Film has surfaced of Donald Trump bragging about being a “star” and therefore able to force himself on even married women, The howls of condemnation are comically belated. For months, Trump has cast a fabulous spell largely because he has been selling the nation the infantile fantasy of total power and gratification through the magic of total will.
Trump’s sexual aggression is only incidentally sexual. Actually in the clip he is selling celebrity privilege to a junior TV star, urging Billy Bush, one of the Bush family stars, to try it like a vitamin tonic. It pays to remember that Trump was 59 at the time, beyond mating age. The dream of grabbing the genitals of younger women at will is counterphobic: a means of maintaining vitality in fantasy as winter sets in.
It seems likely that Trump’s dangerous run for president is also a compulsive fantasy about overcoming time and death—and falling sales. Coming after the devastating financial crash of 2007-2009, Trump’s power fantasies are alluring to folks still stung by the economic failure and the injustice the crash exposed.
Trump depicts the nation in shocking decay, and promises rejuvenation, as in his slogan “Make America Great Again.” This is a death-and-rebirth theme familiar in superhero sagas and religious revivals. Why is it so powerful?
Following Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, Terror Management Theory (TMT) demonstrates that anxiety about death unconsciously influences our behavior. As a species, we’re uniquely aware of death. We cope, says Becker, by seeking to give our lives enduring meaning, striving to overcome our insignificance and futility by feeling heroic. When it works, Becker adds, you enjoy a feeling of self-worth that amounts to symbolic immortality. It may be denial, but some denial is necessary and—we hope—healthy.
Death-anxiety isn’t an off/on switch. It colors all behavior, conscious or not. In turn, heroic feeling means not just gold medals, but any striving for more life, from sex to payday. Likewise, we associate failure with death. If you’re powerless and shunned, you’ve fallen into social death. And since that can be as terrifying as biological death, minorities and the poor can be “enemies,” targets of hysterical fear and hatred. Killing others, especially scapegoats, as Otto Rank said, buys off your own death.
Terror Management Theory predicts that Trump draws supporters by arousing their anxiety about failure and death, and by posing as the heroic strongman who will restore your conviction that life goes on forever. TMT is still in its infancy. Its experiments demonstrate that dread intensifies immortality themes such as nationalism and religious piety. But to get at the comprehensiveness and quality of death-denial, we need to cast a wide net, as Becker did.
What is it about Trump that has so aroused Americans?
For starters, Trump takes the role of warrior-king. He is the king of beasts with a golden mane. He projects life as a contest—combat, really. Money and do-or-die toughness make him a strongman. He thrived in a military prep school, and at one point invested in the World Wrestling organization, that famed circus of violence. As a strongman, he favors judicial killing, as in his full-page newspaper ad condemning the young blacks convicted—wrongly, as it turned out—of a sexual assault in Central Park. In his book Think Big he boasts about his vindictiveness as a core value.
Now his plan to deport immigrants calls up visions of box cars carrying hated victims to the ovens at Auschwitz. His promised wall would keep out social death and his supporters’ rivals. More than once he’s made sly death threats against his opponent, “wondering” if gun-rights fanatics might assassinate her. As one writer innocently described Trump’s ability to survive criticism, he “appears to be almost bulletproof”—i.e., immortal.
For the tycoon, money is a weapon. It commands others, holding life-or-death power over them. Trump’s TV show celebrated firing—symbolically executing—failed “apprentices.” The boss condemns the unworthy to social death. As he said off the top of his head in a 2005 speech full of punchy expletives, “I love losers because they make me feel so good about myself.”
As a means of creating more life, money is another form of sex. As fashions and jewelry, money decorates the worrisome body that wrinkles and dies, kindling desire. Trump brags about his penis and his potency as a stud who beds fertile young women. His opponent he caricatures as the unhealthy, unfaithful wife in an sterile marriage.
The emperor brags about his potent name, his riches, his real estate “empire,” his sexual ”conquests,” his offspring, his servants, his supreme health. But the problem is that even emperors fail and die. In the 90s, a catastrophic binge of greedy overspending nearly ruined Trump. The death-anxiety of that failure shows in his anxiety about self-esteem today. Trump is compulsively combative, flinging insults as he does belittling nicknames. He lashes out at even trivial slights. In the wisdom of slang, criticism “puts someone down,” an idiom that links social death to real killing.
Trump’s determination to be a bigshot has an air of panic about it. We’re told that like Howard Hughes, he’s been phobic about germs. Commentators have suggested that he suffers from alexithymia, an inability to understand emotions and relate to others that people associate with autism. Emptiness in inner life can make for paranoid aggressiveness, defending a self always under threat.
When it nearly destroyed him in the 90s, Trump doubled down on his greed for life like a binge gambler. His casino splurge brought financial disaster rather than immortality ecstasy. Now that the Access Hollywood sex tapes have damaged his political campaign, he has escalated greed for life to messianic levels. Like many a dictator in history, he takes the role of christlike martyr, adding sacrifice to power in a new, intoxicating projection of immortality: “I take all the slings and arrows gladly for you,” he said in a scripted speech (10.13.16), for the sake of “our great civilization.”
For Trump’s supporters, hero-worship has a hypnotic quality. Revelations that he has systematically cheated employees like them only prove his power. They rationalize his sexual bullying of women. Like the maestro, they double down when reality makes a mockery of their convictions. The faithful believe that leader will share his greed for life with them, and not devour them along with losers. Because their idol has pumped up death-anxiety in order to show his mastery over it, and because the fantasy is so unrealistic, abandonment of the hero’s spell can be as frightening as leaving a cult.
Those not enchanted by the spell are likely to fear the hero’s selfishness. In its radical form, greed for life becomes cannibalism, taboo because ultimately it would devour everyone. Trump’s questionable charity, taxes, and treatment of working people raise concerns not only about ethics, but about his boundless appetite.
Greed for life demands not only sex and money, but also attention. And Trump of course is famous for his command of attention. It was an early sign of the spell he was casting in his campaign.
But attention is not only a practical matter of publicity and fascinated rallies. It is an essential process of identity. Most animals are self-sufficient shortly after birth, whereas without prolonged nurture human babies die. Since predators look for helpless morsels, most young are programmed not to attract attention. By contrast, human infants squawk for attention and quickly learn to pay attention.
In part thanks to our large brains, we are slower to become adult than other animals. We’re neotenic, retaining many juvenile traits throughout our lives. Where other adult animals are hard-wired and scripted in their behavior, humans remain playful, care soliciting, and submissive. Where adults of other species need to be stealthy, we continue to thrive on attention.
Identity reflects this background. After all, the self is not an object like a bone or a brain, but an action shaped and substantiated by social life. Orphans neglected in infancy are apt to suffer serious deficits in development. From birth, attention helps infants construct their reality. It is crucial in developing a sense of what is right. We associate loss of attention with punishment and death, as in solitary confinement, banishment, and social death.
To appreciate the power of attention, think of the way history’s monstrous tyrants rely on attention to manage their subjects’—and their own—fear of death. In their greed for life they demand empires, palaces, harems, treasure: all the symbols of slavish attention that Trump flaunts and media marvels at.
And who can be surprised? A demand for attention compensates for the emptiness in inner life. But you don’t need to suffer from alexithymia. Attention is also a basic means of managing death-anxiety. As an expression of concern, it substantiates us and creates solidarity. We may perish, but we feel we matter to someone else, to the family, the group. In funeral rites, monuments, scrapbooks, and memoirs, attention promises to overcome oblivion. However chimerical that promise may be, it is deeply rooted in us.
In advertising, media, social media, and education, American culture puts attention at the center of life. As the Trump phenomenon shows, attention can be a tool for manipulating our deepest creaturely motives. Even his most resolute opponents are awed by Trump’s ability to fascinate. In this respect his public personality shares the spotlight with rampage killers and celebrity movie stars, whose command of global attention speaks to our deepest hopes and fears.
We are childlike animals, brilliantly adaptable but also care-soliciting and often in trouble. Trump’s needy followers identify with his larger-than-life heroism: the illusion that in business and in person he is “too big to fail.” But they misread his ability to share attention with them. At rallies he addresses the crowd in familiar asides that make headlines, but usually he is directing their hostility toward outsiders or “enemies.” His vague policy slogans reveal how little attention he pays to their actual needs.
As a would-be leader, Trump comes on as the capable adult in the room. But his political persona enlarges and disguises the deepest concerns of childhood, including the raw terrors of death. Like a child—and like the Fuehrer—he makes fierce faces at the camera these days trying to look more imposing.
Trump has demanded “pussy” with a child’s sense of omnipotence, grasping at the security and nurture of an ideal mother—who alas, doesn’t exist. People are scared and offended because the compulsion is so drastically impersonal. And insatiable. Those who have fallen into the star’s dream are also sleepwalking. Look up from the enchanted pillow and there’s nobody there.
Being caught grasping, shamed by his desperation, the emperor suddenly stands naked before childish, mortal humanity. Psychology saw the fantasy threads all along, It remains to be seen if this demystification will dispel the political spell, and who will find some consoling wisdom in this instructive parable of sex and skull.
Resources used in this essay:
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973)
Raymond P. Coppinger and C. Kay Smith, “Forever Young,” The Sciences, May-June, 1983, 50-54.
Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (2015)
David Cay Johnston, The Making of Donald Trump (2016).
Sheldon Solomon et al, The Worm at the Core: on the role of death in life (2016).