Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Maturity, Trump, and Cults of Personality
Most persons consulting psychoanalytic psychotherapists struggle with their interpersonal relationships. Some patients complain of their emotionally distant spouses; others address concern for their over-entitled children; some feel their parents misunderstand them.
Like fish at sea, we swim around in a world of personal relationships. You cannot escape them. Even a recluse answers the phone or the door from time to time, forcing them to engage with others.
Defining mature interpersonal relating is relatively straightforward.
It consists of balancing love of self with love of other.
It requires the capacity for empathy, for mutual respect.
It requires the capacity for reciprocity.
As usual, our dear leader Trump offers — even just yesterday in his cabinet meeting — delicious examples of immature interpersonal relating.
Usually, the president gathers top advisers and then invites photographers and journalists for a brief visit. The president makes a short statement; the photographers take pictures; the journalists ask questions. The guests leave. The cabinet gets down to work.
In contrast, yesterday’s meeting reeked of cult-like worship. Many journalists compared the session to ones held by another dear leader, Kim Jung-Un of North Korea.
Trump began by delineating the alleged successes of his first 143 days in office.
He spoke this remarkable untruth:
Never has there been a president….with few exceptions…who’s passed more legislation, who’s done more things than I have.
Trump has signed some executive orders — but most have been blocked by the courts. The health care bill is stalled in the senate. Tax reform has not even been formally proposed. The proposed wall at the Mexican border is rarely discussed.
In truth, Trump has passed no significant legislation through congress.
Following Trump’s groundless and narcissistic proclamation, cabinet members fawned on him like tremulous North Korean military leaders addressing their presumably divine leader.
Vice President Pence began the chorus by calling his service the “greatest privilege of my life.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley proclaimed a “new day at the United Nations,” adding, “we now have a very strong voice.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus bowed so deeply that his head seemed to press some mysterious, hidden button, igniting social media platforms and eliciting spoofs by democratic leaders. Priebus said,
On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people.
Trump then turned to several newly-minted Cabinet members, like the Agriculture Secretary, all of whom lavished praise on Trump.
Trump accepted the adulation without comment, all the while broadly smiling.
A CNN commentator, comparing it to an episode of The Apprentice, described it as, “A group of supplicants all desperately trying to hold on to their spots on the show by effusively praising Trump — each one trying to take it a step further than the last.”
Such behavior demeans the office of the president of the United States.
In regular life, interpersonal relationships often take hierarchical forms. Ideally, you treat your boss with respect. You display deference to older, wiser relatives. You behave carefully when speaking to a police officer who has pulled you off the freeway.
However, even these normal levels of hierarchy do not involve the types of sadomasochistic behavior evident at yesterday’s cabinet meeting.
The scene brings to mind the concept of a cult of personality. These arise when a leader uses propaganda, mass media, and other means of interpersonal persuasion to create heroic, idealized, and often worshipful images. These leaders expect unquestioning flattery and praise.
Sociologist Max Weber defines cults of personality as involving a “charismatic authority” who invites comparisons to divinity, especially in totalitarian or authoritarian states. The idea gained popularity following Nikita Khrushchev’s speech to the Soviet Communist Party in 1956 in which he critiqued the lionization of Josef Stalin.
Whether leading a family discussion, running a board meeting of a major corporation, or directing cabinet members of the most powerful nation on earth, such cult-like behavior frightens.
It elevates leaders to grandiose levels while dis-empowering, arguably even symbolically castrating, others present.
It encourages the opposite of empathy, respect, and reciprocity.
Such leadership in informal settings would likely elicit disgust. Friends would exit relationships; guests would leave parties; congregants would find other houses of worship.
Such leadership in the White House horrifies.
Weber, M. (2002). The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Trans. by Peter Baehr. New York: Penguin.
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