In my last post, I began to expand on the idea of Donald Trump as ‘the id of the American people’, and to explore what theology has made of that particular Freudian concept.
The Jewish Rabbis, unconstrained by the story of St Paul’s spiritual struggles, are much less negative about the id than Christians have tended to be.
For some of them, God created both the ‘good inclination’, the source of idealism and generosity, and the ‘evil inclination’ which basically makes the world go round. Without lust, there would be no sexual reproduction, and hence no future for the race. Without greed, there might well be far less economic development and prosperity (though to be sure it might be more evenly shared). Lust and greed, then, are ‘evil’, but they are also God-given; they have a purpose. And the Rabbis were thoroughly ‘realistic’ in the great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s sense; they did not try to idealise sexual love and economic enterprise, to promote ‘vanilla’ versions in place of the drives of the Evil Inclination, but affirmed those drives precisely as they are, in all their moral ambiguity. They would have supported Plato’s argument that the wild horses which we ride need to be controlled, but they would still value those horses as God’s good gift.
In today’s USA, and elsewhere, the horses of the Evil Inclination are stampeding. Our natural fears and resentments – not only, or even mainly, about economic injustice – are given free rein. ‘Civilisation’, the superego, is seen as a device by the powers-that-be to keep people under while they get on with their self-enriching neo-liberal globalisation project – and, alas, Hillary Clinton was identified precisely with that.
One of the most remarkable findings of voter analysis was the number of women, from a variety of backgrounds, who voted for this self-evident misogynist and exploiter of their gender. Why did they do this? Because many women, somewhere deep down, find a ‘bad lad’ more attractive than a good one? If so, is this an atavistic response of the id to the attraction of someone who, however brutal, demonstrates a certain strength, and hence an ability to father children and provide for them? There is said to be some evidence that metrosexual New Men may be at an instinctual level less satisfying to their womenfolk than brutes like Trump. Social conditioning? The result of evolution? Who knows? Whatever it is, it looks pretty nasty, but we cannot pretend it does not exist. Nor can we deny, alas, that – despite evidence to the contrary from Germany to Sierra Leone – some women, like some men, have problems with the idea of a female head of state.
So the ethical and theological question is: must we (and indeed can we) suppress the id, or can the id be redeemed?
If the Rabbis are right, the id is not the creation of the Devil but the creation of God. In which case, it is surely redeemable, and must be redeemed. ‘Civilisation’ can and should be an instrument in this. But if it is seen as a purely alien imposition, and identified with an increasingly despised ‘elite’ – not just of power and money but of education and expertise, as Michael Gove pointed out during the Brexit campaign – then it will not be redemptive, but simply a form of suppression, a valve which will blow once the pressure becomes intolerable.
During the crisis of Fascism, just under a hundred years ago, it was the poets who saw most clearly the extent to which civilisation had become a thin and unhealthy veneer (T.S. Eliot), and that ‘things fall apart…..the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity’ (W.B. Yeats). Trump is no Hitler (I hope), but we do seem to be regressing to those years of what W.H. Auden called the ‘low dishonest decade’.
Much was done in the years after the Second World War to try to heal, at a systemic level, the evils which had been identified. Those years saw healing gestures from the establishment of the Welfare State in the UK (and its equivalents elsewhere) to the setting up of the State of Israel as a safe place for persecuted Jews. To a greater or lesser extent, these tremendous and well-meaning initiatives have now turned sour. That does not invalidate them – not even the tragic history of Israel and the Palestinians and the whirlwind now being reaped in the wider Middle East. But the veneer of civilisation, which we thought was more or less secure at least in ‘the West’, has now been largely torn away. The id rules.
For some conservative Christians, the only possible answer to all this is to convert each soul to faith in Christ. Then the id will be redeemed (though for many Christians the game here is still as much about suppression of our instinctual lives as about their redemption). Then perfect love will cast out fear.
Liberal Christians are likely to be sceptical about either the possibility or the desirability of approaching the problem in this way. After all, some of the greatest horrors in history have been committed by the self-styled ‘born-again’. Many of the Crusaders, and many of history’s worst misogynists, anti-Semites and the like, have had a deep personal faith, and most US evangelicals reportedly voted for Trump. Conversely, there have always been many individuals who appear to be ‘on the side of the angels’ but for whom Christian faith seems quite inaccessible, for historical, cultural and/or psychological reasons, or who have rejected it, often in the name of the very ideals to which Christians have failed to live up.
Whether Niebuhr was or was not fully a liberal in terms of his faith and theology may be debated (he was influenced by his Calvinist heritage, and somewhat by Karl Barth). But he too would have been suspicious of the ‘universal conversion’ approach, and more concerned to secure patterns of culture – political, economic and social – which would at least restrain the excesses of the id and hopefully offer the possibility of a more excellent way. Many liberals would follow the same approach.