Civilization and Its Discontents: What might Freud say about Donald Trump?
“Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals.”
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, (1930)
When Freud says we must be united against separate individuals, he is not speaking of individual productivity, ambition and creativity. Rather he speaks in his classic work Civilization and Its Discontents, about the natural inclination to egoistic individual aggression, which has to be harnessed so that the good of the overall community may prevail. Freud describes the evolution of the basic concept of guilt as a force that influences individual aggressiveness, as well as the accumulated wisdom of what can be accomplished if people band together rather than oppose each other.
But what if individuals no longer feel sufficient guilt? What if they don’t even really understand the plight of their neighbors, in part, because the most wealthy and powerful are so insulated from the suffering of the masses that even our hard-wired natural empathy can no longer be of influence? One must be in the presence of a suffering other in order to feel his pain. And what if the social checks and balances no longer exist? What if society fails to impose any penalties for acting against the interests of society? Like tax loopholes that allow people to evade pay anything at all, or banks deemed too big to fail? The lack of social consequences provides reinforcement for individual aggression rather suppressing it. People who obey laws, pay their fair share of taxes, and give money to charity are considered by some to be “losers.”
Bernie Sanders adamantly argued that the ultra-rich, sequestered in their penthouses and flying on their private jets could not be counted on to relate to those less fortunate. Rather than continuing to have people like this running our nation, we needed leaders who could relate to the common person and enact legislation that improved the quality of their lives. Trump Tower has, indeed, become a metaphor for the isolation of the rich and powerful from the rest of humanity.
My patients have been coming to their sessions since the election expressing fear and loathing. They are afraid for themselves, and afraid for their children and their grandchildren. As President-elect Trump keeps adding to his tribe of chest-thumping billionaires, creating a cabinet of the ultra-individualists, the implications of billionaires running the country only stokes our post-election anxieties. And, unlike the irrational anxieties that any of us may feel at any time, I cannot dispel my patients’ fears, because they are not irrational.
As Freud was finishing his famous essay he wrote with the awareness of rampant anti-Semitism in Vienna and across Europe, while witnessing Hitler’s rise to power. Freud knew full well that our basic aggressive nature was not easily held in check. As he ended his famous essay he worried that aggression and self-destruction might indeed win out. Although we won World War II, it was at the cost of millions of lives and the destruction of many cities. I think Freud would be equally as concerned if he saw what was happening not only with the election of a person who unabashedly puts his own needs ahead of the country’s, but does so in the context of the rise of totalitarianism around the world. Freud said our only hope was for civilization to be stronger than any individual. That remains our challenge.