Trump as Trickster? Unfair to Trickster!

January 24, 2018

Trump as Trickster? Unfair to Trickster!

Whenever folks talk about Tricksters in politics and culture, the conversation often gets around to President Donald Trump, isn’t he a trickster? It was only a matter of time before someone adopted that theme as a Jungian lens, a conceptual template, a handle to attach. Randy Fertel’s piece in The Washington Monthly: This Archetype Explains Donald Trump is thoughtful and illuminating, but I come to a different conclusion.

Fertel makes some very good points, contrasting Hermes and Dionysus—‘good’ Trickster versus ‘bad’. Fertel’s Dionysian Trump incites and invites intoxication, ecstasy, and longing for transcendence. Ultimately, Dionysian urges lead to tyranny. And Corey Pein at The Baffler throws out  Loki as a model, noting the similarities of lying and mischief; unapologetic manner; and likeness to P.T. Barnum. But ultimately, such dark chaos and power mongering fail to do the archetype justice.

Tricksters are amoral, in it for the lulz, for the fun of it. Fertel correctly names the Trickster moment: we roll the dice and we get chaos, or we get a new cultural order. And we’ll get to the politics of that, but first…


Archetypes are supra-human personality profiles. Among the Greek or Roman gods, Hermes and Mercury are the Tricksters. Everyone has some Trickster characteristics—pulling pranks, telling jokes, flagrantly crossing a boundary—just as some part of the archetypes of Mother, Warrior, Martyr and Hero animate us all. But it’s helpful to play by the rule that no human can fully embody any archetype. Thus when discussing Trump or any person, it’s a matter of degrees. And thus while there a number of qualities Trump has in common with the archetype, ultimately, it’s an unfair (to Trickster) attribution.

As to the deity, the archetype, the myth, the tale…Tricksters consistently denude emperors of their clothes, mocking power and its pursuit. Unlike Trump, they do not seek to accumulate it. Non-Western Trickster gods, mischievous, disruptive and playful, are a priori powerful by dint of creation: powerful because they are respected, and respected because they are powerful. They have a sense of humor. And they are as likely to be the butt of pranks as they are to play them.

This is unlike the humorless emperor or tyrant who seeks to gain power through conquest and war. Trump’s sense of humor is absent or hurtful to others in a generally unfunny way. He will not allow himself to be pranked upon. This Commander-in-Chief has not declared war or invaded another country, but he did detonate the biggest non-nuclear bomb in history; proactively support Israeli apartheid; and play foolish games of brinksmanship with North Korea. His 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act provides massive support to the wealthiest Americans.

Empire-building requires convincing your army and your citizens that they are fighting for good, and the enemy is evil. Powerful and amoral Tricksters never buy in to such absolutes, and pose a threat to imperialists. Thus they were bound and disarmed, made the court jester, the fool, or even the Devil.

Such cultural stigma intimidates us Westerners from letting go of learned notions of good and evil, and letting Trickster amorality into our consciousness. But consider Paul Radin’s seminal 1956 book, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, which states that [Trickster] knows neither good nor evil yet…is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being.

What’re You Having, Friend,  Oppression or Liberation?

For example, Trickster is antiwar. But not because war is bad, but because war is no fun. Huh? Trickster’s prevailing drive and moral genesis is to have fun. Trickster wanders from the amorality of fun into a moral stand. By reacting to war as just about the least fun human activity…values come into being.

Tricksters do not seek power, or to hurt others, but there can be collateral damage. Dave Chappelle explains this in one of his routines: …. Sometimes, the funniest thing to say is mean…. It’s a tough position to be in…. I say a lot of mean things…But…I’m not saying it to be mean, I’m saying it to be funny*. Witness Trickster types like Chappelle or Groucho Marx, Bugs Bunny or Marcel Duchamp, John Lennon, Robin Williams or Andy Kaufman…they use their Trickster magic to lead us into a world of honest wisdom, imagination, and laughter…paths of liberation.

Fertel alerts us to the co-optation of Trickster by power mongers like Trump. Such manipulators resonate with their base by drawing on the appeal of Trickster contrariness, but trick us into accepting an even more binding version of the status quo, generally in the interest of greed and empire. Tricksters play tricks as an act of sacred fun. Tyrants trick the poor and disenfranchised into accepting the burdens and bonds of a warlike and unjust society…paths of oppression.

The 2013 Black Mirror episode, The Waldo Moment, ( very clearly explains this dynamic of tapping the appeal of Trickster in order to further bind, rather than liberate.

True Trickster Unbound

These articles—one likening Trump to Dionysus, and the other to Loki (both Western)—were intent on helping folks ‘get a handle’ on Trump, and Trump as Trickster.

Optimism about our future, though, compels a better grasp of the Trickster archetype, regardless of Trump. We don’t yet fully understand Trickster’s crucial role in helping society make progress and grow. Good examples of Trickster in the 21st century can be found in the phenomenon of Anonymous; it’s cousin WikiLeaks; speculative fiction like Black Mirror; Yippie style activists like The Yes Men; and prankster consciousness-raisers like the guerilla graffiti artist Banksy,

Demonizing Trickster is a common practice among reactionary Westerners in power and filled with shame and a morality borne of repressed psyches. When a healthier populism deals Trump and his base their defeat, we will yet face the struggle to not replace it with a misguided dogma of liberal morality, which comes with its own version of shame and repression.

The more tightly Trickster is bound, the more cataclysmic Trickster’s inevitable shrugging of the chains and amoral rampage. I should like to suggest that a good guide to public policy is to not bind the Trickster, but to take a more general approach to limiting harm. The #MeToo Movement could possibly be the best thing to have happened in a long, long time. But once offenders have been punished, once we as a society understand how we breed sexually unacceptable behavior, and then outgrow it, we will need to focus on enlightened dialogue. That dialogue must occur. It’s about all forms of discrimination and abuse: sexual, racial, ability-based. Ultimately, Love wins! Fun wins!

When the opportunity comes to save what is left of our planet, clean and productive jobs and/or a guaranteed healthy life must also come to those currently employed in the most toxic industries…like coal, nuclear and fossil fuels, or environmentally damaging agriculture, industry, and fishing. We must radically reform income inequality through progressive taxation, universal health care and full employment/engagement, but the spirit of entrepreneurship, research, and innovation must also be stoked and not stifled. When we are able to establish fair(er) elections in our nation, shutting down harmful trolls and foreign agents, we must also remember that information wants to be free, and fight for that freedom as well. And we will not wage war, because we are too busy having fun, we are too busy winning with love. Trickster unbound is best embraced as a liberating tonic, not as an elected leader.**

*  Equanimity and The Bird Revelation (Netflix, 2017)

** Unless we are ready to elect Groucho Marx or Bugs Bunny


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