FALL 2017 VOL 45 ISSUE #2

FALL 2017

The Politics of Shame, Seth Allcorn and Howard Stein

Abstract: Our argument in this article is that shame is resident in the worldview, philosophy, and ideology of the current political right that underpinned the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency. Further, shame and the denial of shame help to explain the appeal and tenacity with which the right embraces its understanding and interpretation of the world. Consistent with this point of view we point out that much of what the right does politically may be viewed to be staying consistent with their political beliefs. We underscore these appreciations by inspecting these dynamics using three perspectives: authoritarianism, cultural history and object relations psychoanalytic theory. This approach offers a triangulation for locating the shame in the contemporary politics of the right.

The contemporary political scene in the U.S., while sharing many elements consistent with the past 200 years, seems to have arrived at a point of toxic polarization and partisan politics that may, in part, be understood to constitute the “swamp” that must be drained. In this article, we explore the swamp and we approach our task by using a unique perspective – that of shame. We use psychoanalytic theory that permits us to explore beneath the surface of events and our reactions to them.

We begin by discussing shame. We then explore the contribution authoritarianism makes to understanding the left and right in politics and society. We then shift our focus to the many paradoxical positions that are taken to justify political beliefs and actions on the right. We document a few recent reports of events to ground the discussion in the headlines, although what is factual today is problematic in that partisanship creates two realities (Allcorn & Stein, 2017). We next provide a cultural historical perspective of shame in the United States. We conclude with showing how understanding shame informs our understanding of how Americans came to elect a leader who speaks to the discontent not only of his voters but also many other Americans who feel it is time to throw the rascals out.

Themes of Betrayal In Wartime Oral History, Matthew Bowen, PhD

ABSTRACT: Most often to a greater extent than other phenomena, the psychohistory of a nation is shaped by its wars, and no nation exceeds the United States in this regard. Equally from among World War Two, Vietnam and the Middle East Wars, this essay draws from documentary interviews with dozens of combat veterans, a military psychiatrist and a concentration camp survivor. Their oral history is illuminated and discussed in terms of a sense of betrayal and its basis. The germination and perpetuation of felt betrayal, individually and collectively, is portrayed and analyzed in light of `similarities and differences of the wars, associated geopolitics, and varying domestic social climates across the three generation

Charles l: A Pretender to His Own Throne?, Robert Zaller

ABSTRACT: The argument of this essay is that the political rigidity of King Charles I of England, his exaltation of royal power, and his inability to meaningfully compromise even under extreme duress, stemmed in part from feelings not only of personal inadequacy but from a felt sense of illegitimacy. This sense, of taking the place rightfully belonging to another, was crystallized by the death of his charismatic elder brother Henry, whose unfulfilled promise was, in William Hunt’s phrase, the “spectral” reign that hung over Charles’ actual one. To this was added the sense of being personally discounted: a difficult and sickly childhood spent largely separated from his parents, and an adolescence in which he found himself contending again for recognition with the royal favorite, Buckingham, upon whom King James lavished his paternal affection. Charles’ solution to this problem was to ingratiate himself with Buckingham, with whom he bonded deeply and whose influence was to prove fatal to his working relationship with Parliament. Charles compensated for this further isolation by retreating into a fantasy world of symbolic representation in which the royal persona vanquished all opposition, and, when civil war stripped him of actual authority, he embraced martyrdom as the final means to vindicate his kingship.

The Politics of Exclusion in the American Psychoanalytic Association and Its Relevance to Psychohistory, Ken Fuchsman

PRELUDE: Psychohistory has many strands, and psychoanalysis remains a prominent one. The triumphs and travails of being a member of American psychoanalytic organizations can highlight important concerns for psychohistory. What follows are two personal accounts and a commentary. The first is by the eminent Harvard psychological anthropologist, Robert LeVine, and the second by psychoanalyst, Arnold Richards, former editor of The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

Psychohistorical Perspectives on Current Events and Issues

Hope, Change, and Pairing, Donald Mender

Abstract:   The group psychological insights of Wilfred Bion are applied to the American electorate.  Bion’s basic assumption groups are explored as templates for understanding the constituencies of those candidates whose presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2016 proved successful.  In particular, Trump voters are interpreted as a fight/flight group, and the popularity of Obama is attributed to an implicit collective pairing agenda.

Barack Obama and Donald Trump both first entered the White House on waves of popular support that defied many conventional expectations.  Cynics as late as 2006 had dismissed any possibility that in 2008 an African American could be elected president of the United States,1 while seasoned pundits in 2016 deemed Trump’s numerous offenses against the norms of political discourse a guarantee of electoral disaster.2  In both cases, final numbers proved the naysayers wrong.

Post hoc explanations for the upending of forecasts in 2008 and 2016 have presupposed that motives of voters are explicitly guided by rationally self-interested agendas, for example, correction of public policies that have veered away from the objective material interests of constituent majorities.  It has been widely asserted that voters rejected a GOP successor to George W. Bush because a prevailing calculus of self-interest demanded solutions to the 2007 housing market debt crisis and military fiascos in the Middle East. Likewise, it has been broadly argued that crossover “Reagan Democrats” in 2016 torpedoed Obama-style economic globalism and embraced Trump’s populist nationalism as a self-interested response to offshoring of blue collar industrial jobs.4

However, some psychological perspectives5 on unconscious components of group behavior suggest that, at a deeper level, voters may be motivated by unstated irrational factors that have little to do with reasoned self-interest.

An especially accessible toolbox of ideas6 about the role of unconscious motives in group situations has come down to us from the late British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion.   Bion’s account of “group processes” is that any single organized collection of people operates simultaneously on two distinct levels with conflicting goals.  One such goal is completion of the group’s stated tasks;  Bion labeled this explicit operational functionality the “work group.”  The other goal derives from hidden, tacit presuppositions and impels the collective to deviate from the work group’s objectives;  Bion gave the name “basic assumption group” to this implicit mode of operational distortion.


Stewardship, Howard Stein

A large convocation of foxes
gathered to consider how to manage
hundreds of chicken coops
and hen houses. The lead fox proclaimed:
“We need the best hen and chicken
managers we can find to fulfill
our fiduciary responsibility.
After days of rumination,
nomination, speeches, and voting,
the best among the foxes
were elected managers
of chicken and hen houses
throughout the land.
Gradually the hen and chicken
population declined in all precincts,
with fewer and fewer coops and houses
to oversee. In this crisis, an emergency
meeting of the supreme council of foxes
soon discovered that their appointees
were eating those in their charge.
More time passed, and the depleted
houses were now empty of inhabitants.
At the next council meeting,
the wise supreme leader calmed
his fellow foxes with a wink of his eye,
saying, “You know, foxes will be foxes,”
whereupon the council set out to find
other, new, untapped precincts
of hens and chickens
over which to exercise their
sacred stewardship
until the last hen and chicken
had disappeared.

This parable in the shape of a poem, was written on the day, early in the presidency of Donald Trump, when Scott Pruitt was confirmed as the head of the EPA.


“There Will Be Time to Murder and Create…”,  (from T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), Dan Dervin

Under the Totem: In Search of a Path, by Michael Eigen. London: Karnac, 2016.

Schooled in psychology, Michael Eigen has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in psychoanalysis. Since his debut study, The Psychotic Core, (1986), he has served as Editor of the Psychoanalytic Review and continues to publish prolifically. Though we’ve corresponded and our paths have crossed over the years, we’ve never met but have become friendly colleagues. Several years back my review of his Seminars in Seoul, Murder and Madness appeared in Clio’s Psyche (12/11); and since then the shorter works centering on analytic experience and mentoring could be termed dispatches from the front-lines.

Refreshingly receptive, his modus operandi inclines toward the pluralistic. This latest is a potpourri of interests subsumed under the multi-dimensional and somewhat enigmatic term: Totem. It “conveys spirit, a sense of the sacred,” a “plant or animal functioning as symbol” binding the group, and so evokes “relations to ancestors, mythic or actual.” In his time, Freud linked totem to primitive incest taboos. Eigen construes it as “engagement with a sense of mystery that permeates existence.” (p. vii.) It is, then, in part the sense of wonder traditionally found in poets and dreamers, saints and gurus. It may inspire scientific inquiry but is not likely to prevail in scientific discourse; likewise, we don’t expect to find its ramifications in Freud or the subsequent psychoanalytic field. So Eigen is breaking with convention and challenging us to reconsider some of our assumptions by encouraging us to think outside the proverbial box. His cites Alan Watts, the Kabbalah, a Zen master, Aldous Huxley, the Bible, and we’ve just started. The inclusiveness is not intimidating or disorienting, but rather inviting. He acknowledges his primary field as clinical, but has “never felt the break between psychotherapy and spirituality,” and so “under the totem” of spiritual questing, many paths intersect. (p. viii.)