On a recent weekend, my wife and I watched – I for probably the dozenth time – the 1956 classic science fiction movie Forbidden Planet. Perhaps halfway through the movie, and largely because of the Freudian discussion of the power and place of the id in the human mind that was woven into the narrative, I had a lightning stroke of insight: Forbidden Planet (hereafter FP) is no longer, as it was in 1956, a vivid but purely theoretical cautionary tale about Freud’s warnings concerning what he called “the return of the Repressed,” but is also a chilling metaphor for the hazards of Trump as the first truly postmodern American President. Suddenly, I realized that we are not Dr. Morbius and his nubile daughter living on Altair IV perhaps 200 years in the future. Rather we are Americans living on planet Earth and besieged, like the crew of the rescue ship and the ill-fated colonization ship, the Bellarophon, by the id of a leader run amok and untethered to anything like even a reasonable approximation of reality. We must hope that the Nation escapes the fate that overtook the planet Altair IV.
In case you have been living under a rock in Death Valley since 1956, you will be familiar with the narrative arc of FP. A ship with hundreds of passengers embarked for Altair IV with the intent of colonizing the planet for the Earth government. After not hearing from the colonists for some time, Earth, presuming the colonists dead, dispatches a rescue ship on a year-plus-long voyage in hyperspace to find the survivors, rescue them, and return them to earth. Commanded by Capt. J. J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen), over the strenuous objections of the colonists’ philologist, Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), the rescue ship lands on Altair IV, only to discover that but two people survived the destruction of the Bellarophon: Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), now a widower, and his daughter, Altairia (Anne Francis), who was born on Altair IV. Dr. Morbius continues issuing cryptic warnings of imminent destruction for the rescue ship and its crew if they (rescue ship and crew) do not depart immediately. Little by little, Dr. Morbius reveals that the Bellarophon and its passengers were all destroyed by an invisible monster of such malice and power, that even the venerable Robbie the Robot, who makes his first appearance in FP, cannot defend them.
Long story short, it turns out that the monster Morbius warns them of turns out to be Morbius’ own id: the level of primitive, seething lust and unbridled power that lurks underneath the Freudian superego of every human being. (No moral evaluation should be inferred from this. Freud believed that the id should not be eradicated – which would be impossible, in any case – only that it must be restrained. It was Freud who insisted “Civilization is bought at the price of inhibitions”.) Morbius is an intellectual, and in his zeal to exploit the technological and cultural riches of the long-extinct indigenous inhabitants of Altair IV – the Krell --- Morbius suppressed these lusts, thereby taking them off the leash of the moderating and disciplining superego. This is a classical case of what Freud called, “the return of the Repressed”: repress the id and, instead of getting rid of it, you merely abdicate control and set it free to run amok. That is Morbius’ fateful – and fatal – error: communicating with reality using only the rational, “Apollonian” side of his mind and allowing his “Dionysian” lusts free rein. Altairia escapes with the rescue ship and its crew, but Dr. Morbius pays with his life, and with the life of Altair IV itself, which he is forced to destroy, lest his own id, amplified by 200,000 years of Krell super-technology, wreak havoc across the Galaxy. In the closing scene, Capt. Adams remarks that, in perhaps a million years, human beings may be able to equal the technological and cultural achievements of the Krell, but hopes that, unlike the Krell, humans of that distant era will be able to discipline themselves so that humans do not share their fate. If the last two years is any indication, there is scant reason for optimism.
The parallel between Donald Trump and the Krell civilization is too obvious to need pointing out. Donald Trump is a one-man Krell. He is pure id with no intervening superego. Furthermore, the Republican Party, which could, if it so chose, act in lieu of that disciplining and constraining force by being, as it were, a “proxy superego,” usually declines to do so. There is one critical difference, however, between Donald Trump and the Krell of FP: as their civilization was in the process of being destroyed, the Krell at least realized that their destruction was imminent. They did not have the self-awareness to account for the origin of their urge to destruction – evidently Krell versions of Jungian and Freudian analysts were in short supply, perhaps because the Krell psyche was as pathologically inflated toward the purely Apollonian as that of Dr. Morbius, plus the Krell had 200 millennia of experience in the practice of repression – but at the very least, the Krell reacted with alarm and revulsion, even panic, and tried, however vainly, to stop the process. At least the Krell knew they – meaning their entire super-civilization – was deeply, deeply sick and tried to cure themselves. Donald Trump does not know he is sick, and in fact, revels in his pathology, cultivating the very antigens that infect both him and the body politic over which he presides. Donald Trump is a connoisseur of violence and chaos. He is proleptically nostalgic for a WagnerianGoeterdammerung. What the Krell sought to restrain, Trump intentionally cultivates.
German culture has historically been exceptionally susceptible to the allure of this urge-to-chaos. Without wishing to in any way engage in free-form stereotyping, it is worth reflecting on how much of this cultural tendency Trump inherited from his German grandfather, Friedrich Trump. (Trump was justly ridiculed in the media for alleging that his father was born in Germany instead of New York. But it turned out that Trump was only wrong by one generation.) We could probably speculate endlessly on this question. So suffice to say that German culture – not individual Germans, who I regard as friends and family, but German culture historically – has been marked by an affinity – at times, one could even say a fatal affinity – for authoritarian politics and total destruction, a preference for destruction of itself and others over even honorable defeat. (This is why one of today's great ironies is that the Germany once led by Angela Merkel is the foremost proponent of constitutional liberal democracy and the European Union.) One can trace this motif back through history to the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, and even into times preceding the Roman occupation. (It has even been argued that the Teutonic victory in the Forest effectively isolated Germany from the intellectual and cultural currents of the subsequent European Enlightenment. I would not go that far, but there is enough of a kernel of truth in that thesis to render it worthy of some serious consideration.) This Trump-like preference for chaos led to National Socialist book-burnings, but it did not start there: Martin Luther initiated the process of destroying, e.g., the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, and others merely copied him.
Also, e.g., one is at least entitled to wonder if Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation (Welt als Wille und Vorstellung) could have been written by, among others, Hume or Voltaire – or, indeed, any of the Encyclopedists or Philosophes. (Ditto Nietzsche’s Will to Power in, e.g., Beyond Good and Evil.) Granted, all this paragraph hangs on rather slender historical and cultural threads. German culture is not the only culture to be seduced from time to time by the meretricious blandishments of chaos, nor is Trump the only person to be thus enticed. One can also cite Mussolini and Franco as aficionados of laceration – even Oswald Moseley of the British Fascists. But the final word is significant: the ideology of fascism is the “vector” – the infected rat, if you will – that spread the contagion of fascism to the rest of the world. Germany was merely – arguably – the first victim.
The Krell were the victims of their own monomaniacal obsession with technology – in FP, Dr. Morbius even shows Capt. Adams and a few of his subordinates the machines the Krell designed to reinforce this obsession – and as it turns out, the disease that was purely fictitious in the case of the Krell in FP has turned out to be all too real in Western culture, and is instantiated in Donald Trump – the Krell who revels in, rather than restrains, his own id.
Our challenge in the near term is to assume the responsibility which the Republican Party has already abdicated: be to Trump the superego he needs but does not possess.
James R. Cowles
Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis, "Forbidden Planet." ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain (copyright expired and not renewed)
Robbie the Robot, "Forbidden Planet" ... Patty Mooney ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Superego-id diagram ... Originator unknown ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic
Sigmund Freud ... Max Halberstadt ... Public domain
"Return of the Repressed" … Louis Bourgeois … CC by 2.0
Donald Trump ... White House ... Public domain