In episode 6 of Madness: the Podcast, Steven Reisner finds Black Americans taking to the streets to stand up to both: the Coronavirus that disproportionately affects their community and to institutionalized white supremacy that makes COVID so much more deadly. What will white people do now with our fears?
I am coming to you today from St-Thomas-de-Conac, a small village in southwestern France. I bought a house in this village three years ago because I thought I might need an exit strategy. Donald Trump had been elected president and I was convinced that Trump would fulfill his campaign promises to stoke violence, racism, and hatred. I learned as a psychoanalyst and as a Jew, that when a person threatens you with violence, it’s best to believe what they say and protect yourself.
But in the end, I used that exit strategy to escape, not from Trump, but from, from what Trump left us, wholly unprepared for – the explosion of sickness and death that shook my city to its foundations. And today I watch from a kind of exile as New York City and the entire country explode, not from COVID alone, but from a home grown and even more insidious pestilence.
The pestilence of racism and government sanctioned violence that has been circulating on our shores for centuries. A particularly virulent strain has mutated from America’s wet market located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Patient one, the super spreader, is the president of the United States. And capitalism has lowered our nation’s immunity.
And so people of color all over America have had to make a tragic calculation. What is more deadly, COVID-19? Or racism, which also disproportionately kills and hospitalizes and incarcerates black and poor people, and which makes COVID itself so much more deadly.
Black Americans and Brown Americans and their allies all over the country have taken to the streets because they understand that the only way to develop resistance to this contagion, is by… resistance. So while privileged Americans hole up in their homes, terrified of one virus, protestors are risking their lives to face down the militarized carriers of the racist pandemic, threatening our democracy. Fighting a virus by locking arms and facing it down in the streets? Sounds like madness.
In 1842, Edgar Allen Poe wrote the Masque of the Red Death, a prescient short story about a country devastated by plague. “No pestilence,” Poe wrote, “had ever been so fatal or so hideous.” But the Prince of the land, aptly named Prince Prospero, remained happy and dauntless; he ignored the epidemic. As deaths mounted, he gathered his wealthy and powerful compatriots deep inside his castle, where together they could eat and drink and dance, without being disturbed by the death and misery outside. “A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers brought furnaces and hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress… With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to the contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to either grieve or think.”
I want to repeat that sentence, because it so perfectly describes the American response the all of life’s struggles: “It was folly to either grieve or think.” Back to Poe’s story:
The Prince organized a masked ball, insisting the revelers dress in grotesque fashion, as if daring the contagion to threaten their immortality: “There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm…much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.”
But at midnight, despite the seemingly impregnable wall, the virus nonetheless made its way into the midst of the crowd. In a panic, the revelers tore off the threatening visitor’s mask and discovered death itself. As Poe eloquently wrote:
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall… And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
Psychoanalysis could barely do better in describing the madness of the American response to COVID-19 than Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.
Americans, because we have traded away all of our principles in exchange for a consumerist culture that will guaratntee us eternal life and eternal youth, we are clamoring for some medicine or some product to save us from COVID – a vaccine, Vitamin D. And when COVID proved to be resistant, we responded to the virus and those who were sickened by the virus as it were death itself. And so we sent old people infected with the disease to unprotected nursing homes. We forced hospitalized COVID patients to die alone. We buried the dead in mass graves. And when the epidemic forced the closing of the New York city subway system, the corpses of two dead homeless people were found to have been shuttling from one end of the system to the other, perhaps for days perhaps longer, nobody knew. It is this abject fear of death and the panicked response that divides America into two polarized camps.
On one side are the Republicans, building a wall around their nation state, permitting neither ingress or egress. The wall may be at the Mexican border or at gated communities or now, America’s Prince Prospero has built a wall around the white house. But for Republicans, the threat is always, ultimately, about black and Brown people who must be kept out or pushed out or killed to ensure that their immunity, their immortality, their power is maintained. And when these Trumpians do venture out, they go out in packs, with guns in hands to face down COVID and protesters alike as if they were one and the same, the harbinger’s of death.
As James Baldwin wrote:
“What white Americans do not wish to face when they regard black people is… reality. The fact that is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets…And one day for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. White Americans do not believe in death, and that is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.”
While the Republicans parade their fantasy of immunity and immortality, the Democrats lock themselves inside their homes in terror. They too are motivated by the same fear of death, but instead of brazen denial, the Democrats live in mortal fear, fear that the black death will slip through the protection of their walls and doors lingering on mail touched by a mail carrier or on a packages touched by delivery person, they are terrified that they might have to venture out among the infected on the street or at the hospital who, unmasked, would be revealed to be death itself and darkness and decay and death will hold illimitable dominion over them, too. Democrats, too, are mortally afraid of black and Brown people; the essential workers that they claim to celebrate banging on pots and pans from their windows, when in reality, those daily noise making sessions are the primitive rituals of the privileged, aimed at pacifying the intimidating dark figures, whom they fear as portents of death.
Now that these same uncanny figures are no longer pacified, no longer submissive, but are protesting in the streets, the privileged express the same panic, but with the new justification: it’s no longer quarantine, it’s curfew. They must stay home at all costs to avoid the looters, as if the threat to luxury goods and Adidas sneakers and Target is a threat to their very lives.
Racism is as old as America, older in fact. But the current mutation of racism, which kills for profit, by denying healthcare, by enforcing poverty, by privatizing the prison system and immunizing the police force – this current mutation of racism is the result of two combined forces – capitalism, which trades morality and justice for economic expediency and profit, and Donald Trump, a man who rules America by his ruthless instinctive ability to capitalize on capitalism.
Americans are newly susceptible to racism and fear because in recent decades, we have lost sight of the principles that Americans always relied on to face our mortal threats. The founders pledged to defend those principles – equality, freedom, justice – with their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
It’s true that for the founders, the principles of equality only applied to themselves and other rich white men. But over the next 200 years, we, the people struggled to improve that democracy, fighting the hegemony of those rich and powerful white men on the battlefields of the civil war and on the streets of America for a century after the civil war, we slowly but relentlessly fought to extend our inalienable rights and expand the reach of our democracy. It could be said that in America, at least for the first 200 years, the arc of the moral universe was long. It was too slow, but it bent toward justice.
But 40 years ago, the institution and widespread acceptance of a new American ethos shifted the balance of power in the battle between democracy and plutocracy. It was a subtle shift at first because it drew on familiar language, but in its essence, neoliberalism completely transformed America. Soon, Republicans and Democrats alike aligned themselves with the new, simple idea that if we just guaranteed the absolute freedom of the marketplace, democracy would take care of itself.
Ronald Reagan articulated this most clearly in his Presidential farewell address, complete with a Hollywood soundtrack:
“I’ve spoken of the shining city on a hill all my political life. But I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity… And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c32G868tor0 (0:38-1:13)
A shining city on a Hill where the ability to make a profit was unrestricted by regulation, taxation or obligation.
Let’s try and understand the psychological impact of this transformation.
For most of American history, most Americans had a simple relationship to money: They worked in order to live. The money they earned was used to buy the things they needed. And, if there were money left over, they would save, or take a vacation or help out their children or give to those in need. It was not from money that Americans found meaning in life; it was based on what they found meaningful that determined how money was spent. Benjamin Franklin called it the virtuous industry of an innocent life. Commerce, Franklin said, was cheating.
But Reagan’s neoliberal revolution of the 1980s changed all that. Every activity in America began to be seen as an investment, whose value was determined by whether it brought financial gain – the school I go to, the house, I buy, the research I undertake, the services I provide. These were no longer judged by the quality of life they created or the good that they did, but by the economic value they produced. And more and more, this system turns out to be rigged, not a meritocracy open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there, but a corporatocracy that concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, indebts, the many and exploits, racism, and inequality.
And because we traded away all our principles for a promissory note that never gets paid, what remains is an emptiness of the soul and a fear of death. An emptiness we try to fill with consumer goods and likes on social media; a fear of death we try to avoid with denial. And now, Trump has stepped into the moral vacuum and promises his followers that bigotry and racism will save them from death. And just as powerfully, we liberals, faced with our own moral vacuum, are convinced that Trump himself is the embodiment of death. Both of these, hatred with Trump and hatred of Trump, increase his power, magnifies his influence. Republicans and Democrats alike see Trump as the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, promising the rapture for those who believe in him and the end of days for those who don’t. Trump’s destructive instinct has been so successful in infecting our economy, transforming our culture, and paralyzing our ability to respond, that we need a whole new way of seeing Trump, understanding Trump, immunizing ourselves From the hypnotic power that is Donald Trump.
And so, today, I will use psychoanalysis, as a kind of inoculation against the rage virus in the white house. This is not because I believe Trump is mentally ill, in fact, it is not really about Trump at all. It is about understanding how Trump’s mind works so that we can be immunized from the contagion of hatred that he provokes. It is we can respond to his increasingly tyrannical power, not with rage, but with power.
I am not going to rehash what we all know: that Trump is a narcissist and a sociopath. Psychiatrists have violated their ethics codes because they believe that Trump’s mental illness endangers the country. But in America in 2020, narcissism and sociopathy are not illnesses. They are skills for success, skills that Trump sharpened into high art and perfected in the crucible of our neoliberal culture, first in real estate, then in television and now in politics, because in American business, and even more so in American politics, narcissism and sociopathy are not signs of illness, they are instruments of power, as American as a sucker punch.
Trump has always been the poster boy for corporate ruthlessness, but he had always been treated as something of a joke. That’s because we would rather avoid what underlies his bravado. So we rage at the narcissism and sociopathy because we think we understand them, while we avoid the obvious traits they are built on, because if we really at Trump’s core character and the way his mind works we should be terrified. Because what fuels and magnifies Trumps authoritarian style is the same constellation of traits shared by dictators and cult leaders from Rome to Berlin to Jonestown. Narcissism and sociopathy are the surface; they are fueled by a lethal mix of psychotic volatility and unhinged cruelty.
Let me explain. In episode four, I described the subjective experience of psychosis. I’m now going to expand on what I said there, because psychotic mental processing is not as rare as you might think; in fact, people who think this way span a spectrum from the extremely disordered and to the highly functional. Once again, psychotic thinking can be understood as a chronic difficulty in holding on to the structure of things. In particular, it’s a difficulty holding in the mind complex social structures. These could be social norms. It could be the organization of language or the meaning of metaphor. But often, as a result, psychotics can be excessively fluid in their thoughts. And at the same time, when they attempt to hold onto linguistic form, they can be extremely concrete. And they shift from one to the other – at times their words may wander off and shift in ways that are unmoored from logic or grammar, at other times their metaphors can be extremely concrete. Sometimes these occur in the same paragraph, or the same sentence.
Now it’s important to note: I am not describing a mental illness, but a type of mental organization, which, for some people, can terribly disruptive, but, for others, because they are free from convention, it can be a source of extraordinary creativity. Think of Bob Dylan, song chimes of freedom:
Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder went crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
(https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1qa67c : 0:46-1:22)
This is not a use of language that upholds norms of grammar or meaning. The song smashes visual and sound imagery without logical consistency: “majestic bells of bolts struck shadow in the sound.” What does that mean? But the lack of convention in no way diminishes the song’s power; if anything, it enhances that power.
Listening to Trump speak without a script yields what might be our most comprehensive record of this kind of psychotic speech. An example, which the press did not understand, was Trump’s free associations to some scientific research on the effect of ultraviolet light on the coronavirus.
So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous — whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light — and I think you said that that hasn’t been checked, but you’re going to test it. And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way, and I think you said you’re going to test that too…
And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it would be interesting to check that. (https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4871097/user-clip-inject-body)
Trump wasn’t talking about drinking bleach. He was, as it were, thinking outside the box. He was encouraging scientists to think about inventing some mechanism for directing strong ultraviolet light to the lungs; my guess is that he was imagining a technique similar to endoscopy or bronchoscopy, where a camera and a light are threaded through the body. But, since his associations are utterly fluid and unstructured and at the same time his images are overly concrete, it came out sounding bizarre: “disinfectant.” “Injection.” “Almost a cleaning.” It takes a psychoanalyst to truly understand what he is getting at.
When non-psychotic people listen to psychotic language, they often get confused or angry or exhausted. Teenagers respond with ridicule and bullying. Adults think the psychotic is crazy or lying or stupid. Often the psychotic is seen as an outcast, a weirdo, but if they are exceptionally talented and strong-willed, they can turn their unique thinking process, and the responses to them, to their advantage. In poetry, music, science, technology. People who are not bound to traditional thinking often make extraordinary contributions to society.
Trump, too, is free from traditional thinking. And he has become a genius at turning the confused reaction of his audience to his advantage. But Trump foes this by unleashing his impulsive, and formidable destructive power, sometimes in retaliation, if he feels in any way crossed or ridiculed, and sometimes for the sheer pleasure of wreaking havoc and devastation. Like his models in Russia and the Philippines, he keeps those around him anxious and hoping he does not direct his venomous cruelty in their direction.
And so, to keep Trump pacified, those around him have learned that, when it comes to Trump’s tenuous relationship with reality, it is folly to try and correct him. They will be safer, and may be able to share in the pleasures of sheer power, if they force reality to conform to Trump. So, the Attorny General investigates Trump’s political enemies and demands charges against his allies be dropped, the Secretary of State refers to the international criminal court, as “a kangaroo court,” and Trump’s national security adviser opens meetings of the National Security Council by distributing Trump’s latest tweets and telling top officials that, rather than advising the president, their job, now, is to find ways of justifying, enacting or explaining President Trump’s tweet policies.
Before he was President, Trump employed his wealth, his bullying and his legal team to force his version of reality on others. Now, it’s the police and the National Guard and the justice department and the intelligence agencies and every repressive force available to the executive branch of the United States government.
And so Trump’s sheer ruthless tyranny has galvanized white republicans at the bottom and the top of the economic ladder with a kind of religious fervor, promising wealth and power to white people, as he promises to cast death itself, in the form of black people and brown people, into the abyss.
And we, the white liberals and white democrats who oppose Trump, we are left with nothing to fight him with but our impotent rage, because we, too, have sold our principles for the promise of profit; we, too, benefit, if guiltily, from the inequality that privileges the few over the many and the white over the black.
Let’s be real. Eric Garner was killed because he was selling cigarettes on the street. The cops killed Eric Garner because their first duty is always to protect corporate white America from the threat to their profits. The police broke down the door and killed Breona Taylor in her home because in this country, the rule of law is for the powerful and not for the powerless.
That is why black and brown people are protesting in the streets – they are done with proving to us that they are not a threat. They are done with working during the pandemic and teaching their children to put up their hands and not lose their cool. They are losing their cool because not losing their cool hasn’t prevented them from dying of COVID, or going to prison or being killed by police. And, my fellow white Americans, about that looting – can we remember that corporations have been looting black neighborhoods for decades, draining profits from communities, leaving storefronts empty and boarded up, community hospitals closed and whole neighborhoods without grocery stores? Do we really have a right to be shocked that vulnerable people are standing up and that our essential workers are no longer willing to be our essential sufferers?
So instead of being frightened of black people as the harbingers of our deaths, it is time for us to face our fear, remember our principles, and join them in the streets, side by side. Because if there’s one thing history has taught us over and over again, it’s that tyrants and cult leaders do not go quietly. They do not willingly give up power. And they would rather die and take everyone down with them than face the rule of law.
So, the question is, are we willing to risk our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor, for what we claim to believe in? Because if justice is to prevail in America, we cannot rely on the police, we cannot rely on the national guard, we can only rely on the people, together, in the streets. We must surround the racism, the hatred, the tyranny emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and we must force it to surrender. Because democracy will not be saved by self-isolation. It will not be saved on Facebook and it will not be saved by absentee ballot. It will only be saved by embracing our mortality and joining black, brown and native Americans – in the streets.
End with Ysouf N’dour singing Chines of Freedom: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7TfXqLjzdA
This is Steven Reisner. And this has been Madness, where psychology and capitalism collide. If you like what you hear, please write a review and share this podcast on social media and with your friends. I plan to be on the street in Washington on August 28th, if not before. I hope I see you then.