It is becoming quite popular, especially on the left, to compare the Trump administration to various autocratic dictatorships throughout history as a sort of warning for what to fight against. This kind of exercise is more galvanizing to the opposition than useful as an analytical tool. With that important caveat, as I was reading Mayfair Yang’s chapter on the “Cult of Mao,” I could not help but indulging in the comparison, so please bear with me as I think through what Yang’s analysis of Maoist populism might tell us about our current moment.
In part, Yang’s analysis of Mao does not easily map on to contemporary politics, because she demonstrates how Mao was specific to a moment in Chinese history. Prior to Mao, China had begun the tumultuous process of modernization, where longstanding traditional understandings and practices were rapidly being destroyed. And yet the promise of modernity had failed to materialize; the standards of Chinese life had not dramatically improved simply because the leaders were engaged in Western science. Instead, modernity brought China into the folds of international conflict with the invasion of Imperial Japan. World War II brought mass suffering across the country due to violence, rape and economic destruction, but the traditional cultural practices for dealing with such loss rang hollow. “Compared to the modern military, technological, and democratic power and allure of the West, Chinese tradition seemed hopelessly backward and corrupt, it deserved an early death; however emotional attachment to tradition was difficult to break; it had offered security and stability, as opposed to the destabilizing forces of modernity” (Yang 262). What made Mao so motivational as a leader was his ability to channel the anger and loss of the collective, while simultaneously symbolizing modernity.
Yang describes the period preceding Mao as a sort of “collective mourning” for the emotional loss of traditional Chinese culture without the collective tools for mediating or dealing with this loss. She builds off of the work of Nicholas Abraham and Maria Tolok to identify two ways of dealing with loss. The first is in the form of “introjection,” a benign healing process that involves two oral enactments to “swallow” the loss, in the form of eating and talking with others. The second is “incorporation,” where the body absorbs the loss instead of enacting it. This means that “the grief that cannot be expressed builds a secret vault within the subject…when the vault is threatened, the phantom of the crypt may come to haunt the keeper of the graveyard, marking strange and incomprehensible signs to him, forcing him to perform unwonted acts, arousing unexpected feelings in him” (Yang 262). The Maoist cult was the product of a culture that failed to introject its losses, but rather incorporated them. The collective libido needed a place to flow, and manifested itself into a worship-like obsession with Mao. This inspired people to defend Mao at any cost, as well as to perform and support actions they would have previously found outrageous.
I am not as convinced by the Freudian projection onto a mass collective like China, but for a moment let’s think about whether this holds any resemblance to the collective psyche of Trump voters. I am sure that I am not the only one who did not recognize the America Trump described in his inaugural address. The crime and destruction he articulated seem far less significant than the kind of deep societal turmoil China experience during Japanese occupation. And yet, many Americans seem to be motivated by this great sense of loss and mourning for what America used to be. The promises of neoliberalism and globalization have not manifested into a more prosperous or egalitarian society; meanwhile many of the previous forms of “introjection,” such as Christianity, are often criticized and diminished as backwards theologies of bigotry. Throughout the election, I was surprised that a man like Trump could gain support in places like my home state of Texas. My experience with Texan politics was that conservative voters preferred polite, amiable “good ole boys” to the brash, confrontational “Yankee” politicians (my father’s words). Perhaps the feeling of loss was incorporated into the conservative psyche, and the “secret vault” is arousing unexpected feelings. Again, we have not seen the same sort of cultish behaviors evident in Mao’s time, but it remains a framework worth considering.
*Andrew Wortham is a second year PhD student in Anthropology and Education.
Thank you so much for this introduction to Yang’s work on Mao and a very clear connection to modern times. In the future they will study MAGA (if we haven’t blown up the world) and probably compare it to many specific moments in history where the revolution of ideas outstripped the existing culture’s ability to digest the change, and the elite refused to listen and provide a narrative or compelling plan for incorporating this change into the existing culture. Out of curiousity, have you think of any other leaders or historical moments that also fit this paradigm? Thank you for a great article, I’m glad I happened upon it
Very thoughtful Andrew! Well done!