American Paranoia: analyzing the paranoid-schizoid position in the Age of Trump

“It is a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence, and yet I cannot help but feel it has about it something of the dawning of the universe. Perhaps because the entire world continues to dream of New York, even as New York dominates and exploits it.”
Jean Baudrillard, America

The United States of America is a paranoid, failed nation-state on the verge of collapse. At this very moment, it is being run (or represented) by a clownish, real-estate baron from New York City, that perpetual infant, Donald Trump. Building on the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s (1882 – 1960) theory that people move from a paranoid-schizoid position, where every object (by extension: thoughts, ideologies, etcetera) is intensely and distinctly evil or profoundly and deeply good, to a depressive position, where objects are integrated as neither exclusively evil or good, this article attempts to (psycho) analyze contemporary American paranoia.

The Melanie Klein Trust offers some relatively pithy insight into the paranoid-schizoid position,

“[It refers to] constellation of anxieties, defenses and internal and external object relations that Klein considers to be characteristic of the earliest months of an infant’s life and to continue to a greater or lesser extent into childhood and adulthood. Contemporary understanding is that paranoid-schizoid mental states play an important part throughout life. The chief characteristic of the paranoid-schizoid position is the splitting of both self and object into good and bad, with at first little or no integration between them.

Klein has the view that infants suffer a great deal of anxiety and that this is caused by the death instinct within, by the trauma experienced at birth and by experiences of hunger and frustration. She assumes the very young infant to have a rudimentary although unintegrated ego, that attempts to deal with experiences, particularly anxiety, by using phantasies of splitting, projection and introjection.

The infant splits both his ego and his object and projects out separately his loving and hating feelings (life and death instincts) into separate parts of the mother (or breast), with the result that the maternal object is divided into a ‘bad’ breast (mother that is felt to be frustrating, persecutory and is hated) and a ‘good’ breast (mother that is loved and felt to be loving and gratifying). Both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ objects are then introjected and a cycle of re-projection and re-introjection ensues. Omnipotence and idealization are important aspects of this activity; bad experiences are omnipotently denied whenever possible and good experiences are idealised and exaggerated as a protection against the fear of the persecuting breast.

This ‘binary splitting’ is essential for healthy development as it enables the infant to take in and hold on to sufficient good experience to provide a central core around which to begin to integrate the contrasting aspects of the self. The establishment of a good internal object is thought by Klein to be a prerequisite for the later working through of the ‘depressive position’.

A different kind of splitting, ‘fragmentation’, in which the object and/or the self are split into many and smaller pieces is also a feature of the paranoid-schizoid position. Persistent or enduring use of fragmentation and dispersal of the self weakens the fragile unintegrated ego and causes severe disturbance.

Klein considers that both constitutional and environmental factors affect the course of the paranoid-schizoid position. The central constitutional factor is the balance of life and death instincts in the infant. The central environmental factor is the mothering that the infant receives. If development proceeds normally, extreme paranoid anxieties and schizoid defenses are largely given up during the early infantile paranoid-schizoid position and during the working through of the depressive position.

Klein holds that schizoid ways of relating are never given up completely and her writing gives the impression that the positions can be conceptualized as transient states of mind. The paranoid-schizoid position can be thought of as the phase of development preceding the depressive position as a defense against it and also as a regression from it.”

Given that the paranoid-schizoid position is rooted in infancy, the question arises: Is America infantile? What has happened to create this regressive situation? And what types of paranoia are exhibiting themselves throughout the political, social and economic discourses? And what is the remedy?

The first question can be answered in the affirmative: yes, ‘America’ (the metonym for the USA), is infantile. Language complexity – at all levels – have regressed to mimetic flows via infinite feeds, loops and recursive, monetized algorithms; essentially, the entire flow of signs and symbols has ‘flattened’ out with the proliferation of ‘information’ – anything and everything is ‘true/false’ and equivalent to everything else. President Trump, representing the apotheosis of this retreat to an infantile state, will often Tweet about the size of his hands and then some major policy announcement. Of course, the message is (sort of) the medium, so it’s all registered at the same level. Discourse, the way social beings who use language interact, no longer has the necessary pauses, places and moments for dramatically differing contents. Multiple ambiguous and ubiquitous ‘truths’ spread out, twisted and (re) Tweeted; in some hard right – and even ‘depoliticized’ – sectors of ‘America’ one can find all sorts of ‘truths:’ Rothschild conspiracies (reborn from antisemitic tropes going back to the last days of the Roman empire), government-funded gay bombs, which apparently affect frogs, chemtrails, where apparently, “the phenomenon […] involves an evil scheme in which 40,000 commercial pilots and air traffic controllers are in on the plot to poison their own children,” etcetera. Yet the nation has always been a place of cult-esque binary (good/bad) escapism: from John Smith’s golden plates and the subsequent Mormon migrations to ‘Zion’ (aka Utah) to the Jehovah’s Witnesses sprawling and extremely conservative, but apolitical, missionary fatalism (‘the end is near’).

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Political cartoon by Christian Bloom for VG / 2017 / Courtesy: https://twitter.com/dduane/status/808320257458839553

Contemporary America is experiencing this regressive situation, the regression to an infantile paranoid-schizoid position, on multiple levels and for multiple reasons. It is not the intention of this article to elucidate every reason behind these multilayered phenomena. A cacophony of retrograde ideas have entered the mainstream, from the flat-Earth conspiracy, which functions like a comforting mother’s breast for the socially alienated populace. Live Science writes,

“As conspiracy theories go, it’s a pretty all-encompassing one. So what is the appeal? For many believers, it’s a matter of distrust of the scientific elite and the desire to see the evidence with their own eyes. And, psychologists say, flat-Earth conspiracy theorists may be chasing many of the same needs as believers in other conspiracies: social belonging, the need for meaning and control, and feelings of safety in an uncertain world.

[It] has to do with the search for knowledge and certainty. People who feel uncertain tend to be drawn to conspiracies, Douglas told Live Science. This happens on both small and large scales: When people are induced to feel out of control in a psychology study, they become more open to conspiracy belief, 2015 research found.

Though imagining shadowy cabals behind every corner might seem scary, conspiracy theories also seem to offer believers the promise of control in the form of knowledge and insight that others lack, Douglas said.

“You have a need for security and control, and you don’t have it,” she said, “so you try to compensate for it.”

Finally, conspiracy theories can give believers a self-esteem boost and allow them to feel good about the groups they belong to. Some studies suggest narcissism and conspiracy belief are linked, Douglas said, and many conspiracies divide the world into “good guys” (e.g., the moral YouTube star setting out to find the truth) and “bad guys” (e.g., the government, or a given ethnic group).

Quite, Klein’s postulate of infant splitting between the fully good and the fully bad is affirmed; it becomes about the “good guys” versus those shadowy (Jewish, reptilian, inter-dimensional, elite, etcetera) “bad guys.” And these are the same people, the same set of people, who – intentionally or not – have ushered in the Era of Trump, Salon reports,

“While ‘fake news’ shared by all groups came from both the political left and the right, lead researcher Phillip Howard told McClatchy that ‘most of the junk news that people share over social media ends up with Trump’s fans, the far right. They’re playing with different facts, and they think they have the inside scoop on conspiracies.”

For many Americans, facts have become entirely irrelevant; it is about ‘us versus them.’ And this isn’t limited to the hard right. Groups considering themselves ‘freethinkers’ have embraced anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, leading to severe, multiple outbreaks of erstwhile eliminated diseases. In fact, such, smug, Prius-driving, patchouli-loving ‘folks’ have targeted immigrant communities with dangerous fearmongering,

“The Organic Consumers Association and Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor who falsified data suggesting vaccines are linked to autism — began targeting local Somali Americans who had concerns about autism among their children. The activists saw an opening, offering an explanation when the health department couldn’t provide one.

Vaccination rates plummeted in the community over the next several years, making its members more susceptible to preventable diseases such as measles and mumps. Of the 79 cases in the 2017 measles outbreak, 65, or 80 percent, involved children of Somali descent.”

There is no connection between vaccinations and autism, as multiple, peer-reviewed studies have shown. Alas, these scientists are simply elites working to create a world full of … ? This begs serious questions about autism, and the way people with autism are viewed by those who propose a vaccine-autism connection. Interestingly while many of these groups overlap, including in their support for the paranoid-schizoid infant Trump, they don’t seem to mind that he is undermining environmental regulations. One of Trump’s central promises is to dramatically expand coal production in the US; tragically, those GOP-voting parents refusing to get their children vaccinated are supporting policies that seriously danger themselves and their progeny,

“Physicians for Social Responsibility today released a groundbreaking medical report, ‘Coal’s Assault on Human Health,’ which takes a new look at the devastating impacts of coal on the human body. By examining the impact of coal pollution on the major organ systems of the human body, the report concludes that coal contributes to four of the top five causes of mortality in the U.S. and is responsible for increasing the incidence of major diseases already affecting large portions of the U.S. population

[…]

  • Respiratory Effects: Air pollutants produced by coal combustion act on the respiratory system, contributing to serious health effects including asthma, lung disease and lung cancer, and adversely affect normal lung development in children.
  • Cardiovascular Effects: Pollutants produced by coal combustion lead to cardiovascular disease, such as arterial occlusion (artery blockages, leading to heart attacks) and infarct formation (tissue death due to oxygen deprivation, leading to permanent heart damage), as well as cardiac arrhythmias and congestive heart failure. Exposure to chronic air pollution over many years increases cardiovascular mortality.
  • Nervous System Effects: Studies show a correlation between coal-related air pollutants and stroke.  Coal pollutants also act on the nervous system to cause loss of intellectual capacity, primarily through mercury.  Researchers estimate that between 317,000 and 631,000 children are born in the U.S. each year with blood mercury levels high enough to reduce IQ scores and cause lifelong loss of intelligence.

Social and economic conditions have led to this end-road in thinking itself. Many people are no longer capable of critical thinking. Many people are skeptical of ‘elites,’ while supporting other (often truly dubious) elites. Several factors are involved here. The central factor is white nationalism. After eight years President Obama, whatever one may think of his policies, and his policies must be critiqued, those angry white voters couldn’t stand his Black face on TV, speaking for [white] America! And so, enter stage far right,

“Pushing conspiracy theories helped win Trump the presidency, and he’s now banking on the idea that they’ll help him as president. He’s casting himself as the victim of a new conspiracy—a ‘witch hunt’ – perpetrated by the forces that want to see him fail.

‘Donald Trump communicates through conspiracy theories,’ Uscinski says. ‘You can win the presidency on conspiracy theories, but it’s very difficult to govern on them. Because conspiracy theories are for losers, and now he’s a winner.’

What he means is, conspiracy theories are often a way of expressing an imbalance of power by those who perceive themselves to be the underdog.

Donald Trump may be the most famous conspiracy theorist in America, but a close second is the Infowars talk-radio personality Alex Jones, who has made a name for himself spewing reprehensible theories. He claimed the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was a hoax. He says 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings were carried out by the U.S. government. Jones has an online store where he peddles products like iodine to people prepping for the apocalypse.

Jones has long been a controversial figure, but not enormously well known. That’s changing. Jones was a vocal supporter of Trump, who has in turn praised Jones. “Your reputation is amazing,” Trump told him in an Infowars appearance in 2015. “I will not let you down.”

The fact that a sitting president would speak with, much less endorse, a figure like the paranoid-schizoid Alex Jones, is demonstrative of how deeply entrenched paranoia is in America. From Trump’s (false) allegations that President Obama was not born in the US, to his (false) allegations that he witnessed Muslims cheering from his office in Manhattan after 9/11, to his numerous other ‘alternative facts,’ the epoch of the angry infantile white man has never ended, but it is emerging with greater vigor and vengeance. All of this is tied to de-industrialization, the loss of unionized jobs, the erosion or non-existence of any welfare system, unaddressed institutional racism, white apathy and indifference to Black, Asian, Native American and Latinx suffering, and the ever-persistent-as-American-as-apple-pie, anti-intellectualism.

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University of California, Santa Barbara

Universities have become sites of masturbatory rhetorical gestures, a grand circle rub and jerk of academics all grasping at the last threads of a dying structure of privileges. Isolated from the working-class, the poor, the incarcerated, many academics boringly plod along – not causing too much trouble – in hopes of one day getting tenure. Elitism is real; however, abandoning academia entirely would be a mistake. A great deal of good sociological, policy, scientific and – sometimes – philosophical work is being done. The problem is that Universities have become less and less accessible. Certainly there have been minor improvements in terms of getting more Black, Native American, Latinx and Asian students into academe, however, these are not uniform improvements. A quantitative, longitudinal study demonstrates these gaps,

“In 2006, a smaller percentage of American Indians/ Alaska Natives between the ages of 18 and 24 were enrolled in colleges or universities than their White and Asian peers. Twenty-six percent of American Indian/Alaska Native 18- to 24-year olds were enrolled in college or universities, compared with 41 percent of Whites, 33 percent of Blacks, 27 percent of Hispanics, and 58 percent of Asians. Although the percentages of American Indians/ Alaska Natives enrolled in colleges or universities appear to fluctuate between 1996 and 2006, the differences in these percentages are not measurably different.

Between 1976 and 2006, college and university enrollment of male and female American Indians/ Alaska Natives grew at different rates. In 1976, there was near parity in the number of American Indian/Alaska Native males and females enrolled in degree-granting colleges and universities (38,500 and 37,600, respectively). By 1978, the number of American Indian/Alaska Native females enrolled in colleges and universities exceeded the number of American Indian/Alaska Native males enrolled. In 2006, 111,000 American Indian/Alaska Native females (61 percent) and 71,200 males (39 percent) were enrolled in colleges and universities, a difference of 21 percentage points. Only among Blacks was there a gender gap larger than that among American Indians/Alaska Natives: 30 percentage points separated the percentages of enrollment for Black females (65 percent) and males (35 percent) in 2006”

Gender, race and geography all play a major role in socioeconomic mobility. A more diverse student body makes for a more diverse and dynamic University. Unfortunately, the working-class, poor and minority college students are more likely to be first-generation higher education attendees, and so,

“When these first-generation college students begin to struggle, there’s something really pernicious that starts to happen. They already feel like they are at a disadvantage because of their background, and they start seeing themselves at the mercy of that expectation.

‘In psychological literature, they call it stereotype threat,’ Gibbons, the University of Cincinnati psychologist, said. ‘When a prevailing stereotype is elicited, like being reminded of being undereducated, you’ll see a decrease in their scores. That effect is that part of their cognitive resources are turned toward fighting against that stereotype — and in expending those extra cognitive resources, there are less cognitive resources for studying, researching, and such.’

In addition, only about one in 10 low-income first generation students graduate on time. This gap, between first-generation college students and students whose parents went to college, exists at all types of colleges.”

Considering that the Pearly Gates of Academia are closed to most of the poor and working-class, it is no wonder that a large section of the US population began to distrust intellectuals. Intellectuals are not a part of American culture, although there was a brief period in the 1960s and 1970s when intellectuals, even revolutionaries, entered the mainstream (Gore Vidal vs. William Buckley; more on the edges: Noam Chomsky, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Allen Ginsberg, Michel Foucault, etcetera). However, this short-lived revolutionary period was killed off by very real conspiracies, from COINTELPRO and other outright assaults, assassinations and the overall decimation of the New Left. Even the conservative intellectualism of William Buckley has been reduced to the incoherent infantile blathering of Jordan Peterson. Peterson, although Canadian, is as American as baseball, is the Trump of Western Philosophy, writing in the Johannesburg Review, Richard Poplak states,

“The obsession [in his work] with archetypal masculinity, and ancient (inherently conservative) social structures, is perhaps the most unwelcome feature of the new right: it quickly takes on the contours of a death cult. But to have truly lived in this terrible age—to have properly grasped the mendacious insanity of the identity politics double negative—you really have to read Jordan Peterson in South Africa. Come ye faithful scorned North American males, come and shoot an elephant in one of our many hunting lodges, your trigger hand steadied by the musky-smelling game ranger in his khaki kortbroek as the shot rings out over the savannah. Then read Peterson with a gin and tonic in hand, watching as the sun sets over Aafrikah.

Somewhat disappointingly, Peterson’s views are less ecstatically or mystically repressed-homoerotic than you’d think. They’re simply misogynistic: his empathy, for women in particular, regarding women in particular, stops at the tip of his pen.”

So what’s the potential remedy? Returning to Klein, she states that the best we can hope for is a kind of ‘depressive position functioning’ or ‘depressive position,’ whereby,

“If the confluence of loved and hated figures can be borne, anxiety begins to center on the welfare and survival of the other as a whole object, eventually giving rise to remorseful guilt and poignant sadness, linked to the deepening of love. With pining for what has been lost or damaged by hate comes an urge to repair. Ego capacities enlarge and the world is more richly and realistically perceived. Omnipotent control over the object, now felt as more real and separate, diminishes. Maturation is thus closely linked to loss and mourning. Recognition of the other as separate from oneself encompasses the other’s relationships; thus awareness of the oedipal situation inevitably accompanies the depressive position.”

The lack of a need for omnipotent control, which arises from severe inferiority complexes, is central to merging the loved and hated objects into a more ambiguous and nuanced perspective. Beings in the world are perceived as both with-I and separate-from-I, a dynamic balancing act that encourages a messy, imperfect love and solidarity. Drilling through the current paranoid breakdown that is ‘America’ will require a type of unity through difference, an acknowledgement of differences, with critical examination of meta-narratives that arise from totalizing fear of an imaginary ‘evil Other.’ Of course, there is a kind of super-nexus of paranoid-schizoid thinking, and it is white, nationalist and NRA-backed, reporting from the Conservative Political Action Conference, David Richardson writes,

“Although nationalism was the unifier—sponsored by behemoth corporations like the NRA and Google, promoted by shell nonprofits like Turning Point USA—some shades were whiter than others as ‘New Right’ internet celebrities exchanged words with white supremacists, their racial controversy infecting CPAC’s centerstage.”

In summary, there is an rapidly accelerating economic inequality in America – reaching 19th Century levels – and white, far-right nationalism is rising from the partially submerged areas it has been lurking in since the 1960s and 1970s cultural, sexual, racial and social revolutions. Those revolutions were unable to maintain speed, considering the aforementioned US Federal Government assaults on any sustained, radically Left and egalitarian activism. Much like the decimation of the US Labor Movement in the early 1900s, many of the gains of 1960s have been eroded; however, some of both of those epoch’s movements’ achievements remain in tact, for now (e.g. Roe vs. Wade). Building on those achievements is essential to bridging the temporal and material gap between now and those freedom fighters of the 1960s and 1970s, from the Black Panthers to Students for a Democratic Society, from the Young Lords to the American Indian Movement, from the Stonewall Riots to the mass anti-war demonstrations against US imperialism. Perhaps the greatest challenge is the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals and corporations, which has turned the US into a full-fledged plutocracy, and how these individuals and corporations manipulate the very real needs of racial, sexual, gender, ability, etcetera emancipation into a marketable commodity. Confronting the barons of techno-plutocracy, movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter must find some common ground, based on a real interrogation of white, straight and cis gendered privilege and class dynamics. Analysis in the Age of Trump must take into account the ways in which white men have become, through their own fragility, so susceptible to paranoia and rage, which in the extreme leads to mass shootings. Intersectionality can be applied to privileges: the white, cis gendered straight man stands at the intersection of all of these privileges, yet without integrative psychical and material tools, he stands (because of his literal social position) to be indoctrinated by the paranoid-schizoids.

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