This Archetype Explains Donald Trump

Trump’s determination to break every rule and overturn every norm has historical precedence.

No doubt, Martin Longman is right to doubt Steve Bannon’s assertion, quoted in Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie’s campaign memoir Let Trump Be Trump, that the current president is a student of Carl Jung. The president “came up with the idea of the names Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco, Low-Energy Jeb, and, later, Crooked Hillary, from his knowledge of Jungian archetypes,” Bannon supposedly stated.

For the record, these nicknames hardly count as archetypes. And certainly, Trump is no Jung scholar. Yet, students of Jung know that we are all subject to archetypes’ influence, whether we know of them or not. Jung distinguished between conscious and unconscious archetypes, the latter which he called “the characteristic feature of a pathological reaction…This produces a sort of inflation and possession by the emergent contents, so that they pour out in a torrent which no therapy can stop.” This seems to describe Trump to a tee. So, driven by unconscious drives, Trump and his base are prime candidates for having an archetype completely take them over. A Jungian lens can, then, help explain Trump’s behavior and that of his fervent supporters.

How is it that archetypes—deep, unlearned, structural images—persist throughout time and in every culture? I once had the good fortune to pose this question to the late James Hillman, who developed a post-Jungian approach called archetypal psychology. Hillman’s answer was simple. “We all have the same body, and archetypes are a response to the body we share.” Archetypes, then, respond to fundamental human needs and have the power to shape our behavior and the response of audiences: think Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins.

The archetype that Trump is unconsciously channeling is not Hero, but Trickster. Who is Trickster? Trickster is the archetype of appetites. Also known as Hermes, Dionysus, Coyote, Br’er Rabbit, Krishna, Legba, or Eshu, Trickster has bodily needs and sexual hungers that are always getting him into and out of trouble. Think you aren’t controlled by your appetites? Trickster is the god who knocks you off that high horse. Full of contradictions, Trickster is the archetype whereby we explore how our appetites sometimes lead to a new cultural order and sometimes to chaos. Trump’s Trickster identification seems to swing between Hermes, culture-bearer, and Dionysus, whose appetites are of the chaos-generating sort.

What Trickster and Trump share is a commitment to spontaneity and improvisation that makes do with available materials and always pushes the envelope. His Roman equivalent is quicksilver Mercury, the fleeting image of speed and fluidity—hard to pin down. Hermes wears winged sandals because he’s in a hurry. Messenger of the gods, he is a communicator. The Lord of Liars, Hermes is patron of both merchants and thieves because all sales contain a bit of thievery, right? Liar, merchant, thief, improviser, media-savant. Sound familiar?

But Hermes is a culture-bearer who brings fire to humanity and invents rituals to honor the gods (creating Hellenic culture). The more extreme Trickster Dionysus doesn’t just push, he shreds the envelope. He promises a new order but mostly brings chaos. In Euripides’s Bacchae, Dionysus incites his followers to tear limb from limb the hyper-rational Theban king Pentheus—Obama? Hillary?—and the play ends without order restored.

Trump clearly enjoys his role as culture destroyer. As Rebecca Solnit writes, “Trump was supposed to be a great maker of things, but he was mostly a breaker.” Thus, as bringer-of-chaos, Trump seems also to be channeling Hermes’s more destructive cousin Dionysus. The god of intoxication and ecstasy, Dionysus embodies and offers his followers the transformation of individual identity. Worshiped directly in nature without the mediation of a priesthood, he is the god of the people (and hence of demagogues). Dionysus fulfills our longing for transcendence, or, in political terms, our longing for change. Sound familiar?

While shredding our political norms, Trump nevertheless is following patterns associated with the cult of Dionysus. The cult flourished for a thousand years until the triumph of Christianity, but Dionysian longings for transcendence have outlived his cult. When Trump’s followers assert their indifference to his (many) imperfections and, despite all evidence to the contrary, trust he will deliver on his promises, that’s Dionysian intoxication. We can hardly ignore the resemblance of Trump’s red-capped supporters to Dionysus’s followers, the priapic satyrs.

As an enemy to autocrats like Pentheus, Dionysus’s initial appeal is democratic and egalitarian. But as a matter of historical fact, Dionysus is associated with tyranny. Aspiring tyrants in antiquity aligned themselves with Dionysus to challenge the reigning hierarchies: in other words, to drain their swamps. All Rome welcomed Mark Antony as Dionysus who then transformed Rome’s oligarchy into an autocratic empire. Caligula and Nero, renowned for their sadism, extravagance, and sexual perversity, paraded as the “new Dionysus.” Perhaps tweeting is the new fiddling. Trump’s “identification” with the Dionysus archetype explains his allure and rise to power. Like Dionysus, Trump seems determined to break every rule and overturn every norm. In 2014, he imagined apocalypse as the solution to the country’s ills: “When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have a [chuckles], you know, you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”

Promised this apocalypse, Trump’s followers care little about his policies or his failures to fulfill his campaign promises. In their blind ecstasy, his base seems ready to dismember their fellow citizens. As Trump likes to threaten: You can count on it. 

That Trump is repeating ancient mythic and political patterns isn’t to normalize his behavior, but the opposite: it is to suggest the danger, fueled and directed by archetypal energies, he presents.

Archetypes are just old stories that won’t go away. Hail Trump: Dionysus Redux!

Randy Fertel

Randy Fertel, PhD, is co-founder of the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth-telling. He is the author of the award-winning A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation(Spring Journal Books, 2015).