What on earth has happened in the USA? And what does it mean for liberal Christians?
Until the actual voting, there seemed to be a simple socio-economic explanation for ‘the Trump phenomenon’ and similar phenomena in other countries. A whole swathe of the population felt disenfranchised by globalisation and the neo-liberal project.
They had lost respect for mainstream sources of socio-political authority, represented by figures as diverse as David Cameron and Hillary Clinton. And so they became prey to new and frequently demagogic leaders, sometimes on the Left (Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, or the leaders of Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece) but more often on the Right (Marine le Pen, Nigel Farage, and their equivalents especially in eastern Europe), whose one common message was that that project must be overturned, usually involving radical restrictions to the free movement of capital and trade, and often (on the Right at least) of people also.
So far, so simple. There are reasons why some aspects of the globalisation project – the ideal of one world – might be affirmed by Christians, whilst others – the rapid and wholesale destruction of working communities, leading to growing inequalities within nations – need to be challenged. Within the Church of England in particular, there has been a tradition of ‘economic theology’ at least from Denys Munby in the 1950s to Richard Harries and Peter Selby today, which has offered such a balanced critique.
But the evidence of the polls in the USA suggests that something deeper has been going on.
When Trump was first nominated as a Presidential candidate, commentator Jon Stewart remarked that 'America’s id is running for president'. That use of the Freudian category has in my view been proved relevant. For it was not just, or even mainly, those disenfranchised by current economic trends who voted for Trump. The disenfranchisement seems to have been operating at a deeper level.
Trump as ‘id’ articulated thoughts and feelings which are normally suppressed by the veneer of ‘civilisation’. Not just hostility to immigrants, though that is important, because it represents a fear and suspicion of the Other which we can all feel but which most of us usually suppress, if only as the price for building relationships – political, trading, or personal. But there is a lot more to it than that. Trump’s unique selling proposition is a supreme ‘political incorrectness’. In the dangerous words of Shakespeare, he believes that we should ‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’, about everything from cultural and trading competition to sexual relationships. And ‘what we feel’ can be pretty nasty.
A great deal of Christian thinking has, for this very reason, identified the ‘id’ – our instinctual life – as a major, perhaps the major, source of sin. This is where lust, greed, anger and all the rest of the Seven Deadly Sins (except one) come from. It must therefore be suppressed. Freud himself, of course, was no supporter of ‘letting it all hang out’; he saw the need for ‘civilisation’ to keep the id in its place, though he foresaw the ‘discontents’ which would arise from that suppression.
The great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr should be living at this hour, because his comments on the Trump phenomenon would have been interesting. He used the resources of theology, economics and sociology to analyse the political movements of the mid-20th century. The result, famously, was ‘Christian Realism’, which held to the ideals of the faith whilst spurning all kinds of false utopianism, and which provided a theological underpinning for Roosevelt’s New Deal and later for the tricky necessities of the Cold War. He was the author of such well-known sayings as ‘Our capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but our capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary’, and for that reason he upheld the ‘American way’, with the inbuilt checks and balances of a fundamentally democratic constitution, as the least-worst solution to the business of human living together. One wonders what he would have felt about the result of this latest manifestation of democracy?
But Niebuhr knew Freud’s ideas as well, and he analysed the Christian concept of Sin in Freudian terms. He recognised the power of the id and the sins that could spring from it. But he reaffirmed the insight of many theologians that the greatest sin is that of Pride, which springs from the ego and not from the id. He carefully avoided any simple identification of the instinctual life with the source of sin, which classically is what Augustine and others called ‘the heart turned in on itself’ – an act of the ego.
That more classical approach raises some fundamental issues about what we mean by sin in the Trump context. If concepts such as the id are useful in understanding the current collective psyche of the USA, what does that mean for our ethical and spiritual analysis?