Introduction: On “Wilding” Analysis and the Case of the Central Park Five
On April 19, 1989, in what the New York Times called “one of the most widely publicized crimes of the 1980s,” a female jogger in Central Park was brutally beaten and raped. Five young black men were convicted of the crime. It was alleged that one of the five young men, in what later was revealed to be coerced testimony, described how the crime took place in a fit of “wilding.” The specter of wilding id-like swarms of black men, driven by nihilistic frenzies of sex and violence seized the city by force and became one of a series of contested racialized crime narratives in the New York City of the 80’s, along with the 1984 case of Bernard Goetz, the “subway vigilante” who shot four black men who tried to mug him on the train and the 1989 killing of Michael Griffith, a black man killed for encroaching upon the white Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst. Against this backdrop, one man rode the waves of public fear and indignation, taking out a full-page advertisement in several New York newspapers, calling for the death penalty to be brought back, both in general and specifically in order to execute the Central Park Five.That man is the current President of the United States.
In 2002, Matias Reyes, who was already serving a life sentence in prison for another crime, confessed that he and he alone was responsible for the rape of the jogger. DNA evidence found on the jogger matched his and did not contain DNA from anyone else. Nevertheless, Donald Trump never withdrew his claims that the Central Park Five deserved death, including during the Presidential campaign, in which he reasserted his belief in their guilt, DNA evidence and confession of the real rapist notwithstanding.
In returning to this historical episode, my aim is not simply to make the case that Donald Trump has a longstanding tendency to promote himself through denigrating a racial other, a point that is already well established. Instead, my aim is to read Trump to the letter, closely, with the aim of teasing out his own logic, a logic that proves to be coherent in its own way. Although I am a psychoanalyst, I do this reading in a manner that refuses the comfort of familiar psychoanalytic approaches, to the point of abandoning any claim that my reading constitutes any analysis whatsoever. Instead, in a gesture that I hope is not seen as merely ironic, I perform a reading of the text of the 1989 newspaper advertisement that assigns the role of psychoanalyst to Trump himself. As we will see, the text is of special interest to psychoanalysis as it features perhaps the only known statement by Trump about psychoanalysis, one in which Trump writes “I am not looking to psychoanalyze.”
Like the Purloined Letter, the letter of the Trumpian law was never concealed, it was always available in clear sight, and so requires no act of interpretation. Under present conditions, I see the scramble to decode as a largely defensive attempt to reassert mastery in the face of a narcissistic wound inflicted on the one who interprets at a time when the viability of interpretation is under siege. When I say that Trump is the analyst, I define an analyst as one who considers his intentions against the possibility of psychoanalyzing at a time when the impossibility of psychoanalyzing is an especially urgent psychoanalytic question. I take up the question precisely by an act of refusing psychoanalyzing. Instead, I read Trump as the analyst who declares that he does not want to psychoanalyze and against whom the possibility of psychoanalyzing must be measured.
Should we diagnose Trump? It’s hard to believe that such a facile question was once discussed and debated as one of the urgent decisions for psychoanalysts facing the prospect of a Trump presidency. Behind the question lay an assumption: that the majesty of our understanding obliges us to devote our diagnostic gifts on behalf of the nation. Times have changed and now we must reckon with more serious questions. Leaving aside the dubious value of such diagnostic exercises, we should ask a more basic question. Even if they proved valid or more or less “correct” (Trump is a narcissist!), it seems evident that they were useless at best and counterproductive at worst. Too often analysts eagerly took their position as neoliberal talking heads offering expert knowledge that masked a bland repetition of middlebrow consensus with a sprinkling of professional jargon.
What after all is an analytic diagnosis? Is it really this sort of connect-the-dots version by which DSM criteria are mapped to examples of several Trump Twitter comments to derive a conclusion that was already fully known in advance? It seems that we still insist that we are the subjects-supposed-to-know even though events revealed us as the subjects who definitely did not know. Rather than ask whether we can or should psychoanalyze Trump, I would therefore like to ask whether Trump should psychoanalyze (us), and if so, what it would mean to consider Trump as a psychoanalyst.
My unlikely question finds a basis in the writing of Trump himself. As I stated above, the specific text I will examine appeared in the New York Times and several other newspapers in 1989 as a kind of op-ed piece in favor of the death penalty, but to be more accurate, Trump’s opinion in this case was neither sought nor paid for. In fact, following the media frenzy around the crime, Trump bought a full-page advertisement to advertise his own opinion that the young black men in the notorious Central Park jogger rape case should be put to death. What makes this text exemplary for our purposes is that Trump himself refers to psychoanalysis within the advertisement. By this I don’t mean that he felt moved to take out an $85,000 ad pondering the viability of death drive in clinical theory, rather I mean that he writes of “psychoanalyzing” according to the common slang by which we say, “stop psychoanalyzing me.” Of the accused in the Central Park rape case, he writes, “I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them.”
Psychoanalysis is a form of understanding but Trump is not interested in understanding, on the contrary, for him, it is our duty to punish. Understanding and psychoanalysis are obstacles to punishment. To understand is to fail to feel what we need to feel. We need to hate because our hatred is what allows us to punish. We do not hate out of love for hatred but out of love of justice and law. We hate to bring back the law.
Here is the full text:
BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY.
BRING BACK OUR POLICE!
What has happened to our City over the past ten years? What has happened to law and order, to the neighborhood cop we all trusted to safeguard our homes and families, the cop who had the power under the law to help us in times of danger, keep us safe from those who would prey on innocent lives to fulfill some distorted inner need. What has happened to the respect for authority, the fear of retribution by the courts, society and the police for those who break the law, who wantonly trespass on the rights of others? What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we knew it.
Many New York families — White, Black, Hispanic and Asian — have had to give up the pleasure of a leisurely stroll in the Park at dusk, the Saturday visit to the playground with their families, the bike ride at dawn, or just sitting on their stoops — given them up as hostages to a world ruled by the law of the streets, as roving bands of wild criminals roam our neighborhoods, dispensing their own vicious brand of twisted hatred on whomever they encounter. At what point did we cross the line from the fine and noble pursuit of genuine civil liberties to the reckless and dangerously permissive atmosphere which allows criminals of every age to beat and rape a helpless woman and then laugh at her family’s anguish? And why do they laugh? They laugh because they know that soon, very soon, they will be returned to the streets to rape and maim and kill once again — and yet face no great personal risk to themselves.
Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence. Yes, Mayor Koch, I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them. If the punishment is strong, the attacks on innocent people will stop. I recently watched a newscast trying to explain the “anger in these young men”. I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.
How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!
When I was young, I sat in a diner with my father and witnessed two young bullies cursing and threatening a very frightened waitress. Two cops rushed in, lifted up the thugs and threw them out the door, warning them never to cause trouble again. I miss the feeling of security New York’s finest once gave to citizens of this City.
Let our politicians give back our police department’s power to keep us safe. Unshackle them from the constant chant of “police brutality” which every petty criminal hurls immediately at an officer who has just risked his or her life to save another’s. We must cease our continuous pandering to the criminal population of this City. Give New York back to the citizens who have earned the right to be New Yorkers. Send a message loud and clear to those who would murder our citizens and terrorize New York — BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY AND BRING BACK OUR POLICE!
Donald J. Trump
The subtitle of this text is “Bring Back our Police.” The police are lost. Where have our police gone? What will bring them back to us? Not psychoanalyzing and not understanding. Those who understand or psychoanalyze are in danger of not feeling what is necessary to feel in order to punish. We punish because we must eliminate the unforgivable, that which is beyond understanding. We hate what should be hated in order to punish what should be hated and never understood. To such things we impose a penalty and the penalty is death.
In his response to a call for calm by Mayor Koch, a call that already seems to be part of a rapidly receding time when such symbolic markers of civility, however ingenuous, were still the necessary form of official government discourse, Trump responds, “I don’t think so. I want to hate these muggers and these murderers.”
What is the subjective position of wanting to hate? Does the one who wants to hate already hate or does he melancholically mark the insufficiency of his hatred as an inability to hate enough? Trump suggests a reversal of the religious Jew who summons the arrival of the messiah by doing good deeds, by loving enough. In his version, by contrast, he strives to hate enough to bring back the police. It is not clear if the police are absolutely absent or if they remain present in a diminished form, just as Trump’s hatred might be present but still insufficient to bring back the police. Finally, it is not clear if the police have vanished leaving the empty law or whether the law is itself seen as lost such that bringing back the police would be equivalent to bringing back the law.
None of this is clear and nothing can be clear until we do what is necessary to restore understanding. But haven’t we established that neither understanding nor psychoanalyzing is permitted? Yes, to the extent that this pair obstructs action, they are not permitted. But we do not hate arbitrarily. Trump suggests that we hate instrumentally, in order to summon the requisite hatred necessary to take action. There can be no uncertainty regarding the nature of this action, for only a premature understanding akin to psychoanalyzing would defer the visceral knowledge of what is necessary: death and the imposition of death as penalty. Nevertheless, it seems that after the necessary action of imposing death, understanding might become again become possible. Understanding will then be permitted and so it might return. The police will return, the law will return and understanding will return. But understanding will not return as our understanding but as the understanding of the murderers and the rapists because, as Trump writes, “I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger.”
We put aside psychoanalyzing and understanding in order to do what must be done, in order to hate and therefore impose the penalty of death so that they will understand. It is not clear if the police will come back because they, the murderers and rapists, understand or if they will understand because the imposition of death somehow brings back the police. It is not clear but the penalty will be imposed and the police will come back and the murderers will understand. Through our hatred, they will understand that they should not ever again murder but rather they should “think long and hard.”
When will we good citizens think long and hard? Will we ever think long and hard or will that only be the task of would-be lethal criminals at the point of considering one of their dastardly random crimes? Would-be murderers should think long and hard and actual murderers should understand the truth of our hatred. Yet ultimately what we want is not that those who would murder to understand, but that they should be dead. But if murderers understand, then they must not be dead. Perhaps we will bring back the police and the death penalty and yet our hatred will prove to be insufficient insofar as murderers and rapists continue to exist. The ongoing existence of murderers and rapists can only testify to the fact that they have not yet understood. If they have not understood, we have not hated enough; we have not imposed the death penalty enough. Surely we are not yet permitted to understand much less psychoanalyze until we have taken sufficient measures to assure their understanding and therefore the necessary death which follows their understanding. Their understanding would be the understanding that they, being murderers and rapists, should be dead. Understanding would die with the murderers and the rapists at the point at which their understanding that they should be dead meets our imposition of the death penalty. In any case, the time is not yet right for our understanding, much less our psychoanalyzing, although it is possible that the time for our understanding would be again permitted on the condition of the last death of the last understanding murderer or rapist.
It is possible, however, that this too is a misunderstanding. We might more precisely say that, according to Trump, understanding is nothing other than the imposition of the death penalty. In other words, we don’t first understand and then proceed to impose the death penalty. Imposing the death penalty is understanding itself, however, at the point of applying the death penalty we are not understanding, let alone psychoanalyzing, rather we are hating in a way that allows for the refusal of any understanding or psychoanalyzing that would cause us to delay the imposition of the death penalty. The refusal of this objectionable understanding, resulting in the successful imposition of the death penalty to the point of achieving the death of every last murderer and rapist would finally become understanding. Yet even then, it would not be clear whom, if anyone would have understood or whether understanding is even necessary in a world without murderers or rapists. Provisionally, I suggest that understanding, in people like us who are not murderers or rapists, would occur in exact simultaneity with the precise moment of death by the imposition of the death penalty of the very last murderer or rapist. Returning to Trump’s statement that “I want to hate” we might see this moment of understanding as the moment when Trump’s wanting to hate meets the fullness of his actual hatred. This moment of pure hatred is thus marked by the closing of a gap between his ideal hate and his actual hate, much as Freud located the intoxication of love as the closing of the gap between one’s ego and ego ideal. Pure hatred is understanding as such.
In Which Trump Becomes an Analyst
Our analysis tries to avoid the trap of analyzing Trump in order to follow the precise Trump logic set out in his full-page newspaper advertisement, on its own terms. Since this advertisement contains a rare example of Trump explicitly writing about psychoanalyzing, we abandon the many fruitless attempts to psychoanalyze Trump and instead use it as the basis for examining the conditions by which Trump himself deigns to psychoanalyze. We posit that under these conditions of disciplined reading, Trump will in effect psychoanalyze us. By this we mean that the conditions of a Trump presidency place us in the position of being analyzed by Trump and not the reverse, despite defensive maneuvers aimed at reasserting the expertise of those who so clearly lacked the understanding for anticipating his emergence. If psychoanalyzing is possible in this system, it can only come in the terms that Trump himself has set out, which we attempt to unravel. Why and when, if ever, would this occur?
Let us posit an ideal moment in which the last murderer or rapist is eliminated by the imposition of the death penalty, a condition that under Trump might finally allow us to begin the formerly prohibited understanding. Would understanding continue after this moment? If understanding is seen as a state implicit in the moment of this final death of the final murderer or rapist, would this understanding belong to any particular being? Would it continue either as the understanding of any being or as a general understanding inherent in a world without murder or rape?
Let’s imagine Trump has achieved his goal. The police are back only they have little to do other than minor functions like rescuing cats stuck in tall trees. Everybody feels safe. They sit on their stoops with abandon, without even a care or passing fear of any minor misfit. At what point in this placid scene would Trump go from not wanting to understand or psychoanalyze to wanting to both understand and psychoanalyze, if only out of sheer boredom? Secondly, how would we understand the gap that opens up between what Trump calls understanding and what he calls psychoanalyzing? Provisionally, I suggest that psychoanalyzing in the Trump sense usually indicates a form of understanding that is effete and ineffective in producing the necessary hatred to produce understanding in the hated murderous misfit other. I further suggest that psychoanalyzing could nevertheless re-emerge in Trump’s logic following the success of the death penalty he advertises in his text. Psychoanalyzing might emerge at that time as an understanding imbued with the excess of desire due to the sheer lack of objects of hatred, due to the successful imposition of death upon all murderers, rapists and misfits and the subsequent fearful understanding of any potential misfits who might potentially turn murderous.
In this case, which represents the ideal aim of the Trump system, the lack of even the possibility of murder might open the space for the possibility of psychoanalyzing, even under a Trump philosophy. These ideal conditions open up the possibility that Trump himself would not only permit but desire to psychoanalyze as a means to overcome the morbid stasis of a time in which the very possibility of murder has been eliminated under the continual presence of the now thoroughly domesticated police.
Trump, tragically but precisely according to his own logic would not have anticipated that the lack of even the possibility of murder would lead inexorably to a lack of desire so profound that even he would be driven to undertake understanding, if not psychoanalyzing. I hear you protest: but surely this could never be. Wouldn’t Trump operate according to a Kleinian paranoid-schizoid position by which his effort to murder would only lead to the proliferating fear of uncontained murder everywhere? In that case, the dead would return as undead, haunting our supposedly pleasant killer-free sprees with the return of the executed as specters, calling for the resurrection of a death penalty to kill the already dead. I hear you protest, but I must repeat, my intention is not to analyze Trump but to rather follow the logic set out by Trump in order to see the conditions under which psychoanalyzing becomes possible even under Trump’s refusal of understanding. This leads me to follow a logic by which analysis, to the extent that it becomes once again possible, would be an analysis by Trump himself. My reason for proceeding in this way is not to be clever or perverse but only to acknowledge and accept the utter failure of the strategy of diagnosing Trump while instead attempting to follow Trump’s own writing to reveal the conditions upon which, in his own accounting, understanding and psychoanalyzing might arise.
Following this strategy, I would not agree that Trump’s logic would lead him to a paranoid recreation of killers lurking in every crevice according to the logic of the return of the repressed. Let us instead proceed by granting Trump’s logic, by which every last killer has really and truly been killed. Trump’s logic, which led to the return of the police, cannot be reversed. That is to say, that having staked his singular greatness on the advertisement which led to a mission to kill every last killer, Trump is by his own logic forbidden from finding further killers, since killing all killers under the eternal gaze of the permanent police is his immortal accomplishment. Generating further paranoid suspects would only undermine that accomplishment.
Another possible protest: Why do I dignify this vile advertisement with such extended attention? Isn’t this just a waste of time better spent in serious activist resistance? While this is entirely possible, I would answer that insofar as we have allowed one man’s full-page advertisement to become the magna carta for all our futures, this document also serves as a secret map by which we might recreate psychoanalysis from out of the depth of its greatest contemporary rejection, out from under the conditions of its near impossibility.
I Want to Hate and I Always Will
On a subsequent reading of Trump’s advertisement for the death penalty, I noticed something I had previously missed. Not only does Trump declare that he wants to hate but his full sentence reads, “I want to hate and I always will.” It is not clear if the second half of the statement, “and I always will” refers to a declaration that Trump will always hate or a declaration that he will always want to hate. This is not a minor point. Previously we posited that Trump’s hate was instrumental insofar as it accomplished the necessary task of putting to death every last murderer and rapist as the minimal condition for a life that permits understanding and psychoanalyzing by those who don’t murder and rape. But now we see that the temporality of Trump’s hatred is uncertain, as is its instrumentality. It might turn out that even should his hatred be perfectly successful, to the utmost point of eliminating murder and rape, Trump’s hatred would continue unabated. In a sense, his hatred would be more eternal than the presence of murder and rape upon the Earth. His hatred would almost be a monument or archive marking the presence of what was once the crime of despicable misfits.
However, the alternate reading suggests not the eternal presence of undying hatred but rather the continual presence of the sheer wanting to hate. Much as Lacan would emphasize how we desire to desire and therefore miss the object of our desire, constantly orbiting around what forever eludes our grasp, Trump would construct a model of continual hatred, a hatred that hates in order to continue hating as his preferred form of desiring.
This second reading also reveals another important nuance regarding Trump’s refusal of understanding. Although he begins by saying, “I don’t want to understand…” he then goes on to say, “I no longer want to understand them” (the Central Park accused and rapists and murderers as a whole). This forces on us the picture of a formerly understanding Trump, one who had tried but becomes exasperated and angered by the burden of understanding that which he angrily finally concludes should be outside of any demand or desire for understanding. However, if Trump once understood, it is not also true that he once psychoanalyzed. This implies that should he ever consent to understand, it would represent a return to a forsaken and abandoned modality, while psychoanalyzing, should he ever undertake it, would be for him a fully novel activity.
As it turns out, we are not entirely in the dark regarding more recent clues, which form a kind of sequel to the historical full-page newspaper advertisement. Before we turn to this, let us also pause to consider the medium of the message, the full-page advertisement which, in retrospect, can be seen as a proto-Twitter writ large. The medium of the advertisement, which later becomes Twitter, is fully consistent with the project to avoid appeals to understanding. If an advertisement advertises, what does this advertisement sell us? On one hand, by electing Trump, we have sealed the deal on his full-page ad and bought what he was selling: the death penalty. On the other hand, what we have bought, in lieu of understanding, is the offer of hate itself, a hate that always will hate or perhaps a hate that will always want to hate, while never fully achieving the final level of hate to which it aspires.
In order to sort out these difficult questions, we will allow ourselves recourse to more recent sequels to the notorious newspaper ad. As is well known, the murderers that inspired Trump’s advertisement in favor of the death penalty turned out to not be murderers at all. In fact, through the intervention of modern DNA evidence, they were fully exonerated and another man identified as the real rapist. The Central Park accused were freed from prison and awarded settlements from the City of New York, something that of course would have been impossible had Trump’s ad been fully effective in delivering the type of understanding that it advocated.
Nevertheless, Trump’s reactions to this at the time and his remarks about the case during the Presidential campaign are telling, if not fully conclusive, in sorting out the vexing ambiguities we are hoping to clarify. We can however provisionally conclude that the evidence shows that it remains unlikely that the time for understanding, let alone psychoanalyzing, will ever occur for Donald Trump. This conclusion follows the evidence that not even the full exoneration of the Central Park accused, through the identification of another man by DNA evidence, was effective in dislodging Trump’s hate, rather it only caused him to double down on his prior claims. In an echo of his stance on global warming, Trump appeals to everyday common sense as opposed to the elitist and unlikely conclusions of a wan and dubious science. The non-elitist everyman can see that there was such a mountain of evidence against the Central Park accused that it defies belief that they could be innocent. Rather than considering that this only demonstrates our ability to construct false understandings under the influence of the affects of fear and hate, Trump will continue to support exactly that sort of evidence and that sort alone.
This stance would appear to show Trump remaining steadfast in his refusal to be seduced by anything that would compromise his hatred. Science joins understanding and psychoanalyzing as those things whose time has not come and may never come. The result is that the exonerated men remain rapists in his unyielding estimation. The time is not right for us to understand that they are not rapists, nor indeed that indeed our hatred would have caused their premature deaths should we have fully followed Trump’s original demand. In lieu of their actual execution, which Trump presumably would still support, he demonstrates the evidence of fidelity to his pledge, “I want to hate… and I always will.” His hatred stands firm against false appeals to understanding and at the same time, hatred remains the only evidence worth considering. The fact that his hatred is continually generated and maintained is not seen as nullifying its status as reliable evidence, instead a forceful and sustaining hate continues to serve as the basis and ongoing source of all evidence.
Provisionally, I am forced to conclude on the basis of a hatred that necessarily imposes itself as the final evidence and the basis of all evidence, that a will to always hate necessarily results in the full perpetuation of a hate-based economy. Within this economy, psychoanalyzing and understanding are however interestingly not subject to complete elimination. Unlike the death penalty, which would aspire to the ideal conclusion of implementing the execution of every last murderer and rapist, psychoanalyzing and understanding are not slated for elimination. Rather, they remain as the asymptotic destination against which the continual fidelity to hatred persists. Psychoanalyzing and understanding will always be, even under the regime of Trump, that which is still to come. Paradoxically, I claim this analysis not as another failed attempt to analyze Trump but rather as an analysis of and by Trump himself. I must however also conclude that while Trump will always approach the possibility of understanding and psychoanalyzing, he will never understand, let alone psychoanalyze. Nevertheless, along with hatred and the persistent presence of the police, within the Trump system, there must always remain the possibility of understanding. There is and must always remain the possibility of psychoanalyzing.
We should turn our attention to the possibility that remains, to understand and to psychoanalyze within a world in which Trump is both leader and analyst. If Trump becoming President is impossible, so too is his becoming analyst impossible. Yet following Trump logic, both must be seen as true. Trump makes the impossible possible. We must therefore forego our positions as the subjects-supposed-to-know. Trump is the subject supposed to know, self-authorized only not by recourse to a mythological self-analysis, as in Freud’s unique precedent, but by virtue of his full immersion in the findings of psychoanalysis, which he embodies and expertly performs without any need of understanding, though his mastery in playing all forms of media as a symphony of psychoanalytic effects, effects he has inherited without ever needing to understand.
We might suggest that in our time, this knowledge of psychoanalysis and its conclusions is continually inherited and conveyed as the actual environment that surrounds us, in its mediated effects, from cradle to crave. In this, appropriately enough, it approximates the phylogenetic inheritance that Freud theorized allows for our inborn knowledge of the murder of the primal father of the primal horde. That being the case, we conclude that the time for analyzing Trump has ended. Now is the time to understand how Trump has analyzed us.
Evan Malater is a psychoanalyst in New York City. He is a PhD candidate at the European Graduate School.