Since the election of T1 as president many people who can see nothing positive in him whatsoever, either as human being or politician, are nevertheless transfixed by him on television and watch him with a fascination and an attention that they cannot account for and do not approve of. I want to put forward here a couple of ideas about that unaccountable fascination and attention.
The T presidency has been a spectacular train wreck by any normal standard. We have elected as president someone who knows nothing about any issue, domestic or foreign, except how it plays or could play on television. T’s ignorance and contempt for knowledge remain breathtaking. And, as we hardly need to be reminded, when policies based on ignorance and contempt for knowledge are carried out in reality, the result is, at a minimum, disaster. Thus the train wreck that we see now portends more serious train wrecks coming. The very awfulness of this may be one reason we can’t stop watching. A gruesome spectacle, however repulsive, draws us in whether we like it or not. This is given clear expression in Plato’s Republic in the following story:
A similar impulse causes us to gawk at accidents and fires. In any case, as Leontius knew, being aware of this attraction to what is hideous and appalling, we usually are conflicted about giving in to that desire. This would be one element of our discomfort at watching T so much.
That T is a narcissist is well-known. It has been extensively reported that T spends a lot of time watching himself on television. Therefore, in a real sense, when we watch him on TV he is watching along with us. Now, of course, all presidents in the television age have been aware of their self-presentation on television; the difference, alas, is that they also had an idea of something besides their image on television. Thus, in T we are seeing a purified extract of narcissism uncontaminated by any object inputs.
I would argue that such a pure narcissism speaks to our own narcissism in a way that can circumvent our conscious political selves. T became president, clearly, because his narcissism was embraced by millions of Americans whose lives were overfull of narcissistic wounds. For them his narcissism was a healing balm. They identified with it. And their identification with his narcissism remains one of the reasons for fearing the totalitarian tendencies in T and his followers. But perhaps the power of his narcissism also reaches even his bitterest enemies, who find themselves watching him in disgust not only with him but with themselves for watching him. Perhaps his narcissism is so powerful and so well-developed that it reaches to some degree everyone who bears narcissistic wounds, which is, of course, everybody.
If this is true, then T’s very emptiness would be a source of a hidden attractiveness (not yet, thankfully, reflected in his poll numbers).
Of course, our watching a president who has populated the government with train wreck artists is also driven by our outrage as citizens who would prefer responsible, rational government. Unfortunately, the conflicted viewers of T may find it hard to consider their viewing as exercising a civic duty. But it clearly is.
To help us see this point, let us consider a moment from the beginning of The Iliad. The very first event we are told about in the poem is that a priest of Apollo has come to Agamemnon and Menelaus, the leaders of the Greek, or Achean, army, to try to ransom his daughter back. She had been taken by the Acheans in a raid and given to King Agamemnon. Her father has come to the Achean camp and “begged the whole Achaean army but most of all the two supreme commanders.” (1, 17-18)3 He tells them that he prays that they will sack and plunder Troy and then go home safely, but please would they set his daughter free, and for that he offers gifts in ransom. He says: “Honor the God who strikes from worlds away – the son of Zeus, Apollo!” (1, 23-24)4
The next line is: “And all ranks of Achaeans cried out their assent: “Respect the priest, accept the shining ransom!” (1, 25-26)5
When I studied The Iliad, our professor pointed out that this sequence gives us the most elemental possible form of democracy.6 The Achean fighters stand around listening to the priest talk to the king, and they express their opinion by crying out. As it happens, the king ignores it. He angrily and contemptuously sends the priest away, and the ensuing plague (caused by an angry Apollo) sets in motion the action of the poem. In this world, without democratic accountability, the people were nevertheless right: the priest should have been respected and the ransom accepted. The poem is about what happens when a shortsighted king sees only his immediate interest and can’t see and is not curious about the effect his actions have on others.
In the Homeric world, the opinion of the people watching the action had no effect. We, on the other hand, who have inherited a beautifully wrought though imperiled system of democratic restraints, have seen at least two examples in living memory where the opinion of the people watching the action determined the action.
The first was the Nixon resignation, when the opinion of the majority of Americans was: “Lawbreaking by a president is wrong; Nixon must go!” By August 1974 Nixon’s approval rating was 24%, and 57% of Americans believed he should leave office.7 His abandonment by the public unmistakably guided the judgment of the Congress and ultimately of Nixon himself in deciding to resign rather than be impeached and tried in the Congress.
The second example was the Clinton impeachment, when the opinion of the majority of Americans was: “His failings are not impeachable; Clinton should stay!” Throughout the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton’s poll numbers were around 60%, the highest of his presidency.8 If his poll numbers had been near Nixon’s at their lowest, he would also have had to leave office. Both of these critical decisions in the last 50 years were ultimately decided by the people in a manner not dissimilar to the way the fighters sought to influence their leader in the poem.
Thus, watching the repulsive but fascinating spectacle of a sublimely ignorant president acting without knowledge nevertheless represents active civic participation. The Achaean fighters gathered around the priest and king. We gather around televisions and computers. Ultimately, what happens with T will be determined by us, whether we know it or not. –
- Richard Grose is an advanced candidate at IPTAR. He has private practice of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in New York City and was editor of the Round Robin (2013-2017). He facilitates and moderates Room Roundtable. Email: email@example.com
1I will follow Michelle Obama and others in not referring to the President by name. Like Antaeus, who gained strength every time he touched the ground, T seems to gain every time his name is mentioned, the business use of his name being but one example of this.
2Allan Bloom, trs., The Republic of Plato, (New York: Basic Books, 1968), p. 119.
3Robert Fagles, trs., The Iliad, (London: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 78.
- 5Loc cit.
6My thanks go to Professor James Redfield, the University of Chicago, for help in locating in 2017 the passage that he interpreted in 1973.
7Andrew Kohut, “How the Watergate crisis eroded public support for Richard Nixon,” Pew Research Center, 8/8/2014.
- Collage by Mafe Izaguirre based on the photo by Gage Skidmore.