The Heart of Darkness: The Appeal of Donald Trump

Organized acts of evil, such as those witnessed over the weekend in Charlottesville, demonstrate the unleashing of ethics turned on its head. Organized evil driven by an ideology endorsed (with a wink and a nod) by the Commander in Chief means evil serves in place of the good. This is not the lawless evil of a random act; rather it is “radical evil” in which a perverse moral law is officially endorsed.  The drive toward a pure race, the perfect socialist revolution, or making America great again, may not overtly promote genocide, mass murder, and white supremacy, but the latter is implicit in the former.  The walls must be built, the foreigners expelled, and the “inferior races” subdued in a world in which the ultimate good is a moral law constituted in the reigning ideology.  The neo-Nazis and the white supremacists are at the service of an ethic that has now been voted into place and which indeed hearkens back to an earlier era.  The American electorate has created the space, through the election of this administration, for these groups to do the dirty work of maintaining the very atmosphere which we breathe[1] – the implicit presumption of white supremacy which is at the foundation of the American idea.

Barak Obama seemed to represent the beginning of the end for this presumption.  The force of the law as it has been applied in America, prior to Obama, had long contained implicit discrimination and threat. For black Americans, white supremacy has always been explicit and the rhetoric transparent.  “America first,” “law and order,” “violence on all sides,” is not threatening to white Americans served by this rhetoric but what once could be silently presumed – the underside of the law – has now been forced out into the open.  The perverse underside of the law was threatened. In Freudian terms, Obama no longer served as the subservient ego or image of the instinctual id.  He was a threat to the “moral law” so that the pure desire and drive which stood behind this law has now surfaced in the enshrinement of our “pussy grabbing,” instinct driven, id-ic, Leader.  His unfiltered language gives voice to the underside of the law.  Blood, fire, fury, violence, and unconstrained drive now serve as part of a public discourse aimed at restoring “law and order” as they once functioned.

Immanuel Kant, in coining the term “radical evil,” briefly saw (he quickly withdraws the possibility) the present-day outworking of his own thought and failed ethic.  Which is not to say that Kant is responsible for “radical evil” but he uncovers the possibility – which becomes a historical reality and which points to the psychological parameters under which it arises.  He used the term to describe a potential result of an ethic grounded in “pure practical reason.” Ethics, he says in the Critique of Practical Reason is “a respect for something entirely different from life, in comparison and contrast to which life and its enjoyment have absolutely no worth. [Man] lives only because it is his duty, not because he has the least taste for living. Such is the nature of the genuine drive of pure practical reason.”  Kant wanted to move beyond an ethic grounded on the relative ground of authority, culture, or society.  As with Descartes, he turned to human will and interiority to ground his ethic and the ethic which would arise in his wake.

On the basis of this pure practical reason he arrives at his “categorical imperative”: “Act only on the maxim that you would will it become universal law.” The problem he foresaw, and which in fact resulted, was that the maxim could be made to serve a will and law of evil. By “radical evil” he recognizes will is capable not simply of opposing the moral law, but of making this opposition the very motive of our actions. This inverse duty would be indiscernible, Kant seemed to recognize, from the duty to do the good. It is impossible to discriminate between the will binding itself to be free, and the will binding itself in unfreedom and evil, if there is no content to prove the goodness of the genuine will to freedom?

The American ethic grounded in duty to freedom is directly implicated.  The drive toward corporate and individual freedom is precisely the law giving rise to American complicity in evil.  Absolute freedom, without appeal to a transcendent ethic, binds absolutely.  Freud hits upon this in his depiction of the child attempting to throw off the fetters of the law of the father.  In his drive to freedom he enslaves himself to this law (the law of the father or superego taken up into his own identity). He too arrives at a categorical imperative in his positing of the death drive and the superego.  The moral imperative, as he recognized, is a “moral masochism” in which the individual subjects himself to his own “cathected” father image – which gives rise to the worst forms of evil.

Jacques Lacan, following Freud, claims that the “moral law, looked at more closely, is simply desire in its pure state.” The desire of the id, filtered through the superego becomes the moral imperative foisted upon the ego.  The ego or the Subject gains pleasure in following this moral imperative but it is a death dealing pleasure.  In the language of Lacan, the real or death drive is the animating force or dynamic which constitutes the agonistic registers of the “symbolic” – the world of language and law in its relationship to the “imaginary” image (ego) of the self.

In the description of Alenka Zupančič, the “Freudian blow” to Kant’s philosophical ethics is to recognize that the moral law or what Kant calls the “categorical imperative” is in fact nothing other than the superego.  Where Kant had sought to set ethics on a foundation of reason and will Freud has hit upon the intertwining of the will, duty, and law as the deep pathological malady of the human race. As Zupančič concludes, “In so far as it has its origins in the constitution of the superego, ethics becomes nothing more than a convenient tool for any ideology which may try to pass off its own commandments as the truly authentic, spontaneous and ‘honorable inclinations’ of the subject.”  The Nazi death camp guard, the neo-Nazi, or the white supremacist, feels a profound perverse pleasure in serving his own honorable inclinations.

The Marquis de Sade could appeal to the categorical imperative as a call to universal sadism – each one is duty bound to pleasure himself through his neighbor. He has one of his novelistic characters propose as his maxim to murder anyone who gets in his way: “With regard to the crime of destroying one’s fellow, be persuaded it is purely hallucinatory; man has not been accorded the power to destroy; he has at best the capacity to alter forms . . . what difference does it make to her creative hand if this mass of flesh today is reproduced tomorrow in the guise of a handful of centipedes.”  This is the law of universal metamorphosis, and murder is simply part of this universal principle.

This fictional proposition seems to come to life in the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. Adolph Eichmann, in defending his organization of deportation of Jews to the death camps, explained he was simply obeying orders, following the law, and he appeals to the Kantian categorical imperative. The evil of Eichmann is captured in Hannah Arendt’s depiction of a man who lacked imagination or simply the capacity to think. His thought and his life were completely shaped by the norms and standards of his society so that in becoming a colorless bureaucrat he became radically evil. Arendt established links between a debased Kantianism and the co-operation of many of the German people with the implementing of the final solution. The liquidation of the Jews was viewed as “rational,” given that the objective was to secure a German power untainted by socialism and the influence of international commerce. As John Milbank points out, Nazi concepts of universal power and legality were compatible with, and even derived from, the Kantian categorical imperative. The Nazi affirmation of a Kantian notion of free will, and law derived from free will as their good, explains precisely how evil can become good. The presumption of a free will genuinely willing the good and codified into law is a relinquishing of the powers of discrimination. In Arendt’s description of Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann is not a diabolical monster, but a bureaucrat unable to engage in any thought beyond absolute duty to the Fürher.

Yukio Mishima, the Japanese right-wing nationalist, illustrates in his own life’s journey how perversity finds its fulfillment sometimes in absolute duty and fascism.  He discovered that by replacing his masochistic imagination with duty he could use his imagination against itself. “No moment is so dazzling as when everyday imaginings concerning death and danger and world destruction are transformed into duty.” He began to prepare himself to face his ultimate moment and to concentrate upon death. “To keep death in mind from day to day, to focus each moment upon inevitable death, to make sure one’s forebodings coincided with one’s dreams of glory . . . then it was sufficient to transfer to the world of flesh what I had long been doing in the world of spirit.”  To inflict pain and suffering on himself or on another satisfied the deep struggle he fought within himself his entire life.

Mishima would carry out in reality on himself what his fantasies had pictured and so defeat his imagination by destroying it.  This is why Freud calls it “moral masochism” – it is a neurosis that demands an extreme sense of morality and duty with ever increasing demands and degrees of sensitivity. “Death began from the time when I set about acquiring an existence other than that of words.”  Like our dear leader in his abhorrence of the written word, Mishima the author, turned from words – the world of the feminine and the world of his mother – so as to please his own masculine – Father figure – demands.  As Mishima, through weight lifting and practice in the martial arts, became the object of strength demanded by his superego, he became fitted to do the ultimate bidding of the superego. According to Freud, “the masochist must do what is inexpedient, must act against his own interests, must ruin the prospects open out to him in the real world and must, perhaps, destroy his own real existence.”

In the Emperor, Mishima found a father worth submitting to absolutely.  According to Freud, in creating this ultra-morality “the accent falls on the heightened sadism of the super-ego to which the ego submits.” By turning from his opportunity to die during the war and taking up instead the career of a writer he had missed the security of a “fixed identity not eaten away by words.” “Those who died, however, were fortunately secure within a fixed identity, an identity established beyond all doubt – the tragic identity.” In his own recreation of a coda of right wing nationalism Mishima would make Japan great again by dying for the Emperor.

Henry Scott Stokes describes the scene of Mishima’s suicide, “The image of Mishima’s head with the hachimaki headband still secure about it, propped on the blood-soaked carpeted floor of General Mashita’s office remains indelibly in my mind.  That powerful head had been torn from its shoulders!”  Stokes asks, “How had Mishima justified this action to himself?” It seems it is the justification of every fascist, Nazi, or moral masochist – it is the bloody service to a perverse moral law.

The will to do your duty, such that you would want it to be universal, in the world of the fascist, Arian, white supremacist, or Nazi, means one is duty bound to acts of cruelty, murder, or suicide. But these individuals arise as part of, what Walter Wink has argued, is the corporate soul.  The identity of each depends upon the sum of the parts, so that the individual is dictated to by the ethic of the corporate body. The neo-Nazis and David Dukes of the world do not arise as a result of their own evil genius but are a product of the time and the place which fosters them.  They are not so much an aberration as a necessary part of the prevailing ethic embodied in the national politics and ideology presently reigning in the United States.

The Jack Nicholson character, Colonel Jessup, in A Few Good Men, articulates the underside of the law as it is required to commit evil.  His men have killed Private Santiago in a hazing incident. He explains the necessity of this perverse law to Lt. Weinberg (played by Tom Cruise).

Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know; that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.

The minor actors (the neo-Nazis and their kin) in Charlottesville are a necessary part of the guiding ideology, the walls of separation, which has produced them.  They are the soldiers, their image of themselves, standing on the wall protecting the reigning ethic of implicit white supremacy.  Donald Trump is the direct manifestation and proof, again their own understanding of their mission, that they are acting on behalf of the majority of white Americans.  This beast receives its nourishment, as Col. Jessup describes it, from that which may appear “grotesque and incomprehensible” but which resides “deep down” in the heart of darkness white America may not want to talk about.

[1] The language here is from correspondence with Richard Hughes describing his upcoming book describing white supremacy as the “very air we breathe” in American Christianity.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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