The descriptions of Donald Trump’s press conference in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin made it perfectly clear. A New York Times editorial referred to “Trump’s subservience to the Russian strongman” and his “globally televised submissiveness.” John McCain said Trump had “abased himself abjectly before a tyrant.” This, from Trump the authoritarian, the blusterer, the pussy-grabber, the separator of immigrant children from their parents. Well, exactly. Trump brings to light that there may be something in the nature of power that brings with it the seeds of its own undoing. If in the person of Donald Trump we get to behold the absurdity, the moral grotesquerie, of a personality driven by power alone, as of late we also may be starting to witness its queer unraveling.
Let’s face it, power is often not all it’s cracked up to be. Just notice the manifest unhappiness of many of those consumed by it. Yet power can be so compelling to those caught up in it that it can be easy to overlook how unfulfilling it can be.
Lacan might understand power’s failure to gratify as the result of the way it cleaves an individual from his desire. Power, as it is given expression in narcissistic fantasies and the elaboration of these fantasies in the real world, is destined to disappoint on account of the way it disguises existential lack and with this the only true source of desire — the desire, that is, the pursuit of which is responsible for whatever pleasure and meaning it is possible to find in living. Al Franken has made the chilling observation, instantly verifiable once you think about it, that Trump… never laughs. When one considers how totally identified Trump is with the image of power he projects (“I alone can defeat ISIS,” etc.), it becomes easy to understand, from this perspective, why this might be so.
Power can be wearying. Seeking it, holding it, having to jealously guard however much of it we manage to attain can take a great deal of energy, and those in power’s thrall may wish to be released from its grip. The psychoanalyst Emmanuel Ghent, in his essay “Masochism, Submission, Surrender — Masochism as a Perversion of Surrender” theorized this wish to let go of power, or get it to let go of us. Ghent thought of surrender as a longing in the self to give up defensive postures, the “protections [we erect] against anxiety, shame, guilt, anger,” and as “a state of being that is not marked by active conscious goal-seeking.” The experience of surrender may bring its own “aura of power,” not of the dominating kind but of a nature that accompanies the accessing of true self.
Ghent emphasized how often the wish for surrender may present itself in a distorted, perverted form as submission, “surrender’s ever-available look-alike.” To submit is to lose oneself in the power of the master, a self-negating enthrallment to the other. This is an “as if” experience that may give the appearance of a yielding of defensive barriers but in which false self-structure remains in place. To the extent that surrender represents a yearning to be recognized, known from the inside, in some sense penetrated, its distortion in the form of submission readily lends itself to sexualized expressions: rape fantasies, imagined scenarios of humiliation, certain kinds of erotic manifestations in the transference when they occur in the context of a therapy relationship. We could imagine that when Trump feels himself wanting to throw off the shackles of power that it might take exactly such forms; this is what makes the reported existence of videos of Trump cavorting with peeing Russian prostitutes, or the account of his being spanked by Stormy Daniels, psychologically-speaking completely plausible. Trump’s evident hatred of women may be another distorted manifestation of his wish to be released from power’s grip. His braggadocios pussy-grabbing notwithstanding, it’s easy to imagine his envy of the traditional female role that allows women to demur from the injunction to pursue power.
The possible psychosexual moorings of Trump’s relationship to power can be mined further. In his weird rants and tweets we are made to witness the disintegration products of an inadequate personality in the process of coming undone by the workings of power that as president he can’t escape. For instance in his bizarre, repeated insistence that Barack Obama surveilled him in Trump Tower after the election, we can discern the existence of his energetically warded off wish to be screwed by his predecessor. “That man penetrated me!” And then the defense against this already disavowed wish, in the form of his determination to undo every piece of Obama’s legacy, the only discernible logic he’s been following in his policy making: “Get that man out of me!” Likewise his preoccupation with the idea the U.S. is “being taken advantage of” in any number of contexts (NAFTA, NATO, etc.), possibly another paranoid refraction of a sexual wish. Walls must be built, orifices must be plugged.
If my discernment of an underlying queer sexuality in Trump seems implausible, recall Judith Butler’s formulation of male heterosexual identity as grounded in a repudiation — a “double disavowal” in her terms — of same-sex love. Butler’s startlingly beautiful conceit is that one becomes the thing one long ago relinquished the possibility of loving. The heterosexual man has become the man he “never loved, never lost.” In his “publicly snuggling up to his Russian counterpart,” at the Helsinki press conference as the New York Times put it, Trump may have been psychically transiting to the site of his very formation as an ostensibly straight man.
My queer Trumpian fantasia can be entered from another angle as well. We’ve gotten used to Trump’s relentless assertion of self, his irrelevant insertion of himself into his ramblings on any topic. Nearly unbearable as it has become for us to listen to him in this familiar mode, we rarely consider the psychic strain it must place on an individual to sustain such continual self-focus. But such strain may foster in certain moments a vulnerability to a kind of self-forgetting, and perhaps in the presence of a powerful man an irresistible urge to let go of one’s own power. Let’s recall a famous essay by cultural theorist Leo Bersani on the appeal that powerlessness itself may hold. Writing in the specific context of the first years of the AIDS crisis in the U.S., Bersani theorized power on the level of the body, power as inscribed and enacted in particular sexual acts. For him, all of sexuality is shot through with power relations, owing to “the inescapable association of sexual positions with mastery and subordination” and to the “indissociable nature of sexual pleasure and the exercise or loss of power.” Foregoing nuance, Bersani flatly states that “to be penetrated is to abdicate power.” Heterosexual women are used to occupying this position but for Bersani for a man to willingly do so takes on a kind of numinous significance. Referring to “a particular sexual act [that is] associated with women but performed by men” and that “carries the terrifying appeal of a loss of the self,” he provocatively invokes “the image of a grown man, legs high in the air, unable to refuse the suicidal ecstasy of being a woman.”
At one moment Bersani can sound a bit like a relational psychoanalyst, for instance when asserting “the value of powerlessness in both men and women.” Here he might remind us of Emmanuel Ghent on surrender, his evocation of a longing to yield, to let down defensive barriers in the service of self-healing and expansion of self. However, we realize how far we are from Ghent as Bersani goes on to explain that what he has in mind is a “radical disintegration and humiliation of the self,” a “self-debasement” achieved by the man being penetrated in a cataclysmic yet perhaps ecstatic “self-shattering.” While this description sounds akin to Ghent’s idea of submission, Bersani puts a positive value on it for its potential to explode the narcissistic attachment to “self.” For the burdensomely self-obsessed Trump, this may be just what the doctor ordered, a kind of homeopathic effort at self-cure.
As Trump further unravels under the stress of the looming Mueller investigation, as well as the apparent strain of the effort to make sense from one day to the next, we can expect more queerness ahead.
Steven Botticelli, Ph.D. is on the faculty of the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. He writes in the areas of sexuality and politics, and their intersection.