If we’re fixated on Donald Trump, it’s because he embodies America’s new id, boiling over once more after decades of repression. The last time the American id broke through its constraints was in the libidinous blowout of the 1960s. Protestant cultural repression (“father knows best”), corporate power, (“what’s good for GM is good for the country”), and American imperialism (the Vietnam war) were rejected in favor of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
The counter-culture wanted to dismantle capitalism and the corporate state in favor of some kind of decentralized, eroticized tribalism. Black power called for an urban racial tribalism, while middle class hippies sought a rural, communal tribalism. The feminist and gay movements invoked a gender tribalism. Each profoundly challenged mainstream values.
The sixties counter-culture had a good run, but, beginning with Nixon, the lid was put back on. The forces of disorder were too great to be stuffed back into the box, but they could be domesticated. The potent new wine of the 60s was poured into the tough old bottles of established institutions and inherited traditions by a series of conservative, law-and-order administrations that lasted almost 50 years, right down through Obama.
The black liberation movement was diverted from black power into demands for equal rights with whites. The women’s movement was diverted from attacking patriarchy into demands for equal rights with men. The gay movement was diverted from a promiscuous lifestyle into demands for equal rights with heterosexuals. The resulting gains–token blacks, careerist women, and gay marriage–were real, but limited.
Nixonian conservative-liberalism supported equal access to the system, but only on the condition that the system itself would no longer be called into question. The long history of radical American social change–led by anti-federalists, Jacksonians, utopians, mutualists, populists, socialists, anarchists, and communists–died with a whimper in the 1970s. The New Left of the sixties was its last gasp.
And there were few regrets. Most practical people bought the conservative-liberal compact. They were happy enough to abandon aspirations for social change as long as the expanding post-war economy could be kept booming. For blacks, women, and gays to be included in the system, more jobs and careers had to be provided.
For awhile all went well. Stagnating wage levels were offset by additional, if lower-paying, jobs, easy credit, and cheaper imported consumer goods. But, over time, resource scarcity, union busting, environmental degradation, pollution, automation, foreign labor competition, climate change, wage stagnation, and globalization all conspired to limit and then stall economic growth.
The chickens came home to roost in the financial crisis of 2008, when it became apparent that the return on investment was no longer adequate to support economic growth. Ordinary people, already debt-burdened, stopped borrowing. Post-crash low interest lending by central banks, intended to stimulate the economy, found few productive outlets. Most of the new money only bid up asset prices, especially in real estate and the stock market, but also in education and health care. If you owned the right assets, fine, is not, too bad.
As more and more people found themselves economically squeezed out of the game, they lost interest in the conservative-liberal compact with America. When economically redundant people compete for limited resources, inclusion becomes a luxury, and eventually a sacrifice. The cynicism and alienation of roughly half the population detached significant psychic energy from the status quo. A pool of free energy–a new id–was released, with no obvious goal or direction, except for its rejection of conservative liberalism.
This new American id, channeled by Trump, like any id, is not a pretty picture. Unlike the naive id of the sixties, born of middle class prosperity, the Trumpian id is born of hard times, of resentment and anger, of middle class austerity. The id of the 60s said “make love, not war;” the Trumpian id of today says “make war, not love.” Trump exhorts us to competition and power, to hitting back, to having no illusions, to self-interest over collective interest, to recognizing if not exploiting differences conservative liberals would have us ignore. Freed of the constraints of conservative-liberalism, those cut out of the American dream are now free to indulge their resentments. If equal rights were a hallmark of conservative-liberalism, then the rejection of equal rights has reopened the question of how we should treat one another. So far, the new American id has no answer to how to do that.
The vulgarity of the new id speaks the language of the dispossessed, where personal differences are legitimate subjects of discussion, ranging from friendly teasing to hostility and racism. If you know any rednecks, you understand this. The new id embraces the differences between races, men and women, straights and gays, winners and losers. It rejects the puritanism of political correctness, where personal distinctions don’t matter and all losers must somehow be made into winners. It’s a populist id which longs for some form of economic social justice which will redistribute the wealth. In the 2016 election Bernie Sanders also called for economic social justice, but his self-discipline allowed no foothold for the new American id. Sanders could not or would not speak the emotional language of resentment, only the rational language of reform. But reform without resentment fails to address the depth of anger and alienation, and only perpetuates the status quo. Resentments cannot be ameliorated unless they are accepted.
Most of the population which still benefits from the conservative-liberal status quo was shocked and confused by the Trump revolution. The super-rich, insulated behind their fortunes and private jets and gated estates, were not shocked or confused. It was the dependent upper middle classes–including small business people, educated professionals, managers, and skilled technicians–who were were the ones most upset by Trump and what he represented. The system still works for them, but its failures are too glaring either to admit or ignore. And their investments are not as secure as they were. And any serious reform, any redistribution of wealth and power, also threatens their security. They remain psychically committed to a failing status quo, but worried about the future; their impossible fantasy is to go back to the world before Trump.
It is easy to condemn Trump and his hard-core supporters for their vulgarity, but that same vulgarity thoroughly saturates American culture. Trump speaks the open language of sex and violence, race and prejudice, but that language is already embedded in a popular culture even liberals avidly consume, from The Sopranos to The Game of Thrones. Why is it okay to suck up all that up with homemade popcorn, but somehow to be outraged by Trump saying the same thing at a press conference or in a tweet? It’s not enough to say one is fiction and the other reality, as if the former had no connection with the latter. In fact they are deeply entwined.
One of the consequences of conservative-liberalism is that it emasculated old-time liberalism. Liberalism used to focus on social justice, on one or another practical agenda for ensuring a more or less equal, or at least proportional, distribution of resources. Its communal orientation provided for a healthy sublimation of libidinal emotion and energy. Conservative-liberalism sacrificed any such social agenda for a personalized version of human rights. Politically, the high point of conservative-liberalism came with the Clinton administration, when the Democrats were brought fully into the Nixonian program, joining in the rejection of social reform in favor of self-interest. It was no longer a question of how to organize society to ensure greater justice, but of how to develop and assert a personal identity. What was once outwardly directed libidinal energy turned inward, and became narcissistic and masturbatory.
The release of the Trumpian id has been particularly hard on liberal intellectuals, looking down from their perches on university campuses or as media talking heads. They have reacted with hysteria to any suggestion that there may be limits to equality. They have doubled down on equal rights and the Nixonian agenda to the point where dissent itself is decreed intolerable. Any expression of other than purely egalitarian values becomes a mortal threat. To their minds, any distinction between whites and minorities becomes racism; any distinction between men and women becomes misogyny; any distinction between straights and gays becomes homophobia.
Where will all this end? The cat, we should realize, is out of the bag. We need to accommodate our differences, not pretend they don’t exist, or that all identities have the same value. We need to learn to be honest about our differences without losing our mutual respect. Liberal talk of equality turned out to be far too abstract. By applying to everything and everyone, it lost all meaning. Conservatives can be painted as racists and yahoos, to be sure, but they, at best, are also capable of displaying a solidarity born of adversity which cuts across race and gender and other divisions, even as those are acknowledged in the process. And, for better or worse, they have become the bearers of the call for social change. Status quo liberals are now the true conservatives. They have the luxury of insulating themselves, of indulging their interests, of affording to lose touch with reality. The shock to liberals is that their theories no longer work, and their pride is hurt. The shock to conservatives is that their very survival is at stake.
Nonetheless, some form of equality, as liberals insist, remains essential to human decency and dignity. But what is it? Absolute equality turns out to a mirage. The total lack of equality is inhuman barbarism. Where, then, is the balance between recognizing real differences and embracing a common humanity? Somewhere, there must be a common ground. If we can’t find it, we are lost.
Adrian Kuzminski is the author of several books, including Fixing the System: A History of Populism, Ancient & Modern, and The Ecology of Money: Debt, Growth, and Sustainability.