Hint: the missing word starts with a "W"
Ever since the NY Times ran a story last week-- "As Clinton Racks up Wins, A Group Resists: White Men"-- (Patrick Healy with Giovanni Russonello Friday March 18), I've been ruminating about the fact that white men aren't voting for Hillary Clinton. Why not? I think there's more to it than jobs, guns, trade and emails. There's an elephant in the room of white men, and it's a white woman.
One thing really struck me. With a single exception, as the reporter tried to explain the phenomenon based on interviews of white male voters, no one, not the journalist nor any of the men interviewed used the W word: Woman. Not to mention the glaring fact that Hillary Clinton is a white woman. White women have played powerful and conflictual roles in the lives of white men throughout their lives--as wives, sisters, daughters and most significantly mothers. Isn't it conceivable that that big fact plays a big role in the white male Clinton voter gap?
(This was the exception: "a few said they did not think a woman should be a commander in chief")
Disclosure--as a psychoanalyst, I am a true believer in the idea that early relationships, especially powerful parent-child relationships, shape patterns of thinking of feeling in later relationships. To put it bluntly, could it be a Mom issue?
Clinton lost to white men by double digits in the March 15 primaries in Missouri, N. Carolina and Ohio. In a search for an explanation of the phenomenon, Healy gamely reports the opinions of an assortment of "white men on the street."
Her unpopularity with white male voters is variously attributed to: her wealth and Wall Street coziness; her shift to the left on gun control and police abuse, her positions on trade (presumably taking away white men's' jobs).
Let's see how these theories hold up. White men's job prospects are at best in flux in the global economy. It's a time of tectonic change in the world of work and white males are perhaps rightfully fearing that their place in the world is in danger. Why not blame Clinton? She seems to have sympathy for minorities and global trade. But this theory relies on the assumption that a threatened and potentially marginalized economic group is turned off by her. But black and Latino men aren't turned off by her. Aren't they also a threatened group, fearful of their economic future?
How about the theory that she's too rich for these white male voters? She got big speaking fees from banks or Wall Street or something like that. But aren't white men the same bunch who are flocking to the self-proclaimed and proud-of-it multi-billionaire Donald J. Trump? A white man who crows about his extraordinary wealth is just fine with white men but wealth at the level the Clintons possess turns them off? It doesn't add up. Black and Latino men and women don't seem to be troubled by her being more wealthy than they are. I don't think possessing wealth is the issue. Maybe it's a white woman having wealth that is the problem.
I think there is something deeply troubling, psychologically, to white men about a very powerful white woman. Almost all white men had one in their lives once--a mother who told them when they had to go to bed, when they had to stop playing, when they had to wash up. In psychoanalysis, the past never really goes away. We know people retain traces of early relationships and overlay these on current ones. A powerful white woman might just press too many buttons that link back to the fear and resentment towards the seemingly omnipotent mother of childhood. Sure men loved their mothers, but that love like all love is always tempered by ambivalence. And in the case of sons and mothers, a fight for autonomy from Mom's control on the part of the sons.
Before I got too uncomfortable watching traumatic brain injury happening in live action, I used to blog annually about the Super Bowl ads--my idea was that they gave us a snapshot of the nation's psyche. One year--it was 2010, and the great recession was still in morbid full swing--the ads reflected a strange view about the mindset of American men.
I think the phenomenon of white male voter dislike for Mrs. Clinton relates to a theme that appeared in several of those ads, and the psychic effects of the enduring state of crisis in which we live.
In one ad a non-descript man lists in a flat voice all the actions and concessions he is willing to make for the woman (his wife one assumes) who presumably is ruling his life: he will sort the recycling, put the toilet seat down, and comply with about a dozen other rules and practices obviously important to women and not to guys. But he will NOT give up his right to choose the car he wants. Here, his voice fills with drive and energy. He picks the Dodge Charger (crescendo/climax)!! He escapes the controlling, emasculating woman (just in time) with his virility intact, thank to the bullet-like, driven, phallic vehicle.
In 2010, I thought that the predominance of this theme--men feeling powerless and controlled by a powerful woman has ripped away their autonomy and masculinity--was in part emotional fallout from the recent economic disaster.
I want to share one of several unfriendly comments that followed my blog post:
You're just sore because someone revealed the truth of a major female flaw: controlling demands, incessant assertion of correctness, demeaning attitudes of superiority and lack of empathy, care, kindness or acceptance. There's a big-time reason for that stereotype and for the advertisement. That is, it is fundamentally accurate and universal.
In my view, the ads spoke to the profound sense of injury and insecurity experienced by men at the time (and still today)--jobs lost or threatened, houses facing foreclosure, shuttered opportunities and expectations.
In states of threat and fear, groups revert to earlier and more emotionally based forms of thinking and feeling. So the omnipotent and negative mother of childhood returns in fantasy-- the eternal Castrating Woman who is taking away their power, causing them to feel small, young and afraid. In fact, as the comments revealed, even writing about the psychological phenomenon of these fantasies and themes turned me into the bitchy controlling clueless woman for some readers.
It wasn't Mom, or Hillary Clinton who ruined the economy in 2008, or changed the global economic equation, or started the long and disastrous chain of events leading to the terrorist acts designed to make us frightened today. But why not blame her, some white men might be feeling, unconsciously--to lay blame on a powerful woman brings order to something scary that we can't really do much about. To reject her might feel like a balm for bruised egos of men who feel powerless, displaced and threatened. Not because a woman has demeaned them but because the world is no longer recognizable.
Adoring Donald J. Trump is the mirror of disliking Clinton. Cleaving to a powerful and supremely confident man who appears to have the secret for us to regain our lost pride and safety is similarly an attempt to bring order and comfort in an environment that feels--and often is--out of control.
The truth is that the world today is new and unpredictable and changing, and filled with threats that we don't understand. But dismissing a powerful Mom or sucking up to an omnipotent Father does nothing but create an illusion of control. Far better if we could learn to tolerate uncertainty and change without looking for simplistic and fantastical quick fixes or blaming and demeaning one gender or another.