Our Leadership Dilemma

by  Harry Paul, Ph.D. & George Hagman, L.C.S.W.

To make sense of the current presidential campaign we must understand the fundamentally different psychological relationship between each candidate and their supporters. We believe that the key issue is the nature of the candidate's leadership.

The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut identified two common types of leaders. The first is the Idealizable Leader whom people want to admire and elevate. This leader embodies positive values; and the voter, through a connection with the leader feels a sense of security and comfort. Merger with the ideals and principles of the admired leader are at the heart of the relationship. Such mature idealization of another adult is not the needful gaze of children who look to a parent for safety and security or the tantrum of a four year old who turns to a parent to make it stop raining. Through a healthy good enough childhood, the mature person comes to value another (in this case the presidential candidate) for his or her principles and ideals. It is the leader's character and personhood that is admired and trusted.

The second type is the Grandiose Leader. This leader is viewed as powerful, perhaps even aggressive. Rather than simply admiring the grandiose leader the voter wants to become like him or her. In other words he or she identifies with him or her and in this way shares in the power and grandeur. This type of leader attracts those voters who feel disenfranchised, disrespected and unsuccessful. The shame and humiliation of their disaffection and sense of being forgotten propel the grandiose leader's followers. They seek to cure their shame and humiliation by melding into the omnipotence and grandiosity of the leader. He or she offers them a fantasy of success and even revenge for grievances. In his or her presence, especially when in the midst of an emotionally charged rally, the voter feels at one with both the leader and the group. Together they feel powerful, justified and restored by dreams of restitution. The unity of the "movement" is part of its appeal; foreignness and difference are hated and repudiated.

In the current presidential campaign the American public has a choice between these two types of candidates, both of whom, despite their claim to represent ideals on the one hand or greatness on the other, have high negativity ratings and both are viewed as untrustworthy. This reflects what we believe is ambivalence towards both candidates, which can be explained by issues related to their fundamentally different types of leadership styles. In fact we contend that the favorability of each candidate arises for quite different reason. For Hillary Clinton, who offers herself as the idealizable leader, it is the failure to maintain in the mind of the public her idealizability, due to specific characteristics which are perceived as "untrustworthy"; and for Donald Trump, clearly the grandiose leader, it is the way his grandiosity, while binding him and his followers in a fantasy of shared greatness and power, stirs anxiety and even horror among voters who long for a leader whose values and principles they can trust in and admire.

Hillary Clinton's claim to the presidency is based on her moral standards, quality ideas, experience, fairness, commitment to public service and family values - these are the hallmarks of the idealized leader. However the problem for many voters is their inability to experience or sustain a level of idealization of her. To some extent this is due to non-specific factors such as her gender, style of public speaking, lack of charisma, etc. In addition there are the doubts about her judgment related to the email controversy, and her seeming obfuscation and attempted cover up. The public sees her as someone who has not taken full responsibility for her actions. She also seems unaware of even the perceived improprieties involving the State Department and the Clinton Foundation, and its' impact on the electorate. Despite these factors many people try to maintain some degree of idealization by emphasizing her work experience, sense of fairness and emotional steadiness. But Hillary's "issues" have seriously eroded her support. Even her promoters have been angered as she repeatedly fails to live up to their idealization of her.

Donald Trump's claim to the presidency is based on a belief that the nation needs a strong man who can build the "wall", right the wrongs done to the middle class, protect us from criminal immigrants, and crush and defeat the threats posed by terrorist organizations. But most important, contrary to Clinton's more cerebral approach, Trump stirs up passion, and he voices his followers' rage and vindictiveness. He persistently stokes their fantasies of revenge and violent retribution. These are the hallmarks of the grandiose leader. He makes people believe in his power, and through association, their power. During the campaign Trump has lied, exhibited xenophobic behavior, played to the audience's prejudices and paranoia, and promoted violence as an answer to social and interpersonal problems, leaving one to wonder what political philosophy and moral system he holds - if any. His most recent flip flop on immigration speaks to a lack values and principles that guide his policy choices. However, his grandiosity and the fantasies of power and revenge that characterize the bond between the grandiose leader and his followers makes all of this acceptable, even essential to his influence. Socially sanctioned values and principles (political correctness) would contradict his essential message of "getting yours" and "throwing them out" or "locking her up". If Trump somehow became more presidential he would violate the very essence of his contract with his followers. Grandiosity requires bombast and threats, which fuel the fantasies that bind the leader to his followers.

Pragmatic Democrats and Republicans who are committed to the platform of their respective parties may minimize the leadership style of either candidate as a factor in their choice for president. For these voters, their support for the interests of their party will determine their choice. As regards the vulnerabilities of each candidate, Secretary Clinton could become more vulnerable to deidealization if additional material is revealed that leaves her open to the accusation of impropriety. Also, if more problems are revealed and there is a perceived cover-up, this could further deteriorate her support. The manner in which she handles the controversy will either worsen the deidealization or it will strengthen her idealizability. On the other hand Donald Trump's grandiose leadership style, might be experienced as so reprehensible to these same voters, that their disappointment with Hillary Clinton is more tolerable than aligning themselves with a candidate they view as devoid of values. We are suggesting that for some voters Hillary's flaws may be more acceptable than Trump's mean spirited grandiosity. Furthermore, if Donald Trump has more empathic gaffs (the Khan family, as an example), he could continue to lose some of his current supporters who, holding to some modicum of values and ideals, may no longer be able to turn a blind eye to his behavior. Hence, Trump is without much flexibility because if he now tries to become idealizable by seeming to become more of a value laden candidate, he could potentially lose the support of those disaffected, angry voters who long to meld with and share his political incorrectness, grandiosity and aggressive world view. However, if he doesn't embrace some moral framework, he will lose the majority of Americans who still cling to notions of higher values and principles, longing for a candidate with ideals and principles whom they can admire and support.

If Clinton wins, the millions of Trump voters who experienced him as the embodiment of their rage and fantasies of vindication will feel cheated and betrayed- their resentment will persist and most likely prove disruptive to the body politic. If Trump wins the legions of Clinton voters will feel their values rejected and their disillusionment and fear will be widespread. Whatever the outcome, the powerful emotional aftermath will have to be acknowledged and addressed.

Harry Paul is a licensed clinical psychologist. He is a co-founder, member of the Board of Directors, supervisor and faculty member of TRISP, The Training and Research Institute in Intersubjective Self Psychology in New York City. He co-authored with Richard Ulman: The Self Psychology of Addiction and Its Treatment:Narcissus in Wonderland (2006) and written numerous other papers on intersubjectivity and self psychology. He practices in New York City and in Chappaqua, New York.

George Hagman, LCSW is a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City and Stamford, Connecticut. He is a graduate of the National Psychoanalytic Association for Psychoanalysis and is currently on the faculty of the Training and Research Institute for Self Psychology, and the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. He is the author of numerous published papers and several books including "Aesthetic Experience: Beauty, Creativity and the Search for the Ideal" (Rodopi 2006), "The Artist's Mind: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Art. Modern Artists and Modern Art" (Routledge 2010) and "Creative Analysis: Art, Creativity and Clinical Process" (Routledge 2015). His recent volume New Models of Bereavement Theory and Treatment: New Mourning (Routledge) was published earlier this year and a forthcoming book titled "Art, Creativity, and Psychoanalysis: Perspectives from Analyst-Artists" will be published in December.

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