“Vote Republican…..Save Democracy”????


As my readers know, I am not one to shy away from expressing my opinion. Though I do so with pleasure in my blogs, I tend to avoid public confrontations. Given the fact that any random person these days, and especially one whose opinions disagree with mine, is likely to be armed and dangerous, it seems prudent to keep one’s negative comments to oneself. There are times, however, when my discipline breaks down and it’s impossible to resist the urge to say something.

Such was the case when, walking into the polling place to cast my vote, I spotted a sign displayed prominently at the bright red Republican pop up tent. It read:

“Vote Republican…. Save Democracy.”

Maybe it was because in my state, with its sordid history of civil rights atrocities and discriminatory voting laws, the Republican governor is, of course, now working to reverse our hard won progress. Or maybe it was because the color of the tent matched the red I saw when reading that double-speak slogan straight out of “1984.” Passing by, I said to the two women behind the table, “You know, don’t you, that the slogan on that poster is an oxymoron?” To my credit I did not add any comments alluding to my view that to actually believe such an affront to truth would require someone to be a moron.

The ladies looked at me with blank stares. Obviously they had no idea what I was talking about. In their minds, their party truly is the guardian of democracy while the Democrats are all about running phony elections.

At the heart of this propaganda, and at the heart of their acceptance of it as truth (if we put aside the other possibility, that they know full well they are lying and don’t give a damn) are two factors:

First, their definition of democracy is different from mine:

To my mind, democracy means giving every person, regardless of race, creed, color, income level, gender, etc. an equal say in government. In their minds, the term “democracy” is conflated with “freedom” and personal “God given rights” that are in turn conflated with “license.” In their minds democracy is about control that is reserved for their racial and religious demographic. Being more equal and more free than anyone else, they claim the right to do whatever the hell they like and to forever keep things the way they like them.

Second, they are employing the psychological defense mechanism that has been elevated to a political art by the MAGA movement, Projection;

This term is bandied about quite a bit these days, but I wonder how many people fully appreciate its meaning. Having studied it extensively and having been its target more times than I can count during the course of my psychiatric career I here offer what I hope is a coherent explanation of it.

According to Melanie Klein’s “object relations” school of psychoanalytic theory, projection is a “primitive” defense mechanism–meaning it is seen commonly in “pre-oedipal” (the period of emotional development before the age of 4 or 5) personality types, namely narcissistic and borderline personality. One prominent feature of the mental processes at that age is that language is not fully developed. Experiences and emotions cannot be put into words. They are largely stuck in the unconscious mind, inaccessible to logical analysis and conscious examination. The pathological ramifications of this are many, including an excessive reliance on immature defense mechanisms to protect fragile egos.

There are many “defense mechanisms,” unconscious mental maneuvers that preserve and protect our sense of self and wellbeing. Some are more positively effective. Others, primitive defense mechanisms, often lead to negative personality traits and behaviors.

One such primitive mechanism is projection in which the person unconsciously “splits off” what is inside of themself and sees it as coming from the other person. Negative thoughts, feelings, impulses and desires that would be incompatible with their narcissistic, self-aggrandized sense of perfection are automatically and without conscious awareness, repressed, that is, pushed into the unconscious mind without ever being registered consciously.

This enables people to genuinely believe it’s the other person, not themselves, who is selfish, hostile, nasty or rude. This shields a fragile and immature ego from conscious awareness of guilt and shame connected to thoughts that are at odds with their distorted self-image.

The anger and confrontational nature seen in many of these people is an offensive defensive maneuver (as in offense is the best defense) that conceals the shame they acquired from early life experiences. Hard as it may be to believe, deep inside, narcissistic people actually have very low self-esteem. Their shame is so deep, they cannot tolerate the pain that being aware of it would evoke. They hide, and hide from, their negative traits through a variety of primitive unconscious defense mechanisms, among them projection. If you remember the pop psychology book, “I’m OK, You’re OK” their version would be titled, “I’m OK, You’re the jerk.”

Here we can see the roots of White grievance, a reaction to deep guilt and shame for having so abused Blacks, indigenous Americans, immigrants, minority religious groups, et al. “We are not the bad guys,” they say, “it’s those people, those dirty, lazy, criminal, inferior, immoral others who are.”

And they really, truly believe that.

Their hysterical reaction to school courses that simply teach the obvious, that minorities have been systematically mistreated by White Christian colonists and their descendants via the unfair economic and political systems they created, is facilitated by a slick unconscious sleight of hand that allows them to first deny it, then shift the blame to their victims.

In other words, just like the slogan on that sign, such people view themselves, and reality, as the opposite of what they actually are. This preserves their fragile sense of self-esteem and, in their minds, justifies their despicable behavior.

Paradoxically, projection operates as a pathological manifestation of a trait conservatives typically lack, empathy. A positive empathic reaction occurs when we emotionally perceive how another person is feeling about something. We can appreciate their plight by mentally putting ourselves in their place. We literally feel their feelings within ourselves.

Projection is empathy in reverse. This illustrates why Republicans and Democrats are each others’ diametric opposites. A person’s level of empathy has been shown by research to be an inborn trait. Those with high levels of healthy empathy tend to be socially aware and politically liberal. The relative lack thereof in Republicans is facilitated by their penchant for projection.

Common examples of projection would be when the guy who is unfaithful or has fantasies about infidelity develops the conviction that his wife is having an affair. Or when a bully denies and projects their own feelings of weakness and vulnerability by rendering their target the vulnerable and weak one. This “I’m rubber, you’re glue” reaction and its first cousin, “Whataboutism,” are among the mainstays of MAGA politics.

Remember, this is all happening in the unconscious mind. The projector truly believes their malignant perceptions are valid.

When I use the term “unconscious,” I do so with the assumption that the reader is adequately familiar with the concept to acknowledge its existence. As someone who constantly witnessed the manifestations of this massive aspect of mental function in my day to day work, I find it amazing that any educated person would question its existence. Many do, however. Perhaps such is the need for people to believe themselves in full control of their thoughts, emotions and behavior, that those who should know better simply cannot accept it for the reality it is.

Failure to acknowledge the dominant role of the unconscious, how our behavior is driven less by reason than by animal instinct and distorted, self-contradictory views of reality is at the root of most of what ails the human family, but that’s a topic for another blog.

Analytical psychotherapy derives its challenge, complexity and effectiveness from the fact that its goal is to make some of the unconscious conscious. The skill of the therapist is tested over and over in their attempt to find ways of helping patients look honestly at hidden thoughts, wishes and feelings that would elicit guilt and shame should the person dare to gaze upon their own internal portraits of Dorian Gray. Breaking through projection is indeed a daunting task.

As projection, like most psychological defense mechanisms, is employed to fend off anxiety it, unsurprisingly, becomes more common during times of crisis. Times such as ours. Republicans are facing both personal and political crises as they see dearly held attitudes and assumptions challenged and as they perceive their privileged role in society at risk. They are aware that they are politically, and will soon be demographically, in the minority. They desperately cling to as much power as they can by gaming our imperfect political system and by encouraging their base to utilize projection to justify the destruction of the very democratic system they consciously believe themselves to cherish and defend.

Maybe I should not have taunted those women. Unbelievable as it may seem, and thanks to projection, they may well have regarded the poster as truth.

Tenuous though their reality testing may be, however, it’s safe to say that if they perceived me as angry, it was one thing they were definitely not projecting.

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