Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Group's Vulnerability to Disaster: Basic Assumption and Work Group Mentalities Underlying Trump's 2016 Election

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Group's Vulnerability to Disaster: Basic Assumption and Work Group Mentalities Underlying Trump's 2016 Election

Article excerpt


Perhaps the most discussed event in recent political history has been the phenomenon of Donald Trump's political rise and capture of the US presidency despite his lack of a political background and an almost total neglect of mainstream American political customs. Trump's neglect of political customs became a well-known narrative which, from its beginning, included insults aimed at political opponents, disrespect towards minority and marginalized groups, and proposals for divisive, aggressive, domestic and international policies (Schwartzman and Johnson 2015). Many of his words and behaviours were roundly criticized by the media and the larger public. Despite this reproach, Trump's political rise and popularity continued to grow. Throughout the 2016 presidential cycle, Trump's rise was not only frightening to many but baffled experts and lay folk alike, resulting in widespread frustration and, ultimately, disbelief in his election (e.g. Healy and Peters 2016).

In the following, I hope to show how Wilfred Bion's (1961) theory of groups, as well as aspects of his later thought, sheds light on Donald Trump's election and on lesser acknowledged aspects of democratic group life. Bion's theory of groups allows for the exploration of factors relevant to political processes that have been peripheral to the conversation in psychoanalysis and in broader American political discourse. The stunning result of the 2016 US presidential election not only revealed a desperate need for more understanding, but exposed significant division within the group, incompleteness of thought, and widespread regressive and dissociative tendencies.

Below, I offer a summary of Bion's (1961) group theory and make connections to Trump supporters and detractors. For additional summaries of Bion's group theory, see Rioch (1970), Szykierski (2010), and Schneider (2015).

The basic assumptions and Trump

Bion (1961) proposed that all groups consist of two simultaneously operative psychological functions or mentalities-what he termed the work group and the basic assumption group. The work group is the group that has formed in order to accomplish some goal by way of logical, rational thinking. This is the group that sets a task, is aware that work requires cooperation and compromise, and that work brings frustration, pain, and conflict. We can think of the eligible voters in the country as a predominant work group. This is the group that is in the position of thoughtfully, consciously choosing its leader, examining and challenging the basis of our relations within society, and has an ongoing conversation about rights, laws, equality, and freedoms. For Bion, the intention and/or activity of the work group necessarily activates basic assumption phenomena. Basic assumption phenomena are always coexistent with work group activity and can become dominant.

Basic assumption phenomena refer to unconscious activity in members during a group regression. As such, no conscious intent, cooperation, or focus is required for membership. Membership instead relies on the "valency" of group members, which Bion (1961) defined as the "spontaneous, unconscious function of the gregarious quality in the personality of man" (136). Under valency, members demonstrate a "readiness to enter into combination" with one another (116). This "readiness to enter into combination" is seen in the formation of pools of unanimity and anonymity within the group (Wisdom 1985). These pools can develop around a mood, idea, attitude, value, belief, reaction, etc. The primitive unity that forms underlies the development of basic assumption phenomena.

A basic assumption is an unconscious fantasy activated within group members as soon as a group has formed for some purpose. The fantasy is that the goals of the group can be achieved without any change, negotiation, or strain required from members. It is an omnipotent fantasy that results can be achieved easily and effortlessly, without the need for work. …

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