Therapeutic Psychodrama as Campaign Strategy

In theory, election campaigns are supposed to be run on issues, as a way to give the electorate an opportunity to find out what policies candidates endorse and thereby to choose those most in accordance with their own needs, desires, beliefs, attitudes and aspirations. The candidates engage in the kind of public debate that helps voters get some idea of what the issues are and where they stand, and ultimately where they should direct their vote.

Well, it has been a long time since any election campaign operated even remotely like this. As if to mirror the decline of the west writ large, as the world’s first privatized empire (Hardt & Negri) underwrites authoritarian incursions into civil liberties in defense of corporate privilege from the threat of democracy, the election cycle has come to represent a battle of personalities. Election advertising spends less time on issues, if at all, than the shortcomings of the opponents; all are perfectly capable of perceiving the shortcomings of all others, though strangely enough somehow never their own.

Campaigning becomes a character litmus test of one’s patriotism, of one’s resolve to git thum derty terr-rists and make the world safe for democracy, whatever that looks like. Discussion of issues comes off a distant second best to the manner and bearing of candidates: How will Hilary show up those crazy Republicans in all their male privilege and outdated masculinist ideals next? What outrageous stunt will the Don come out with today to show those bleeding hearts on the left what type of attitude it will take to make America great again?

And so it goes; we’re all familiar with the routine. If there is anything new at all in this Brave New World of neoliberal democracy, maybe it is the next stage of devolution in the tenor and form of the election cycle. If elections were in theory meant to be run on issues (I personally have no experience of this and have never seen much evidence of it in history books), and then degenerated into contests of personalities, they have, by all appearances, degenerated again into what Stuart Hall refers to as ‘therapeutic psychodrama’ — which, just for the record, appears in Policing the Crisis, a book about what was portrayed as a law and order crisis arising from a perceived mugging epidemic in the UK, but in reality an exercise in moral panic and scapegoating.

As they demonstrate, the eponymous crisis was actually manufactured. The crime rate had always been the same and only became an object of unusual concern when the media paid attention to it and began lying about violent crime being on the increase. The moral panic that resulted landed disproportionately on impoverished black youths, the introduction of draconian sentencing laws as a means of stamping out a problem that didn’t exist ultimately only serving to further enable state repression of an oppressed underclass by a class conscious elite, fiercely defensive of its privileges.

Unsurprisingly, the panic extended to immigrants, who for the predominantly white working class to whom the moral panic was directed acted ‘as a perverse legitimation of inexpressible fear and anguish . . . What is taking place is only secondarily an expression of prejudice.’

It is first and foremost a therapeutic psychodrama in which the emotional release of the protagonists takes precedence over what is actually being said. It is an expression of their pain and powerlessness confronted by the decay and dereliction, not only of their familiar environment, but of their own lives too — an expression for which our society provides no outlet. Certainly it is something more complex and deep-rooted than what the metropolitan liberal evasively and easily dismisses as prejudice (158).

From the point of view of the subjective dynamics fuelling this ‘therapeutic psychodrama,’ the difference between a panic over law and order in the UK and, say, the Trump campaigning style, one is hard pressed to find any difference. The moral panic over mugging Stuart Hall et all describe in Policing the Crisis is based on the sociological phenomenon of the ‘production of deviance,’ a concept that acknowledges the profoundly subjective basis of the concept of deviance. ‘Deviance is created by society,’ writes Howard Becker.

I do not mean this in the way that it is ordinarily understood, in which the causes of deviance are located in the social situation of the deviant or in ‘social factors’ which prompt his action. I mean, rather, that social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular persons and labeling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender.’ The deviant is on to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.

Deviance as a social phenomenon depends then far more on who has the power to define the meaning of the word and impose their own particular definition on popular discourse, rather than on the particular characteristics of anyone thus labeled. Nietzsche stated this point differently in writing, ‘All things are subject to interpretation, and whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.’

In the context of the Trump election campaign, therapeutic psychodrama imposes a particular interpretation of the Normal vs. Deviant binary through the power of scare mongering and moral panic in the interests of blame-shifting and scapegoating.

In other words, just as the architects of moral panic in the UK use this power to blame poor and black people for being poor and black and rationalize state persecution of economically and socially marginalized populations who might justifiably be prone to social disturbance, so too does Trump exercise his power as a candidate and now frontrunner for the Republican nomination to blame Muslims and immigrants, amongst others, for the effects of neoliberal corporatism, stereotyping them as rapists and bringing in drugs and crime. In both cases prejudice greases the wheels of therapeutic psychodrama; what however is the nature of function of therapeutic psychodrama?

In answering this question, it helps us to remember that those of us who see through scare mongering and scapegoating flatter ourselves that Trump as cares what anyone who isn’t part of the white working class, the primary audience for his therapeutic psychodrama, even thinks.

Therapeutic Psychodrama and Racism

‘Every miserable fool,’ wrote Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and happy to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.’ For those who have nothing going for them besides the false pride of things they have had no control over, the color of their skin and the geographical location in which they’re born being primary examples, the two are natural refuges. It is equally natural that they go together.

We find a clue for these circumstances in a scene from The Shawshank Redemption where the old prison librarian, Brooks, hangs himself after getting paroled and finding himself unable to readjust to life on the outside world. Such is his dependence on the tightly controlled world of the prison that, left to his own devices, he experiences intolerable existential crisis. ‘In here he’s somebody, out there he’s nobody,’ comments the narrator, Red, here played by Morgan Freeman.

Institutionalization of this kind is typical of the kind of internalization of authority that has fascinated social psychologists throughout much of the last century. In pursuing their fascination for authoritarian psychology, social psychologists have, in the past, tried to understand not only what motivates some individuals to construct authoritarian systems of which Shawshank Prison is in this instance a metaphor, but also what motivates others to support them.

In trying to develop a response to this question, Wilhelm Reich, a former student of Freud’s in Germany and a practicing psychoanalyst in Austria, prepared a number of treatments of the subject of authoritarian psychology, most notable amongst which was The Mass Psychology of Fascism. In this book, Reich argued that moralistic repression of all the personal drives towards individual assertion and self-fulfillment, be they physical or existential, diverted such energies instead into service of the totalitarian state.

For the loyal subject of the Nazi state, Reich argued, the stereotype of the Jew provided a suitable scapegoat for its destruction of their individuality, and war a suitable outlet for otherwise frustrated energies (cue L7’s Wargasm). With these aspects of Nazi social engineering taken care of and the bread and circuses arranged to keep the peasants from revolting, Hitler was able to bring the entire nation of Germany behind a militaristic project that resulted comprehensively in its destruction.

Reich concluded that the dynamics driving the Nazi war machine were anything but limited to Germany in the 1930s; anything but, in fact. They were, Reich concluded, merely a dangerously acute example of subjective psychological and emotional tendencies that were far more pervasive in individual human subjectivity. There was, in other words, a little bit of Hitler in all of us — various attempts to portray the Nazi leader as somehow something other than human, as opposed to someone who was in reality all too human, as were those who marched forcefully in lockstep behind him straight to their own destruction.

Another German, Erich Fromm, reached similar conclusions. Fromm, who was a student of Jung, took a less mechanistic approach to authoritarian psychology. He argued in books such as The Fear of Freedom that the power of totalitarian regimes in particular derived in the main, not so much from the repression of personal physical drives, but from the inculcation and development of a relationship of emotional attachment to and dependence on authority. Many people, he found, had essentially the same kind of relationship with the state and with religious hierarchies that they had with codependent romantic partners.

Not only were these kinds of codependent political relationships ruinous of happiness, wellbeing and the capacity of people to function effectively as individuals, Fromm argued, but they were also destructive of their ability to function outside of them; thus the longer and more inured people became to them, the harder it was for them to leave. Rather than being strong, healthy and vibrant individuals capable of standing on their own two feet, they became repressed, dogmatic, rigid and inflexible, fearful of their own shadow even before they got to the newsstand, and paralyzed by terror in the face of real freedom.

For adherents to institutionalized religion who had reified their ideologically driven codependency into an imaginary paternal figure, such freedom was tantamount to rejection or abandonment, and no less painful a prospect. The cocoon of authority, while infantilizing them, was less painful than the experience of existential crisis and alienation.

By alienation is meant a mode of experience in which the person experiences himself as an alien. He has become, one might say, estranged from himself. He does not experience himself as the center of his world, as the creator of his own acts — but his acts and their consequences have become his masters, whom he obeys, or whom he may even worship. The alienated person is out of touch with himself as he is out of touch with any other person. He, like the others, are experienced as things are experienced; with the senses and with common sense, but at the same time without being related to oneself and to the world outside positively (The Sane Society).

For those who stood to gain politically and financially from such relationships, the logical tendency from their point of view was to try to encourage them as much as they could. But then the desire to do so was not, in and of itself, enough to engineer the necessary dynamics; they were missing some kind of incentive to put the hook in potential victims. This was found partly in a sociological phenomenon David Roediger discussed in his eponymous The Wages of Whiteness, or what might and can more generally also be described as the ‘wages of privilege.’

Roediger’s book title as well as his area of study derived from an observation made by the famed W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote of a ‘public and psychological wage’ white masters paid to white workers as what amounted to a bribe for obedience. The function of this social bribe was to induce the white working class to identify with their masters on the basis of what was essentially an accident of birth, the colour of their skin. Naturally siding with their masters came at the expense of demonstrating solidarity with their fellow workers, regardless of their ethnicity, with whom they shared concrete and tangible economic interests.

From a historical perspective, payment of the ‘public and psychological wage’ in the name of promoting an authoritarian psychology favourable to the maintenance of social and economic hierarchies was the root cause of racism. For historian Frank Van Nuys, racism constituted ‘the great national safety value,’ a means for propertied classes to take the heat out of class tension within capitalist society (Americanizing the West, 16), an ever-present threat to the stability and security of the political establishment. As such it was perfectly consistent with what James Madison, Father of the US Constitution, defined at the founding convention of the United States in 1776 as the primary function of government — namely, defending ‘the minority of the opulent from the majority.’

Therapeutic Psychodrama as National Safety Valve

The utility of the ‘national safety valve’ derived in the main from its potential as a means of shifting the blame for the harmful and destructive consequences of class rule onto minorities too numerically weak to organise effective opposition. Primary amongst such consequences was ever-increasing wealth inequality, which only tended to exacerbate the dysfunctionality of purportedly democratic processes given the power imbalances associated with it, and the ability of moneyed cliques to dominate the political process and turn it ever more to the service of their own vested interests.

If subject populations of black people, collectively subject historically to crimes against humanity such as the institution of chattel slavery, were poor, it was because they were lazy and stupid — the same way they have been painted in the moral panics over perceived crime waves in the UK treated by Stuart Hall, and the same way they are treated in election campaigns run on the basis of therapeutic psychodrama. In such notions was a ‘public and psychological wage’ for even the laziest and most dim-witted white-skinned worker, permitted thereby to indulge of their vanity, credulity, negativity, hatefulness, slavishness, sanctimoniousness and cruelty all in the name of moral rectitude.

Naturally the same was also true for what might be termed ‘the wages of patriarchy.’ Just as the minority of the opulent to whose defense the political establishment was so singularly devoted were able to pay a ‘public and psychological wage’ to the white working class, so too were they able to pay another to the male working class, regardless of ethnicity, thereby dividing it along the gender line as well as the colour one.

The ‘wages of patriarchy’ paid to male workers in the idea that women were subordinate to men, served just as well as those of ‘whiteness’ to massage our cowardice and brutality, encouraging an abusive relationship of emotional and psychological codependency with our exploiters. Either form of ‘public and psychological wage’ or both in combination were often effective in neutralizing constructive responses to class antagonism that, channeled into labour organising and social struggle, could have produced meaningful change.

In this way did payment of the ‘wages of privilege’ provide a strategy for the political establishment to avoid accountability for its leading role in creating and exacerbating wealth inequality and all that encompassed in terms of social misery. By creating scapegoats out of the greatest victims and privileging various groups within the subject classes along multiple fault lines of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and ability amongst others, political classes ruling in the name of defending the minority of the opulent could, in the words of Cheryl Harris, utilise the great national safety value in ‘evading rather than confronting class exploitation’ (Whiteness as Property).

From this perspective, the enduring value not only of racism, but also of an entire spectrum of forms of discrimination, for the white working class becomes more apparent. Naturally the public and psychological bribes for the white working class in the form of token privileges from the white ruling class are not and can never be enough to constitute their emancipation from the alienating character of a society divided into classes of haves and have-nots. The poverty and marginalization of the latter is explained away as a product of their collective incapacity for hard work as opposed to historical dispossession, genocide and oppression — another example of blame shifting that feeds into the collective vanity of anglo-capitalism.

As a shining example of that vanity, Trump’s panic-fuelled therapeutic psychodrama provides a means of reconstructing out of nothing a sense of legitimacy for what in reality ultimately amounts only the naked exercise of state power in defense of class privilege.

For the working class racist, the white power structure represents a kind of national safety blanket to which they can cling as a way of avoiding having to stand on their own two feet, think and act for themselves, and confront the actual sources of their misery and unhappiness in the institutions that form the basis of the power and class privileges of the Trumps of the world.

Such types are the first to say in the face of principled critiques of capitalism the well-trodden excuses about people not being capable of taking control of the conditions of their own work and lives — though what they inevitably mean is that they are not capable of taking control of the conditions of their own work and lives. In the classic style of their hero, they project their own incapacity onto the rest of the world around them, once again to avoid having to face up to themselves and the root causes of their own alienation, which continue whether they choose to acknowledge it, or whether they allow themselves to be strung along by the false pride of Trump and the false hope and codependent dysfunctionality of his therapeutic psychodrama.

Trump’s racism and scare mongering clings to the status quo like he clings to his privilege. Cowardice and unconscious shame dog his negativity just as it dogs that of those who allow themselves to be seduced by Trump’s dog whistling. As long as the alienation that looks for escapism in therapeutic psychodrama, rather than confrontation, expression and resolution, such remains the inescapable condition for anyone who though cowardice, selfishness and ignorance allows themselves to be manipulated thus.

Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).