In mythology, in fairy tales, and in psychoanalysis, losing one’s sight often indicates that a disaster has occurred, an event so unbearable that it is no longer possible to look at it. Yet in the ongoing scourge that is the Trump administration, Trump cannot bear that we look away from the disaster. Even as he hopes to hide from us what he does not wish us to see, he must always create a spectacle that will turn our gaze toward him. With the spectacle of stealing babies from their mothers at the US–Mexico border, Trump has invoked the power of ancient myth and old tales to focus our attention, showing us how he can break primal bonds. He has tipped his hand, letting us glimpse the workings of his psyche, the deep-rooted misogyny and matricidal wishes that mirror his internal world.
I was canvassing to get out the vote during the recent midterm elections while the cruel policies of family separation played out in the background. A blond woman with hard blue eyes answered her door. Flatly, she warned me that she supported Trump. She was about to close her door when she seemed to change her mind. Turning back to me, she lowered her voice. “Of course,” she said, referring to the children being taken from their parents at the border, “some of the things being done are terrible. But they have to be done.” I was disturbed by what she said, but I was puzzled by the way she lowered her voice. She sounded almost excited, as if the pain of these other mothers gave her satisfaction. It seemed to me that this woman lowered her voice to hide her sadism, though she was not able to help herself from wanting to display it to me, as if it were a kind of triumph.
How had this woman become enlisted in enforcing cruelty toward other women? Somehow she must have understood that a line had already been drawn between women, dividing them into those who would be granted motherhood and those who would not. The spectacle of family separation seemed to put forth a primal dilemma. I was reminded of an old fairy tale about a stolen baby and an envious woman. In the queen’s garden, behind a wall, an abundance of the leafy green vegetable called rape, or rampion, grew. Rapunzel’s mother hungered for these simple greens, craving them in the way that pregnant women do. Finally, her husband climbed the wall into the garden to steal some of the vegetable for his wife. When the queen discovered him, she demanded that he give her the baby in return for his life. Thus, long before she began her Oedipal journey, Rapunzel was stolen from her real mother by a powerful queen, who was herself barren. This early parable about mothers and border walls lays out a psychic road map: women will be cruel to women in a patriarchy, because whoever controls the resources determines who will get to be a mother — and access to power determines who controls the resources.
Now, a modern version of this old fairy tale is being played out on the border. There is ample precedent for the practice of family separation in this country, including the well-known history of stealing children from Native American and African families. This racist practice has always relied on the collaboration of some women for enforcement. These women serve to blur perception, obscuring the abject cruelty of family separation by using motherhood to justify racist policy. During the civil rights movement, for example, white Southern women were mobilized through their churches and schools as mothers who would “protect” their children from racial integration, just as in Nazi Germany, women were assigned to fulfill the role of motherhood by ensuring the “racial purity” of their society. Thus, in a white supremacist patriarchy, the role of motherhood and the practice of family separation can become inextricably entwined.
For those women whose mothering enforces the rules of the state, motherhood is a conduit to power. In the Trump administration, Sarah Huckabee Sanders uses motherhood as a tool with which to suppress dissent. When reporters demanded answers about the “family separation” policies she told them to “settle down,” as if the briefing room were a nursery. “I know how to say no,” she says, referring to the fact that she has young children. In the Trump family, children are enlisted by their mothers to play their part in supporting the goals of the administration. Ivanka’s young daughter performed in Mandarin for the president of China. Later, Ivanka sent out a photo of herself eating noodles with her daughter to mark her daughter’s birthday. She tagged the photo with a comment that eating noodles on one’s birthday was a Chinese tradition. The president of China was pleased; trademarks were awarded; her father’s power was enhanced.
At the height of the hue and cry following the release of media images of children being wrenched from their mothers at the border, Ivanka released a photo of herself holding her toddler son. The immediate outcry at her insensitivity was a sad misreading of her intent. As propaganda, the photo is an idealized portrayal of white motherhood. She and her son are dressed in pale colors, posed as if looking into each others’ eyes. The image is drenched with light, its discreet sepia tones hinting at nostalgia. The image highlights its own difference from the images of desperate, exhausted mothers holding their dark-eyed children at the border. The photo was also a warning shot, timed as it was to remind white women of the power they can access if they collude to enforce Trump’s policies. It reinforced the barriers between women, a virtual wall.
Yet despite appearances, we know that mothering that does not have the needs of the children at its heart is not real mothering. Ivanka’s image of herself as a mother is ersatz. The only mothering that survives in this administration revolves around the father. This was elucidated even at the recent State of the Union address, where children were separated from their parents and used to support the Trump agenda. Forced to sit through a long nighttime speech next to a pretend mother, Melania, their real parents went unacknowledged and were nowhere in sight. In the Trump administration, mothers are eliminated. Family separation policy pervades the entire apparatus. What is taking place is what occurs in any authoritarian regime. The unconscious world of the tyrant dictates the political agenda.
We can see this by looking at the Trump family tableau. At its dangerous center, father and daughter preside as the couple in a motherless world. Each, in their own way,, believe themselves to be Oedipal victors. The powerful fantasy of having eliminated their rival is something they both share. Their mutual triumph fuses them together in a bond of shared cruelty toward the mother and, by extension, toward women. In this way, their relationship models a path to power for women. By fusing with their cruelty, women can have access to the power that may protect them from the violence toward women that they are watching as it is acted out in plain sight at the border. In this epic enactment of Trump’s internal object world, the stakes for women are high.
In a recent scene shown in the media, Trump and his daughter Ivanka are sitting together at the head of a table before an audience. She is dressed in pale pink. The orange in his hair has been toned down, so they share the same shade of platinum hair now. “Thank you, Mr. President,” she breathes, turning, sloe-eyed, toward her father. The moment evokes Marilyn Monroe singing to another president. Trump places both hands around his daughter’s hand. Almost crooning, he thanks her in return. He calls her “honey.” The people in the room burst into applause at the spectacle. Trump and Ivanka sit, preening. The feeling in the air is so heated that he becomes rattled, confusing the name of the famous person sitting next to him.
Trump has been forthright about his wish to be sexual with his daughter. Ivanka doesn’t object. The message to men that they can lust after their daughters means that sexual assault is implicit policy; it trickles down from the top. The bond of cruelty that Trump and Ivanka share is a sexual one, albeit perhaps unconscious. The display of sexuality between father and daughter fuels the fantasy that Oedipal desire need never be outgrown, straining the very structure of society, disrupting even as it excites. This makes them reckless. They do not fear the chaos they spark. On the contrary, they believe that the chaos will provide them with an opportunity to take control of all society, revealing their true mania. Men and women are being encouraged to fuse with their fantasies of father and daughter and then to play them out in an ongoing spectacle.
There is a backstory to this, as there usually is. In a motherless family, children lose their mothers just as mothers lose their children. Rapunzel’s mother was lost to her, existing only as something forgotten, a prologue to the Oedipal story that followed. Most of these stolen babies will not see their mothers again. Ivanka’s story, too, has a prologue. In the photos of her as a young girl, we look at something that perhaps has been forgotten. Her father stands behind her, grabbing each of her arms. She is only nine, but she belongs to him already, dressed in gold lamé and draped in golden chains, her hair streaked with platinum. Her face is empty. She watches him as he leers at other women. Later, at fifteen, she is sitting on his lap at a concert, moving to the music. In another photo, she is again on his lap, his hands placed on each of her hips, as in foreplay. She has always been an object of his sexual gaze and a witness to his sexual predation. With no mother to protect her, she must have been afraid, like any girl, and she must have been angry. But she no longer remembers the disaster that took place.
Real mothers are there to protect their children, as the incest taboo protects the species, as the earth needs protection if it is to provide the resources we all must have if we are to survive. The queen’s envy and rage blinded her to the fact that locking Rapunzel in a tower would not perpetuate life. It would only end life. The queen will not know what it is to be a real mother. No matter what we allow ourselves to see, reality intervenes. The destruction of the mother in the Trump family is a signifier of the larger message. The Trump administration is enlisting women as collaborators in Trump’s goal of making society into a reflection of his internal world. He is using motherhood as a weapon against women in his endeavor. In his desire for revenge, in his perpetual state of rage and unconscious envy, Trump will stop at nothing, not even the destruction of life itself, in order to get us to watch him as he plows disastrously into the most basic norms of civilization. ■
Jeri Isaacson, PhD, is a member and clinical supervisor at IPTAR. She is a psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist practicing in Montclair, New Jersey.
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