Magical Thinking

Donald Trump, Trickster God

Corey Pein   March 04, 2016

The witch-doctors of the electoral season have utterly failed in their essential task; that is, to explain the alarming spectacle that has befallen the land like a sudden eclipse. Political reporters, consultants and pundits are flailing in astonishment as “the unthinkable becomes inevitable.” You know what I’m talking about. 

The old conventional wisdom held that Donald Trump’s campaign was a joke soon to be forgotten, that the bratty-rich-kid-turned-reality-show-star was unelectable—even in a Republican Party primary where a large share of the electorate believes the sitting president is a Manchurian candidate engineered by the all-powerful Islamic Illuminati.

The revised conventional wisdom says party leaders and other institutional elites failed to consider Trump with the seriousness he deserved, thus enabling his rise in a crowded field of flawed candidates. Which is yet another bogus argument. Not only does it deny agency to voters, it presumes that with a little time in the rhetorical gym, a chinless wonder like Trump’s bygone punching bag, Jeb!, might have gained preternatural charisma and convinced the public that he was a superior substitute to the patented original Trump brand.

There is a dissenting crowd in the corner of the press room who perceive that Trump has managed to exploit America’s roiling class divisions to his advantage. As explanations go this is accurate, but inadequate.

Something more profound is occurring. An election is, at its core, a form of mass ritual. What dreadful forces are being summoned this time? Tremors ripple through the noosphere. Can you feel them? It’s eerie, as though the dogs have all stopped barking at once, the birds have flown away together to parts unknown, and the sky has turned green.

The strangeness of the moment exceeds the descriptive capacity of what passes for civil discourse. Even the people who are right on the particulars are wrong on the whole. What’s worse, any attempt to explain Trump’s popular ascent is doomed because these events cannot be explained in the empirical fashion to which modern people are accustomed. The election is nothing less than a psychogenic storm. As such it can only be discussed in metaphysical terms that sober, prudent, smartphone-having people are unwilling to countenance.

The press in particular is doomed by its methodology, which assumes that human events are dictated by discrete, quantifiable forces. Watch how desperately they cling to the mistaken belief that some combination of polling data and campaign finance-flow explains the dramatic subversion of expectations that is the looming Trump nomination. This is all in vain!

The key to understanding this election cycle—and its energetic locus, Trump—is to accept that we are not dealing with an ordinary man, bound by the rules of decorum and the presupposition of coherence. I have another idea. I propose that Donald Trump is the personification of a Norse god named Loki.

Think about it. Everyone keeps asking, how does he do it? How does he get away with the outbursts of expletive and blasphemy, with cruel mockery of disabled people and torture survivors, with the rambling incestuous fantasies? What I am saying is that Trump doesn’t need to play by the rules because he is the fabled shape-shifting trickster wearing the orange skin of a man and the hair of a wily red fox. That is how he gets away with it. 

Bear with me. I know this may seem implausible. It is not very often that a thousand-year-old deity manifests in a foreign country in order to wreak havoc on an electoral contest, slaying taboos and causing spasms of cathartic rapture among his worshippers while sowing trepidation throughout the remainder of human civilization. Yet there is historical precedent for this line of thought.

In the early 1940s, no less an authoritative figure than Allen Dulles, America’s chief wartime intelligence operative in Switzerland, recruited the famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung as “Agent 488.” Dulles, who a decade later became the first civilian director of the Central Intelligence Agency and was one of the architects of twentieth-century American hegemony, wanted Jung’s insights on the psyche of Adolf Hitler and the top Nazi cadre, as well as the German public that was believed to have been somehow mesmerized. According to biographers, Dulles passed Jung’s reports on to other top-level military commanders, including Dwight Eisenhower. “Nobody will probably ever know how much Prof. Jung contributed to the Allied cause during the war,” Dulles later wrote.

Indeed, we don’t know how Jung’s reports were interpreted and employed by the top American brass. We do, however, know how Jung explained Hitler’s catastrophic rise to power. For answers, Jung summoned another powerful figure from Norse mythology—not the complex and transmogrifying Loki, but the thundering patriarch-in-the-sky, Odin. (Think Zeus, or not-quite-retired-yet Anthony Hopkins with a bushy white beard and bulky golden armor.)

In a 1936 essay titled “Wotan”—another rendering of Odin—Jung described the Nazi leader as a manifestation of that “ancient god of storm and frenzy,” having awakened “like an extinct volcano, to new activity, in a civilized country that had long been supposed to have outgrown the Middle Ages.”

Although Jung definitely had an occult-oriented woo-woo side, he made clear in the essay that he did not believe Hitler was the literal incarnation of an immortal entity from the realm of Asgard. Rather, he wrote, the gods of yore were “personifications of psychic forces” articulated in the language of myth. To sneer at the utility of such allegory is about as insightful as pointing out that J. Robert Oppenheimer did not, in fact, transform into Krishna, destroyer of worlds, at the atomic bomb tests in New Mexico in 1945.

“We are always convinced that the modern world is a reasonable world,” Jung wrote. “But if we may forget for a moment that we are living in the year of Our Lord 1936, and, laying aside our well-meaning, all-too-human reasonableness, may burden God or the gods with the responsibility for contemporary events instead of man, we would find . . . the unfathomable depths of Wotan’s character explain more of National Socialism than all [proposed] reasonable factors put together.

Crucially, Jung argued that modern people could not accept the reality of any manifestation of the unconscious; and that is what caused all sorts of problems. This is as true today as it was eighty years ago—perhaps more so, in this tech-obsessed time of data journalism, STEM supremacy, and quantitative hegemony. The more adamantly people deny the influence of unseen forces—that is to say, unconscious impulses—over their own behavior, the more power those forces exhibit.

By now you might have guessed where I’m going with this. And you might be thinking that it’s unfair to attribute disagreeable voter behavior to mass psychosis. To which I say, keep watching the news. Is it really so far-fetched to suggest that America has literally gone mad? And if it indeed may be the case that the nation, or a large part of it, has lost its mind, then how do we even begin to talk about it? This is where armchair psychomythology becomes useful.

Wotan represented “an irrational psychic factor which acts on the high pressure of civilization like a cyclone and blows it away,” according to Jung. This suggests Wotan did not awaken at random but was summoned by circumstance. Granted, the pressures facing Weimar Germany greatly exceed the considerable stresses of America circa 2016. Americans may be smarting from a long and costly war but they are not bound to some onerous terms of armistice. The country’s territorial integrity is not threatened by breakaway socialist provinces—not yet, anyway. The bread lines are comparatively short.

And yet, things are pretty bad for a lot of people. The only contemporary observers who fail to grasp how dire economic circumstances might inspire irrational and destructive impulses in wide swaths of the public are the fortunate few who’ve managed to avoid job loss, eviction, a health crisis, or any other potentially life-destroying random event over the duration of what has amounted to an eight-year depression. Such lucky bastards abound within the ranks of the clueless political press corps and the establishmentarian loyalists in both major parties. Once upon a time they were called the bourgeoisie but it might be simpler to call them “out of touch.” Loki pities them not.

Jung argued that Wotan was the “Germanic datum of first importance, the truest expression and unsurpassed personification of a fundamental quality that is particularly characteristic of the Germans.”

This is, to put it mildly, a debatable assertion. It also forces the question: isn’t this kind of psychobabble the definition of pseudoscience? Well, yeah. Jung’s particular blend of psychiatry and mythology is more like messing around with Tarot cards than it is like a double-blind, peer-reviewed study.

The idea of a national characteristic, for instance, now strikes us as ridiculous and offensive. If we accept that something so visible as race is a social construct, then the arbitrary matter of nationality must be even more meaningless. National character traits such as those proposed by Jung are immeasurable and unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific, strictly speaking.

Jung and his rival, Sigmund Freud, are now read as so antiquated that many have written them off as worthless. Certainly their sexist assumptions belong in the reject pile of intellectual history, along with some other remnants of quasi-mystical psychiatric guesswork.

But we should not dismiss their insights regarding the power of the unconscious mind. This is the vital lesson. It is a lesson that may have been lost on several generations of journalists, economists and public policymakers, but the mysterious alchemy of the unconscious mind remains fundamental to the one profession that is indispensable to the American political process: advertising. For an illustration, watch this video in which George W. Bush’s former propaganda-shaman explains “how to win an election” through storytelling principles cribbed from the works of Joseph Campbell. The cynical construction of political persona and “narratives” that exploit unconscious anxieties may entail a great deal of obnoxious mumbo-jumbo, but that’s no proof it doesn’t work, never mind what statisticians like Nate Silver say.

To truly understand why people do what they do requires a spelunking trip into a dark realm where the virtue of reason and the clear ties between cause and effect do not apply. In this age of quantitative supremacy, when figurative language has been sacrificed at the altar of Freakonomics, the notion of a monster rising from the collective Id is unfathomable, which is not to say impossible. Indeed, the resolutely subjective and unabashedly speculative approach represented by Jung’s analysis of Hitler is essential to understanding today’s spooky and, yes, dangerous, American political scene.

Toward the end of his essay on Hitler, Jung speculated that, if Wotan has awoken, then “other veiled gods may be sleeping elsewhere.” Which brings us back to Donald Trump.

Trump may be racist and fascist but that doesn’t make him Hitler. Fascism was and is a veritable rainbow coalition of hatred. Some favor jackboots, others loafers.

We can quickly dispense with the similarities. Like Hitler, Trump has promised a restoration of past greatness through racial purity and has invoked as a scapegoat a supposedly sinister and back-stabbing minority that is actually vulnerable and victimized. But there are differences to be considered between the two men. Hitler’s paramilitary brownshirts were far better organized than the goons who stalk Trump rallies looking for protesters and dark-skinned people to beat up. For his part, Trump has done Hitler one better by promising terrifying purges and concentration camps from the very get-go, rather than waiting until after his election to reveal the full scope of his vicious designs.

But the most profound commonality is in the indisputable psychic power wielded over supporters and opponents alike. In that respect, too, there are important differences to be considered.

Just as Hitler was not known to crack wise from the podium, Trump’s stump speeches do not call to mind “storm and frenzy.” Trump is no Wotan, no berserker—he is a wisecracker, adept in the cool medium of television. He represents an entirely different Jungian archetype—namely, the pan-cultural mythological figure of “the trickster,” who arrives at moments of uncertainty to bring change, often of the bad kind. In the Norse pantheon, the shape-shifting trickster character is Odin’s blood brother, Loki, god of mischief and lies.

If further proof is required that Trump the Insult Comic Candidate is a manifestation of the Norse trickster deity, it must be noted that Loki is a master maligner who, in one epic roast, delivered cutting put-downs to the other major lords of Asgard in a sort of Viking version of the 2016 presidential debates.

To complete this reprisal of Jung’s analysis, we must revisit the fraught matter of national character. I submit that if Wotan summed up the Furor Teutonicus, then the quintessentially American deity must be Loki.

The trickster god has visited this young nation before, in the person of P.T. Barnum and in the character of Tom Sawyer. Even the foundational myth of George Washington and the cherry tree bears Loki’s mark. Little George did a bad thing, but his candid admission earned forgiveness from the father figure. Now, highfalutin’ historians might tell you that the cherry tree story is a fabrication and that Washington did tell lies, but the power of the myth stands, impervious to those facts. Similarly, journalists may lose their breath trying to keep up with Trump’s constant fictions, but his supporters don’t seem to care about something so trifling as veracity. Like Little George, they forgive him because he at least gives the impression of honesty and doesn’t hold back.

Moreover, what sort of god asks his subjects for forgiveness? Not Loki, that’s for sure.

When considered in the context of the dark psychic currents of the national experience, Trump’s appeal becomes self-evident. Is it really so shocking that a racist, misogynist, mafia-connected, serially fraudulent boor could find a successful place in American life—especially in this age of misinformation and artifice? Loki has awoken. He walks among us, gaining strength, and he doesn’t need your stupid vote, loser.

Corey Pein writes Magical Thinking for The Baffler. He is currently based in Bihar, India and has a book on Silicon Valley coming out next year. He expands on this column in a new podcast at