Trump, A Psy Fi Story: On American Germanicity

My purpose in this short reflection is to think the rise of Donald Trump through Laurence Rickels’ theory of American Germanicity, which shows that there is an unconscious connection between the American way of life and its Nazi other, in the name of historicising the contemporary psychoanalytic critique of The Donald. My objective here is to show that the Frankfurt inspired critiques of Trump’s neo-fascism are founded in more than the application of psycho-critical-theory to a new case on the basis of potential comparison and that it is possible to develop a historical lineage from Nazi Germany, through the Frankfurt critique of the American culture industry, to a psy fi story of Trump that reveals his true horror that some would prefer to ‘not see.’

In recent works on the rise to power of President-elect Trump, Henry Giroux and Doug Kellner similarly pick up on the Apprentice star-cum-property magnate-cum-Commander in Chief’s authoritarian personality.[1] In his recent book America at War with Itself Giroux explains that Trump represents what he calls, following the work of Hannah Arendt, the sandstorm, or the process of civilizational collapse that leads to the normalisation of a social state of war and later, the emergence of dictatorship. For Giroux, Trump is the symptom of a wider crisis of masculinity brought about by the culture of barely sublimated warfare that supports neoliberal capitalism. He is the strong man, the capitalist superhero, who has ironically emerged in order to save the losers in the violent struggle of late capitalist economics. In this way Giroux’s reading of the rise of Trump recalls Klaus Theweleit’s famous psychoanalysis of proto-Nazism in Weimar Germany, where the destroyed men of World War I translated their ruined identities into war machines able to survive through violent attacks on others.[2]

In the case of Trump, those wiped out by the progressive intensification of the state of low intensity war under conditions of a form of capitalism struggling to manage the decline of the rate of profit brought about by the global crash but also a lack of technological innovation able to make a positive difference where mass employment is concerned, turned to their own hard man who promises to be tough on others who he says have been enjoying the hard earned privileges of the silent majority for too long. While the emergence of the Freikorps and their conversion to full blown Nazism was set up by the horrors of World War I which hardened an entire generation of men to brutal violence, Giroux’s argument is that neoliberal capitalism created a similar culture of cruelty organised around the celebration of money, excess, and centrally, I think, processes of objectification, and, by contrast, the denigration of human virtues such as care, compassion, and kindness. There is no room for humanity in Trump’s world because all that matters is winning. In his new book American Nightmare Doug Kellner presents a similar argument, where Trump is the embodiment of a kind of neo-Darwinian approach to social relations. But what Kellner introduces to the thesis set out by Giroux is a focus on the media spectacle and the creation of Trump’s pumped up ego, The Donald, who is always up for a fight and wants to take on the establishment. According to Kellner, Trumpian pedagogy, or what we learn from nastiness of The Donald, is that the feminised rules of normal liberal civilization no longer matter in the street fight of late capitalism. Given the critical nature of the situation, Trump’s message is that these rules and regulations, the rules and regulations of the establishment that have sold the American worker down the river, need to be thrown out and we need to get back to basics, which boil down to fighting for survival in an ultra-competitive environment.

For Kellner, it is this brutal survivalism that defines what he calls Trump’s neo-fascism, organised around the reconstruction of the destroyed subject of American industrial capitalism or Joe Six-pack who has fallen on hard times, through violent attacks on others, Mexicans, women, and disabled people, who represent the weakness that plunged America into its current crisis. In this way Kellner explains that Trump plugs into the paranoid tradition in American politics, which was theorised by Richard Hofstadter in the 1960s,[3] and presents himself as a kind of authoritarian late capitalist superman able to lead America into the re-industrial future that would look like the 1950s or the moment before the land of the free sold its soul to the Chinese and new industrial powers. While Trump’s social and economic vision presents a kind of utopian American future past, Kellner shows how his personal style is similarly regressive and reflects the frontierism of either the savage capitalism of the late 19th century or the borderline civilization of the wild west where the rugged individual fought to survive in the state of nature. In much the same way that these visions represent the cultural unconscious of America apparently lost to global forces, Kellner explains that Trump is all Freudian id and in this respect reminds the rootless of what it means to be an American. Thus, there is an existential aspect to Trump’s appeal, which is that he captures a need for what Heidegger calls authenticity in a world that seems out of control, and centres this upon the struggle for survival that speaks to the primal experience of America.[4]

While Clinton lost because she had no coherent message, beyond more of the same, Trump’s barely sublimated unconscious manifests itself in explosive displays of egoism that scream ‘look at me,’ which spoke to the profound need of the ruined to reassert themselves in a post-human world that seems to have moved on. The same was, of course, true of the proto-Nazi Freikorps Theweleit writes of in his classic two volume study Male Fantasies, where the apparent childishness, the stamping feet, the acting up, and acting out, of men out of time was precisely what made them speak to the experience of a lost generation. In Kellner’s view, this is precisely where spectacle becomes important. Trump is the master of the spectacle because his ego is in a constant state of expansion, relative to its general state of fragility and vulnerability conditioned by a history of exposure to violence and existential threat. Linking Trump’s campaign events to Nazi rallies and particularly Nuremburg, Kellner’s point is, therefore, that there is a sense in which The Donald is the right man at the right time for America in need of pumping up through violent assertions of presence. On the other hand, Kellner explains that Trump’s narcissistic tendency to constantly pump up his own ego, which consequently speaks to lost America in need to some sense of itself, finds its target in necrophilia, or the reduction of people and other living things to the status of objects that can be tossed aside in the name of the assertion of his own priority. For Kellner this sadistic economy, which is perfectly captured by the Freudian idea of the death drive where the thanatological subject makes up for the sense of lack and loss through the control of others and objects, marks out Trump’s one dimensional identity.

However, while both Giroux and Kellner base their readings of Trump on the Neo-Marxism of the Frankfurt School writers, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse, and in particular their psychoanalysis of Nazism, the relationship between Trump’s violent brand of Americanism and Nazi totalitarianism they set up is purely theoretical in the sense that they never attempt to pursue what Laurence Rickels sets out in terms of the Germanicity of America.[5] That is to say that they never attempt to take their Frankfurt reading of Trump and develop an interpretation that historicises the rise of The Donald in order to reveal his emergence from a story that starts with the destruction of Germany in World War I, tracks through the rise of Nazism, and centrally the flight of Adorno and colleagues to America, and finally ends up in an exploration of the rise and fall of a techno-scientific empire set on the objectification of everybody and every living thing in the name of profit. Once we reach this point, it becomes clear that Trump’s relation to Nazism is not simply inferred, or based upon the application of psychoanalytic ideas to his own peculiar pathology revealed by Kellner who studies his biographies, but rather rooted in a long cultural history of what Rickels calls bi-coastality or the movement from Germany west to the land of the free.

In Rickels’ bi-coastal theory of the Germanicity of America, which emerges in The Case of California and runs through later works including I Think I Am,[6] the Nazi state represents a model of ‘evil politics,’ a real dystopia, that America measures itself against. While Auschwitz has become the measure of the Nazi dystopia, the land of the free was able to explain away or justify the horror of Hiroshima because the bomb ended Japanese resistance and defeated fascism in the Pacific. However, while Auschwitz ended the European problem of the monstrosity of rationality, and forced Europeans to rethink the modern project, because Hiroshima was never confronted or worked through in the same way it unleashed a techno-scientific nightmare that would eventually become neoliberal capitalism, where calculations around profitability are more important than living things. In this respect, the Nazi tendency to objectification and the sadistic destruction of otherness shadowed America and became its uncanny other. On the surface, America was, of course, the polar opposite of Nazism, but, for Rickels, the refusal to work through the violence of the war machine meant that on an unconscious level the Nazi was always inside America. This was precisely what Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse found in their studies of America and Rickels traces in his The Case of California, where Nazism returns in a kind of liberal totalitarianism obsessed with consumption and the destruction of thought in the name of the capitalist utopia.

While Hollywood and Disney imagined the capitalist dreamworld through the twentieth century, and also sought to maintain the morality of the war machine in the face of the reality of largely unjustifiable imperial adventures, late capitalism, particularly in its neoliberal form, effectively destroyed the industrial base and undermined the message of the dream factory that could no longer enchant people ruined by the techno-scientific machine legitimised by the apparent good of Hiroshima. It is this situation that brought Trump to the fore and made his hyper-masculine approach popular for the ruined who still ultimately believe in the American way. Despite enormous criticism of The Donald throughout his campaign and upon his election, the strength of this belief was made evident by Silicon Valley tech billionaire Peter Thiel who insisted that the liberal mainstream’s problem with Trump resided in its decision to take him literally, but not seriously, when what it needed to do was take him seriously, but not literally. This Derridean spin, where border walls, bans of Muslims, sexist rants, and so on are expressions of a will to confront serious problems, but not literal representations of political intention, amounts to a refusal to see, or Rickels would say ‘not see’ (or Nazi) The Donald’s very real authoritarianism. Why is this the case? I would suggest that the refusal to see what is absolutely transparent, because the whole point of The Donald is that he is the violent, destructive, unconscious unleashed or manifest, is the result of the American construction of the Nazi shadow, the dystopic other that negatively constructs the land of the free, and therefore must always remain somewhere else, over there. Inside this psycho-political construction (America / Nazi) it is easier to normalise Trump and ‘not see’ his authoritarianism than confront the Germanicity of America because this would require the wholesale rethinking and reconstruction of American self-identity. But this is precisely Rickels’ point and exactly the possibility, I think, he raises in his book on that other Californian Philip K. Dick, I Think I Am. If Thiel’s project is to seek to normalise The Donald, and ‘not see’ his violent authoritarianism, then reference to Dick’s paranoid science fiction enables us to work in the opposite direction. That is to say that in much the same way that Freud’s Schreber disclosed the horror of his childhood relationship with his Dad through his paranoid fantasy of his personal war with God,[7] perhaps we should read Dick’s alternative history of post-World War II history, The Man in the High Castle,[8] in order to see, rather than not see, the truth of The Donald in psy fi form, precisely because what Dick was able to reveal in the early 1960s was the other side of America repressed by the aggressive othering of its Germanicity. In The Man in the High Castle Dick imagines an alternate reality where the Axis powers win the war and America is colonised by the Japanese and Germans in the name of the creation of a new American totalitarianism. This nightmare scenario comes about because FDR is assassinated in the 1930s and America never enters World War II. The result is that the Nazis exterminate the Soviets and the Japanese win in Asia, leaving the way open for the defeat of America caught between the Axis powers. However, the key to Dick’s story is the alternate reality within his alternate reality, which takes the form of the existence of a novel, ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ written by the enigmatic man in the high castle, Hawthorne Abendsen, that turns out to represent the inner truth of World War II where the Allies win. In this respect Dick’s novel provides a kind of negative representation of Trumpism in contemporary America and critical commentary on the relationship between democracy and totalitarianism. Where The Man in High Castle imagines a scenario where the fascists won the war, but really lose to the British and Americans who then proceed to fight it out for world domination, the rise of The Donald is symbolic of the way in which the Allies won the war, but ultimately lost out to their unconscious Germanicity or the Nazi inside.



[1] Henri Giroux, America at War with Itself, (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2016); Doug Kellner, American Nightmare: Donald Trump, Media Spectacle, and Authoritarian Populism (Rotterdam: Sense, 2016).

[2] Klaus Theweliet, Male Fantasies: Volume I: Women, Floods, Bodies, History, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987); Klaus Theweliet, Male Fantasies: Volume II: Male Bodies: Psychoanalyzing the White Terror, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

[3] Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, (New York: Vintage, 2008).

[4] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, (New York: Suny Press, 2010).

[5] Lawrence Rickels, The Case of California, (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

[6] Lawrence Rickels, I Think I Am: Philip K. Dick, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 2010).

[7] Eric L. Santner, My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber’s Secret History of Modernity, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997)

[8] Phillip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle, (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).


Mark Featherstone is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Keele University, UK. He is author of Tocqueville’s Virus: Utopia and Dystopia in Western Social and Political Theory (Routledge, 2007), Planet Utopia: Utopia, Dystopia, and the Global Imaginary (Routledge, 2017), and a range of articles in journals including Cultural Politics and CTheory.