Just when you thought we could stop offering wild diagnoses of Donald Trumpism a New York psychoanalyst named Joel Whitebook explains that Trump is leading the nation into a mass psychosis. And he does it in the New York Times, which should know better than to publish such silliness.
Whitebook is not just your everyday garden variety psychoanalyst. He runs the Psychoanalytic Studies Program at Columbia University. So, he does not just embarrass himself. He embarrasses Columbia, too. Since he suggests that the Trump administration has been producing a mass psychosis in the nation, he will suffer no adverse consequences.
I do not need to mention it, but Trump’s detractors seem to have been competing to see who is more emotionally overwrought, who is more unhinged, who can present more conspiracy theories. One might say that those who oppose Trump have taken leave of their rational faculties and have descended into the fever swamps of mass hysteria. After all, they think that it’s World War II in France and that they are part of the Resistance. Who’s detached from reality now?
Anyway, Whitebook opens with this apercu into his clinical practice:
Sometimes, when psychoanalysts begin treatment with a new patient, they quickly find themselves feeling that they can’t make sense of what is going on. The patient’s statements and behavior simply don’t add up, and the flurry of dissociated statements and actions can quickly begin to produce something like a disorienting fog.
Most seasoned clinicians will have learned that they shouldn’t attribute this confusion, which is typically accompanied by a distinct form of anxiety, to their lack of skill. Instead, adept clinicians take the experience itself and the accompanying anxiety as significant data, indicating that they are dealing with, if not psychosis in the strict diagnostic sense, at the very least something in the vicinity of psychotic-like phenomena.
Aside from the salient fact that psychoanalysts insist that their patients free associate, and thus produce a series of disconnected fragments that are supposed to give access to the unconscious mind, why has it never crossed this psychoanalyst's mind to step in, to ask some questions, to engage in a conversation, to try to make sense of it all? What was it about his training that made him so inert?
For all of the proposed advances that psychoanalysts have made, apparently they have not gotten to the point of engaging with their patients. Whitebook keeps his distance and thinks to himself that the word salad he is hearing is clinically significant, a sign of anxiety if not psychosis.
One cannot fail to note that, according to Whitebook, some analysts think that the dissociational flurry is a sign of their own incompetence. Freud might have said that they are in denial, or better denegation, and that their mute status as dummy has perhaps contributed to what they are hearing.
Does it all spell psychosis? I have no idea. I do know that psychosis is a serious psychiatric condition, one that most contemporary psychiatrists believe to be a brain disease. Surely, Whitebook knows better than to offer up a diagnosis based on some dissociated ramblings. I trust that the average psychiatrist would want to much more about the patient before concluding that his condition was so dire.
A competent psychiatrist would not do as Whitebook does, and imagine that Sigmund Freud offered the last word, or even the first word, about psychosis. After all, Freud was not a psychiatrist, and his views about psychosis and neurosis are no longer taken seriously by any serious psychiatrist.
Thus, Whitebook offers up one side of Freud’s theory of psychosis, ignoring the possibility of a neurological condition. He ignores the last century’s work on this illness, illness that responds to some medical treatments but that does not respond to psychotherapy and psychoanalysis.
Back in the day—the mid 1970s-- when I was working at a psychiatric clinic in France, a clinic that was directed by students of Jacques Lacan, the clinic did not allow anyone to psychoanalyze a psychotic. Medication and group activities were considered to be the best approach. Of course, Lacan et al. did theorize about psychosis, but they did not cry out about mass psychosis.
To imagine that Freudian analysis would tell us something cogent or interesting about psychosis is… dare I say… crazy. Of course, Whitebook, like Freud was involved in storytelling, not in scientific diagnosis.
In Whitebook’s words:
In contrast, because psychotic individuals tend to find reality as a whole too painful to bear, they break with it globally, and construct an alternative, delusional, “magical” reality of their own. This alternate relation to reality, manifesting itself in the initial meetings with the patient, is at the root of the clinician’s confusion.
Feel some pity for poor Joel Whitebook. He feels anxiety over the election of Donald Trump:
Now many of us throughout American society at large, after an interminable electoral campaign and transitional phase into the presidency of Donald J. Trump, have experienced a form of disorientation and anxiety that bears a striking resemblance to the clinical situation I have described. And recent events indicate that this feeling is not going to abate any time soon.
Disorientation and anxiety… it suggests that they are off their meds, or that some of the meds are not quite as effective as they think. Being unable or unwilling to accept that you lost, that the world as you knew it was a bubble having little to do with the real world… these are not psychiatric conditions. They are not signs of psychosis or even neurosis. Aside from the fact that Whitebook, like nearly every therapist who writes about these topics, is trying to gin up his business… it makes no real sense to tell people that their feelings, such as they are, constitute a grave mental illness. You do not have to be a psychiatrist to know that psychosis—as in schizophrenia and paranoia—is not to be taken lightly.
Anyway Whitebook jumps the shark here:
Just as disorientation and bewilderment tell analysts something significant about what they are experiencing in the clinical setting, so too our confusion and anxiety in the face of Trumpism can tell us something important about ours. I am suggesting, in other words, that Trumpism as a social experience can be understood as a psychotic-like phenomenon.
One understands that it’s trendy for psychoanalysts to consult their emotions to learn about their patients. It’s a genuinely bad idea, suggesting a very high level of self-absorption. Perhaps they ought to do a serious interview and try to converse with their patients. Perhaps they ought to attune themselves to the reality of the patient’s life situation before drawing very serious conclusions. Without having probed sufficiently to know what is going on in a patient’s life you really do not know very much about the patient’s emotional state.
As for “our” confusion and anxiety, perhaps this derives from the fact that psychoanalysts like Whitebook know so little about what is going on in the real world. Perhaps it signals their lack of knowledge of the facts of the situation on the ground. Perhaps it means that they are living in their own fantasies and have been blindsided by reality. It’s a possibility, don’t you think?
Now, Whitebook suggests that Trump is conspiring to detach him and his buddies from reality, thus to render them all psychotic. In truth, Whitebook has demonstrated nothing more than his own ignorance of what is going on. Many psychoanalysts, when they do not know what is happening, retreat into storytelling.
The point is, rather, that Trumpism as a social-psychological phenomenon has aspects reminiscent of psychosis, in that it entails a systematic — and it seems likely intentional — attack on our relation to reality.
Which reality would that be, Joel? He says that this new attack is not the same as the criticism of the sacred dogma of climate change, dogma that Whitebook accepts as a scientific fact. I will not repeat that distinguished climate scientists like Richard Lindzen of MIT have seriously disputed the science behind the climate change… hysteria. Note that I did not say climate change psychosis.
What has Whitebook most agitated is the word of that famous “witch” Kellyanne Conway about alternative facts. Freudian analysis has a great affinity with witch hunts, but I have already discussed it and will leave it for another day. Whitebook is saying that a woman’s off-hand and somewhat ironic remark is like a witch casting a spell.
In his words:
Armed with the weaponized resources of social media, Trump has radicalized this strategy in a way that aims to subvert our relation to reality in general. To assert that there are “alternative facts,” as his adviser Kellyanne Conway did, is to assert that there is an alternative, delusional, reality in which those “facts” and opinions most convenient in supporting Trump’s policies and worldview hold sway. Whether we accept the reality that Trump and his supporters seek to impose on us, or reject it, it is an important and ever-present source of the specific confusion and anxiety that Trumpism evokes.
Lest we forget, alternative realities might also be fictional worlds. After all, the Obama administration, like most other administrations cherry picked facts that support its narrative. In the Obama world you could keep your doctor and your plan… remember that, Joel? And in the alternative universe concocted by the fans of the presidential messiah he never did anything wrong, never made a mistake, never erred. One of the reasons that the intelligentsia cannot grasp the Trump phenomena is that their sense of reality was so totally distorted by their mania about defending Obama that they lost touch with reality and with facts.
While we are talking about Freud and facts, it’s a good time to recall what philosopher Karl Popper said about the famed Viennese neurologist. Popper said, some seven or so decades ago, that Freudian theory had nothing to do with science… because it refused to accept that any facts could refute its theoretical premises. It lacked falsifiability. Whitbook’s use of Freud’s tarnished authority and widely discredited storytelling to dismiss anyone’s use of facts is risible, on its face. After all Freudian theory resides on literary characters who exist in literary fictions: Oedipus and Narcissus.
If you want to get in touch with reality, forget psychoanalysis. If you want to show that you care about reality do not pretend that the primary evidence for a diagnosis is your own emotion.