[Donald John, or Dòmnall Iain is one of the most common names on the Isle of Lewis, the birthplace of Donald Trump’s ancestors. It translates, from the Latin and Norse roots, as dom and val, as The Ruler of the World]
In a wide-ranging interview, the writer, activist and ecologist, Alastair McIntosh, has raised an intriguing possibility that US President Donald Trump’s personality and behaviour can be traced back to traumatic 19th century clearances and evictions in southern and western Lewis (Pairc and Uig). The subsequent shortages of land and poverty on the Scottish island drove Donald Trump’s mother, Mary McLeod, and other members of his family, to migrate to America in the early part of the 20th century. If McAlastair’s thesis is accurate, that the President carries a “wound to his primal integrity from places that he probably doesn’t even know about”, compromised in “his capacity even to have an inner life as distinct from it all being on the outside – cut off by his deracination, his uprooting”, there is a deep irony. Trump now represents a modern form of this uprooting, occupying a powerful convergence of politician-celebrity-consumer: the perfect cypher for the ascendant powers of “neurocapitalism” or the “attention economy”. He is the “stand-up President” for forces of capitalization that now target or enclose, above all, our mind-share, attention and subjectivity through a complex of media, corporate and political institutions.
Speculation about Donald Trump’s psychological condition has followed the new President all the way into the White House. The debate reached a new pitch in February 2016 when the Huffpost published a letter from three of Harvard University’s professors of psychiatry raising “grave concern” regarding then President-elect due to his “widely reported symptoms of mental instability – including grandiosity, hypersensitivity to slights or criticism, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality”. Of of this led the professors to question Trump’s fitness for office and recommend that he receive a full medical and “neuropsychiatric evaluation”. Earlier this year The New York Times joined the debate with a cautionary note, publishing an op-ed by Richard E Friedman under the title, “Is It Time to Call Trump Mentally Ill?” Friedman called on the psychiatric profession and others to step back from diagnosis by media.
In an article for Bella Caledonia, an online magazine dedicated to Scotland’s self-determination, autonomy and independence, Alastair McIntosh, who also hails from the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, brought his own insights to the conversation about Trump’s profile. Alastair is a celebrated writer, poet, broadcaster and activist with a deep interest in spirituality, justice, and ecology. In his article, he recalls a return visit to Lewis with an old friend from Leurbost village in the region that was home to Donald Trump’s ancestors. Members of the Trump family still live there. On asking “Wonder which is Trump’s house?”, Alastair receives an unexpected response from his friend: “I know which one it is…But I’m not showing anybody.” McIntosh explains: “In a nutshell, that sums up the island view of Trump. Partly because he so much doesn’t represent the island’s values that they’re at a loss to explain it. And equally, partly out of the respect for the privacy of the family. Trump is dirty washing that the island would rather not hang out, and not just on Sundays.”
McIntosh appeals to the tradition of the islands’ notion of Second Sight – an dà shealladh or “the two sights” – to offer his own tentative explanation of the Trump phenomenon. The “Second Sight” refers to a local belief in a quality of insight or disposition associated with life in the tightly knit communities of the Highlands and Isles of Scotland “where empathy remains profound” “because the deeper levels of the psyches of individuals are not as disconnected from one another as they become in highly competitive metropolitan settings.” Moreover, it is a quality that is said to be lost by those islanders transported to live in other countries.
This fascinated Alastair because it suggested to him that when the bonds of community are broken, the capacity for deepest empathy and intimacy are lost too. This will resonate for those familiar with the rupture experienced by generations of young Irish men and women forcefully uprooted from their own landscapes and forced to migrate to the world’s metropolitan centres. McIntosh recalls that Donald Trump’s mother, Mary MacLeod and other members of her family were, in all probability, economic migrants along with large numbers of the island’s youth who migrated to America in the early part of the 20th century. In the background was a story of clearances and evictions, with origins in the first half of the 19th century when the proto-capitalist speculative Mackenzie landlords evicted people from southern and western Lewis (Pairc and Uig). Their ancestral land was rented out for commercial sheep farming. It seems that two branches of the Trump family were forced from their homes due to the subsequent poverty, becoming refugees.
McIntosh reflects: “When I look at Donald Trump – his colossal egotism, his grandiosity, his disconnect from empathy – I see a man who nurses a narcissistic wound, a wound to his primal integrity from places that he probably doesn’t even know about. And that’s just on his mother’s side. Like those plantation managers in the African trade [of whom Lord Tarbett spoke], his capacity to be and inwardly see – his capacity even to have an inner life as distinct from it all being on the outside – has been cut off by his deracination, his uprooting, from holding in his community.”
Listen to McIntosh in this wide ranging interview recorded for the School of Law at Queens University Belfast.
I am a lecturer in sustainable development and governance at the School of Law, Queens University Belfast. I also conduct work at United Nations negotiations on the environment for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
My book on the attention economy and mindfulness as commons was published by Routlege in June 2017. See A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: Reclaiming the Mindful Commons (Routledge Studies in Sustainability)
My research interests include consumerism, green politics and the economy. I locate myself firmly to the left of the political spectrum. I write in a personal capacity.
Born in Donegal, I was raised in Derry and now reside in Belfast with my family.