Gallows and Political Death Drives

American conservatism often seems little more than displaced psycho-sexual insecurities, with a big Other—Trump—who authorizes transgressive cruelty and misery. Their Oedipal fantasies tell us something about the unreasonable way political desire works.

In his Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant cooked up a sexually confused example while commenting on the will:

“Suppose someone asserts of his lustful inclination that, when the desired object and the opportunity are present, it is quite irresistible to him; ask him whether, if a gallows were erected in front of the house where he finds this opportunity and he would be hanged on it immediately after gratifying his lust, he would not then control his inclination. One need not conjecture very long what he would reply.”[i]

You wouldn’t have sex with someone if you were to be hanged afterward, Kant claims. The conclusion is so blindingly obvious it doesn’t merit an argument.

Maybe, maybe not. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan riffed on the example in his seminar on ethics, suggesting that while nobody would jump at this offer to sacrifice his life for sex, there is a certain person who “will at least consider doing so.”[ii] In his article “Kant with Sade,” the risk is put less prudishly: “no occasion precipitates certain people more surely toward their goal than one that involves defiance of or even contempt for the gallows.”[iii] Put differently, risk and self-destruction can be a turn-on. That is a fine allegory for how incomprehensibly, foolishly, and miserably fouled up everything is in the year(s) of the pandemic.

Contemporary American conservatism seems little more than displaced psycho-sexual insecurities orbiting Trump, the big Other who authorizes transgressive cruelty and misery. Their Oedipal fantasies tell us something about the unreasonable way political desire works. It tells us something about the investment in the stupid father, the figure who prohibits satisfaction even before the kid realizes she’s getting messed up, the disappointing father who provides the model for a disappointing God—the father Dr. Lacan called the Great Fucker.[iv]


Desire does not work the way reasonable people think it does      

Liberalism is profoundly disoriented at this moment, somehow oscillating between declaring the president a cynically calculating tactician and a blundering fool, while blasting any criticism from the left as a Russian bot. David Roth put it best, suggesting Trump’s opponents “conceive of politics as chess, a matter of feints and sacrifices and moves made so as to open the way for other moves…But Trump is not playing chess. The man is playing Hungry Hungry Hippos.”[v]

 Still, the pressure to see coherence in all this is tempting, even if the logic be one of malevolence. When I was young and feeding on a diet of neoconservative messaging, I wondered what it would be like to live under a regime bent on killing its own people. Now I know. One hopes that the president allows a virus to spread unchecked due to hatred for us, when the truth might as well be that he simply hasn’t thought of us at all today. In fact, the drive to see the conservative as duped, and oneself as the clever non-duped, nearly always turns out to derail the analysis of what plainly lies before you.

 In psychoanalysis, desire is the truth of the subject. Narratives we tell ourselves are the ego’s attempt to makes sense of and/or censor the Real, nothing more. As a professor teaching philosophy and religious studies, not to mention as a human being, I can tell you that facts have very little to do with fantasy. People take up and abandon beliefs, doctrines, and conspiracy theories with ease. If you point out that an idea doesn’t work, people will often get angry at you for the inconvenience. Instead of judging the veracity or stupidity of ideas, you get a far more useful analysis if you think in terms of desire: what is this behavior, this repetition, this mistake telling us about what people want?

 I recently watched my department discuss whether the mask mandate might provide a good example of Kant’s categorical imperative, the axiom obliging one to act in each instance as if one’s actions would be willed as universal law. My sense, though, is that the mask controversy is good evidence for the death drive. For at least a quarter of Americans who may well be unreachable, the Good is whatever will force others to suffer.

 If you don’t believe me, a gruesome test is scheduled this winter. Even in the Before Times, every primary school teacher in America could tell you that kids who arrived at school without a fever tend to get sick just before lunch—about the span of time it takes for fever suppressors to wear off. Parents have done this since long before the pandemic. Better to send a kid with the flu to school and hope for the best. I can’t blame working parents for being trapped in a decadent garbage economy that forces such decisions.

 What is new in our moment is that now, in every in-person school district in America, parents will toss their kids fever suppressors in the morning while knowing it could be COVID-19. Maybe even hoping it will be the virus, figuring mass exposure will show that it’s no big deal. Perhaps they’ll laugh if teachers find out, right? Love to trigger the libs! And so on.

Another example of sadism as a prime American virtue is how for much of the summer we saw daily cases of civilians and cops alike running their trucks through protesters for the sin of pleading that black lives matter.

In short, you get a better analysis if you dispense with questions of stupidity and open your eyes to the desires they are screaming into the void day and night.


Sadism and infographics

One explanation is that conservatives suffer indignities and harm as the price of inflicting pain on others. In this drama, the white woman (the majority of whom voted for Trump in 2016) consents to heteropatriarchy or supports a candidate that brags of sexual assault because, at the end of the day, she gets to see violence visited upon people of color. Certainly, but I argue that the truth of the relationship is more often the opposite. In fact, people make aggressively self-destructive decisions so frequently it is often surprising when harmful habits are broken. My wager is that the masochism is primary, and the sadism excuses or covers for it.

During the pandemic, the act of coughing in a masked worker’s face is treated as rude rather than as a death threat. Grown adults now frequently boast of triggering others; violence has become funny. On the one hand, for Lacan “It is not so much the other party’s suffering that is being sought in the sadistic intention as his anxiety.”[vi]  On the other hand, the masochist wants recognition as the object of desire. Only in Trumpism, we find a sadistic leader who wants to be desired (loved really, since he has never been loved), and we also find masochistic followers who want to be big, strong sadists. The effect is that the rest of us suffer in their misery by proxy.

See, in psychoanalysis, the drive is most satisfied not by directly acquiring its goal but by narrowing missing or encircling the object of desire.[vii] The sum total of enjoyment is greater when things are prolonged. Many times, self-sabotage will do the trick.

So, the elderly cancer patient will cheer efforts to strip his Medicare, because dammit, too many poors are leeching off Medicaid. Why do this? If sadism is primary, then it must be because it’s worth bravely risking death to kill others!

Maybe, but I find the reverse more intuitive and horrifying. What of this elderly patient who has perhaps done nothing with his life, whose kids no longer call because of his racist social media screeds, whose partner cannot stand him because of the cruel misogyny on the uptick in his latter years? All he has left is voting away his own healthcare, which he justifies on principled grounds by telling himself certain people don’t deserve it either. Do you imagine that you could break through to him with facts or science, an infographic giving four Pinocchios to the latest from the White House?

Trumpism, or whatever we want to call this iteration of conservatism, is not psychologically abnormal, and it’s unfortunate that fascism is apathologized as an anomaly. Those of us taking a Marxist analysis of this problem must focus on material causes. Conservatism exacerbates aggressive impulses in the psyche which long predate capitalism, yes, but collectively we get no cogent solution outside of class analysis. We need Marx and Freud to understand the underlying logic of something as vacuous yet tempting as Trumpism, which will remain in some iteration long after this strange year.

If we seek to disengage fascist drives, we must mobilize to shift the scarcity thinking (real or so often imagined) used to dial up the xenophobia. Worker solidarity goes a long way here, but much of the population may yet desire fascism. Disengage scarcity perceptions wherever possible. A healthy future democracy might need to force the prospective fascist—against their will if necessary—to have healthcare, housing security, living wages, and dignified work.


Beyond the reality principle

 A curious thing about the various traditions of ethics: normally they take for granted that pleasure or happiness is the goal toward which the moral law strives. Act in such-and-such a way, the moralists say, and you will be happier in the long run. In Freudian language, taper the excesses of the pleasure principle with the pragmatism of the reality principle; you can’t just eat and sleep and have sex—you have to go to work, so that you can do those other things later.

In a seminar I mentioned at the start, where Lacan suggest the threat of the gallows might be a turn-on, the psychoanalyst hinted at the real problem of ethics. There is no higher law, no true duty. If I care about my fellow citizen being happy, it might be due to an expectation that the consequent world to be happier for me as well. In psychoanalytic terms, the Law is nothing other than the reality principle—desires I repress—which is ultimately just augmenting the pleasure principle (assuming the beyond of the pleasure principle, the beyond called the death drive, doesn’t derail things first).

That is to say, I try to be good because I am a self-centered desiring machine. Law is repressed desire. Law invites sin. But what if that reality principle could be subtracted? Law is repressed desire, so imagine the sense of freedom entailed in unmooring oneself from reality in QAnon groups, conjuring fables of ANTIFA violence, or in peeling away the layers of self-censorship until all that’s left is unadulterated, hedonistic id. What would ethics then be?

Suppose that in a few months a COVID-19 vaccine were discovered and freely distributed. Suppose Trump angrily concedes the vaccine works (only according to “experts”) but still recommends people take hydroxychloroquine. How many would gobble down tablets of hydroxychloroquine out of spite? My bet is: more than several.

That is not hard to imagine. What’s more interesting is to consider what role belief would have. Again, our average liberal might figure someone dosing hydroxychloroquine does so because they believe their leader. Maybe, maybe not. For someone deep down the rabbit holes of conspiracy theories, the nagging suspicion that the vaccine is actually safe and effective might be all the more reason to plunge further into alternate MAGA reality, taking their family with them if need be.

If saying so sounds a bit much, ask yourself how many rally attendees would have passed up a chance to shake the hand of the president while he was infected with COVID-19. When he played down the virus at an October rally by suggesting he wanted to kiss his fans, how many would have welcomed his embrace? Once more, my bet is: more than several.

I ask again, do you believe you will be able to fact-check your relatives into the light?

What we are witnessing on the political stage is, on the one hand, the spectacular enjoyment of immense cruelty (police brutalizing protesters, laughing off case fatalities in blue states) and, on the other hand, a banal wish to return to the intolerable neoliberalism of the Before Times. This is happening within a nation edging ever closer to balkanization or civil war even before we factor in near-term rapid ecological collapse. Our leaders are all sadists, as the rich always are, telling us unemployment checks or access to healthcare are inappropriate class politics pipe dreams. People go along with it for as long as they can, which will not be much longer.

What do we see in a man promising to unleash the pleasure principle and do away with the reality principle by bullshitting the world away? The answer comes down to whether you are ready to believe it’s within the realm of possibility that much of the population sees the Good as something worse than nihilism, something more like unrelenting, unreachable, perfectly pointless sadism. That is the ethics of Trump, the beyond of the reality principle.

In conclusion, let me say Lacan often veers into odd turns of phrase. Discussing transference onto another person, the investment that transforms differently than expected (in this analogy, the mother’s nourishing milk turns into feces), Lacan sounds like a Dril tweet or Trump describing himself as “your favorite President”:

“I love you, but, because inexplicably I love in you something more than you—the object petit a—I mutilate you…I give myself to you, the patient says again, but this gift of my person…Oh, mystery! Is changed inexplicably into a gift of shit.”[viii]

Americans wish to be miserable. Trump is the most miserable of all. As his overtaxed brain sputters out into the night, he tickles so many sadistic and masochistic fantasies. A man whose strength is whining and whose weakness is having never been loved is burning down a trash heap of a nation, and what an exhilarating time it is. His rambling nonsense shores up the insecurities of the faithful who hear whatever they project. He gives himself to us without our vote and hopes do so again, but in the meantime, he says, we really need to liberate states and get the kids back into school. Maybe the children fall ill, but at least they’ll take some teachers with them, right? I give myself to you, a tremendous gift, he smiles with thumbs up.

[i] Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, Section 6 (remark on Problem II).

[ii] Lacan, Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 108.

[iii] Lacan, “Kant with Sade,” in Écrits, 660.

[iv] “The real father, Freud tells us, is a castrating father. In what way? Through his presence as real father who effectively occupies that person with whom the child is in a state of rivalry, namely, the mother. Whether or not that is the case in experience, in theory there is no doubt about it: the real father is elevated to the rank of Great Fucker — though not, believe me, in the face of the Eternal, which isn’t even around to count the number of times. Yet doesn’t this real and mythical father fade at the moment of the decline of the Oedipus complex into the one whom the child may easily have already discovered at the relatively advanced age of five years old, namely, the imaginary father, the father who has fucked the kid up.” Lacan, Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 307-8.

[v] Roth, “The Man Who Was Upset,” https://newrepublic.com/article/154100/making-sense-donald-trump-petulant-presidency.

[vi] Lacan, Anxiety, 104.

[vii] Lacan, Four Fundamentals of Psychoanalysis, 168, 194.

[viii] Lacan, Four Fundamentals of Psychoanalysis, 268.


Tad DeLay, PhD is the author of three books, most recently Against: What Does the White Evangelical Want? (Cascade Books, 2019). He teaches philosophy and religious studies in Colorado and Michigan.


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