TRUMP, OUR HUNGER ARTIST
The fortunes of a demagogue lie in the way we resolve the conflict he stimulates in us between our dark fantasies of power and glory and our mature strivings toward love and reason…
The creator of “the talking cure” took almost as much interest in the origins of words and names as in the origins of neuroses. I was reminded of his enthusiasm a few months ago, when I heard that comedian John Oliver, in an effort to deflate the brand of Trump, revealed that the surname was derived from the ancestral Drumpf. The transformation from the pedestrian to the powerful patronymic may have occurred in the late 1600’s.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the verb “trump” derives from the Old French tromper, to blow a trumpet or a horn or, metaphorically, to deceive, cheat, or act the fool. Quacks and mountebanks attracted the public by blowing a horn, then cheated them into buying things like magic medicines, mesmerizing audiences with stories, jokes and tricks. The term mountebank derives from the Italian imperative monta in banco, meaning get up on a bench.
Have you seen any images this year of a man on a platform crowing, gesticulating and yarn spinning as he tries to sway his audience to purchase potent potions of resentment? One picture tells a thousand-word story. One word unveils a thousand poignant pictures.
We know that Donald was a troubled boy whose unruly behavior inspired his parents to send him to military school, which he credits with shaping him up. But it’s not the troubled demagogue who’s on the couch here; it’s our relationship with him.
Back in May, I watched him use an entire hour-long speech to stoke the destructive fires of xenophobia. I wanted to tear myself away, but I was drawn by an irresistible force. I was fascinated by the vulgarity and hostility that provoked protest which, in turn, provoked more hostility, in a darkening spiral. Despite my better instincts, I was enjoying the thrill of participating in a lurid fantasy and hoped the coverage would go on. At the same time, increasingly unable to deny the realness of the frightening event playing out in front of me, I wished it would stop. My attention was riveted by the clash of these two desires, both my own.
In Kafka’s short story, A Hunger Artist, a public performer who starves himself in a cage resents his promoter, who forbids him to fast longer than forty days, believing that after such time the sympathy of his audience inevitably declines. Despite the artist’s fame he feels dissatisfied and misunderstood. He erupts in fury whenever a spectator tries to comfort him. When public fasting goes out of fashion he joins a circus, where he is barely noticed. Just before he dies he abjures admiration, insisting that he only fasts because he can’t find food he likes. Big crowds flock to view his replacement, a young panther who radiates vigor.
Trump is the hunger artist of our time. He comes complete at no extra charge with himself as his promoter. Trump the self-promoter tries to get Trump the hunger artist to play within bounds that provide just enough titillation to keep the show going, but not so much that we lose interest or become too afraid. Their act offers the unmatched spectacle of a man who needs no nourishment other than our adoration. His awful feats are limited only by the barriers we erect to contain him. He yearns to vanquish whatever restrains his power to subjugate our common decency to our primitive desire to hurt and hate. We are the audience without whom his act could not exist. Even those of us who profess the most rabid disagreement with his program and persona legitimize his performance with our insistent attention.
Now, embittered by diminishing popularity and mounting criticism, the hunger artist of our time grows ever more desperate to break out of his limited act. We spectators see his window of opportunity closing and move on to the the next big spectacle, the Olympians of Rio, NFL 2016, the return of The Walking Dead. But he cannot bear our changing the channel. Unable to tolerate loss, he agitates his followers with paranoid visions of violent resistance to a “rigged” system. Even now, we underestimate his power to manufacture virulent variations of himself at our peril.
Will his next mutated act rule the circus or be contained? Strangely enough, the outcome depends on our ability to empathize with him, i.e., to feel the sad dynamics that drive him and his most ardent followers. Digging deep into our own words, we discover the disguises we live by. Aware that we, too, have the capacity to be hunger artists, to attempt to survive on the empty calories of grievance and self aggrandizement, can we risk feeling the pain and vulnerability that a hunger artist cannot? Can we overcome paralysis induced by trauma and maintained by fear? Can we be moved to mobilize against the dark elixir of the mountebank, to passionately pursue more lucent remedies?
In this humane pursuit lies the commonality between psychoanalysis and social justice, between the reflective individual and the sane society.