28 May 2018

Trump as Trickster

Lewis Hyde's Trickster Makes This World  is a brilliant look at how trickster gods from cultures on every continent seem to be a constant, the gods whose mischief and disdain for the systems that order daily life disrupt those systems. Sometimes the chaos they unleash is destructive, sometimes creative, and sometimes merely affirms the need to restore the status quo.

The tricksters Hyde cites include Krishna and Coyote, from two different Indian cultures; Monkey,  and Eshu from two different African cultures; Hermes from the Greeks and Loki from the Scandinavians. Hyde calls them boundary crossers whose disdain for norms both help to change norms and to define them.

Hyde writes that prophecy is not about prediction in the sense that it predicts that the stock market will fall in October. Rather, prophecy reveals truths that will still be true in the future.  This section of his book from 1998 is prophetic about Trump.
These threats on both sides, to the shameless person and to the world around him are, I think, what sometimes lead people to ask if the trickster isn't really a psychopath. Certainly there are parallels. Psychopaths lie, cheat, and steal. They are given to obscenity and, as one psychologist puts it, exhibit "a confusion of amorous and excretory functions." [Think pee tape.] They're not just antisocial, they're foolishly so (they "will commit thefts, forgery, adultery, fraud, and other deeds for astonishingly small stakes and under much greater risks of being discovered than will the ordinary scoundrel"). While they are often smart, they have a sort of "rudderless intelligence," responding to situations as they arise but unable to formulate any coherent, sustainable, long-term plan. They are masters of the empty gesture, and have a glib facility with language, stripping words of the glue that normally connects them to feeling and morality. Finally, they lack both remorse and shame for the harm and hurt that trail behind them. One way or another, almost everything that can be said about psychopaths can also be said about tricksters. [p. 158 of Hyde's Trickster Makes This World, 1998, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY.]

Why, if this definition of trickster so aptly describe him then, is Trump so popular?  That's like asking why are the trickster gods so compelling that they have shown up in so many cultures? Perhaps it is because tricksters like Trump mock what people reverence. You can't really hope that a trickster will abide by norms. He defies them. Hyde quotes another author, Rickets, who shows how trickster stories can be read as parodies of shamanism.
In shamanic initiation, for example, the spirits kill and resurrect the initiate, often placing something inside the resurrected body - a quartz crystal, for example - which the shaman can later call forth from his body during healing rituals. If someone in your group claims such powers, you might find wry humor in stories which have Coyote, when he needs advice, calling forth (with much grunting) his own excrement. ... Trickster's failure implies that shamanic pretensions are daydreams at best, fakery at worst. [p. 294 of Hyde's Trickster Makes This World.]

If experts are our modern shamans, then Trump is continuing with this tradition of mocking shamans in a hundred ways that are variants on his appointing Rick Perry as Energy Secretary; Rick Perry who - in a debate - could not even remember the name of the Energy Department he wanted to eliminate. Only a trickster would make a person who thought so little of an agency that they both wanted to eradicate it and couldn't remember its name as the leader of that agency. Trump thumbs his nose at the experts who pretend to understand and predict the systems - from weather systems that define our climate to the financial systems that create booms and busts or even the government agencies he is supposed to manage - that define our world. He thumbs his - well, whatever - by bragging about the size of his penis in a presidential debate. He's shameless and his supporters love him for this for at least a couple of reasons. If the experts deserve mocking rather than reverence then even the non-experts can feel superior - or at least equal - to those experts. And once the standards have been mocked by the trickster Trump - whether when he has sex with porn stars while his wife is home with a new baby or when he shares conspiracy theories with Alex Jones - there is no longer a credible basis for calling them deplorable.

That said, past generations paid a great price for the transition to something new. Trump may be the price we pay and if so, he may be a bargain by contrast.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the 6 year-old Republican Party's first president. The new Republicans laid in place a set of policies that helped the country catch the wave of the industrial economy.  After the Great Depression, the modern Democratic Party - from FDR to Kennedy and Clinton - created a set of policies that helped the country to catch the wave of the information economy. Waves don't come out of calm seas and the chaos of the Civil War and the Great Depression and the second world war seemed - in retrospect - to mark a transition from an old to a new economy. During Lincoln's time we had a literal battle between Union soldiers and Confederates, two groups with very different ideas about whether we lived in a world contained by states or nations.  The transition ushered in with FDR's engagement in the second world war and Clinton's signing of NAFTA and WTO trade agreements was from national to international economic and political realities. Republicans made us bigger than states; modern Democrats made us bigger than a nation. Chaos in the form of bloody wars and assassinations marked these messy transitions into something new.

I think that we're now moving from an information to entrepreneurial economy and such a transition seems inevitably messy. It is unsurprising that a trickster has shown up at this time of transition. Tricksters are boundary crossers, creating and thriving on the chaos that marks transitions. Trump might just be the trickster who is disrupting the status quo enough to make it easier to create the next, new thing. We always pay a price for moving into the new; we still don't know the final tab for the Trump presidency but it could be one of the lowest we have ever paid, which seems to me just one more sign that we're making progress even if Trump - who as trickster belongs to earlier, more archaic worlds - is not.

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