We are repeatedly told election 2016 is no longer an issues-based election but a question of temperament and personality. Two weeks before voting day, America’s choice of a new President had devolved into a referendum on authority, leadership and sex. We are choosing the leader we imagine we want, and we are watching how gender has blown up this choice. What sort of person do we imagine a leader to be?
The choice between Trump and Clinton has turned out to be about, of all people, Sigmund Freud. Over a century ago Freud alerted us to the problems of our encounters with authority. He showed us how not only do we give ourselves over to leaders who we imagine as better or stronger versions of our selves — our ego ideal — but once we find them, we become excitedly attached to them. We admire them even as we hate them for making us dependent on them. We identify with them because they are the people we wish we were.
Donald and Hillary, a leadership contest almost comical in its devolution into its sex war, force us to confront how sex influences our identifications with our leaders, and our desire to accept their authority. Each contestant has come to embody a cliché; it’s hard to know if the rhetoric has created the candidate or vice versa. And then both candidates subvert cliché with cliché. Is Hillary a crooked untrustworthy woman, or a woman who works with others, listens and loves her grandchild? Is Donald a powerful businessman who hires, fires and gets things done even while he claims bankruptcy and works the system, a patriarch that will fight for you even if you dislike some of his tactics, or a blustering fool with no control?
While the election — defined as it is by a slide into the gutter — might suffocate our sense of ourselves as a nation devoted to democracy, it gives us a window into the anxieties of sexual difference and how they structure our psychic lives. For a psychoanalyst, the representations of each candidate are powerful because they appeal to unconscious desires and fears that we have about woman and men. Donald, of the large hands, flourished a health report that not only celebrated his health and stamina, but released his testosterone levels scattered among other data points. Hillary, a veteran politician of 30 years who withstood grueling hours of congressional questions, was attacked for lacking stamina and succumbing to coughing fits — frailty thy name is woman. She then took on a sniffing and prowling competitor in the debates but can still be accused of being boring, shrill and inauthentic. Most tellingly, troves of leaked emails have provided new fuel to the Hillary narrative, telling us what we always suspected, that she advocates holding a private position. Speaking to bankers, Wiley Hillary sets alarms even though she states the most obvious of truisms — when working with others we may withhold our opinions. Indeed when trying to build consensus we might even benefit from listening first before we speak, being willing to learn and change as you listen. And yet a recent NYtimes op-ed about the Public vs. Private Hillary brooded on the two-faced politician. God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another: that’s Hamlet on women, and Sinatra chimed in when he sang, “a woman’s a two-face.” Has a man ever been accused of being two-faced? Never mind that Trump celebrates his own private face as his strength. He bellows his disdain for letting the public know just how he would negotiate with ISIS, claiming he needs a private position for leverage. For Trump, the leader who demands our vote has to prove nothing except testosterone: he can boast about his position without ever stating it. Trump tells us we want him because he can be strong, but he won’t tell us how: that’s part of his strength. But a woman with a private position raises the alarm. We demand that woman prove she is open, authentic, transparent; if not, she becomes the wicked witch about to destroy Kansas.
Hillary collects projections. She cannot quiet our suspicions. She is, somehow, out to fool us. She cannot be all good, so she must be bad: all or nothing. Do women lack confidence and ambition? Or are they too confident, too ambitious? Do we admire them or do they alienate us? Are women not enough like men, or too much like them? On Sunday, after the Head of the FBI announced a need to read more emails sent by Hillary’s Aide to her ex-husband, with no evidence that these emails represented anything not yet seen on the main servers, Weekend Edition on NPR declared that the public was once again disturbed and reminded of Hillary’s penchant for secrecy. Perhaps following Freud, we can see this not only as a problem of sexism and unfair expectations, but as speech that resonates at a deeper level and speaks to the problems of identifications and desire. It is not only that we fail to be able to think of women as an ego ideal, that they fail to excite us enough as leaders, but on the contrary, unconsciously they excite us too much — Anatomy, said Freud, is destiny. Not for nothing Trump told us his testosterone levels. Hillary has no testosterone, she has a private position, a penchant for secrecy, and this private position invokes ideas of duplicity, distrust and treachery. Woman is the dark continent. Woman as unknowable, as capable of hiding and deceiving. Penis Envy, an overwrought and over-used concept in the 1950’s, was even challenged by female analysts of the time, such as Karen Horney who noted that men were envious of women, of their ability to procreate. Women can hide things in their body from their pregnancies to their orgasms. Not phallic, their pleasure and secrets are inside and known to them alone. While these arguments seem quaint and dated, in light of today’s electoral politics they prefigure the struggles for woman who take up the challenge to represent power, who struggle when their private positions are always untrustworthy to men.
Beyond the conscious forces of sexism, unconsciously Hillary’s private position evokes dread, because it remains hidden in the female body. Hillary lacks phallic power, but in her claim to a private position, her speech evokes unconscious anxiety as to just where female power is located. In the cuckolds of medieval literature, in the secret pleasures that remain hidden and keep you guessing, vulnerable and dependent. Hillary’s most unoriginal comment about private and public positions surfaced in the excerpts of her speeches given to Goldman Sachs that were present in the wikileaks email dump from her campaign manager John Podesta. This portion from an essentially unthreatening speech was highlighted as potentially dangerous by Podesta, himself perhaps unaware of the unknown known that Hillary’s secret position can evoke, speech that resonates with unconscious fears and brings a truth to light. As Freud himself knew, unwanted truths surface in speech outside of our intentional meanings. Women’s bodies and sexual difference mean that no speech can be separated from the body that produces it. A secret position, that most innocuous statement, can metamorphize into a narrative of crooked Hillary, even when she is talking about how politics is done, one negotiation at a time. No big promises, no extravagant claims. Cautiously, ploddingly and diligently — but if kept in private, forever threatening to the male order of things.
One thought on “A Tale of Freud, Women’s Bodies and Male Dread”
Freud also talked about passionate attachments and libidinal investments in our leaders. I have had several conversations with women on this topic– what does it mean for people to have a passionate attachment to a female leader, a figure of authority who is not particularly maternal (she is of course maternal with her daughter but she does not play as a mommy in public) and since she is often faulted (by myself included) we have wondered how people would react if she had the charisma of her husband? If she was kind of sexy? Would this make people even more angry at her? Just some more thoughts on Freud and attachment and authority figures. The Donald is a big blustery macho. It is not hard to see how people might have this kind of attachment to him.