A Psychological Metaphor for the 2016 Presidential Election

This is adapted from a post that was shared with psychoanalytic colleagues who were distressed about, and trying to come to psychological grips with, the alarming presidential campaign:

Here is a psychological metaphor on the election:  What if we viewed the USA as undergoing a national dissociative crisis, characterized by self-undermining, if not self-destructive, behavior?  And if, among the dynamics energizing that crisis, we privilege psychoeconomics, the psychological relationships with money among individuals and groups, in the context of an emerging planetary culture?

If we viewed the USA as undergoing a national dissociative crisis, instantiated in our politics, particularly during this presidential election, we would view conflicting parts of the polity as dissociated but dynamically interrelated parts of a whole.  We would see the dissociated parts as struggling for control, each experiencing the brunt of disavowed aspects of the other, and each having its own trauma history, supported by narratives incorporating fantasy and reality.

If we were working with a trauma patient, even if the patient had become unrealistic, delusional, or self-harming, we would still validate the experience of trauma as we tried to support an extension of awareness leading to healthier integration.  We would see self-undermining and self-destructive behavior as attempts at adaptation.  And we would try to understand, together with the patient, where the trauma actually came from; although we may not be able to get to all of it.

If we viewed the nation from that perspective, how would that help us contribute to the national discourse?  To begin with, we might help to start one.  In treating dissociation we invite the patient to join with us in co-creating a therapeutic conversation and relationship in which we allow credibility for all aspects of the self; and especially for the underlying feelings, and the experiences that gave rise to those feelings.

Of course, if we were treating a dissociated patient, the person would have come to us in the first place, needing help, and we don’t have that here.  Yet the fact that there is so much anger, fear, sense of disenfranchisement, and lack of a sense of direction and hope for actually facing and getting on the better side of the complex problems that face the nation, indicates that something real is going on, even if we may find the attributions and imagined remedies for those problems, to a lessor or greater extent, unrealistic and even delusional.

What if we viewed the dissociative conflict as primarily driven by psychoeconomics, the psychological relationships with money, and with others through money?  Money, having no intrinsic value, is itself a metaphor; a form of stored social energy whose value is whatever society agrees it is.  In the psychoeconomic dimensions of life, there are winners and losers, and among the losers are those who have lost, or are threatened with the loss, of their identities, including their visions and expectations of their futures.  Even the meaning of the past is at risk when, for example, the pension and healthcare benefits earned over a career can vanish in a company or civic bankruptcy, or a professional can no longer find viable work.

We can observe trends that contribute to widespread economic and psychosocial disenfranchisement, dislocation and disorientation, even as they also contribute to widespread opportunities and potential for liberation, going back to the founding of psychoanalysis.  It was in pre-WW I Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at a time when the great empires of Europe, the middle east, and to a lesser extent central Asia, were increasingly impinging on one another, and science and technology were overturning systems of belief, social hierarchy, and how people made their livings and related economically with one another, that psychotherapy took the form of two people meeting together to talk about the problems of one of them, for an hour at a time, over a series of meetings.  The intensively reflective space of psychoanalysis, with its privileging of unconscious and non-rational processes affecting thought, perception, and behavior, was criticized as irrational by authorities of the same cultures that, believing themselves rational, stumbled blindly into the worst war ever up to that point, resulting in the ending of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires, redrawing the political map of the planet, and leading to repercussions which are still playing out today; including in the current election.

If we viewed the nation, metaphorically, as a dissociating patient within the context of a planetary culture emerging in fits and starts and with much conflict, would that help to shed light on the current situation, and indicate ways of thinking and talking about it that might be useful?