Sigmund Freud only made one trip to the United States, in 1909. What he saw didn’t impress him. For all its shortcomings, the Austro-Hungarian Empire—the era’s other highly diverse, federalist nation—at least maintained a robust welfare system, gave official recognition to multiple religious confessions (including Islam), and offered a pretense, however tenuous, of multi-ethnic solidarity. “America,” by contrast, “[was] a mistake; a gigantic mistake, but a mistake.”
In the US, Freud saw a society of runaway exploitation held together—uneasily—by a cynical rhetoric of “progress,” sham protestations of universal equality, and a cult of national exceptionalism and divinely ordained manifest destiny. Instead of producing leaders who represented the nation at its best and brightest, American democracy, Freud believed, had a habit of producing ones who embodied its worst; the US was “the psychological poverty of groups” exemplified. Then as now, Americans have never taken kindly to such criticism; Freud anticipated American resistance to psychoanalysis as a matter of course, observing to Carl Jung, his traveling companion on that US tour, that “we’re bringing them the plague.”
He wasn’t wrong. Nothing quite captures Americans’ ambivalence toward Freud’s great export as our oft-professed contempt for what we like to call “armchair psychoanalysis.” The term is synonymous with uninformed commentary and fatuous pontification, delivered in the same mode—and from the same piece of furniture—as our other great vice: armchair quarterbacking. But our condemnations of armchair psychoanalysis hardly diminish our appetite for it—or its ubiquity. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave the term a novel spin when he condemned a federal judge in Hawaii for blocking President Donald Trump’s Executive Order on immigration from Muslim-majority countries. “Judges,” Sessions said, “don’t get to psychoanalyze the President to see if the order he issues is lawful.” In Sessions’s view, apparently, considering Trump’s immigration order alongside his numerous on-the-record statements about pursuing a “Muslim ban” is neither basic common sense nor jurisprudential due diligence: it’s so much “psychoanalysis.” The armchair isn’t named, but it’s implied.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Trump’s critics argue that it’s long past time to revisit the so-called Goldwater Rule, the portion of the American Psychiatric Association’s code of ethics that bars psychiatric professionals from making statements about the mental health of public figures whom they have not personally examined. “Does Trump need to lie to my face for me to know he lies all the time?” asked one prominent psychologist last month. “He does lie to my face—every night. I watch TV!”
Our national armchair faces a television, where Trump has already appeared for years, and where he now appears almost constantly. But the armchair metaphor, like the furniture itself, is rather quaint: Trump’s personality, in all its outsized vulgarity, looms over and inside the lives of many Americans in a way that no other President really has before. There is no comfortable distance from which to psychoanalyze Trump, because the man is always onscreen, right in front of us. He is at the doctor’s office and the departure gate, at the sports bar and the auto repair shop. He is on huge screens in Times Square and on the little screens we carry in our pockets. You may yet have been spared seeing Trump on the TV in some fancy restroom, but if you’re among the one in two Americans who check their phones while on the toilet, odds are you’ve had an encounter with him there, too. Trump intrudes into spaces virtual and physical, public, and deeply private. Forget psychoanalysis-as-plague: it’s Trump that’s truly viral.
Can we diagnose—from an armchair or from any distance—the omnipresent? It might be more productive to read Trump as a symptom. The vector of contagion—those screens—leaps out. Trump, of course, isn’t just at home on screen—he is personally at home with them, surrounded by them. In some respects, this is typical: just another 70-year-old white man who begins his mornings with television, monitors television throughout the day, and retires, fairly early, to watch more television at night. Like many such men, he’s said to occasionally respond to the television by talking at it angrily, and, also like many such men, he is particularly fond of Fox News. What sets Trump apart from the stereotype is that what he primarily watches on TV is himself. What for us is a screen is for Trump a mirror, and he gets to have mirrors everywhere.
It’s here that a little bit of psychoanalysis can help—not by way of diagnosis, but rather by way of fable. For Jacques Lacan, the so-called “mirror stage” was a distinctive and suggestive human phenomenon, not shared by any other creatures. Rather than losing interest in the “inanity” or uselessness of their reflected image, as, say, another primate would, the human child instead finds pleasure in seeing its movements represented back to it. Contemporary primatologists and developmental psychologists may take issue with Lacan’s account as an empirical matter, but what is salient for our purposes is how Lacan employs the image of the baby in what is basically a philosophical parable about subjectivity. The glee the baby takes in the image, Lacan says, is a pleasure in identification, a joy in realizing that they “are” the image in the mirror. But, of course, they aren’t the two-dimensional image in any organic sense. What’s more, their actual bodily experience is a chaotic mess of falling, soiling themselves, and lacking basic motor control. And though we may gain poise later in the life, one way or another, we can never be the thing we see in the mirror, that identity we supposedly are, or want to be. “Being yourself” isn’t just a challenge—it’s also a kind of impossible tragic drama.
Trump, Reality TV King and President of All the Screens, owes his very existence to the mediation of the image, and his endless antics are fueled by the brutal logic of its insufficiency. During the campaign, reports told us, Trump would watch all of his own televised speeches and interviews—but with the sound off: how he looked was more important than what he said. Who knows if he still maintains this practice; what with the sheer amount of interviews and speeches he now gives, it’s hard to imagine that even Trump himself can keep up. Yet the appearances keep coming, no matter how much what he actually has to say may send markets into panic, foreign governments into frenzy, and White House officials scrambling in his wake. He’ll run his mouth and spew nonsense, no matter the consequences, because with Trump, image-production trumps everything, every time.
Trump’s enthusiasm for appearing on TV feels almost like an existential imperative. His obsession with talking about his ratings is perseverative and grotesque: this is a man who will interrupt a question about working with Democrats to brag about how his appearances have been the best thing for CBS’s Face the Nation since September 11. The slippage between Trump’s self-identification and his representation on screen can get weird. Thus, on April 17, he tweeted:
“The first 90 days of my presidency has exposed the total failure of the last eight years of foreign policy!” So true. @foxandfriends
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2017
“My presidency”: addressing Fox & Friends (of course) and approvingly quoting their reportage about him, Trump misquotes the show’s hosts by inserting a first-person pronoun. A nation watches as a former reality TV star turned President live-tweets news coverage of his own presidential tenure as though he is watching a reality TV show starring himself.
Granted, Trump is no effluent and uncoordinated baby. He is a man who, his doctor assures us, is not just in normal condition for a 70 year-old (whatever that means), but is also “the healthiest President in American history.” And it’s not like Trump isn’t surrounded by endless opportunities for constant adulation and personal affirmation.
But nonetheless, no amount of coverage seems to be enough, and what coverage there is always falls short. There will always be a slight, an indignity, if not now, then remembered. Donald Trump is the most powerful man in the world, we realize, and yet he will go to his grave petulant about media coverage of the size of the crowd at his inauguration as the President of the United States. No amount of airtime can cover him, no ratings surge can bridge the gap between what he is and whatever it is he wants or feels he deserves to be. It will never be enough, because it never could be enough, as a matter of brute existential fact. Compared to every other human on earth, Trump may occupy a singular position in the circuit of television production and consumption—at once its object, referent, and subject—but this doesn’t liberate him from being dominated by the merciless regime of the image; in fact, it binds him to it all the more. At the end of the day, the baby in front of the mirror remains, even if the baby is an old man in an armchair yelling at his reflection in the TV, and even if that old man is the most powerful person on the planet.
To be sure, in some sense, Trump’s own subjective perception of his personal realness doesn’t really matter. Perhaps what matters more is, as Matt Christman has noted, how he appears to attribute reality to others only when they appear framed on his TV. During the campaign, some of Trump’s strategists observed that they had more luck getting through to their candidate when they addressed him during interviews with third parties on TV; now, whether it’s gassed Syrian children, savvy congressmen, or visiting foreign dignitaries, TV exposure is what, for better or worse, prompts Trump’s interest and not-infrequent about-faces on policy. What matters most, then, is how Trump’s infantile drama plays out—the real human beings whom it catches up and destroys.
In the classic psychoanalytic setup, the patient lies on a couch, unable to see the analyst, who sits behind them, at a distance conducive to observation. The analyst may or may not be in an armchair, but regardless they remain at a certain remove. We have no such luxury. Trump is forever facing us and in our faces, as ubiquitous as the screens that surround us, as immanent in our culture of spectacle as the image itself. Coupled with our endless speculation over Trump’s secret motivations or conspiratorial agendas, our disdain for “armchair psychoanalysis” feels like protesting too much. What we actually want is to retreat to the safety of the armchair, to put some distance between Trump and us, and between us and an analysis that might implicate both ourselves and America more broadly, too. It also misses the point. Trump is the truly rare figure who doesn’t require us to look beyond, or above, or below, or inside. He is simply there, as flat as the countless screens on which he appears.