The Joke's on Us. A Cautionary Note.


The world listens as Donald Trump, President of the United States, on a state visit to the United Kingdom bemoans the fact that Prime Minister, Theresa May, had “wrecked Brexit” because she had not taken his advice. We then see Trump, standing at a podium at Chequers alongside May, declaring that “Boris Johnson would make a great Prime Minister.” May deftly brushed off Trump’s criticisms, saying, “Don’t worry, it’s only the press.”

Many of us are now used to Trump’s outrageous public statements which he just as readily denies as being “fake news”, but the more we laugh, the more we succumb to a helpless despondency that this is our new reality – a reality ruled by the id and freed from the paternal shackles of the super-ego. This is the justice of the disaffiliated and disempowered Trump electorate who are finally having their say against the elites who are deemed responsible for unfair regulation, job losses, and inequality.

As Trump presses ahead with economic tariffs and the disruption of political stability across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and as populist movements proliferate across the globe, are the dissenting voices losing traction? Are “we” (liberal elites) only talking to ourselves? Trump’s words and his actions, once shocking to many of us, are now laughed at and at least partly dismissed as the words of a monster. This is eerily reminiscent of the gradual numbing helplessness experienced by many Germans during the onset of the Third Reich.

In his famous memoir of Nazi Germany, Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner wrote,

“I felt, intensely, the choking, nauseous character of it all, but I was unable to grasp its constituent parts and place them in an overall order. Each attempt was frustrated and veiled by those endless, useless, vain discussions in which we attempted again and again to fit the events into an obsolete, unsuitable scheme of political ideas….Strangely enough, it was just this automatic continuation of ordinary life that hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror.”(pp.113-4)

As the infringements of human rights are increasingly accepted – whether it is the separation of children from their migrant parents or the selected ban on Muslims travelling to the United States – and “normal” life continues for most of us, the “normalization” of these conditions increases. With widespread distrust of what is “real” news, we are also left unable to make judgements and unable to think. Normalization turns into mindlessness.

Haffner warns, “There is a saying ascribed to Hitler: ‘I will press my opponents into service – in the Reichswehr.’”(p.223) We would be wise to heed this warning and to voice as much dissent as we can now before further damage is done to our democratic principles.

History has a tendency to repeat itself. And yet, Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian, also warns us that history is becoming irrelevant in our political view of the world. At our peril, we are being drawn into what Snyder refers to as the “politics of eternity”, an ahistorical totalitarian state of mind, reliant on a saviour/leader to provide security to the group. As therapists we know very well the dangerous consequences of ignoring – or denying – history. The return of the repressed is rearing its head for all of us to see. No joke.

Posted on July 15, 2018 .