When problems seem overwhelming, the Trickster archetype often is called for. I’ve long been fascinated by its potential for liberation or con artistry. In fact, my doctoral dissertation looked at Trickster figures in books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch-22, and Invisible Man. Dionysus, in my new book, Persephone Rising, is one also. This blog is triggered by Donald Trump’s candidacy, but it actually is about much more. All the attention on him suggests to me that the Trickster archetype is reemerging in our time, forcing us to make this archetype conscious so that we can gain its gifts and avoid its downsides. Besides its political manifestation, the Trickster in each of us also can be an agent for good or result in a whole lot of trouble for everyone concerned.
Tricksters abound in all cultures. Generally, they achieve their goals through trickery, and in the process undermine traditional rules about how things are done. Often, but not always, they truly enjoy the process.
Trump has spent much of his life as a playboy. Funded initially by his wealthy father, he has had the freedom to do just about whatever he enjoys, and what he loves most is “the deal” and playing to win it as a game. He has defied what he calls “political correctness” and how a presidential campaign generally is conducted. He also is good at manipulating events to get what he wants: from the beginning of his campaign, for example, the press has given him free 24/7 coverage, and he managed to hijack the Republican Party from its traditional leaders and many of its funders. In short, the Trickster appears to be a strong element in his behavior.
The round-the-clock attention Trump is getting invites us to more deeply examine the Trickster archetype, with both its gifts and its dangers.
The Trickster in America
The Trickster is a powerful archetype in American culture. Think, for example, of Coyote in Native American lore, the Bre’r Rabbit stories (their racism aside) where the Rabbit outfoxes the fox, Bugs Bunny tricking Elmer Fudd, The Road Runner getting away once again from Wile E. Coyote, Tom Sawyer tricking his friends into painting the fence for him, or Disney’s movie version of Mary Poppins, who tricks the Banks children into behaving and their parents into spending time with them, so that they become a real family. The term “Yankee ingenuity,” which seems to have fallen out of everyday usage, sometimes has been used to describe a trickster element in the way Americans have solved problems. The Trickster also can be transformational, like the shaman Don Juan, in the best-selling series of books by Carlos Castaneda, who tricks his followers into experiencing an evolved consciousness and, in so doing, realizing the higher purpose of the archetype.
The United States won its independence by breaking all the standard rules of war that the British took for granted. And even today, the informal way we dress and the freedom of expression enjoyed by our artists and entertainers shocks some people around world—while others adopt our styles, listen to our music, and watch our movies and TV shows.
Tricksters in Politics
Martin Luther King, Jr. performed the role of positive trickster in its serious form when he shifted American thinking from us vs. them/White vs. Black to the question of how we stay true to the founding values of our country—the belief that all people have the fundamental right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” President Lyndon B. Johnson demonstrated trickster abilities in using every leverage point he had with members of Congress in order to pass civil rights legislation, just as President Lincoln had done to end slavery.
Because the Trickster is a subtype of the Jester archetype, we also can see it expressed in the preference of many Americans today to get their news from those who can transmute difficult situations into laughter—for example, as Jon Stewart did on The Daily Show. Often, such humor positively tricks people out of taking everything so seriously that they get anxious and depressed. Participants in brainstorming sessions frequently are encouraged to think of outrageous solutions to difficult issues, which can lighten them up enough to escape the obvious answers and consider new possibilities.
The Trickster as Con Artist in Popular Media
However, when archetypes are emerging or reemerging in consciousness, it is not unusual for them to display their counterproductive sides first. The most negative embodiment of this archetype is the con man—though as a people, we love their entertainment value despite their potential destructiveness. An example would be Harold Hill, the lead character in the musical The Music Man, who, in a scheme to sell instruments, promises the townspeople that their children will be playing together in a wonderful marching band. In truth, he plans to abscond with their money. Only when he falls in love with a local woman does his conscience begin to object.
There can a downward slippery slope for the Trickster archetype when it is ego-driven and does not care for others. This is evident in the portrayal of Francis Underwood, in the Netflix series House of Cards, whose capacity for manipulation has no ethical boundaries. You also can see it in the depiction of Olivia Pope, in the ABC political thriller Scandal, who starts out as a self-proclaimed “fixer.” Because she initially is so lovable, it is difficult not to keep rooting for her, even as she begins to authorize torture, like her demonic father before her.
Caroline Casey, an expert on this archetype, argues that the test of whether what we are viewing (or being) is a positive Trickster or a damaging con artist is based on the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. To avoid inadvertently going over the Trickster dark side, Casey recommends declining to do to someone else what you would not want to endure yourself.
Optimism, Desire, and Being Conned
To be successful, a Trickster con artist always needs someone willing to be duped. As Americans, our inherent optimism makes it easy for us not to recognize that what seems too good to be true almost always is. This applies even to very sophisticated people—for example, many of those who were taken in by Bernie Madoff. It can be even more the case for people who are scraping to make a living, hoping for their big break. Before the economic crisis of 2008, millions believed they were realizing their big dream of home ownership, often ignoring the reality of balloon payments or assuming that they would never lose their job or get ill. In the Academy Award-nominated film The Big Short, about the origin of worldwide recession in Wall Street practices, the viewer comes to identify with a few individuals who saw the crash coming before others did and conned the big banks, making a killing when it happened. Only one of these characters seems truly concerned about the millions who lost their homes. Lower-level Tricksters lack empathy for those they trick; higher-level ones use the trick for the healing and ultimate good of others.
Trump’s Candidacy and the Need to Cheer Up
Many of those who attend Trump rallies laugh when the candidate says outrageous things and chime in with ongoing refrains that propose simple solutions to complicated problems—like chanting "Build the Wall" and answering the question of who will pay for it by shouting “Mexico!” Trump’s popularity is not merely the product of prejudice, or a desire for something radically new, but also reflects a longing by his followers to lighten up and experience the relief that can come from believing in easy answers. Depression, anxiety, fear of the future, addiction, and suicide are rampant today. Many of his supporters believe that Trump would use cunning to make all our problems disappear—tricking others around the world to act in the interest of the United States. They hope he will use his abilities to con the world, as well as others within our own country, so that his constituents get what they want.
At the same time, Trump’s detractors look at his history and fear that the con ultimately would be at the expense of Americans or even the world at large. They cite his history of bankruptcies and shady business practices, where he repeatedly has left others holding the bag when his projects went south. In response to his suggestion that he would be fine with having the U.S. default on its debts, they argue that this could leave our creditors—many of whom are American institutions and individuals—in financial difficulty, perhaps even causing a global depression.
Beyond Trump, however, there is a more general desire among voters to shake things up, to move beyond established ways of doing things, to try something new—a desire manifested strongly in the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders.
What Level of the Trickster is Right for Us Now?
The level of attention the Trump campaign is getting from supporters and detractors alike suggests to me some urgency for a national conversation on where we are and where we want to be with the Trickster archetype. In the United States, change tends to trickle up, not down. I see the Trump phenomenon as an invitation for us to embody the answer we want to achieve. Doing so is important not just to create ripple effects in our nation and the world; it also is necessary for us to get out of stuck places in our own lives.
So, irrespective of whom we vote for, we need to consider the archetype itself—and which version of it is needed now in the U.S., in the larger world, and in our personal lives. My request is that you build on what I’ve said in this blog with your comments. Here are some questions to get your thinking going, though you shouldn’t feel hemmed in by them.