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Melancholia and Mania on the Trump Campaign Trail
A commentary on “American Overabundance and Cultural Malaise: Melancholia in Julia Kristeva and Walter Benjamin” by Mary Caputi, Theory & Event, Vol 4, No. 3 (2000)

Published in 2000 at the very beginning of the twenty-first century, Mary Caputi’s article “American Overabundance and Cultural Malaise: Melancholia in Julia Kristeva and Walter Benjamin” examines what she saw then as a prevailing condition of melancholia in America in the midst of opulence and overabundance. One of the characteristics of this melancholia was a nostalgic reaching back to the past in order to redeem the present, which was perceived as saturated with a dizzying array of signifiers, symbols, and commodities that seem hollowed out or vacuous when compared to the fullness of the past. According to Caputi, this nostalgic reaching back to the past had in fact started well before the beginning of the twenty-first century and was a key element of the neo-conservative movement that began in 1980, and which was epitomized by Ronald Reagan’s campaign and his slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again”. Here a notion of a more “innocent”, “pure” and “cohesive” America of the 1950’s or even of the Founding generation was seen as that lost but unified past that could somehow be recuperated in order to reconnect to certain values and meanings that had been rent asunder by the liberal attack on values and “the damaging excesses of liberal administrations.”1 The way to achieve this was, however, not through an embrace of traditionalism but rather through an embrace of capitalism that would ensure America’s place at the forefront of the globalizing, technologically savvy world symbolized by opulence and overabundance. This American preeminence was to be achieved by casting off “the abstemiousness of regulation and [allowing] market mechanisms to perform unhindered.”2 Ironically and presciently, Caputi states that one element of this 1980’s opulence was encapsulated in the figures of “Donald and Ivana Trump—the extravagant towers, the expensive clothes, the bouffant hairdo, and glittering jewelry.”3 Revisiting Caputi’s article with the hindsight of almost 20 more years of neoliberal governance in America, the aim of this essay is to offer a supplement to her account [End Page 100] of melancholia by turning to Sigmund Freud’s essay on it in order to explore the forces of aggression within melancholia, as well as within its companion, mania, as a way of shedding some light on the rise of a very different kind of Republican President, Donald Trump.

In her article, Caputi turns to Julia Kristeva and Walter Benjamin to understand this double move of nostalgic reminiscence and capitalism, but also to understand why the resulting opulence or overabundance did not result in the promised state of a recovery or reconnection to a lost past, but instead in a feeling of malaise and melancholia amidst overabundance. According to Caputi, both Julia Kristeva and Walter Benjamin see melancholia arising out of a feeling of loss in relation to an anterior condition of unity, in Kristeva’s case with the dreaded and loved maternal body, in Benjamin’s case with Adamic language and its intimacy with God’s creative powers. For Kristeva, the unity with the maternal body represents a pre-linguistic state because the body’s “ability to satiate made language unnecessary.”4 While conventional language makes subjectivity and separation from the mother possible, it also produces a subject that acutely feels the loss of the intimate unity with the maternal body and its accompanying feelings of fullness and satiety. On the other hand, Benjamin’s sees the anterior stage of Adamic language not as pre-linguistic but rather as a form of revelatory and creative language in opposition to later conventional and instrumental languages “intended [only] to denote, explain, clarify, and persuade.”5 This Adamic language or Ursprache involved a direct connection to God’s creative powers and transcendent meanings in opposition to the chaotic multiplicity of conventional languages and meanings that occurred after the Tower of Babel. For both authors, according to Caputi, melancholia registers a move away from an anterior state of meaningful closure, fixity, and unity to a state characterized by a proliferating, swirling, ever-changing expansion of instrumental signs and symbols that leaves the individual longing for the “cherished lost realm that preceded the current fragmentation and disarray.”6

In Benjamin’s work, this sense of loss and disorientation amidst overabundance extends not just to linguistic signs and signifiers but also to things or more exactly, to commodities. Under capitalism, the intrinsic value of things and all human relations cede their place to the exchange value of commodities determined only by market relations. As Caputi puts it, “The flux in commodities’ prices—the fact that they can be valued today and worthless tomorrow, their monetary value soaring and plummeting—issues a statement about their depleted intrinsic worth, for their enmeshment within capitalist relations suggests that outside the purview of market forces they are meaningless, forlorn, pieces of wretched materiality with no value of their own.”7 In other words, Benjamin’s Marxist infused analysis of capitalism shows why [End Page 101] Ronald Reagan’s neoconservative strategy of promoting opulence and overabundance through an unfettered form of capitalism did not lead to a restored connection to a cohesive and unified past, but to greater feelings of malaise and melancholia amidst material overabundance.

This is not to say that Benjamin or Kristeva believe that the forlorn feeling of melancholia necessitates a kind of stuckness in a present pervaded by hollowed-out meanings, swirling signifiers, and commodities that only highlight their intrinsic worthlessness. For Benjamin, according to Caputi, the very feeling of melancholia can also point to a redemption that involves remembering the richness of the past in order to build a future that will restore the fullness and intrinsic value of things to human life, but this is done through Marxism and not capitalism.8 For Kristeva, the ever-present possibility of a move away from melancholia is not seen in economic terms but rather via the possibilities of language itself in its more Orphic and metaphoric registers, in both art and literature.9 However, Caputi concludes that the current state of America (in 2000) reveals a melancholia that has not been overcome or redeemed in these ways, but which has in fact been heightened by the very overabundance of cultural symbols, signifiers, and commodities that make the very meaning of “America” incredibly unstable: “The American imagination, at least as coopted by the media, packages the American experience as frenzied prattle, a true reenactment of Babel’s chaos. The signature of our society becomes a welter of cultural expressions whose ensemble we cannot comprehend.”10

Writing almost twenty years after Caputi, I take up the notion of melancholia and a melancholic culture to explain certain phenomena now present in America in the early decades of the twenty-first century. For purposes of space, like Caputi, I focus only on the ways in which this melancholia has then been utilized by the Republicans, and in my case, by Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican leadership and the American Presidency. What I find particularly generative in Caputi’s article is the way in which melancholia is treated as both a psychological condition and a socio-economic and political one. All individuals, according to Caputi, are prone to melancholia to some degree by the very move into conventional language and independent subjectivity, yet it can also be heightened or assuaged by certain kinds of socio-economic and political conditions: e.g. the media or the capitalist economy. In my reading, I will expand her presentation of melancholia to include the classic work by Sigmund Freud on this subject, “Mourning and Melancholia”, in order to augment her view of what melancholia means, allows, and forecloses. I will also examine how melancholia’s counterpart in that essay, that is mania, can also help to explain some of the most troubling events in recent times: the stubborn resiliency of neoliberalism that infiltrated both the Republican and Democratic Parties in America from 1980–2016, and the success [End Page 102] of Donald Trump’s campaign for the American Presidency. My argument will also involve reference to those sections in Freud’s later works, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, The Ego and the Id, and Civilization and Its Discontents, where he develops a number of the key insights that he first formulates in his essay, “Mourning and Melancholia”. In this latter essay, Freud was primarily concerned with individual and familial psychological conditions in isolation from wider societal relations or forms, however, these later works, especially Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and The Analysis of the Ego and Civilization and Its Discontents, show a growing appreciation of the societal forces behind psychic structures and conditions.11

I will argue that the ongoing transformation in America’s economic, social, and political landscape wrought by neoliberalism between 2000 and 2016 actually heightened the melancholia and malaise diagnosed by Caputi in her article, though my characterization of this melancholia and malaise will differ from Caputi’s in some significant ways. A Freudian analysis of melancholia and mania contributes to a fuller appreciation of the forces of aggression that are present, albeit in very different manifestations, in neoliberalism and Trumpism. My point is not to vilify neoliberals or Trump’s supporters as possessing an aggressive or authoritarian personality type, but to show that under neoliberalism certain socio-economic and political conditions have been laid where the forces of aggression, that will always be inherent to human life, and which Freud associates with the death drive in his later works, can take on the more extreme manifestations that they do in melancholia and mania. My return to Freud is in fact meant to overcome the kind of psycho-pathologizing that completely reduces Trumpism to an outgrowth of his “deplorable” supporter’s personality disorders or innate temperaments. In contrast to this kind of psychological analysis, Freud himself was always clear that his studies of clinical cases such as melancholia, mania, and obsessional neurosis provided insights into the normal working of the human psyche, and that the difference between the normal and the pathological ought to be seen in terms of a spectrum rather than a strict boundary. We are all of us, for Freud, a little bit melancholic, manic, neurotic, and obsessive compulsive.

Second, as I mentioned above, Freud’s later works show a growing appreciation of the pathological socio-economic and political forces behind the psychic phenomena he is analyzing. This was clearly recognized by Theodor Adorno in his essay, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” when he states that Freud “developed within the monadological confines of the individual the traces of its profound crisis and willingness to yield unquestioningly to powerful outside collective agencies. Without ever devoting himself to contemporary [End Page 103] social developments, Freud has pointed to historical trends through the development of his own work, the choice of his subject matters, and the evolution of his guiding concepts.”12 Like Adorno and Caputi, I am interested in understanding the imbrications between psychological forces and socio-economic and political conditions, though in my case I will be concerned with the specific phenomenon of neoliberalism in America between 1980–2016, and its role in the rise of Trumpism.

Finally, as Theodor Adorno makes clear, “What distinguishes [Freud] from [thinkers like Gustave] Le Bon is rather the absence of the traditional contempt for the masses which is the thema probandum of most of the older psychologists. Instead of inferring from the usual descriptive findings that the masses are inferior per se and likely to remain so, he asks in the spirit of true enlightenment: what makes the masses into masses?”13 Similarly, I hope to avoid the blanket contempt of all Trump supporters as ontologically bad “losers” or “idiots” or “racists” which characterized some of the reporting of them in 2015/16, both before and after the election.14 However, I do not overlook the obvious role that misogyny, racism, and xenophobia played in Trump’s campaign, but rather I look at the imbrication of these factors with the more strictly economic factors that were also at play in his campaign. In fact, as I argue below, in the case of Trump’s wealthy supporters, it is hard to see how racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, alongside greed, could not have played a significant role in their support for Trump. But I am also interested in understanding why the middle and working-class supporters behind Trump were, at this point in time (that is after 40 years of living under neoliberalism), so drawn to his version of the politics of demonization and his particular notion of “America,” which he created out of the chaos of Babel that was noted by Caputi, and that has worsened with the further privatization of the media under neoliberalism. The problem with the blanket contempt of all of Trump supporters as ontologically and hence irreversibly “deplorable” and unsalvageable (some of whom are part of the disadvantaged middle and working classes in America), is that it potentially limits the emergence of what so many leftists claim to want: a majoritarian progressive movement that can counter both the ethno-nationalist far right politics that Donald Trump and other European leaders were promising in 2015/16 (and that Trump now has the opportunity to practice), and the neoliberalism of the Establishment Parties that lasted from 1980 to 2016, and that led to the large levels of discontent and melancholia amongst the middle and working classes in both America and Europe throughout 2015/16. In order for a left-leaning movement to gain power there will have to be a way to build a coalition with, and work on the economic issues that were so galvanizing for, some of Trump’s supporters.15 [End Page 104]

To be clear, I do not think that my analysis of the role of neoliberalism, melancholia, and mania in Trumpism offers anything like a comprehensive analysis of this extremely complicated phenomenon, which also includes the degeneration of language and the media that Caputi spoke about,16 the racial resentment arising from the loss of white privilege that has been occurring for decades, as well as many other factors that would take a book to fully explain. No mono-causal explanation can capture the variety of motives that led each individual person to vote for Trump. I also do not think that all or even a majority of Trump’s supporters could be converted to a progressive movement that combats rather than embraces racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, but I think that my analysis illustrates why there is hope that some could be, and I am convinced that the stakes are too high to ignore these possibilities. In a recent study, which tracked the political history of 20 advanced democracies back to the 1870s and constructed a data-set of more than 800 elections from 1870 to 2014; researchers found a high correlation between financial crises and far right politics. “The gains of extreme right-wing parties were particularly pronounced after the global crises of the 1920s/1930s and after 2008.”17 Even more disappointing is the fact that the same study found that there was an important asymmetry in the response to these crises: “on average, the far left did not profit equally from episodes of financial instability.”18

Donald Trump’s Campaign for the American Presidency

Borrowing Ronald Reagan’s slogan almost verbatim (except for the “Let’s”), Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” invoked the same kind of nostalgic and melancholic reaching back to the past that Caputi showed was so prevalent in Reagan’s neo-conservative ideology of the 1980’s. It is also easy to see why this nostalgic reaching back to the past was so attractive to some of Trump’s voters: Exit polls showed that a high percentage of Trump voters felt their financial situation was worse today than it was four years ago, that the country was moving in the wrong direction, and that life will be worse for the next generation.19 However, I think there were significant differences both in terms of Trump’s campaign and in terms of the melancholic structure of the American public, which reveal the ravages that neoliberalism has wrought in America in the past four decades since Reagan’s inauguration of it in the 1980’s. One of the striking differences between Donald Trump’s primary speeches and rallies as compared to those of Ronald Reagan or even those of the more recent Tea Party Movement was the paucity of any extended and substantive celebration of more traditional values. When there was any substance to Trump’s policies, it often changed from one interview or rally to the next in a way that was unprecedented in American politics. If Trump [End Page 105] had any consistent policy stance it was found in his promise of various forms of aggression towards different groups: Mexicans, immigrants, women, Muslims, etc. So how then can one speak of Trump himself as invoking a lost object, person, or place that would appeal to a melancholic follower? And what exactly does the melancholic American subject look like today? How has it changed since Caputi’s diagnosis in 2000 and why was outward-directed aggression now so attractive to some Americans? I suggest that the lost object, person, or place that a Trump supporter was invited to reconnect or identify with was Trump himself. This was not simply because he may have been the most narcissistic person who ever sought the office of the President, but also because Trump qua successful businessman and entrepreneur had become a model for a certain kind of American political leadership under neoliberalism’s economistic logic. In other words, his narcissism was at least in part facilitated by the socio-economic and political conditions of neoliberalism itself. While he infuriated his critics by speaking of fixing domestic or foreign policy as if it was simply a matter of negotiating or re-negotiating a business deal, his supporters could reasonably think that this was exactly the sort of elite-negotiated, backroom dealing that led to the NAFTA treaty or the proposed TPP treaty, which they vehemently opposed. Now they had an experienced business executive promising to renegotiate or oppose these treaties in their favor.20

As Wendy Brown has argued, neoliberalism involves a vanquishing of homo politicus by homo oeconomicus because “the citizen subject converts from a political to an economic being and … the state is remade from one founded in juridical sovereignty to one modeled on the firm. … States are subordinated to the market, govern for the market, and gain or lose legitimacy according the market’s vicissitudes; states are also caught in the parting ways of capital’s drive for accumulation and the imperative of national economic growth.”21 While these processes may well have been inaugurated by the Reagan administration and were well underway by the time Caputi was writing in 2000, it is fair to say that the last 16 years have seen this neoliberal revolution proceed at an extremely fast pace. The fact that the state has become subordinated to the market was made evident during the 2008 economic crisis when corporations that were “too big to fail” were allowed to survive only because of government bailouts, which contrasted dramatically with the sacrifices made and losses suffered by low and middle income citizens, some of whom lost their houses and life savings.

Most strikingly, the growth in income inequality under neoliberalism has been dramatic: For the United States overall, the top 1 percent captured 85.1 percent of total income growth between 2009 and 2013. In 2013 the top 1 percent of families nationally made 25.3 times as much as the bottom 99 percent.22 In addition, neo-liberal policies resulted [End Page 106] in relentless cut-backs to the social safety net and made it more difficult for workers to form unions such that “non–college educated workers — a group that makes up 65 percent of our labor force — [now makes] a median wage $1.30 lower than it was in 1980.”23 According to exit polls, Trump had significantly more support from white non-college educated men and women than Clinton.24 While non-college educated white males continue to make more money than both non-college educated female and black workers, the former group has actually seen a decline in their annual income from 1973 ($56,000/year) to 2014 ($52,000).25 America’s GDP has grown in recent years and the unemployment rate of 5 percent represents a 40 year low in joblessness, however, this latter statistic hides the real employment situation of many people in America.26 The unemployment rate of 5 percent does not reflect the fact that many middle-income, long-term jobs have been replaced by those in the ‘1099 economy’, which consists of low-paid, short term contract work or by low-wage service jobs without benefits or pensions.27 In fact, “44 percent of new jobs created between 2008 and 2012 were in low paid service work.”28 When the type and not just the fact of employment is factored in, it becomes clear that there was a swing towards Trump in counties with lower average earnings among full-time workers.29 The unemployment rate also does not include the long-term unemployed (workers unemployed after 27 weeks of searching), and in 5 of the swing states that Trump won, this rate is quite high compared to most other states (Pennsylvania: 116,000, Florida: 244,000, Michigan: 119,000, North Carolina: 98,000, Ohio: 103,000).30 It is also important to note that Obama won Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio in 2012. Finally, while Clinton did get more votes from those making under $50,000 a year (52 percent), Trump still captured 41 percent of these low-income voters, and Clinton’s percentages reflected a drop from Obama’s ability to capture 60 percent of these voters in 2012.31 This is not to deny that Trump had a significant amount of support from those in higher income brackets (that is, $100,000 or more), though even here his 48 percent to Clinton’s 47 percent represents a fall from Romney’s 54 percent to Obama’s 44 percent in 2012.32 My point is only to show that, contrary to what some media pundits were arguing prior to and after the election, Trump did appeal to some of the working-classes and middle-classes who have suffered under neoliberalism’s policies.33

With neoliberalism’s privatization and dismantling of the public institutions and infrastructure that once ensured a modicum of modest redistribution, inherited privilege now triumphs over any real form of equality of opportunity.34 As Wendy Brown puts it, the dominant ruling norm of citizenship has become one of “responsibilization” where the subject is seen as a “responsible self-investor and self-provider” who is perceived as engaging in a form of “self-sustenance that meshes [End Page 107] with the morality of the state and the health of the economy.”35 Given this neoliberal redefinition of citizenship in economic terms, it should not be surprising that a businessman who enjoys the inherited privilege of family wealth but projects the image of the self-made billion-aire, and who has rigorously pursued business strategies, such as filing for bankruptcy as a way of retaining his own capital even at the expense of numerous employees, could be seen by some Americans as a successful and even admirable model for President. As Jodi Dean puts it, “Where other candidates appeal to a fictitious unity or pretense of moral integrity, [Trump] displays the power of inequality. Money buys access—why deny it? Money creates opportunity—for those who have it. Money lets those with a lot of it express their basest impulses and desires—there is no need to hide the dark drives when there is none before whom one might feel shame (we might call this the Berlusconi principle). It’s the rest of us who bow down.”36

While many criticisms of Trump tried to point to his many bankruptcies or his trafficking in absurd fictions, as a sign of his fraudulent, psychopathic, or huckster character, it is important to remember that corporations are allowed to, and often do, engage in bankruptcy practices without the kind of negative consequences that are associated with filing for personal bankruptcy. Corporations are also fictional persons that are legally obligated to perform in ways that maximize the returns for their investors rather than the good of their employees or the common interests of society, and because of this fact some have argued that they actually mimic many of the textbook behaviors of the psychopath as defined by the DSM IV.37 Finally, Wall Street stockbrokers made and continue to make their money by trafficking in fictitious or novel entities, like subprime mortgages, which are not “illegal” because they are simply new creations that have not yet been regulated by the country’s Securities and Exchange Commission. Trump is indeed a huckster and snake-oil dealer, but so are some of the financial advisors and Wall-Street brokers that one deals with every day, if one is lucky enough to have a stock portfolio at all. During the Republican National Convention and then again in the week after Trump’s Presidential victory, the Dow Jones was reported to be at a record high, and it would be naive to ignore the fact that some of the instruments pushing its rise are as fictitious and novel as the ones that produced the mortgage bubble that preceded the Great Recession. Neoliberalism’s deregulation of Wall Street has created many people like Donald Trump who understand that trafficking in fictions and novelties is how you make millions. So the “sociopathy” or “psychopathy” that some reporters claimed to see in Trump might well have been a product of his introjection of the American corporate environment, within which he had spent his life. It also means that many of his supporters also imbibed this corporate culture as they moved from job to job after their [End Page 108] bosses either declared bankruptcy or decided to manufacture things offshore, or after they themselves had to lay off workers in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.38 Donald Trump embodied much of the ruthless logic of the successful firm and company boss upon which the rationality of neoliberalism is based, and this was buttressed by his reality show, “The Apprentice”, where he was portrayed in precisely this way with every boardroom finale that ended with his infamous pronouncement: “You’re Fired.”

Neoliberalism’s replacement of homo politicus by homo oeconomicus is evident in the fact that a businessman and firm owner with no political experience could actually beat a candidate with as much political experience as Hillary Clinton. Exit polls indicated that Trump beat Clinton 49 percent to 46 percent on the issue of who would better handle the economy, and of the 63 percent of people who thought the condition of the economy was poor, Trump beat Clinton by 63 percent to 31 percent.39 Finally, in an early poll, a significant number of Trump’s supporters said they were voting for him because his vast wealth meant that he was actually free to speak the truth and not be beholden to wealthy investors or to Wall Street.40 As Wendy Brown puts it, with neoliberalism’s ascent “distinctly political meanings of ‘equality,’ ‘autonomy’, and ‘freedom’ are giving way to economic valences of this term.”41 It should then not be surprising that under neoliberalism, Trump’s supporters equated his wealth with the ability to speak freely, even though democracy was originally founded on the equal ability of all (including the poor) to speak in the Athenian democratic assembly, and America’s liberal democracy was founded upon the equal right to free speech for all citizens. Thus, while the xenophobic and racist elements of Trumpism are best seen as the monstrous outgrowth of the racist “Southern Strategy” already developed by the Republican Party,42 it is still true that Trumpism is also, in part, a monstrous outgrowth of the neoliberalism that has been embraced by both the Democratic and the Republican Parties over the past 40 years.

In Freudian terms, for many of his supporters, Trump embodied important elements of the ego ideal of homo oeconomicus, as this creature exists under neoliberalism. As Freud noted in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, the followers of a leader identify with one another in terms of their ego, but they all put the leader in the place of their own ego-ideal.43 For Freud, the ego ideal is first formed when the child’s narcissistic libido is transferred from their own ego onto an internalized and idealized figure of the loving parent, which then becomes the ideal against which the ego can be measured.44 In later life this original ego ideal is continually augmented by other figures from the individual’s social environment, including public opinion, the nation, and the different groups of which the individual is a part.45 The resulting complexity of this ego ideal can help to maintain an individual’s [End Page 109] resiliency and self-esteem in the face of failures to live up to any given ideal, as there will always be other ones that are not threatened by any one particular failing. However, as neoliberalism projects the rationale of the successful business firm and self-investor into every sphere of life, it narrows rather than enhances the complexity of this societally derived ego ideal.

It also helps to set the stage for a person like Trump who perfectly fulfills the criteria set by his own or his culture’s ego ideal. If Trump often seemed megalomaniacal, this should not be surprising since mania for Freud is defined by the fact that the individual’s ego becomes conflated with his ego ideal, allowing the person to be free of any self-recriminations or reproaches for falling below this ideal, thus facilitating a grandiose sense of the self.46 Nonetheless, it should also be pointed out that Trump shares this characteristic of mania with the top 1 percent in America and with neo-liberal policy makers who even today think that the answer to neoliberalism’s problems (e.g. stock market bubbles which inevitably burst or social security nets with no netting left in them) is simply more neoliberalism. Mania is characterized not only by a freedom from self-recrimination but also by delusional or magical thinking.47 This is because when a manic person’s ego is absorbed by the pleasant and triumphant feelings of having merged with its ego ideal, it is diverted from its important task of reality-checking. For Freud, the ego is the agency that “seeks to bring the influence of the external world to bear upon the id and its tendencies, and endeavors to substitute the reality principle for the pleasure principle which reigns unrestrictedly in the id.”48 While Trump was often criticized as the spokesperson for the id because of his factually incorrect, unrealistic, or absurd pronouncements, neoliberal policy makers and their wealthy beneficiaries seem to be impervious, in their own much more polished and savvy way, to the bleak realities of the American middle and working-classes that neoliberal policies have created.

Another characteristic of mania is increased aggression towards other people.49 For Freud, the superego is the psychic agency that is the ultimate repository of both the aggressiveness of the death drive as well as the criticisms and recriminations of parental and societal authority figures, and it works by measuring the distance between the ego and the ego ideal.50 It produces feelings of guilt and self-recrimination when it finds a discrepancy between them,51 but in cases of mania the superego’s aggressiveness against the ego is effectively defused because of the fusion between the ego and the ego-ideal. This does not mean that the energy and work of the death drive is effectively overcome by mania. Rather it means that this aggression of the death drive is rapidly freed up in order that it can be redirected away from the person’s ego and outwards onto others in the form of aggression or hostility. While Trump has been justifiably criticized for scapegoating large [End Page 110] swatches of the population, it is instructive to note that neoliberalism has quietly and more passive-aggressively scapegoated those members of the electorate who could not leverage themselves in accordance with the demands of capital and the free market. Also, as Matt Taibbi has argued, in the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis, financial firms were actually more likely to target black homeowners when selling the subprime mortgage loans they knew were ticking time-bombs, and in some cases, like Wells Fargo, blacks were 8 times more likely to be marketed these risky subprime loans.52 So while Trump’s open racism and the real estate practices he inherited from his father are deplorable, they also unmask the much stealthier racist and predatory practices of many of the large companies that neoliberalism embraces. Misogyny is also present amongst these firms and Wall Street traders, some of whom booed and chanted, “Lock Her Up!” while Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech.53

Mania is also characterized by risky behavior and can result in “engaging in unrestrained buying sprees” or “foolish business investments.”54 While the average individual suffering from mania quickly suffers the consequences of these risky behaviors, wealthy Wall Street Brokers do not have to suffer the consequences of the novel and risky security instruments that they peddle to their clients, as the financial consequences are all borne by their clients. Like Trump, the wealthy 1 percent and neoliberal policy makers have, from 1980–2016, felt the manic freedom from self-recrimination and reproach for their policies, which they often failed to see were leading to a growing economic catastrophe for the lower and middle classes in the form of rising student and household debt, foreclosures, stagnant wages, joblessness or a precarious and low-paying job economy, the criminalization of the under-employed or unemployed, and the lack of a social security net.

As I mentioned above, exit polls from the election show that Trump did as well as and even a few percentage points better than Clinton amongst those making $100,000 or above.55 It is very hard to make the argument that these people were voting for Trump because of their economic woes, and as I argued above racism and misogyny have long been present amongst Wall Street and large corporations. If anything, Trump’s victory gave some of them the ability to express it more freely than they had in the past, but this does not mean it was not working behind the scenes for the past 40 years of neoliberalism’s reign in America. It is also important to remember that one of the reasons Trump originally alienated many Republican leaders and voters was because of some of his left-leaning economic views, which he espoused during the Republican primaries. As John Cassidy put it, “In embracing protectionism, defending labor unions, promising to protect Social Security, and saying that people on Wall Street don’t pay enough in Taxes, Trump … trashed much of what the Ryan Republican [End Page 111] Party stands for.”56 Trump then distanced himself from these more left-leaning views after the primaries and especially during the Presidential debates where he sounded more and more like a traditional Republican by promising massive across the board tax cuts even for the rich. While media pundits saw this as just more evidence of his inconsistencies and unstable temperament, it might well have been a winning strategy designed precisely to gain support from some of the more traditional Republicans (and Republican elites) who thought his original economic positions represented the death of their party. What it also did was to signal to the wealthy elites that they need not give up their manic march of neoliberalism, as well as their concealed or now not so concealed racism and misogyny, if they voted for him. These people seem to me to be far more culpable for the horrible policies that will now be enacted by a Trump regime than some of the lower and middle classes who voted for Trump since these wealthy voters had, and now will continue to have, white privilege and their economic woes cannot be seen as a reason explaining their votes. Some of them are also now members of Trump’s cabinet, so they may well be responsible for some of the more horrific policies that will be enacted during a Trump presidency.

Sigmund Freud’s Understanding of Melancholia

In the case of Trump’s middle and working class voters, whose economic woes were outlined above, I think the choice of Trump was more complicated. Neoliberalism’s mania and the ravages it has wrought upon large swaths of the American electorate created another condition for Trumpism by producing a particularly melancholic public with a large resource of inward-directed aggression that could then be tapped into and re-directed outward by Trump’s own particular brand of the politics of demonization and the Southern Strategy of the Republican Party. In order to understand this, it is necessary to look more closely at Caputi’s notion of a melancholic public, but this time via the lens of Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia.” According to Freud, mourning and melancholia actually share a number of similar characteristics: “a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, [and] inhibition of all activity.”57 However, what sets melancholia apart from mourning is the subject’s “lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.”58 It is for this reason that an extreme case of melancholia can lead the person to suicide. Much of “Mourning and Melancholia” is devoted to Freud’s explaining where these extremely negative assessments of the self come from in melancholia. His answer involves the way in which the melancholic subject [End Page 112] relates to the lost person or ideal and incorporates this person or ideal into her psyche. Instead of a withdrawal of the libido from this lost object and a displacement of it onto a new object (as is the case with mourning), the melancholic subject’s ego identifies with the lost object or as Freud famously puts it, “the shadow of the object [falls] upon the ego, and the latter [can] henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken object.”59 While Freud does not specify what this “special agency” is in “Mourning and Melancholia,” in his later work, The Ego and The Id, he makes it clear that it is the superego.60 While Freud himself occasionally equated the ego ideal and the superego in The Ego and the Id,61 Freud’s disciple Otto Fenichel clarified that the ego ideal contains “the patterns of what one would like to be”, while the superego is the “threatening, prohibiting, and punishing power.”62

The reason for the excessively harsh, aggressive, and negative character of the superego’s judgment of the ego in melancholia actually arises from two sources: the first is the melancholic’s original ambivalence towards the lost object or ideal.63 Just as Kristeva’s melancholic subject feels both love and dread for the maternal body, so Freud’s melancholic subject feels both love and hate or hostility for the lost object, person, or ideal. Instead of displacing the love felt for the lost object onto another object, it is withdrawn into the ego in the process of identification, which actually represents a regression from object-libido to narcissistic libido.64 Having identified with the lost object by taking it into one’s ego, the melancholic person’s previous hostility or hatred towards it is then redirected towards that person’s own ego. In addition, the slights, disappointments, or feelings of neglect experienced at the hands of the object, person, or ideal by the melancholic person can be imported into the psyche in order to reinforce the original ambivalence.65 In fact, Freud goes one step further later in the essay to suggest that the ambivalence of the melancholic might be constitutional and thus characteristic of every relationship that the person has or it can arise “precisely from those experiences that involved the threat of losing the object.”66 Freud’s disciple, Karl Abraham, was even clearer about the fact that melancholia can be caused by actual experiences of contempt and brutal criticism at the hands of one’s parents, caregivers, or teachers.67 This is important because it means that the melancholic person need not be born with a unique type of constitution that sets them apart from the more “normal” person capable of mourning, but rather that certain types of experiences in one’s environment can play a role in producing melancholic rather than mournful responses to loss. Whether derived constitutionally, environmentally, or by some combination of both, the high degree of hatred and aggression that are now directed against the person’s own ego by the superego account for the melancholic’s unique characteristic of self-reproach and a pathological desire for punishment or even suicide. [End Page 113]

If homo oeconomicus has become the norm or ego ideal for neoliberal societies, then it should not be surprising that large numbers of America’s lower and middle classes, whose economic situation is suffering under the ravages of neoliberalism, feel the loss of this ideal. Yet given that homo oeconomicus is a particularly eviscerated conception of the human being and her capacities, it should also not be surprising that this ideal is both loved and hated by those who measure themselves against it. Working longer and longer hours for less money, but also less time for one’s family and all of those activities that make life fulfilling is a recipe for deep ambivalence towards the ideal of homo oeconomicus. Evidence that the prevalence and depth of melancholia in America has increased since Caputi wrote her article in 2000 can be seen by the alarming rise in suicide rates amongst middle-aged men and women in the past two decades. Between 1999 and 2014, “the suicide rate for women aged 45–64 jumped 63 percent and by 43 percent for men in the same age range. White middle-aged women had a shocking 80 percent increase in suicide during this period, three to four times higher than for females in other racial and ethnic groups.”68 While the working classes in other advanced industrial nations have also suffered under neoliberalism, the stronger social security net in some of these nations helps to explain why the suicide rate is not rising in a way that is at all comparable to America.69

In addition, Freud’s account of how aggression towards the lost object gets redirected against the self in melancholia may provide a partial, psychological explanation for what Wendy Brown describes as the sacrificial notion of citizenship that becomes prevalent under neoliberalism. Unlike Adam Smith’s notion of homo oeconomicus, where the market’s utilization of the human propensity to truck, barter, and exchange is seen as a mechanism for lifting every individual up in society via the invisible hand, contemporary neoliberalism dispenses with this form of economic rationality and instead the individual person or firm is supposed to be sacrificed to the country’s GDP, credit rating, or competitive positioning vis a vis other nations. As Brown puts it, “The notion that loyal citizens must ‘share sacrifice’ in accepting austerities, the encomium one hears today from Right to Left, relocates [the] classic gesture of patriotism from a political-military register to an economic one, a relocation that itself indexes the neoliberal economization of the political.”70 What makes this new form of sacrifice even more puzzling than traditional forms of military sacrifice is that there is not even a promise of lasting fame or honor to be received in exchange for one’s sacrifice. Freud’s argument that the melancholic person is distinctively set off from the mournful person by their self-recrimination and desire for punishment and even suicide suggests that such a person might well have the kind of affective resources of self-directed aggression [End Page 114] that would make them uniquely susceptible to a form of sacrificial citizenship and austerity politics.

To be clear, the melancholia under neoliberalism that I am describing was as present amongst citizens who identify with left-wing politics as it was amongst those who identify with right-wing politics in the decade and a half between Caputi’s article (2000) and my analysis (2016). In fact, the theorizing of a peculiarly “left melancholy” preceded Caputi’s article by one year, with Wendy Brown’s “Resisting Left Melancholy”71, which was published in 1999. It was then contested or augmented by political theorists like Jodi Dean and Sanford Schram.72 All of these thinkers turned to Sigmund Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” in order to theorize melancholia. My own discussion of it in the context of neoliberalism shares more with Jodi Dean’s characterization of left melancholy than with Wendy Brown’s. For Brown, left melancholy consists of holding on to an ideal of left politics that is outmoded and dead because it relies on a bygone era of “unified movements, social totalities, and class-based politics.”73 In order to preserve the love for this idealized and dead object, the melancholic leftist hates, reproaches, and punishes the proponents of new forms of identity politics—“racial, sexual, ethnic or gendered”—or those who practice “poststructuralism, discourse analysis, postmodernism, trendy literary theory got up as political analysis.”74 While Brown’s analysis does correctly identify two dangers for any progressive leftist political movement—that is, relying on outmoded economic solutions and ignoring the other forms of oppression in society that work along gender, ethnic, and racial axes—it does not quite seem to get the ambivalence of Freud’s notion of melancholia quite right. For Freud’s melancholic, the loved and the hated person or ideal are one and the same thing. The melancholic loathes and reproaches himself for the very thing (ideal, person, cause) he loves and refuses to give up. While Donald Trump’s working and middle class supporters recognize and are aggrieved by the suffering they have experienced as the result of neoliberalism, they still love and embrace a member of the 1 percent who has benefited from it, and somehow hope that he can restore their own lost prosperity. Here Jodi Dean’s account of left melancholy does seem to be truer to the spirit of Freud’s own piece and to the notion of melancholia under neoliberalism that I observe in Trumpism. Dean argues that the left melancholic is not attached to an old, dead ideal, but rather has given in, sold out, or compromised with a current ideal or situation that she simultaneously finds lacking and incapable of actually fulfilling her desire.75 As Dean puts it, left “melancholia derives from the real existing compromises and betrayals inextricable from its history, its accommodation with reality, whether of nationalist war, capitalist encirclement, or so-called market demands.”76 However, [End Page 115] following Sanford Schram, I want to emphasize that this melancholia under neoliberalism was just as widespread amongst the right as it was amongst the left in the lead-up to the 2015/2016 electoral primaries, and just as prevalent amongst the middle classes as the working classes.77 Analyzing the Tea Party Movement and the Occupy Movement, Schram asserts, “Both respond in ways that point, even if furtively, toward how a neoliberal governmentality is insisting on an intensified program of “responsibilization” where people are expected to entrepreneurially leverage their own human capital and become that self-sufficient self just when the economy is making it all the more difficult to enact that ideal.”78

While Freud thought that the widespread malaise or discontent that he was diagnosing in Civilization and Its Discontents was due in large part to the fact that the most recent expression of the cultural superego: “Love thy neighbor as thyself”, was a gross exaggeration of the power of love (Eros) in human life vis a vis the other important psychological forces of aggressiveness (Thanatos) and egoism,79 neoliberalism’s cultural superego of “responsibilization” is a gross neglect of the power and importance of love and caring in human life, and neoliberal policies have destroyed large portions of the social security net in America and other parts of the world. As Wendy Brown has argued, the dismantling and privatization of the public infrastructure that did the work of caring for families, children, and retirees, and which included things like “affordable, quality early childhood and afterschool programs, summer camps, physical and mental health care, education, public transportation, neighborhood parks and recreation centers, public pensions, senior centers, and social security” has meant that the work and cost of supplying this care work has returned to individuals and disproportionately to women.80 This fact about neoliberalism might well account for the disproportionate rise in suicide rates amongst American middle-aged white women versus men under neoliberalism that I cited earlier. It might also account for the surprising fact that so many white women voted for a misogynist like Trump. For them, Hillary Clinton may have represented just more of the same establishment politics that lead to their suicidal melancholia in the first place. Indeed, in the Ego and the Id, Freud goes so far as to say that what is holding sway in the superego of the melancholic is “a pure culture of the death instinct, and in fact it often enough succeeds in driving the ego into death.”81 Neoliberalism’s rationality or cultural superego of “responsibilization” and its accompanying punitive policies of austerity might well be summarized in the formula: “Leverage thyself or sacrifice thyself.” [End Page 116]

Sigmund Freud on Melancholia’s Manic Escape

As Freud also makes clear in “Mourning and Melancholia”, the other interesting and “most remarkable” feature of melancholia “is the tendency to change round into mania—a state which is the opposite of it in its symptoms.”82 While Freud does not offer much of an explanation for this rapid shift in moods in “Mourning and Melancholia”, in his later work, The Ego and the Id, he suggests that mania offers a way for the melancholic to overcome the tyrannical superego’s severe criticisms and attacks against the ego.83 Mania offers this precisely by eliminating the very discrepancy that the superego monitors, that is the one between the ego and the ego ideal. This is what then constitutes mania: “in cases of mania the ego and the ego ideal have fused together, so that the person, in a mood of triumph and self-satisfaction, disturbed by no self-criticism, can enjoy the abolition of his inhibitions, his feelings of consideration for others, and his self-reproaches.”84 If this is indeed the case, then it makes sense that a manic leader like Donald Trump might well be attractive to a melancholic person suffering from the ravages of self-criticism, punitive self-sacrifice, and in extreme cases, suicidal depression, as these are increasingly experienced under a neoliberal regime. A significant portion of Donald Trump’s followers came from the very group of white, middle-aged men and women who have seen such an alarming increase in their suicide rate under neoliberalism. What some of Trump’s followers may have identified with was not so much his messages, but rather his personality and affective position, which involved the manic fusion of ego and ego ideal that effectively diffuses the merciless recriminations of the superego. Trump seemed shameless and guilt-free, that is, free of the self-recriminations that bound and tortured them.85

In contrast to the very slow and gradual work of both mourning and melancholia, mania is tempting because it promises a quick fix to the suffering and self-recriminations of the melancholic citizen under neoliberalism. As Freud puts it in “Mourning and Melancholia”, “all states such as joy, exultation or triumph, which give us the normal model for mania depend on the same economic conditions. What has happened here is that, as a result of some influence, a large expenditure of psychical energy, long maintained or habitually occurring, has at last become unnecessary, so that it is available for numerous applications and possibilities for discharge—when, for instance, some poor wretch, by winning a large sum of money, is suddenly relieved from chronic worry about his daily bread…”86 If melancholia is for Freud, as I mentioned above, “a pure culture of the death instinct”, then it should not be surprising that its rapid overcoming via mania, would unleash the death drive outwards in all kinds of alarming ways. As I mentioned earlier, the most consistent message to be found in [End Page 117] Trump’s campaign was his promise of aggression towards various groups in American society. And one of the most alarming elements of his campaign rallies and his Republican National Convention was the unleashing of violent aggression amongst his crowd of supporters towards his detractors. He himself bragged of being able to shoot a person with impunity and spoke with admiration about the aggressive policies of leaders like Vladimir Putin and Saddam Hussein. For the long simmering and inward-directed aggression and real economic woes of neoliberalism, Trump’s manic response offered a quick fix: “Donald Trump makes you feel good like a line of cocaine or an adulterous orgasm makes you feel good. His puffed-up pride mongering appeals to the cowed, craving animal inside every citizen that wants to vote for cake today and fuck the other guy. Why? Because it feels good, and because so little else does.”87 While, as in the case of Brexit, many in the media tried to warn the American public about the horrible consequences of a Trump presidency, the risky behavior characteristic of mania may well have made these people impervious to these consequences, or they may have thought that bringing about chaos in the financial markets was a way of getting revenge on the wealthy 1 percent, the Wall Street brokers, and the wealthy Establishment politicians they vehemently opposed.


While Trump may have appealed to the already existing racist, misogynist, or xenophobic feelings of some of his followers, it is also important to see that what some of his followers may have found appealing was simply outward-directed aggression as a relief from their previous overwhelming and tyrannical feelings of inward-directed aggression as melancholic citizens. Instead of experiencing self-recrimination for failing to live up to the ideals of homo oeconomicus, Trump’s followers were invited to redirect their aggression against those immigrants and “criminals” who were falsely accused of being responsible for their economic hardships. Exit polls showed that of the 25 percent of people who thought that illegal immigrants working in the US should be deported to their home country, 84 percent of these people voted for Trump compared to 14 percent who voted for Clinton.88 In other words, a Freudian analysis of melancholia and mania shows why economic hardship and racist or xenophobic aggression can be imbricated in various toxic ways, and why citizens worn down by the sacrificial citizenship practices of neoliberalism might well be seduced into the seemingly attractive alternative of finding scapegoats who will be sacrificed in their stead. It also suggests that some situational and structural factors, that are reversible through political action and opposition to neoliberalism, might be behind what appears to some liberals and [End Page 118] leftists as simply ontological or irreversible racism or xenophobia on the part of all of Trump’s supporters.

Courting Trump’s middle and working-class supporters by showing them how a progressive economic and political program would better address their grievances might well be the only way to solve the still undecidable question of just how many of Trump’s supporters were motivated primarily by economic issues, or by the imbrication of economic issues and a politics of demonization, or primarily by Trump’s racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. Even the discovery that a significant portion of them do fall into the latter category would not be a wholly negative result since, on the one hand, it might reveal certain non-economic, but still revisable social or political structures that are supporting these feelings, such as racial segregation and rural isolation, or the fragmentation of the media under neoliberalism’s privatization policies into an echo chamber for one’s own views of “America”, which has resulted in the Tower of Babel that Caputi noted in her 2000 article. On the other hand, it might simply avoid the ever-present danger of disavowal and hypocrisy by reminding progressives that misogyny and racism are not the preserve of Republicans and Trump supporters and that these operate in more subtle and misrecognized but still pernicious ways in some of our own practices or in those of the wealthy supporters of the Democratic Party. As I mentioned above financial firms can pursue racist strategies without using the very explicit racist language of a Donald Trump, so identifying and opposing these sorts of practices is as important as pursuing the more strictly economic policies of making the rich pay more taxes or getting Wall Street and large firms out of politics by opposing Citizens United.

Being more understanding of, and open to, Trump’s economically disadvantaged voters and their grievances might also mean adding ageism as another form of oppression that can work alongside class, gender, and racial oppression, all of which should be targeted by any inclusive progressive movement. Both Trump supporters and Brexit supporters tended to be older members of the population and these members do face ageism when they lose a job to globalization since companies are more likely to hire a 20- or 30-year-old person than a 45- or 50-year-old person, and this can lead these older people to a certain amount of desperation and melancholy and open them up to the manic and demonizing solutions offered by far-right parties. But it is unclear to me that companies should be able to engage in this form of discrimination especially when they no longer offer people lifetime careers or large pensions in return for a lifetime of service. Short-term contracts are becoming the norm, but this means there is less reason for companies not to hire a 45- or 50-year-old person who can only work for 15 to 20 years. Also, as Marx pointed out, technological innovation makes jobs easier to learn not harder, and the same is true of technological [End Page 119] innovations of computer languages. The computer languages of today are so user-friendly that they are easy to learn for anyone with a decent high-school education. I think a progressive movement should demand that companies (either through increased taxes or directly) be required to fund retraining programs, and to hire a certain percentage of older people or retrain them when their jobs become obsolete due to globalization. While there was a significant amount of overlap between Sanders’ and Trump’s opposition to NAFTA and TPP, it is still unclear to me whether a new New Deal politics of investment in infrastructure and social security will be sufficient to address the woes of the losers in an ever-globalizing economy, and one other solution might instead look to figuring out ways in which these people can become part of this global economy instead of just assuming they will always lose out to globalization. Some leftists and liberals looked at the age factor behind Brexit and Trump’s victory and then just seemed to express the sentiment, “Well thank God the youth are not racist and we can build our future on them.” However, the youth will become old and technology will always change so they may one day be in the same position as the elderly voters behind Trump and Brexit and then their desperation may make them turn to the horrible alt right politics that have found significant support amongst older people. So ageism also needs to be combatted not ignored for a left progressive movement to garner support from some of the older segments of the population.

Finally, exit polls showed that 86 percent of the people who said they were angry about how the federal government is working,89 and 83 percent of the people who said that the quality of the candidate that mattered most to them was that the person can bring change90 voted for Trump. An earlier survey also found that a feeling of voicelessness vis a vis the government was in fact a better predictor of support for Trump than “age, race, college attainment, income, attitudes towards Muslims, illegal immigrants, or Hispanic identity.”91 86.5 percent of Trump voters agreed with the statement, “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does”, compared to −26 percent for Crux, −24 percent for Rubio, 7 percent for Clinton, and 8 percent for Sanders.92 This seems to confirm that Trump’s supporters are aware of the loss of homo politicus that arises from their melancholic accommodation with neoliberalism’s ideal of homo oeconomicus. As Freud noted in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the outward directed aggression and destructiveness of the death drive can be used by a child to move from a feeling of passivity vis a vis a threatening environment (in this case, the absence of the mother) to a more active role in relation to it.93 Similarly, Donald Winnicott observed that children and adolescents, who lacked a proper holding environment during World War II, often exhibited delinquent or anti-social behavior, but out of a desire for the security and loving that was lacking in their early upbringing.94 [End Page 120] As Winnicott noted, aggression is both a “reaction to frustration” and “one of the two main sources of an individual’s energy.”95 As Caputi argued in relation to Kristeva and Benjamin, the desire for an anterior place of fullness, security, and aliveness characterizes all melancholic citizens, and as Freud and Winnicott both argue, aggression against an environment lacking these features can itself be a way of reconnecting to, or even establishing, this kind of loving environment. The voicelessness in government felt by so many of Trump’s supporters points to a desire for those aspects of homo politicus that are so depleted by neoliberalism’s relentless valorization of homo oeconomicus. While Trumpism offered to channel this desire and the inward directed aggression of his melancholic followers outwards in a politics of demonization and a partial attack on certain neoliberal policies like international trade deals, Bernie Sanders focused only on neoliberalism’s role in destroying the loving and supportive environment that any true democracy needs to offer the 99 percent of its citizens now suffering under a neoliberal regime. He channeled his own supporters justified rage and aggression squarely against America’s neoliberal regime.

More promisingly, in a study that aggregated the data of hundreds of nationwide polls through the end of August 2016, it was found that Sanders, who ended his campaign and endorsed Hillary Clinton in July 2016 for the purpose of beating Trump, had a 53.4 percent favorability rating compared to Clinton’s 41 percent and Trump’s 36 percent.96 This is not to say that Sanders would have beaten Trump, nor is it to suggest that Hillary Clinton would not have tried to enact many of the progressive policies that made it onto the Democratic Party Platform, had she been elected President. My own reading of some of Trump’s supporters as being capable of a conversion away from the kind of leader and politics they ended up supporting, also means that Clinton herself may have been converted away from the neoliberal policies she supported in the past because she saw the ravages they had produced. It is only to suggest that some of Trump’s voters or the Democratic voters who did not come out to support Clinton might well have voted for a leader promising a “democratic revolution,” which focused squarely on defeating all of the aspects of neoliberalism which created the deeply divided, melancholic, and angry public that made Trump’s ascendancy possible. Sanders’ exhortation to continue his “democratic revolution” at all levels of government and in every form of political protest might actually find a surprising source of vitality and salutary aggression amongst those Trump supporters who were drawn to him because of his left of center economic messages and their melancholy under neoliberalism, and who are now feeling ashamed of voting for a leader who was, after all, very serious about his racist, xenophobic, and misogynist brand of politics. [End Page 121]

Christina Tarnopolsky

Christina Tarnopolsky is Associate Professor of Humanities at Yale NUS College. She is currently working on a book manuscript, provisionally entitled, Rashomon Republic, which examines Plato’s engagement with the ancient Athenian genres of satyr-play, tragedy, history, comedy and medicine in the Republic. She is the author of Prudes, Perverts, and Tyrants: Plato’s Gorgias and the Politics of Shame (Princeton University Press, 2010). The book examines the positive and negative roles played by shame in democratic politics, both in ancient Athens and in contemporary democratic polities around the world. Christina can be reached at christina.tarnopolsky@yale-nus.edu.sg


For comments on an earlier draft of this paper, I would like to thank George Shulman and Mira Seo.


1. Mary Caputi, “American Overabundance and Cultural Malaise: Melancholia in Julia Kristeva and Walter Benjamin”, Theory and Event, Volume 4, Issue 3, 2000.

2. Caputi, “American Overabundance.”

3. Caputi, “American Overabundance.”

4. Caputi, “American Overabundance.”

5. Caputi, “American Overabundance.”

6. Caputi, “American Overabundance.”

7. Caputi, “American Overabundance.”

8. Caputi, “American Overabundance.”

9. Caputi, “American Overabundance.”

10. Caputi, “American Overabundance.”

11. Even in works where he does not explicitly discuss social and political events or movements, like “Mourning and Melancholia” and The Ego and the Id, Freud’s own correspondence and other works during this time (e.g. “Introduction to Psycho-Analysis and the War Neuroses” (1919)) show that he was concerned with the issue of war trauma experienced by returning soldiers during and after World War I.

12. Theodor W. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, New York Continuum Books, pp. 118–137, p. 120.

13. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” p. 121.

14. See for example David Masciotra, “Who are these idiot Donald Trump supporters? Trump loves the poorly educated—and they love him right back,” Salon, March 20, 2016, available at http://www.salon.com/2016/03/20/who_are_these_idiot_donald_trump_supporters_trump_loves_the_poorly_educated_and_they_love_him_right_back [Accessed on May 1, 2016]; Kevin D. Williamson, “The Father-Fuhrer,” National Review, March 28, 2016, available at https://www.nationalreview.com/nrd/articles/432569/father-f-hrer [Accessed on May 1, 2016]; Dylan Matthews, “Taking Trump’s voter’s concerns seriously means listening to what they are actually saying,” Vox, October 15, 2016, available at http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/10/15/13286498/donald-trump-voters-race-economic-anxiety [Accessed on October 23, 2016]; Tabatha Southey, “Trigger Warning, Trump fans: This column call racists ‘racists’, Globe and Mail, November 11, 2016, available at https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/trigger-warning-trump-fans-this-column-calls-racists-racists/article32816606 [Accessed on November 14, 2016].

15. In an interview conducted in early August 2016, Hillary Clinton herself actually clarified that her attacks on Donald Trump’s racist and sexist language were not meant to imply that his supporters could all be reduced to a bunch of racists and sexists. Instead, she argued, “the core of his support really centers on the disappointment in the economy that so many Americans feel.” [End Page 122] See Meg Anderson, “Asked About Black Friends, Clinton Says She’s ‘Blessed to Have a Crew’,” NPR.org, August 5, 2016, available at http://www.npr.org/2016/08/05/488836402/asked-about-black-friends-clinton-says-shes-blessed-to-have-a-crew [Accessed on August 10, 2016]. Even her later “basket of deplorables” remark was explicitly directed at half of Trump’s supporters, and did not amount to a blanket condemnation of all Trump supporters, though some in the left and liberal media did not restrict their comments in this way. For an excellent article that also argues that courting former Trump supporters is important to build a majoritarian progressive movement, see Seth Ackerman, “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jacobin, October 20, 2016, available at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/10/trump-voters-white-working-class-vox-racism [Accessed on October 23, 2016].

16. For an excellent article that addresses the degeneration of the media that led to Trumpism via a reflection on Theodor Adorno’s own dissenting and ever-deepening view of the authoritarian personality type and its relation to the Culture Industry, see Peter Gordon, “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump,” boundary 2, June 15, 2016, available at https://www.boundary2.org/2016/06/peter-gordon-the-authoritarian-personality-revisited-reading-adorno-in-the-age-of-trump [Accessed on June 30, 2016]. As Gordon puts it, “Rather than affirming authoritarian personality as the actual source of [fascism’s] appeal, Adorno insisted that an authoritarian “character” be seen as the introjection of an irrational society.” While not denying that racism, xenophobia, and populist rage against elites accounts for some elements of Trumpism, Gordon argues that an Adorno-inspired analysis of the phenomenon proceeds along another axis of analysis by “refusing the consolation of a ‘scale’ that places the critic at the furthest remove from the object of criticism” and instead requires “marking all of society with the pathology [Trumpism’s] liberal critics would reserve only for others.” Gordon’s own analysis of this pervasive societal pathology focuses on Adorno’s notion of the Culture Industry and it resonates with much of what Caputi spoke about in her article as the loss of any kind of meaningful discourse in modern America. Quoting from Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Gordon argues that Trumpism like fascism both depend upon advertising’s and the culture industry’s hollowing out of the critical content of language: “The blind and rapidly spreading repetition of designated words links advertising to the totalitarian slogan. The layer of experience which made words human like those who spoke them has been stripped away, and in its prompt appropriation language takes on the coldness which hitherto was peculiar to billboards and the advertising sections of newspapers (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2007, p, 135, cited in Gordon, 2016).” While Gordon and Caputi focus on the linguistic pathologies of contemporary America: that is, the loss of complexity with the rise of the culture industry (Gordon), and the loss of cohesiveness, fullness, or aliveness amidst the media’s swirling array of signifiers (Caputi), I focus instead on the different kinds of aggression that were evident in neoliberalism’s ascendancy in America from 1980–2016, and then in Donald Trump’s Republican leadership and Presidential campaigns and how these are linked to Freud’s account of melancholia and mania. I would add that the problems with language that both Gordon and Caputi identify have been heightened by neoliberalism’s policy of privatization as it applies to the media. As Gordon puts it, publicity has “shattered into a series of niche markets within which one swoons to one’s preferred slogan and one already knows what one knows.”

17. Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick, and Christoph Trebesch, “The Political Aftermath of Financial Crises: Going to Extremes,” VoxEU, November 21, [End Page 123] 2015, available at http://www.voxeu.org/article/political-aftermath-financial-crises-going-to-extremes [Accessed on May 15, 2016].

18. Funke, Schularick, and Trebesch, “The Political Aftermath of Financial Crises: Going to Extremes.”

19. Anonymous, “Exit Polls,” CNN.com, November 9, 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/election/results/exit-polls/national/president [Accessed November 14, 2016].

20. Exit polls showed that of the 42 percent of the population who felt trade with other countries takes away American jobs, 65 percent voted for Trump whereas 31 percent voted for Clinton. See Jon Huang, Samuel Jacoby, K. K. Rebecca Lai and Michael Strickland, “Election 2016: Exit Polls,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/11/08/us/politics/election-exit-polls.html [Accessed November 14, 2016].

21. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, New York: Zone Books, 2015, p. 108.

22. Estelle Sommiellier, Mark Price, and Ellis Wazeter, “Income Inequality in the US by state, metropolitan area, and county,” Economic Policy Institute, June 16, 2016, available at http://www.epi.org/publication/income-inequality-in-the-us [Accessed on July 15, 2016].

23. Eric Levitz, “Liberals Need to Stop Writing of Non-college Educated Workers—Before the White Working Class Writes Off Liberals”, New York, August 1, 2016, available at http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/06/dems-need-better-answers-for-the-working-class.html [Accessed on August 15, 2016].

24. Anonymous, “Exit Polls.” See also Jonathan Rothwell, “Explaining nationalist political views: The case of Donald Trump,” SSRN, September 4, 2016, pp. 1–42, p. 11 [Accessed on October 23, 2016].

25. Max Ehrenfreund, “What we mean when we say Donald Trump’s Supporters are ‘Struggling’,” The Washington Post, May 13, 2106, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/05/13/what-we-mean-when-we-say-donald-trumps-supporters-are-struggling [Accessed on June 1, 2016].

26. Sarah Kendzior, “Hollow Promises: Why America’s impressive 5 percent unemployment rate feels like a lie for so many,” Quartz, April 20, 2016, available at http://qz.com/666311/why-americas-impressive-5-unemployment-rate-still-feels-like-a-lie [Accessed on May 15, 2016].

27. Kendzior, “Hollow Promises.” See also Anonymous, “Nearly 95% of all new jobs during Obama era were part-time or contract,” Investing.com, December 21, 2016, available at http://www.investing.com/news/economy-news/nearly-95-of-all-job-growth-during-obama-era-part-time,-contract-work-449057 [Accessed on December 23, 2016].

28. Kendzior, “Hollow Promises.”

29. Jed Kolko, “Trump Was Stronger Where the Economy Was Weaker,” FiveThirtyEight, November 10, 2016, available at http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/trump-was-stronger-where-the-economy-is-weaker [Accessed on November 15, 2016].

30. Mike Maciag, “How States Are Confronting High Long-Term Unemployment,” Governing, July 8, 2015, available at http://www.governing.com/topics/mgmt/gov-long-term-unemployed-workers-in-states.html [Accessed on November 15, 2016]. [End Page 124]

31. Jedediah Purdy, “How Trump Won,” Jacobin, November 11, 2016, available at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/donald-trump-election-polls-whites-working-class [Accessed on November 15, 2016].

32. Purdy, “How Trump Won.”

33. See for example, Nate Silver, “The Mythology of Trump’s ‘Working Class Supporters’,” FiveThirtyEight, May 3, 2016, available at http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-mythology-of-trumps-working-class-support [Accessed on May 15, 2016].

34. Brown, Undoing the Demos, p. 178.

35. Brown, Undoing the Demos, p. 84.

36. Jodi Dean, “Donald Trump is the Most Honest Candidate in American Politics Today,” In These Times: With Liberty and Justice for All, August 12, 2105, available at http://inthesetimes.com/article/18309/donald-trump-republican-president [Accessed on June 15, 2016].

37. The Corporation, 2003 Canadian documentary film written by Joel Bakan, directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott.

38. In the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, small businesses suffered “more dramatic losses in their sales” and had to “lay off more of their employees than larger firms.” See Michael A. McCarthy, “The Revenge of Joe the Plumber: The Post-Crisis Class Interests of Small Business Sit Comfortably next to the Xenophobia of the Alt-Right,” Jacobin, October 26, 2016, available at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/10/trump-small-business-whites-xenophobia-immigration [Accessed on October 28, 2016].

39. Anonymous, “Exit Polls.”

40. Michael J. Brewer, “’Front Porch Focus Group’ Explores Appeal of Trump’s Right-Wing Message,” Working America, January 28, 2016, available at http://www.workingamerica.org/press/releases/Front-Porch-Focus-Group-Explores-Appeal-of-Trump-s-Right-Wing-Message [Accessed on June 15, 2016].

41. Brown, Undoing the Demos, p. 177.

42. Robert P. Jones, “How Trump Remixed the Republican ‘Southern Strategy’,” The Atlantic, August 15, 2016, available at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/how-trump-remixed-the-republican-southern-strategy/495719 [Accessed on August 20, 2016].

43. Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, translated and edited by James Strachey, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1959, p. 61.

44. Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction”, in Freud’s On Narcissism: An Introduction, edited by Joseph Sandler, Ethel Spector Person, and Peter Fonagy, London: Karnac Books Ltd., 1991, pp. 3–32, 24.

45. Freud, “On Narcissism”, p. 26; Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, p. 78.

46. Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, p. 82.

47. Richard P. Bentall, “A Colorful Malady,” in Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature, London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2003, p. 275.

48. Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, translated by Joan Riviere, revised and edited by James Strachey, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1960, p. 19. [End Page 125]

49. Freud’s disciple Karl Abraham first noticed that mania was characterized by an increase in irritability and aggression. See Karl Abraham, “Notes on the Psycho-Analytical Investigation and Treatment of Manic-Depressive Insanity and Allied Conditions,” in Selected Papers of Karl Abraham, translated by Douglas Bryan and Alix Strachey, London: Hogarth Press, pp. 173–156, p. 150. The increased anger and hostility characteristic of the manic state has been well documented in the psychological literature on mania ever since. For a list of the psychological literature on anger and hostility during manic phases see Richard P. Bentall, “A Colorful Malady,” in Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature, London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2003, p. 275.

50. Freud, The Ego and the Id, p. 33, 55. See also Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, translated and edited by James Strachey, New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1961, p. 114, 120, 124.

51. Freud, The Ego and the Id, p. 51.

52. Matt Taibbi, “The Line That May Have Won Hillary Clinton the Nomination,” Rolling Stone, April 28, 2016, available at http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-line-that-may-have-won-hillary-clinton-the-nomination-20160428 [Accessed on May 30, 2016].

53. Matt Egan and Alison Kosik, “Wall Street traders boo Hillary Clinton, chant ‘Lock Her Up’,” CNN.Money, November 9, 2016, http://money.cnn.com/2016/11/09/investing/wall-street-traders-boo-hillary-clinton [Accessed on November 14, 2016].

54. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Fifth Edition, Washington: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013, p. 124.

55. Huang, Jacoby, Lai and Strickland, “Election 2016: Exit Polls.”

56. See John Cassidy, “Magical Economic Thinking at the G.O.P. Convention,” The New Yorker, July 20, 2016, available at http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/magical-economic-thinking-at-the-g-o-p-convention [Accessed on August 15, 2016].

57. Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia”, in On Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia”, edited by Leticia Glocer Fiorini, Thierry Bokanowski, and Sergio Lewkowicz, London: Karnac Books Ltd., 2007, pp. 19–34, p. 20.

58. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” p. 20.

59. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” p. 25.

60. Freud, The Ego and the Id, p. 54.

61. See for example Freud, The Ego and the Id, p. 32.

62. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1945, p. 106.

63. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” p. 27.

64. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” p. 25–6.

65. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” p. 27.

66. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” p. 32.

67. Abraham, “Notes on the Psycho-Analytical Investigation and Treatment of Manic-Depressive Insanity and Allied Conditions,” p. 140.

68. Kate Randall, “Sharp Rise in US Suicide Rate,” World Socialist Website, April 23, 2016, accessible at https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/04/23/suic-a23.html [Accessed on June 15, 2016]. [End Page 126]

69. Victor Tan Chen, “All Hollowed Out: The Lonely Poverty of America’s Working Class,” The Atlantic, January 16, 2016, available at http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/01/white-working-class-poverty/424341 [Accessed on June 15, 2016]. See also, Anne Case, “‘Deaths of Despair’ are Killing America’s White Working Class,” Quartz, December 30. 2015, available at http://qz.com/583595/deaths-of-despair-are-killing-americas-working-class [Accessed on June 15, 2016].

70. Brown, Undoing the Demos, p. 212.

71. Wendy Brown, “Resisting Left Melancholy,” boundary2, Volume 26, Number 3, Fall 1999, pp. 19–27.

72. See Jodi Dean, “Desire”, in The Communist Horizon, London and New York: Verso Books, 2012, pp. 155–206; Sanford Schram, “Middle-class Melancholia: Self-Sufficiency after the Demise of Christianized Capitalism (US Style),” in The Return of Ordinary Capitalism: Neoliberalism, Precarity, Occupy, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

73. Brown, “Resisting Left Melancholy,” p. 25.

74. Brown, “Resisting Left Melancholy,” p. 23.

75. Dean, “Desire”, p. 171–2.

76. Dean, “Desire,” p. 175.

77. Schram, “Middle-class Melancholia,” p. 32–58.

78. Schram, “Middle-class Melancholia,” p. 57. Sanford Schram actually notes an important difference between the Tea Party Movement and the Occupy Movement. He argues that the Tea Partiers’ support of traditional Republican policies was melancholic precisely because it embraced the very elements of neoliberalism and its valorizing of the self-sufficient, self-provider that they were in fact failing to live up to because of their own reliance on things like social security and high-levels of debt. See Schram, “Middle-class Melancholia,” pp. 41–44. In contrast, he argues that the Occupy Movement represented a move away from melancholia to mourning because it explicitly embraced the reliance on debt, and the very lack of self-sufficiency which neoliberalism wants to deny. See Schram, “Middle-class Melancholia,” pp. 52–57. In a similar but slightly different vein, Jodi Dean argues that the Left now represents a move out of melancholia, but via the very work of melancholia itself whereby the inward-direct aggression and destructiveness of the death drive in melancholia ultimately causes one to abandon the internalized object as useless. See Dean, “Desire,” pp. 176–7.

79. Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 146.

80. Brown, Undoing the Demos, p. 105.

81. Freud, The Ego and the Id, pp. 54–5.

82. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” p. 29.

83. Freud, The Ego and the Id, p. 55.

84. Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, p. 82.

85. For the view that what Trump offers his supporters is a freedom from shame see Lauren Berlant, “Trump, or Political Emotions,” The New Inquiry, August 5, 2016, available at http://thenewinquiry.com/features/trump-or-political-emotions [Accessed on August 15, 2016]. See also my comments in Jason Markusoff, “Welcome to an Age Where the Facts Don’t Matter,” Macleans, August 2, 2016, available at http://www.macleans.ca/politics/washington/welcome-to-an-age-where-the-facts-dont-matter [Accessed on August 15, 2016]. [End Page 127]

86. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” p. 30.

87. Laurie Penny, “American Horror Story,” Welcome to the Scream Room blog, August 1, 2016, available at https://medium.com/welcome-to-the-scream-room/american-horror-story-ab4a4b389949#.p90sj065t [Accessed on August 15, 2016].

88. Anonymous, “Exit Polls.”

89. Huang, Jacoby, Lai and Strickland, “Election 2016: Exit Polls.”

90. Anonymous, “Exit Polls.”

91. Derek Thompson, “Who are Donald Trump’s Supporters, Really?” The Atlantic, March 1, 2016, available at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/who-are-donald-trumps-supporters-really/471714 [Accessed on May 15, 2016].

92. Thompson, “Who are Donald Trump’s Supporters, Really?”

93. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, translated and edited by James Strachey, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961, p. 15.

94. Donald Winnicott, “Aspects of Juvenile Delinquency,” The Child, the Family and the Outside World, Cambridge: Perseus Publishing, 1964, pp. 227–231, p. 229.

95. Winnicott, “Roots of Aggression,” in The Child, the Family and the Outside World, pp. 232–239, p. 232.

96. Baxter Dmitry, “Polls Show Sanders Would Win Election By Landslide,” Yournewswire, September 1, 2016, available at http://yournewswire.com/polls-shows-bernie-sanders-would-win-election-by-landslide [Accessed on September 4, 2016]. [End Page 128]