The Pathology of Paranoia: Sigmund Freud meets the Radical Right

As I continue to interact with people from the radical right who seem to see the world from such a different perspective as I do, I desperately want to understand what drives them. The disconnect on our mutual perspectives manifested itself recently in an exchange about gun rights. Among the normal rants about guns not killing people, the deflection strategy of focusing on mental health (programs the radical right have decimated across our country), and other NRA bumper sticker rants, was this attempt by a gun owner to get me to understand why guns are important.

He related a story about his son finding a man lying unconscious in the street. His son came and got him and instead of running out to help the man, the gun owner grabbed his gun and approached the unconscious man believing it was some sort of trap. He was ready to shoot the guy if it was the ambush he feared it was. Eventually he found out the guy was just drunk and so he called the police. The moral of his story is that if he didn’t have a gun, he would never have taken the risk to find out if the man was ok. So the gun owner’s gun actually benefitted the drunk guy.

It was at this point that I realized that the root of my disconnect with the radical right lies in my inability to see threats everywhere. I simply can’t see an unconscious man as an ambush in waiting. I can’t see every hooded black teenager as a threat to my life. And I realized that I have more to legitimately fear from paranoid gun owners than I do from the rest of society. (I suppose I should start advocating that everyone who plans on going on a bender pack a gun in case some paranoid gun owner comes across you after you’ve passed out.)

So in my continued effort to understand the people who seem so different from me, I invited a northern Michigan gun owner and NRA enthusiast who I’ll call “Lucas” to protect his real identity, and Sigmund Freud to my house to have a chat. Freud, who remains one of the most influential figures in studying the human mind, has been underground for years but decided to come forward as a special favor that apparently he owed my mother.

Before Lucas arrived Freud and I had a chance to catch up and I explained to him my interest in bringing Lucas and him together.

Me: Thanks a lot for doing this. I think if you can really get inside of Lucas’ head, we might be able to change the political culture in the country. If I can truly understand what makes him tick, maybe there are ways to find some common ground.

Freud: Don’t get ahead of yourself, Mark. The mind is a very complicated thing. In everyone’s mind a daily battle goes on between the things we’d like to do and the things we ought to do.

Me: The id, the ego, and the superego, right?

Freud: The ego represents what we call reason and sanity, in contrast to the id which contains the passions.

Me: And they are often in conflict?

Freud: Correct. One might compare the relation of the ego to the id with that between a rider and his horse. The horse provides the locomotor energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it. But all too often in the relations between the ego and the id we find a picture of the less ideal situation in which the rider is obliged to guide his horse in the direction in which it itself wants to go.

Me: I think I get it. So what do you think you’ll be able to discover today in meeting with Lucas?

Freud: We may learn nothing. All the defensive measures of the ego against the id are carried out silently and invisibly. The most we can ever do is to reconstruct them in retrospect: we can never really witness them in operation. This statement applies, for instance, to successful repression. The ego knows nothing of it; we are aware of it only subsequently, when it becomes apparent that something is missing.

Me: So even if Lucas is completely honest with us, we may not learn the entire story?

Freud: Especially if Lucas thinks he’s being completely honest with us. Because so much goes on in the subconscious, we will mostly hear how Lucas “believes” he justifies things.

As the doorbell rang I was less hopeful than I was when I had originally set up the meeting. If Freud was right, we might not be able to move past the normal banter between a strident gun owner and someone who believes in the right to own guns, but also believes that there ought to be reasonable measures to control gun ownership.

As Lucas entered the room, he took two or three careful steps and stopped to look around. I invited him to come and take a seat, but he stood there surveying the room. His eyes stopped when he saw my black cat curled up on the sofa.

Lucas: You didn’t tell me you had a black cat.

Me: I’m sorry, I didn’t know that was an issue.

Lucas: (laughing) Of course it’s an issue!

Me: Are you allergic?

Lucas: Only to black ones.

As I shooed the cat downstairs, Lucas patiently looked over my bookshelves and nodded and grunted occasionally. He turned slowly toward me.

Lucas: Are you a commie?

Me: What? A commie? What do you mean?

Lucas: I see books by Cliniton, Stewart, Obama, Franken, and Maher. All commies. If this meeting is going to be some kind of commie indoctrination session, I’m out of here.

Me: Lucas, please relax; we’re not here to persuade you about anything. I’m simply trying to learn. Besides, none of those guys are “commies.” They’re centrists and liberals for sure, but not commies.

Lucas: Well if you think about it, that’s exactly what you’d expect a commie to say.

As I led him to his seat, I introduced him to Freud. As Freud extended his hand to greet Lucas, Lucas took a giant step back and looked at me like I had just jabbed him in the solar plexus.

Lucas: You didn’t tell me he was goddamn foreigner!

Me: Lucas! It’s Sigmund Freud! He’s Austrian and one of the world’s greatest thinkers about the human mind. You have nothing to fear!

Lucas: That’s your problem, man. Foreigners are taking over our country.

Freud: How do you mean?

Lucas (eyeing Freud suspiciously): I didn’t expect YOU’D agree! The United Nations…made up of foreigners, right?

Freud and I tentatively nod our heads.

Lucas: The UN is planning on taking over our country. Read Agenda 21, it’s their master plan. And you know about all those training exercises in the desert they’re running with Muslims and such as they prepare for the final showdown, right?

Freud and I glance at each other in mutual recognition that this is going to be more complicated than we planned.

Me: Lucas, we can talk about the UN later if that’s ok. Let’s take a seat and get started.

Before Lucas took a seat, he walked around the room and looked at every chair, sofa, and stool. Freud and I watched him curiously as Lucas positioned himself as if to sit in each seat and look around at the doors and windows before he chose a chair in the corner.

Me: Lucas, is everything ok?

Lucas: Just want to be able to see the doors and windows in case someone tries to bust in.

Me: Bust in?

Lucas: Look around, man! You have some nice stuff. I’m pretty sure your neighbors want it. They don’t know I’m here with my weapon, so they could try anytime to get in.

Me: You’re packing!?

Lucas: You didn’t think I’d walk in here and risk an ambush, did you?

Freud: But we’re only here to talk.

Lucas: If you think about it, that’s exactly what someone waiting to ambush you would say.

Freud and I took our seats without saying another word, but the knowledge that Lucas was armed was certainly weighing on our minds.

Just as Freud began to speak, the doorbell rang and Lucas dropped to his knee and grabbed his gun.

Lucas: You check out the back! I’ve got the front covered!

Me: Lucas! Please! Let me see who it is.

Lucas: Are you nuts? You’re not going to open the door are you?

Me: Well, I’m at least going to check!

Lucas: Don’t use the peephole. They’ll have a gun there and as soon as they sense you’re looking at them, they’ll take you out. Oldest trick in the book.

I shook my head in bewilderment as I walked up to the door. Just as I was about to look through the peephole, I stopped. Frozen in a brief moment of fear, I backed away and peered out the window to the left side of the door. Outside were a couple of students who were clearly doing some fundraising.

I turned to Lucas and gave him the “OK” sign and gestured to him to put away his weapon and take a seat. I opened the door and the students tried to convince me to buy some cookies to support their class trip to Washington. I really didn’t need any cookies, but I signed up for some oatmeal raisin with walnuts because I knew no one else in the house would touch them. You learn these things the hard way after you buy 5 batches of chocolate chip and end up getting one cookie before they’re gone.

Lucas was carefully observing the transaction as he sat nervously in the corner. As I shut the door, he bellowed at me.

Lucas: What on God’s green earth are you doing?

Me: Relax. I just bought some cookies so they can get to D.C.

Lucas: D.C.? You’re helping them get to D.C.? Why would you do that?

Me: It’s a class trip to learn about their government. Why wouldn’t I?

Lucas: Right. The government ships the kids off to D.C. and brainwashes them about how good government is. They don’t need to go to D.C. to see how evil things are in Washington. They’ll come back thinking we have a real democracy and that a black President is ok and that there are no plans to confiscate guns and that the UN is not planning to invade and that Area 51 is made up and….

Me: Lucas, man, calm down. It’s a class trip. I can’t see that happening.

Lucas: Well if you think about it, that’s exactly what you’d expect someone who’s part of the conspiracy to say.

Freud: So tell me Lucas, why do you feel that there are threats to you everywhere?

Lucas: Because there are!

Freud: So do you drop to your knee and pull your weapon every time someone comes to your door?

Lucas: No one comes to my door. The signs warn them off.

Me: The signs?

Lucas: Sure. “Keep your Feet off my Property and Your Hands off my Guns.”

Me: And they work?

Lucas: If someone can’t read, they learn in a hurry that my dogs know the rules.

Freud: (clearing his throat) Let’s go back to these fears. When did you start feeling this way?

Lucas: I think I always knew that my way of life was under siege. I think about Waco and Ruby Ridge and how the government is not interested in people living the way they want to live.

Me: But Waco and Ruby Ridge involved people who had committed crimes, endangered children, and refused to pay taxes.

Lucas: Why should they pay taxes? They’re just helping the government fund the end game!

Me: (showing some frustration) But doesn’t the government need money for national defense and to fund courts and a whole lot of other things that are part of a civilized society?

Lucas: You mean a mollified society, don’t you? Look, people like you get all soft and cushy. The government builds a few roads, provides services that makes you soft and dependant, and as soon as you start believing that life can be good if we all pitch in together, they shut it all down. They have your guns, your money, your access to food and water and they turn the whole thing over to the United Nations. It’s obvious.

Freud: Little in life is that obvious, sir. All of these things could actually be part of building a society that functions well for its citizens and establishes a climate of justice and opportunity, couldn’t they?

Lucas: If you think about it, that’s exactly what someone who’s part of the plan would say. You say you study the mind, I say you’re a brainwasher. It’s obvious.

Freud: But, sir, how have I….

Lucas: Look, you smooth talking Kraut, I’ve had enough of this. You guys lured me here and you probably have people heading to my house right now to take advantage of my wife and daughter. Keep your goddamn analysis to yourself. I’m out of here.

And with that, Lucas sprang up and backed out of the room in a serpentine pattern, crouched with his hand on his gun, and wildly shifting his eyes back and forth between Freud and me.

The door slammed and he ran toward his truck. He looked under it and around it (presumably looking for the bomb the teenagers probably planted) and then drove off squealing his tires and kicking up stones.

Freud collapsed in his chair while I struggled for words to apologize for the crazed events of the past half hour.

Freud: You see, Mark, your friend has succumbed to severe paranoia. All the evidence around him which essentially constitutes his ego, comes into conflict with all the things he wants to believe which essentially constitutes his id. His ego has lost the battle and his id is taking him places he otherwise could never go. Paranoia has a purpose after all.

Me: A purpose? Really?

Freud: The purpose of paranoia is to ward off an idea that is incompatible with the ego, by projecting its substance into the external world.

Me: So he’s creating a reality?

Freud: Indeed.

Freud grabbed his hat and thanked me for the opportunity. He walked to the door, glancing over his shoulder a couple of times. As we shook hands he offered me some comfort.

Freud: I wouldn’t worry too much about your friend. He will continue to live in his delusional world, read conspiracy theory websites, and mostly fail to find peace and comfort in his life. I don’t think he poses a threat to you.

As I shut the door behind him, I thought to myself, “If you think about it, that’s exactly what someone who’s out to get me would say.”

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