30 November 2016. Good leaders and Bad Leaders

Talk given at Climate Psychology Alliance conference The Psychology of Climate Action: New Perspectives on Leadership.

Good leaders and bad leaders

The psychoanalyst Irma Brenman Pick[i] said good leaders give a home to our caring reparative parts. She meant that good leaders ‘contain’ us. They:

– Take in how we are feeling in an empathic way

– Restrain us when our uncaring part gets out of hand

– Protect us from feeling too overwhelmed.


Good leaders also contain us by working to keep us physically safe and to keep the physical environment stable so that we have food and shelter. This must be their top priority as when our physical environment is unstable, we are more likely to feel psychologically unstable and overwhelmed.


A simple example brought this home to me. Several years ago I was in the desert with my husband. We were alone and without a sat phone but could reasonably expect a vehicle to turn up within about three days. We had food and water for a fortnight. Our vehicle, a 4×4, had two cabins. One day the door to the back cabin that storied our food would not open. In the hours that followed, we realised there was no way to get in. We even tried to break the toughened glass window. We could have driven out of there, but we decided to stay and to manage until help arrived. At least we had water from the water tank under the vehicle.


We also had some dried peaches. I gave half to my husband, and then I divided my pile into three, one for each day we might have to wait. I then ate all my peaches up in one go! I felt rather impulsive, greedy and ashamed; as though something had taken me over.


Being alone in a desert heightens awareness of how dependent we are on the environment and how fragile life is. Nonetheless, in this situation our physical survival was not threatened in any serious way.


Even a small threat to physical survival was enough to tip me into a state that I believe was uncontained. I was in touch with further anxieties – what if I became more uncontained? What inner chaos might this stress unleash in me? My point is it takes very little instability in the external environment for our inner stability to become overwhelmed. Faced with a threat to survival, while I’m pleased to find I did look after my husband, I believe I did lose my capacity to care for my future self when she depended on me to look after her.


Without going in for too much self-analysis in public, I believe what added to my feeling psychologically uncontained in that situation was that an infant part of me felt abandoned. At that moment I could not find in myself caring inner parents to help me contain my anxiety.


Our most primitive phantasy is finding ourselves with non–caring parents who leave us to die. The terror this inspires is contained by repeated experience with parents who do not let us die and do not abandon us[ii].


Our current reality is our political leaders show us through their actions that they abandon us and leave us to die and suffer. To be this uncared for is to find our worst nightmare coming true.


One kind of current leader offers us a form of pseudo virtual containment not real containment by offering ‘as if’ solutions[iii]. Not based on reality, they have the feel of a fraud bubble that must burst. This makes our caring reality based part even more anxious deep down. Examples are: ‘vote for me and I will address all the concerns of your caring part. I make good speeches, but when with Wall Street, or with political colleagues, I will put profit first. This may be for a whole range of reasons. The net result is you will see me supporting the Paris Climate Deal and voting for new oil exploration. I am Obama[iv], I am Hillary Clinton[v], I am Angela Merkel[vi] caving in to the motor and energy industries and watering down agreed emissions targets.


Despite their differences, and despite the effort and struggle they have each put in, this kind of leader – when push comes to shove – is still far too inclined to bend the knee to corporate power in the wings. We needed them to walk the walk far more than they have done. The gap between what they have offered and what they have delivered is a fatal gap given the urgency of the need to act on climate. The earth follows the laws of physics not politics.


Then there is Trump. He offers another kind of pseudo false containment. I will look at him later. Both the ‘as if’ and Trump’s forms of pseudo containment are based on lies and because they are, each is inherently unstable.

How did it come to this? The global economy, a neoliberal hybrid of the American beauty rose, is unsustainable. It always was. It has already caused staggering damage to people and to planet. It has grossly overburdened both and already tipped both people and planet into instability. It is incompatible with continuing life on earth. People see this more clearly now and they feel desperate, afraid, angry and abandoned.


By people I mean to include everyone, even the ten percent of the one percent whose financial interests the global economy has primarily served. We are all in this boat together and the idea the super wealthy will be saved in a Noah’s yacht is a phantasy.


Globalization of trade is not the problem. As Thomas Picketty recently pointed out[vii], we need global trade. The problem is the ruthless mindset that drove globalization. This mindset treats people as there just to be used and exploited for profit. It sees people, present and future, as nobodies. A nobody is a person who has no power to elicit empathy and care.


The psychoanalyst Christoph Hering wrote a paper about the film Alien[viii] that I think gets to the heart of how people feel when dependent on leaders caught up in a ruthless mindset. He said,


The alien is a truly frightening monster. … it does not know any concern or mercy; it is devoid of any scruples or conflicts” … It is the absolute evil”.


The alien is a mindset that abandons people whenever peoples’ interests conflict with profit. Profit always comes first. That is the unvarying rule, even when applying that rule means people will suffer and people will die.


Here is an example of how this mindset thinks: there is convincing evidence that crop pesticides called neonicotinoids are killing bees by causing bee colonies to collapse[ix]. The world’s food supply depends on bees. Well it’s a no brainer – sell the neonicotinoids, relentlessly pressure governments that resist their sale; let the bees die. Where’s the profit to be made from taking care?


This is the mindset behind the financial crash in 2008 that left six million Americans homeless. It is the mindset that outsourced America’s factories to countries where labour was cheap. Unconcerned about consequences, it is truly frightening, as Hering said. It sees profit on one side of the scale and suffering, death and destruction on the other, and it finds that profit outweighs suffering.


Trump spoke directly to Americans abandoned by the alien mindset. Here is part of his speech when he won the Republican Party nomination for President[x]:


(To the backing of the music from Star wars)


Friends, delegates and fellow Americans (Echoes of FRC! Here Trump presents himself as the powerful Roman Mark Anthony)


I have visited our laid off factory workers and have visited the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country and they are forgotten. But they’re not going to be forgotten long. These are people who work hard but no longer have a voice.


I am your voice. I am with you. I will fight for you. I will win for you.


… We don’t want people compromised by terrorism in our country.


We are going to build a wall to stop the gangs and the violence and the drugs from pouring in.


I am the law and order candidate. We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again.


Trump is speaking to people traumatised and terrorized by abandonment. This is the terror he refers to. He offers them not genuine containment and genuine repair, but pseudo containment and pseudo repair. Let’s go into his method.


He sets himself up as the strong man impregnable to attack. He has already built himself an inner psychological wall. He invites a rapid pathological identification with “I am strong. I am your voice”. I suggest the invitation is not you can be like me but you can be me, right now, in phantasy and that way you will no longer feel pain and conflict. You are me and I am you.


Jumping in to this identification means internal conditions are instantly stable again. Apparently. There is no global warming. There is no drought in California. All that is horrible and dangerous is kept outside – in the Mexicans, in the weak corrupt Clinton woman. I/we, fused into one being, will keep them out and will lock her up.


I offer you an instant ‘solution’ to your pain. Because you and I are now one, we can freely arrange to pass desirable and undesirable bits of ourselves back and forth to the other.


Trump talks to people feeling abandoned economically. He also talks to people scared about climate change. He says, “climate change is a hoax”. This strong man is very strong indeed; he apparently has supernatural powers to dispense with reality when reality gets in the way of immediate self-interest. Climate change never was. It was a conspiracy.


High up in his Tower, Trump invites his followers to refashion external reality and their own internal reality; in other words, to join him in being godlike. Lacking in this scenario is enough truth to halt the rise to hubris and magical thinking, one in which leader and led, fused together, overheat dangerous phantasy together rather than cooling it down.


Without sufficient containment by truth (from the media and the establishment) to hold him back, Trump’s leadership style shows the drift to omnipotent thinking.

His rhetoric is a most cynical exploitation of people who are traumatised and in shock in order to gain power. It is an example, I think, of Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine[xi] at work. Klein argued that people are easier to exploit when stressed and shocked. In the days following his election Trump has already revealed he has no intention of providing stability based on care. He has surrounded himself with staff whose track record is of bigotry and being willing to manipulate truth to gain power. Immediately after the election shares jumped in pharmaceuticals, fossil fuel companies, armaments and private prisons[xii]. Trump has achieved a shift to the radical right that will further abandon the American people and the people of the world. Stephen Bannon, his Chief Strategist is crowing. In charge of the right wing Breitbart News he now sits at power’s table.


I suggest it makes sense to view the rise in what is called the Alt-right as its reaction to a rise in people’s capacity to care and to face their feelings more honestly. This rise in care threatens to make profits unstable. Financial stability is the only stability that counts to the alien mindset. It is essentially a paranoid mindset that keeps a beady eye on the threat care poses, and beefs up its military and police capacity to deal with that threat. Anything to protect profits.


To give up on people who voted for Trump; to call them stupid or deplorable or despicable in these circumstances I believe is to be infected by Trump’s uncare. Adam Phillips[xiii] made I thought a profound point when he recently said that Trump leads his opponents (as well as his followers) to behave badly.


Christoph Hering offers a reason why this might be. He argues that in the face of the alien one may be driven to want to obliterate it by seeing it as entirely ‘out there’ and nothing to do with us. The real struggle is to realise that the alien is also part of one’s own psyche.


When Irma Brenman Pick said good leaders give a home to our caring reparative parts, she meant good leaders help us to sort out, through hard psychic work, what alien parts belong to us and what alien parts belong to others in the external world. Sorting this out is the ongoing work of repair, which brings with it the possibility of forgiveness, understanding, moving on and also resistance. It mitigates destructive hatred, and the blind wish to kill the alien as the only apparent ‘solution’.


To achieve power and facilitate a move to the right, Trump manipulated our rising feeling of hatred. The alien mindset is evil and hating this mindset is hate on the side of life. I think hate gets a bad press, actually. Good leaders help us to contain our lively hate and channel it in constructive ways. They help us use our hate to repair things.


But hatred is a volatile emotion and bad leaders influence us to turn hate into destructive hatred. That is what Trump did[xiv], and so did the Brexiteers, in my view.


Trump’s victory did not come out of the blue. It happened in a context. The ruthless mindset has progressively attack structures that contain our uncare. They have unravelled the caring frameworks of the New Deal in the USA and the Welfare state in the UK. They are currently hammering at and attacking the framework of care that remains in the EU. The ruthless mindset sees care as the enemy, the spoke in the wheel of the profit engine. Peoples’ care is the mindset’s greatest impediment and obstacle.


My current work is on the culture the mindset funded to disable people’s capacity to care. This culture[xv] has worked relentlessly to promote the idea that people no longer need to suffer the psychic pain and the moral discomfort that comes with being alive. This is close to the apocalyptic phantasy that we can annihilate all inner pain. The culture has denigrated and de-legitimized healthy awareness of our dependency on nature and on government that will protect them. It has promoted identifications with glamorous powerful celebrities as a short cut to facing feelings of difference, social envy and exclusion.


Trump uses mechanisms already at work in the cure to smash containment and foster pseudo containment.


Good leaders know the truth of what Kevin Anderson said in late 2013[xvi]: change is now unavoidable. We face change if we get our emissions down and we face change if we do not. Inaction on climate and on social justice has already led to political change for the worse.


Good leaders now need to help us to face the changes that go with transitioning rapidly to a low carbon economy and restoring greater social justice. They need to help us to resist the siren pull to seek pseudo forms of containment to ease our pain. We desperately need the stability that good leaders can provide. It is based on truth not the lies the market requires to maintain its profits.




[i] Personal communication

[ii] Margaret Rustin wrote movingly of this terror of abandonment by parents in her discussion of Ro Randall’s paper on ecological debt. See Rustin (2012). Discussion of Great Expectations: the psychodynamics of ecological debt. In Weintrobe, S. (2012). (ed). Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic Perspectives. London:Routledge.

[iii] See Hoggett P. (2012). Climate Change in a perverse culture. in Weintrobe, S. (2012). (ed) Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Routledge: London and New York.

[iv] Obama has faced relentless opposition from corporate (especially oil) interests in his efforts to reduce carbon emissions. He has taken a stand on climate, for instance playing a major role in securing an agreement at the Paris Climate talks in 2015 (he said it was the best he could achieve in the face of Republican opposition), putting forward a state-wide plan to reduce carbon emissions (see for instance https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-record/climate and, recently, ordered the suspension of construction work on a controversial oil pipeline in North Dakota to protect tribal lands. See for instance, http://www.npr.org/2016/09/10/493436447/in-victory-for-protesters-obama-administration-halts-north-dakota-pipeline . However, while ordering protection of Arctic waters from off shore oil exploration he has given the green light to auctioning sections of the Gulf of Mexico. He has supported the TTP and TTIP trade agreements that would significantly lessen environmental standards. See for instance http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-11-18/obama-s-offshore-oil-plan-forces-drillers-to-focus-on-u-s-gulf

[v]In recent years, Exxon, Shell, ConocoPhillips and Chevron have all contributed to the Clinton Foundation. An investigation in the International Business Times revealed that at least two of these oil companies were part of an effort to lobby Clinton’s State Department about the Alberta tar sands, a massive deposit of extra-dirty oil.

Did these donations have anything to do with the investigation found, Clinton’s State Department approving the Alberta Clipper, a controversial pipeline carrying large amounts of tar-sands bitumen from Alberta to Wisconsin? “According to federal lobbying records reviewed by the IBT,” write David Sirota and Ned Resnikoff, “Chevron and ConocoPhillips both lobbied the State Department specifically on the issue of ‘oil sands’ in the immediate months prior to the department’s approval, as did a trade association funded by ExxonMobil.”

Did they make Hillary Clinton more disposed to seeing tar-sands pipelines as environmentally benign, as early State Department reviews of Keystone XL seemed to conclude, despite the many scientific warnings? There is no proof – no smoking gun, as Clinton defenders like to say. Just as there is no proof that the money her campaign took from gas lobbyists and fracking financiers has shaped Clinton’s current (and dangerous) view that fracking can be made safe.


[vi] The German government bowed to pressure to water down its CO2 reduction targets for industry in the final version of its climate action plan, a document seen by Reuters showed. https://notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com/2016/11/13/germany-criticised-for-watering-down-climate-plan/

[vii] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/commentisfree/2016/feb/16/thomas-piketty-bernie-sanders-us-election-2016

[viii] Hering, C. (1994). The Problem of the “Alien”: Emotional Mastery or Emotional Fascism in Contemporary Film Production. Free Associations, 4:391-407

[ix] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/28/strong-consensus-that-neonicotinoids-harm-bees-analysis-shows

[x] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/07/21/full-text-donald-trumps-prepared-remarks-accepting-the-republican-nomination/?utm_term=.179bd84d21a4

[xi] Naomi Klein. (2008). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Penguin: New York

[xii] See Rupert Neate Corporate Winners from Trump’s election. The Guardian Nov 10th 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/nov/10/corporate-winners-donald-trump-election-private-prisons-pharma

[xiii] See Adam Phillips (2016). Taste is problematic when it is a militant and aggressive narrowing of the mind. Guardian Oct 9th 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/09/adam-phillips-interview-the-vulgar-fashion-redefined

[xiv]Judith Butler argued that what she calls ‘excitable speech’, to the extent it is effective in stirring, rousing and wounding, can put the addressee out of their ordinary context, leaving them feeling out of control. I am suggesting this speech breaks through ordinary containment, for example pushing a feeling of hatred to become destructive hatred through use of hate speech, appeal to grievances and through demeaning remarks. See Judith Butler (1997) Excitable Speech: A politics of the performative. Routledge: New York.

[xv] Through media, advertising, political framing and pressure from social groups

[xvi] Anderson was speaking Avoiding dangerous climate change’, Why we need radical reductions in emissions at the Radical Reductions Emissions Conference in 2013. See: https://vimeo.com/album/2648454/video/81836152