Why do we care about 122,000 scared white people who think that Rick Santorum makes sense of their world? Why do we happily inflict these insane Republicans on ourselves? Why do the media enable us with great helpings of “coverage,” meaning interviews with morons who believe that politics suck, but who also believe that if you’re true to your principles, you’re better than the politicians—no matter that your principles are as bizarre as Ron Paul’s?
Because we want the consolation that comes not just after but from the fright itself. Sure, we’re Ego, they’re Id. Look around, though. We’re all locked in the same theater, eagerly experiencing the same spectacle.
Here’s George Packer at the New Yorker blog, on January 3rd, wondering why we keep suffering from a self-imposed Intellectual Deficit Disorder: “The great puzzle of the Republican campaign is that, in an era of unprecedented ideological fervor, the party will almost certainly nominate the candidate who is the blandest, least ideological, and least trusted by conservatives of them all.”
“Great puzzle”? C’mon, people, there’s no mystery here. It’s the extremities that tell us most about the rest of us. Those insane Republicans in Iowa aren’t a different species, they’re just like us—but they’re less repressed. And yet at the end of election day they gave Ego the edge.
Ask yourself, why does Rick Santorum mention his grandfather’s huge coal-miner’s hands when he pays homage to his working-class origins? More specifically, why are these the hands of the deceased, folded in a coffin, where only heads and hands, only extremities, protrude from the decorations of the undertaker? Because they’re severed, dead and gone, because they can be mourned as such, as something detachable that will never return—as absent, aberrant causes, in every sense, of those who live to die and to kill, those who embody the death instinct.
Senator Santorum walks the castrated walk, and he talks the castrated talk. He scares the shit out us, and so we keep buying tickets to the horror movie he or Newt or Ron stars in—the actors don’t matter in this genre—because it’s so gratifying. For the record, this man, this Santorum, is almost certainly not a zombie. Newt Gingrich, I can’t say—his face does seem to be dissolving these days—and Ron Paul is beyond categorization because he’s not from my planet.
But what, exactly, is gratifying about watching the horror movie that is the Republican primaries? Ah c’mon, people. Ask yourself, what is pleasurable about watching, say, Mel Gibson being eviscerated at the end of a year’s Best Picture? Never mind, I get that. But what about the violent spectacles on display in any movie that matters from the last twenty-five years, say “Goodfellas” or “Robocop,” or, to bring this right up to date, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”? What makes you want to watch, not turn away?
Unless you’re the unusually stupid and cloistered kind of human being who says “I won’t see movies with a lot of violence”—that means you don’t get out much—you’re accustomed to the routine cinematic violation of your expectations when it comes to the borders or limits of the human body. In fact, you go to the movies in the hope of this violation.
And that goes for filmic sex (not porn) as well as the physical encounters that qualify as violence. Not to worry, this urge doesn’t make you a masochist. You go to the movies precisely because you know the experience you will have there is not yours: like all good fiction, it’s (mostly) preparation for the future, not (merely) confirmation of the past. “And as, in real life, the proprieties will not allow people to act out themselves with that unreserve permitted to the stage; so, in books of fiction, they look not only for more entertainment, but at bottom, for even more reality than real life can show.” That’s Herman Melville talking, in The Confidence-Man, his 1857 farewell to readers.
We watch horror movies because we know that for all the cruelty and violence and gore and ignorance—why did she go back into that dark place?—we, the spectators, will escape, and we know our egos will be fortified, not diminished, by engagement with the angry, ugly, overpowering, and yet fictional forces on screen.
That’s why we stay up late and watch the Iowa caucuses. That’s why we pay attention to the roughly 29,000 people who voted for Rick Santorum, a guy that belongs in an asylum where Mass is said every morning—we used to call these places churches or Catholic seminaries.
These horrific Republicans are the American Id, so of course we’re not just fascinated by them, we’re obsessed with them. We want to experience the cruelty and violence and gore and ignorance they would inflict on us, just as we want to experience the untoward gifts of our own unconscious—but it’s the release from the experience, and it moves both ways, giving into the guilty pleasure and meanwhile announcing abstention from it, that is so gratifying. We can’t help ourselves, we’re addicted.
So the great puzzle of the Republican campaign is not that the party will almost certainly nominate “the blandest, least ideological” candidate—that it will nominate Ego instead of Id. No, the great puzzle here is the extreme pleasure we take from the struggle and the spectacle. If I were the people’s shrink, I’d say, you’re clearly rooting for Id over Ego, but why?
A rhetorical question, of course. As a good shrink, I already have the answer. You’re not just bored. You’re eager to overthrow everything. But if not now, when?