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Studies in Gender and Sexuality
ISSN: 1524-0657 (Print) 1940-9206 (Online) Journal homepage: https://tandfonline.com/loi/hsgs20
The Implosion of the Moral Third: Moral
Omnipotence in the Era of Horror About Donald
To cite this article: Malin Fors (2019) The Implosion of the Moral Third: Moral Omnipotence
in the Era of Horror About Donald Trump, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 20:1, 11-16, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/15240657.2019.1559510
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Published online: 18 Feb 2019.
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The Implosion of the Moral Third: Moral Omnipotence in the Era of
Horror About Donald Trump
Malin Fors, MSc
Finnmark Hospital Trust, Hammerfest, Norway
This article, while unsympathetic to Donald Trump, critiques the frequent
tone of moral omnipotence and narcissistic display of good-heartedness in
much current political discourse in the American psychoanalytic commu-
nity. The author argues, from the perspective of a Scandinavian psycho-
analyst, that the United States violated basic human rights long before the
Trump era, and that the problems with the Trump era lie on a continuum
with what came before, rather than suddenly crossing an unacceptable line.
It suggests that there are dangers in seeing a bad other, rather than
exploring our own dominant behavior. Invoking Akhtar´s term “beguiling
generosity,”the author cites studies of “moral self-licensing”that suggest
that, paradoxically, people who commit a self-consciously ethical act tend
to feel free to behave unethically afterward. It explores some dangers in
taking satisfaction for being the good, critical anti-Trump voice.
“I recently visited the Civil Rights museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. On February 1, 1960, four brave
young black men in that town refused to respect the “Whites only”rule that prohibited their eating at lunch
counters alongside White people and started a sit-in movement that echoed throughout the United States. It
marked the beginning of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, including the 1963 Civil Rights March
and Martin Luther King’s“I Have a Dream”speech.
The museum affected me strongly. I found myself fighting back tears during the whole tour. I did not want to
cry in public. My Whiteness burned on my skin as I determinedly swallowed the lump in my throat. So much
unfairness, so much violence, so much oppression, so much White narcissism. Room after room with
unbearable stories. The impact of colonization and slavery was breathing down on me heavily. There were
eight people in our group, all White, guided from room to room. I knew none of the others. In one room we
were asked to do the literacy test that all African Americans had had to pass as a condition of voting. All of us
failed the test. I think I got only two questions right. This was the point at which I could not hold back my tears.
Who had invented this sadistic test? How many people took it and felt stupid? So much violence just in words.
We moved into yet another room. A huge American flag hangonthewall.Itwasartfullylit,andthewallbehindit
featured important names in gold. The Black male guide asked, in that theatrical, solemn voice that only some
Americans can produce: “How do you feel about this flag?”IwokeupfrommythoughtsasIrealizedhewasgesturing
to me, and I said the first word that came to me: “Imperialism!”To my surprise, everyone in the room suddenly seemed
uncomfortable. The guide seemed to feel he needed to smooth over my rudeness and said something conciliating, like
“That’scertainlyanopinion,too,”and then he quickly pointed at the others, one by one, who then expressed their
feelings about the American flag.
I realized that I had ruined the script. This was the point at which we were supposed to celebrate together the
American victory over racism. Racism was in the past. And outside ourselves and outside the United States.
“Pride,”“Freedom,”“Liberalism,”“Power,”“Democracy,”and “Hope”echoed in my ears. I suddenly grasped
why the word “imperialism”was so upsetting. It was as if they were making America great again, and I was
interfering with their manic defense.”
CONTACT Malin Fors, MSc firstname.lastname@example.org VPP Hammerfest, Sykehusveien 28, 9613 Hammerfest, Norway.
© 2019 The Author(s). Published with license by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (http://
creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
STUDIES IN GENDER AND SEXUALITY
2019, VOL. 20, NO. 1, 11–16
What is this common fantasy of greatness? Somebody seems to want to make America great,
again.Andothers,whodon’t like that guy, seem to be worried that America is not great
anymore. All of them paradoxically seem to have an implicit agreement that at some point it
In this respect Donald Trump worries me. My feeling goes beyond the obvious danger that he
could start new wars by provoking dictators around the word. Strangely enough, I am worried about
an aspect of the left-wing critique of Trump. Recently, many people have been understandably
worried about the Trump situation in the United States. This reaction can certainly be seen as
positive, appropriate to the political situation, and unifying of people in the direction of social
justice. But I worry about the narcissistic nuances of showing off one’s goodness in the current
atmosphere. I believe there is a certain moral omnipotence to contemporary tendencies to be
horrified by Trump and all he stands for.
Finding unity in having a common enemy is satisfying and necessary to political movements, but it is
not conducive to self-reflection about our own responsibility. It can distract us from our own dominant
behavior and from the ways we act out our own privileges. I want to argue that the ghosts of prejudice
and unfairness in the world are to be found and battled through self-reflection and emotional honesty
and not simply via the discourse of political moralization. Having an obvious common target represent-
ing all the badness makes us feel better ourselves, and I believe that is potentially dangerous.
From a Scandinavian perspective, the collective sense of horror about Trump seems slightly
hypocritical. The United States violated basic human rights long before the Trump era, and looking
from the outside, I find it hard to understand why people are worried now, when they appear not to
have been worried for decades. Long before Trump’s emergence on the American political scene, the
United States had the death penalty (even for minors), had a long ban on gay marriage, contained huge
numbers of homeless people, allowed the development of a level of wealth discrepancy that seems
blatantly unfair, sent addicted women to jail for killing their fetuses, and exploited and conducted wars
in other countries. The acceptance of guns without reasonable regulation seems irresponsible, and the
health and the educational systems seem deeply inequitable. If I had been born in the United States
rather than Sweden, my own socioeconomic background would have made it impossible for me ever to
have become an analyst. I doubt that I would have had any university degree.
So, evidently enough, I wonder if it is not a privilege in itself to have been sufficiently educated to
formulate an intelligent critique of Trump? And if that in itself embodies the privilege of having been
on the advantaged end of an unfair educational system. It appears that we deeply want to believe we
are innocent and not participating in any unfairness. The strategy of taking distance from the bad,
immoral other makes us into the good ones. I do not mean to sound like an ideological communist,
or to minimize my love for my American friends, or to seem ungrateful to the rich American
psychoanalytic community by which I have always felt welcomed. I am simply calling attention to
the fact that to a mainstream Scandinavian, much of American politics seems alien, unjust, and in
violation of basic human rights, and seemed that way long before Trump appeared on the scene.
From my perspective, Trump’s rise to power, and the political dynamics that put him in office, are
on a continuum with what came before. They do not represent a qualitative transformation or a fixed
limit that has suddenly been passed.
As Young-Bruehl (1996,2007) has described, human beings have an annoying vulnerability to
overgeneralization: We tend to attribute many instances of oppression to one single evil root, and to
do that from a self-chosen favorite angle. Usually we choose the dimension of social injustice that
most fits our own experience. We ignore heterogeneity and fall in love with the one valid perspective
by which we feel enlightened.
I worry that the anti-Trump position can exhaust all the social-justice oxygen that could fuel
other reflectiveness about political inequities. Exaggerating to make a point, I would characterize that
position in terms of the smart, intellectual, left-wing, good-hearted people being oppressed by the
racist, prejudiced, selfish, unenlightened mob. I am worried that the collective hatred of Donald
12 M. FORS
Trump can function as a narcissistic demonstration of one’s intellectual status, without changing
anything in the real world.
Speaking up in open critique of Trump might function as a kind of baptism in the privilege of
innocence, while ignoring one’s own acting out of privileges and one’s own responsibility for not
having spoken up before. We are undoing our privilege and we are now the victims. In other words,
I am worried that we should be more afraid of ourselves than others. We tend to displace the danger.
“After a lovely dinner with friends at an international conference in New Orleans, we had a short discussion on
how return to the hotel safely. One person was worried that it could be dangerous to walk under a bridge where
homeless people were sleeping. We discussed it and agreed that we dared to do so. Even if we felt unprotected
as a group of women without male companions, there were six of us, and there was strength in numbers. It was
dusk but not really dark yet, and the early summer was comfortably warm. We chatted and were in a good
mood as we started out. We approached the bridge. Under it an elderly black man was lying beside the
sidewalk, wrapped in a covering that looked like a plastic bag. He seemed to be trying to sleep. We passed in
silence, saying nothing. Our lively conversations stopped for a moment. After a few hundred yards, one of my
friends named the elephant. “We talked about safety, but who was really unsafe out there?”
I felt ashamed of
having displaced the danger.
It reminded me of an exhibition at Eskiltuna Zoo in Sweden in 1987. I remember that they had advertised their
possession of “the world´s most dangerous animal.”I was 12 years old. I went there expecting to see the world´s
most impressive tiger or a horrifying, prehistoric looking crocodile. Instead I met a flesh and blood human,
Conny Borg, a professional actor in a cage, staging a performance involving human garbage and ugly sun
chairs. I had missed the last part of the advertising: “The world´s most dangerous animal—homo sapiens!”
(Ohlsson and Boström, 1998).”
I think some of the contempt for the Trump voters follows a similar logic. We think those who
voted for Trump are the dangerous ones, but we never really consider how safety is a privilege that
we ourselves have taken for granted. Being educated or wealthy is a big part of being economically
and socially safe. We fail to see the dangerous parts of ourselves. Desperate people can indeed be
dangerous. But I think that the action of making people desperate when one is contributing directly or
indirectly to social injustice should be named more often than it is.
It is not uncommon to hear therapists complaining about having Trump voters as patients, as if
the moral third (Benjamin, 2017) could include all kinds of people except for those who participated
in electing this president. It seems as if the negative features of privilege are somewhere else, split off
and displaced on to the bad other. The bad other seems so bad that even the moral third collapses.
The discussions about working clinically with Trump voters resonate with my own struggle to
maintain empathy for racist patients. I work at a small Arctic rural outpatient clinic in Norway. I am
an immigrant from urban Sweden, and my favorite colleague, a woman I have worked with for more
than 10 years, is a Kenyan in her sixties. I previously wrote about her (Fors, 2018) as follows:
When I started out here as a fresh psychologist, her decades of clinical experience helped me greatly with
finding my place in the field. We both speak Norwegian with a slightly foreign accent. Sometimes, however,
people request a change when assigned to her as a therapist because they “did not understand her accent.”This
may happen after only one session or even after reading her name on the summons letter. Because at the time
I was the only other psychologist at the clinic, I got a few of these patients transferred to my case load. I was
upset to discover that my own accent was never a problem. Never. Even though my Norwegian grammar was
terrible compared with hers, I was never rejected because of language issues. Even though it was hard to prove
in every case that it was not a matter of personal chemistry or alliance, I found myself having the creeping
suspicion not only that I was treating all the racist patients, but worse, that I was part of a racist enactment at
our clinic. The ethics were complicated: How could I keep empathy for the patients toward whom I had become
angry or suspicious? Equally important, how could I show solidarity with my colleague? The question turned
out to be even more complicated when I naively tried to address the problem of societal racism among our
patients as well as in our small, predominantly White society at a team meeting. The question was handled very
defensively in the group; people made all kinds of far-fetched excuses except those involving racism and skin
color. (pp. 50–51)
Thanks to Kee Suvansri O´Toole for being wise.
STUDIES IN GENDER AND SEXUALITY 13
This felt like a parallel situation to my experience at the Civil Rights museum in Greensboro.
Again, racism was in the past, outside ourselves and outside our society. Norway was great. What
was I raising such a fuss about? It seemed to be my destiny to be the feminist killjoy (Ahmed, 2010),
pointing out Norway was not great. Nobody believed me, however, and no smug proud nationalism
seemed killed, wounded, or even threatened. I remember that this left me lonely and confused.
Suddenly I could not deny that I was embodying racism. My Whiteness had become an instrument
for covert excused racism. It hurt my self-image. As Suchet wrote (2004), “Whites have dissociated
the historical position of the oppressor from collective consciousness, due to our inability to tolerate
an identification with the aggressor. Our disavowal of race as constitutive of subjectivity ensures that
race becomes a site for enactments”(p. 423).
I was no longer just an innocent privileged but mostly nice person bearing witness to and
heroically recognizing and addressing unfairness. I was a part of the problem. Obviously, no
Whites wanted to share my White guilt or be soiled with the dirt of accountability smudged on
my White skin. And how could I know I was better than these racist patients? I suddenly realized
that I was not, as I recalled the following account of my own shameful racism. I have written about
this painful episode previously (Fors, 2018):
I did not think of myself as having any anti-Islamic prejudice until I almost panicked when I had a painful cyst
that required me to be seen by a male Iranian gynecologist at the hospital in the middle of the night. He was
skillful, and I felt ashamed that my emotions did not cooperate with my intellectual understanding. Such
experiences recall Davids’s(2003,2011) suggestion that we all have an internalized racist structure and Fonagy
and Higgitt’s theory (2007) that situations that threaten us or our attachment security will bring forth prejudice.
When we need to confront ourselves with this, we often become defensive about it. When we discover it in
ourselves, the guilt is hard to bear because we consciously do not consider ourselves to be racist.”(p. 83)
We want to be the good ones, and we try hard to be seen as good. This observation recalls the
well-known left-wing critique of charity (e.g., Žižek, 2010): namely, that it serves mainly a narcissistic
function. Akhtar (2012) suggested the term “beguiling generosity”for self-interest-driven versions of
generosity, and Pon (2009) critiqued cultural competency discourse for its similarly narcissistic
display of one’s goodness. We tend to pick well-intentioned projects that resonate in us or make us
feel good. For example, it is a sad truth that human beings have more positive feeling toward
attractive infants than toward unattractive babies, who can evoke negative reactions, including
disgust (Schein and Langlois, 2016). We tend to like and support smart kids in our neighborhood,
not those who give us problems.
Another zoo offers a relevant mirror on such human limitations. The Swedish zoological park,
Nordens Ark, preserves animals under threat of extinction and works to value the whole ecosystem.
In fulfilling its mission, its members try to find sponsors to help finance efforts to preserve
threatened species. They have no problem finding sponsors for majestic animals such as the snow
leopard, the Siberian tiger, and the maned wolf. Finding sponsors for the pool frog, the Luristan
newt, and the great capricorn beetle, however, is a hard slog. If people were genuinely invested in the
whole ecosystem, they would not support exotic mammals at the expense of other species. But we
prefer being associated with a strong, beautiful leopard rather than an ugly frog.
Research on moral self-licensing (e.g., Blanken, van der Ven, and Zeelenberg, 2015; Effron,
Cameron, and Monin, 2009; Merritt, Effron, and Monin, 2010; Monin and Miller, 2001; Sachdeva,
Iliev, and Medin, 2009) suggests that the feeling that one has already contributed to something good
may free people to behave badly. An initial opportunity to appear antiracist may actually increase
our risk of subsequently choosing a White police officer over a Black police officer when presented
with a fictive recruiting dilemma (Efferon, Cameron, and Monin, 2009). Having the opportunity to
first reject sexist statements and appear gender egalitarian may increase the likelihood of our
describing a male as better suited for a job than a female (Monin and Miller, 2001). These findings
comport with the discovery of Mazar and Zhong (2010) that people who bought ecofriendly
products in a virtual shopping experiment were more likely to cheat and steal afterward. When
14 M. FORS
our goodness has been established, we relax and expand our ethical boundaries into dubious
For these reasons, I worry that a shared sense of horror at Trump is no more effective than the
actions of those who shift their Facebook status to a rainbow flag or who click “like”against bullying
or poverty. One gets the narcissistic satisfaction of being the good one, at no cost. Showing off
a position does not necessarily correlate with taking associated actions. I am ashamed to admit that
for many years I did not commit to systematic sorting of my trash for recycling. My rationalization
was that since I had voted for the Green party for the Swedish Parliament, I had already taken my
share of responsibility for the ecosphere.
I have wondered if some brilliant contemporary writing on addressing the social context exem-
plifies a similar phenomenon. It can be read as representing an exaggerated therapeutic optimism, as
if simply seeing a problem, or discussing it with a patient, would make a difference. Addressing
political context in the therapeutic space is urgent (e.g., Altman, 2005,2006; Bodnar, 2004; Dimen,
2011; Fairfield, Layton, and Stack, 2002; Layton, Hollander, and Gutwill, 2006; Leary, 1997; Orange,
Atwood, and Stolorow, 2001; Samuels, 2006; Walls, 2006), but at the same time it risks our becoming
complacent in the paradigm of witnessing. I have previously noted (Fors, 2018, pp. 53–54) that
“Some of the witnessing declarations one finds in the contemporary relational movement [have]
such overtones of narcissistic self-soothing and moral triumph. The moral third shrinks into a moral
binary, with therapists as omnipotent moral saviors.”
The hazards of becoming unreflectively stuck in good-hearted blindness are especially a risk when
privileged, left-wing patients are seeing privileged therapists with strong commitments toward social
justice. We are tempted to dance the tango of self-celebration as enlightened persons. Lately,
I suspect horror at Trump is a favorite position in which to do such moralizing dance steps. At
worst, this could foreclose important explorations in the direction of self-changing problem solving:
for example, how to raise children without heterosexist values (Drescher and Fors, 2018), how to
contribute less to overconsumption, and how to profit less from capitalism, racism, and colonialism.
My point here is not so much about achieving utopian goals as about staying in the zone of
How might we endure self-reflection, to seek the badness in ourselves and not in others? How
might we make sure that horror at the Trump administration is not just self-soothing lip service that
supports a sense of innocence?
We are going to the zoo to see the world´s most dangerous animal. We expect to see a tiger,
a horrifying crocodile, or a grandiose Trump. Instead we should see ourselves. “The world´s most
dangerous animal—homo sapiens”does not allude narrowly to the actor Conny Borg, but to all of us.
Too seldom we fly the flag at half mast to grieve our own accountability.
Notes on contributor
Malin Fors is a Swedish psychologist and psychoanalyst living in the world’s northernmost town, Hammerfest,
Norway. She works at the Finnmark Hospital Trust and also in private practice. She is an assistant professor at the
University of Tromsø, the Arctic University of Norway, where she teaches medical students on topics of diversity,
privilege awareness, and critical perspectives on cultural competency. Her book A Grammar of Power in Psychotherapy
won the 2016 APA Division 39 Johanna K. Tabin Book Proposal Prize. She has a DVD in the APA Therapy Series:
“The Dynamics of Power and Privilege in Psychotherapy with Malin Fors.”
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