Boxing with Shadows
Finding peace from without and within
In the first stage of the disease, victims lose all sense of proportion. The president-elect’s every tweet provokes a firestorm, as if 140 characters were all it took to change the world…
The mid-level stages of TDS have a profound effect on the victim’s vocabulary: Sufferers speak a distinctive language consisting solely of hyperbole…
In the advanced stages of the disease, the afflicted lose touch with reality. Opinion is unmoored from fact. Life resembles a dark fairy tale in which the villain – Trump – is an amalgam of all the worst tyrants in history, past and present, while the heroes –Trump’s critics – are akin to the resistance fighters of World War II.
After Trump took office, an army of angry Hillary fans in pink pussy hats declared themselves #theresistance. Mainstream newspapers across the land dedicated endless pages to the Bad Orange Man’s perfidies. Jeff Tiedrich grew rich as a full-time Trump troll while others engaged in equally profane rants for free. And their continuing failure to get Trump removed from office only served to enrage them further.
Even with Biden in the Oval Office, Trump continues to suck up all the air in the room. Tiedrich continues to rant about “Little Donny Fuckface.” Multiple plaintiffs and prosecutors have lined up to send Trump to prison, the poorhouse, or both. Through good times and bad Trump remains the American Left’s Jungian shadow. But you can learn an awful lot about people from the things they see in the shadows.
As of December 2023 progressive talk radio personality Thom Hartmann had an estimated 6 million listeners. For my conservative readers, that’s less than Glenn Beck or Ben Shapiro, but more than Charlie Kirk or Dennis Prager. My extremely conservative readers will probably insist that those numbers are greatly exaggerated if not completely fraudulent.
As you can see from the excerpt above, Hartmann believes that his speculation has some basis in “actual statement(s) or action(s) by Donald Trump” or by people close to The God-Emperor. So let’s see how Thom envisions the second Trump presidency or, as he calls it, the First Reich.
The article is certainly educational, although maybe not for the reasons Thom hoped it would be. I don’t want to spoiler it for those who haven’t seen it yet, so I’m only going to give you a couple of snippets of the world Hartmann imagines after Trump returns to the Oval Office.
Now licensed by six Republicans on the Supreme Court and their integration into the military, Proud Boy groups began organized attacks on Black neighborhoods, gay bars, and libraries. Dozens of people died, touching off riots in several cities — particularly Portland and Seattle — that were covered breathlessly by Fox “News.”
Trump pointed to the unrest and announced a second round of billion-dollar contracts for Halliburton to build camps where “bad people,” including those guilty of libel, violating gender conformity laws, or “poisoning the blood of America” through biracial marriages or giving shelter to illegal immigrants, could be “concentrated.”
For most of my readers, Hartmann’s story sounds like a textbook case of high-octane Trump Derangement Syndrome. But for Hartmann’s readers, it’s a prophetic warning.
Jungian analyst Christopher Perry describes the deepest part of the Shadow as:
where we find manifestations of evil as a dynamic in the world to which we need to relate with collective guilt, responsibility and reparation: privatised water, the arms trade, famine, torture, Guantanamo Bay etc; each of us will have such a list.
We can engage with these various manifestations of evil as distinct problems, and look for ways to alleviate them. Or we can project them all onto a figure who becomes simultaneously Sauron and Scapegoat. We hate him because he is evil. And yet we give him power because that power absolves us of our personal evil. This Dark Lord (or Orange Lord, if you will) ennobles us by our struggle against his sheer vileness. And those who refuse to recognize his utter evil can only be willing participants in all his foul deeds.
Hartmann’s story may be incoherent and illogical, but the Shadow is incoherent and illogical. It’s the dumping ground for all the things we fear and hate about ourselves, the sunken city where our evils sleep but do not die. The Shadow will always have something of the Lovecraftian about it; it will always be at angles that appears simultaneously acute and obtuse. And if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself sliding down that twisted slope into an abyss.
America’s origin myths tell of scrappy colonists who overthrew a tyrannical British government and hard-working immigrants who ran from oppression in search of a better life. We’re the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, the Sons of Liberty and the Daughters of the American Revolution. We know those origin myths, like all myths, gloss over an awful lot of messy stuff. But we can no more escape those myths than a fish can escape water or a bird can escape the sky.
Thom Hartmann is a former Student for a Democratic Society. He marched against war and for civil rights, both of which we generally agree are laudable causes. He fought to make us live up to our ideals and transform those American dreams a reality. For Hartmann and other progressives, Donald Trump represents a rejection of all those ideals. Trump is the nightmare from which they cannot awaken. But while his readers also fear that nightmare, many have forgotten that dream.
By the mid-1970s most SDS members went on to celebrate the Me Decade. Those of us who grew up in the post-Civil Rights era never had even the memories of that optimism. We awoke not from the nightmare of tyranny but from the prosperity of the postwar boom. And like those disillusioned SDS members, many of us have decided that America is irredeemably corrupt and the American myth a soothing lie that masks unspeakable evil.
Gen Xers and Millennials largely followed that Me Decade script, burying themselves in diversions and drugs and strange flesh. They’ve mouthed the proper slogans and put the fashionable stickers on their bumpers. Like those crusaders for peace, love, and zipless fucks, they’ve fancied themselves revolutionaries looking for a better world. For Thom Hartmann, Trump is the great threat to what America could be. For his readers, Trump is the inevitable culmination of what America has always been.
In the 2013 game Bioshock Infinite, Ken Levine’s Columbia offers a microcosm of that American nightmare. Racism, sexism, Christian fascism, and all the things we’ve come to expect from the MAGA crusaders are integrally interwoven into Columbian society. Washington and Jefferson are beatified as saints and defenders of White Christian Columbia against foreign hordes and the unbelievers. 11 years after Bioshock Infinite’s release, a significant chunk of the American Left embraces an equally dark version of American history and has declared its Founding Fathers to be villains rather than heroes.
To be fair, many of Trump’s supporters are as mired in the Shadow as his detractors. The Orange Man Bad crowd sees White Supremacist armies waiting to light crosses and kill the coloreds and queers. The Orange Man Good squad sees blood-drinking Satanic pedophiles running the world from the shadows. Each side can clearly see where the other is deluded, yet neither can see the beam in its own eye. And with each passing day more on both sides conclude that the only solution is to burn the whole thing down and start anew.
The Shadows they fear are illuminated by harsh realities. Both Trump supporters and detractors feel they have been cheated and lied to. Both sides feel a big change for the worse is immanent. And both have created monsters that simultaneously terrify them and give them comfort. A demon you can see, even in a blurred outline, is less frightening than a demon lurking in the darkness.
We live in the twilight era of the Global American Empire. If historical precedents repeat themselves, we’re going to see a decline in our living standards and a strongman arising to bring order to a people tired of chaos. In a more prosperous time, the British Empire’s fall led to Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In less prosperous times, it has led to Diocletian and Hitler. I expect the GAE collapse to be considerably messier than the British Empire’s unwinding.
We feel this in our bones. And we are afraid.
So how do we deal with the Shadow?
Jung said that the Shadow is “the thing a person has no wish to be.” It is also the thing we fear that we are. It makes us call for tyranny to protect against tyranny. It makes us certain a man given power will become a monster because we know that power would make us monstrous. It eats us from the inside by driving us to fight against it.
Those who complain about “privilege” know very well that they have benefited from the oppression and unfairness they complain about. Rather than taking concrete steps to make a more just society, they engage in performative behaviors that show the world they have absolved themselves of their privilege. And because yard signs and Facebook frames do nothing to actually solve the issues at hand, they need to find the villains responsible for this mess.
This leads to the infamous purity spiral, where groups engage in self-cannibalization to prove their moral rectitude. In the end what could have been a mass movement winds up a tiny cadre of True Believers eyeing each other with suspicion. When your opponents are not just misguided but ontologically evil, compromise becomes collusion. And those who won’t settle for half a loaf often end up with no bread at all.
Projecting the Shadow onto your enemies can be effective in the short term. Lots of pundits have made and continue to make a living writing about Trump’s awful awfulness and the awful people who follow him. Smart demagogues can use the Shadow to rile up mobs and break things. But the Shadow comes with a shelf life and sooner or later (generally sooner) it will look for new enemies.
If we see our opponents as they are, we might understand how to reach them. We would certainly have a clearer idea of how to defeat them. If we understand the fears that drive them, we might be able to defuse those fears and with them their threat. But if we limit ourselves to boxing with our Shadows, we face an opponent that will never tire and from whom we can never escape. Making peace is difficult. Winning a war against the inner demons you’ve projected onto somebody else is impossible.
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