as it works for him.
That’s what liars do.
True enough. But it’s not the heart of the matter. Closer to the heart is something Drezner said earlier, that “Trump’s MO on this ever since he’s become a candidate has been a simple five-step plan,” to wit:
- Say/tweet/retweet outrageous thing;
- Dominate the next news cycle;
- Bully the media that focus on the outrageous statement;
- Backtrack/claim misinterpretation;
- Sustain polling advantage.
In a sense, lying is basic to this—his outrageous statements all flow from lies. But the dynamic itself is much more important for us to focus on. It focus attention on how Trump uses lies—on what he does, rather than what he says. Which, in turn can be described as how he acts out and mobilizes Kleinian phantasies. Make no mistake, he’s a master at it. But he’s not the only one in the game. The entire “Daddy Party” is. Watch what they do, not what they say.
What they do: They couldn’t govern their way out of a paper bag. In fact, they’re really the baby party. All they can do is finger-point and fear-monger. That’s it.
What they say: If they can just pull off one more master envious reversal, convincing everyone it’s the Democrats who are helpless, clueless idiots, then they recapture the White House once again.
We’ve been warned. We’ve seen the “Daddy Party” fail spectacularly. Now, will we really believe it wasn’t them?