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  • Edición impresa de Agosto 2, 2016.

There’s a powerful way to explain the rise of Donald Trump that most commentators have missed entirely or undervalued. The standard line describes Trump as a bizarre anomaly. Beginning as an improbable celebrity candidate, he has defied all the conventional rules of politics, which should have been fatal. Instead Trump has swept all before him on the Republican side. Possessing a “genius” for grabbing the limelight, he continues to dominate the scene in ways no previous politician ever has in modern times—so the conventional view goes.

But in reality Trump isn’t bizarre or anomalous. He stands for something universal, something right before our eyes. It’s an aspect of the human psyche that we feel embarrassed and ashamed of, which makes it our collective secret.  Going back a century in the field of depth psychology, the secret side of human nature acquired a special name: the shadow. 

The shadow compounds all the dark impulses—hatred, aggression, sadism, selfishness, jealousy, resentment, sexual transgression—that are hidden out of sight. The name originated with Carl Jung, but its basic origin came from Freud’s insight that our psyches are dualistic, sharply divided between the conscious and unconscious. The rise of civilization is a tribute to how well we obey our conscious mind and suppress our unconscious side. But what hides in the shadows will out.

When it does, societies that look well-ordered and rational, fair and just, cultured and refined, suddenly erupt in horrible displays of everything they are not about: violence, prejudice, chaos, and ungovernable irrationality. In fact, the tragic irony is that the worst eruptions of the shadow occur in societies that on the surface have the least to worry about. This explains why all of Europe, at the height of settled, civilized behavior, threw itself into the inferno of World War I.

When Trump indulges in rampant bad behavior and at the same time says to his riotous audiences, “This is fun, isn’t it?” he’s expressing in public our ashamed impulse to stop obeying the rules.

But the fun of World War I, which almost gleefully sent young men off to fight, quickly turned to horror, and the shadow closed an insidious trap. Once released, it is very hard to force the shadow back into its underground bunker. The Republican party has kept the shadow on a slow simmer for decades, ever since Nixon discovered how to make hay form Southern racism, law-and-order aggression against minorities, and us-versus-them attitudes to the Vietnam anti-war movement. In order to make themselves feel unashamed, the good people on the right found figureheads after Nixon who exuded respectability. The irony is that as with civilized societies that seem the least likely to allow the shadow to run free, the more benign a Reagan or Bush acted, the stronger the shadow became behind the facade.

Trump has stripped away the facade, intoxicated by the “fun” of letting his demons run and discovering to his surprise (much as Nixon did) that millions of people roared with approval. Yet by comparison, Nixon retained relative control over the forces he unleashed, while Trump may be riding a tiger—that part of the story has yet to play itself out.

If the shadow refuses to go back underground, which is always the case, what outcomes can we anticipate over the next six months? The present situation finds us trapped between denial and disaster. Denial is when you ignore the shadow; disaster is when you totally surrender to it. Without being at either extreme, right now many Americans feel the unsettling symptom of being out of control. Trump glorifies being out of control, and until this outbreak runs its course—which no one can predict—he will remain immune to all the normal constraints.

 


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