The Dance of Shadows in America:

Reflections on the Presidential Election of 2016

By Christopher Schaefer

Always the assumption is that we can first set demons at large and then, somehow, become smart enough to control them.” Wendell Berry [1]

The election is over. Many of us are confused, dismayed and live with the questions of what actually happened? How can we make sense of it and what can we do now?

We live in strange times when both presidential candidates had extraordinarily high negative ratings, each being loathed by close to half the population. President Trump is described by many as having some of the ugliest character traits one can imagine. ”A hypersensitivity to criticism, a streak of viciousness, an inability to confess error and a willful ignorance about the issues.” [1] One can easily add other unsavory qualities, that he is a proud and unrepentant liar, a narcissist, an acknowledged tax evader, a racist, misogynist, sexual predator and woeful bigot. Clearly singularly unfit for office and yet now President of the United States.

With Hillary Clinton the situation is more complex because she has been in the public eye for decades, as first lady, as a Senator, presidential candidate in 2008 and more recently as Secretary of State. Given her experience and background it is hard to understand the demonization and profound anger which the Republican Right has directed at her for many years: she is the feminine face of evil, the devil incarnate, the murderer who has dispatched dozens of individuals, an organizer of the Clinton Foundation as a pay to play Ponzi scheme and, listening to Donald Trump, the person most responsible for what is wrong with America and the world.

There is also another element which comes into play. She is described as the symbol of the changes which our modern technocratic and more socially inclusive society represents, giving minorities, women and people of diverse sexual identities more rights and opportunities. Hillary has thereby been made into a scapegoat by many white Trump voters who blame her for a society in which they feel increasingly disrespected, misunderstood, undervalued and unemployed.

There have been many efforts to explain the popularity of Donald Trump and his capture of the Republican Party and on Nov. 9th, of the Presidency: he is the next logical step in the evolution of the Republican party, he represents a backlash against having our first black president; he is a charismatic sociopath, he has become the voice of the dispossessed white underclass who are fast losing control over their lives and who are suffering poverty, unemployment, alcoholism as well as high levels of drug use. [3]

While many of these statements have some truth they do not explain the extreme vitriol of this election. Such intensity of feeling, of mistrust and mutual denigration is only possible, I believe, because the election, and its two main candidates, have triggered shadow elements in the American psyche that reveal the many ways in which our society and its institutions and leaders have failed to meet the real needs and the hopes of many Americans.

The Shadow in American Society

The basic concept of the shadow is that light invariably creates shadow. However we present ourselves to the world and may admire our better natures, we also know we have issues we struggle with and which we seek to hide, or deny, such as addictions, prejudices, a tendency toward violence, lying, manipulating people and many unmet cravings and secret fears.

Our culture owes its awareness of the shadow in human nature largely to the work of Carl Jung, and his impact on the field of modern psychotherapy. In popular culture, redeeming the shadow is the central drama in the story and Disney film, The Beauty and the Beast, (1991), in which Belle’s growing interest and love of the Beast restores him to his rightful nature as a noble prince. Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey is another depiction of the shadow showing how he stays young and beautiful while his portrait gets ever uglier as it becomes a record of his crimes and debauchery. [4]

Jung describes the shadow as “the thing one has no wish to be”, and Jerimiah Abrams adds,” we continue to know it by many names: the alter ego, the lower self, the other, the double, the dark twin, the disowned self…” [5] In religious traditions it is usually referred to as meeting our demons or working with the devil.

Shadow dimensions do not only exist in us as individuals but also in institutions and nations; think pedophilia in the Catholic Church or the recent cheating of elderly and Latino clients by Wells Fargo Bank. If we look at the U.S. as a country, our shadow is visible in the discrepancy between saying that we promote democracy when we allow dark money to influence our elections or when we participate in the overthrow of democratically elected governments, as in Iran, Chile, Egypt and the Ukraine. It is the growing gap between who we say we are as a people, a society and a nation, and how society functions and how we often act, that creates our collective shadow. The election has activated this contrast between our better natures and our shadow, unleashing despair, anger, prejudice, fear, and a longing for a simpler, kinder past.

Before describing dimensions of the American Shadow that have been aroused during the election I want to acknowledge that there is no shadow without light, that America was once the hope of the world.The historian and philosopher, Jacob Needleman then added, “the deeper hope of America was its vision of what humanity is and can become---individually and in community. It was through that vision that all the material and social promise of America took its fire and light and its voice that called to men and woman within its own borders and throughout the world. America was once a great idea and it is such ideas that move the world, that open the possibility of human meaning in human life.[6]

This idea and this promise were expressed in the three founding documents of the new republic, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In the preamble to the Declaration of Independence we hear the famous words, “ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.[7] These words contain a promise and a dream which the new country attempted to realize and in so doing drew millions of people to its shores, all hoping for a new opportunity, an escape from tyranny and poverty and the freedom to practice one’s beliefs.

I clearly remember arriving from Europe by boat as a young immigrant of seven and seeing the Statue of Liberty outlined by the setting sun as we steamed into New York harbor with the skyline of the city in the distance. I was deeply touched without knowing why but feeling that sense of arrival, of promise, of entering a new land and a new life, a feeling shared by millions of people before and after me.

Of course, from the beginning our founders did not see people without property – slaves, women, native peoples, and later Asians, Jews, or Latinos – as full human beings and much of our history has been spent attempting to transform this mighty shadow built into the very foundation of our nation.

A second significant aspect of our collective shadow, of the American double, is that our institutions and society no longer embody the American dream. In economic life, unemployment and underemployment have undermined the hopes of many Americans. Effective unemployment is judged to be at around 11 percent and real poverty at 17 percent of the population, since many Americans never recovered from the financial crisis of 2008-10 and stopped looking for work. [8]

Central to the Neoliberal Capitalist Canon, actively promoted by economic and political elites since the time of Reagan, is the idea that life is about material competition and so the best strategy is to look out for number one. The corollary to this message is that if you are not doing well it must be your fault as you lack the talent and energy to succeed. Such “shaming” is reinforced by the media through the constant marketing of the good life, of material well-being, which few can afford, and the ongoing struggle for survival shown in popular TV shows such as Survivor, The Bachelor, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and Donald Trump’s own Apprentice. Selfishness, greed, and manipulation become the accepted norms of our society and justify obscene salaries and growing income inequalities. No wonder that Michael Lerner, in reviewing the psychopathology of the election, notes that “the triumph of selfishness as common sense creates a huge psycho-spiritual crisis and a society filled with deeply scarred and lonely people.[9]

The fact that the economy does not work for many people, and that it carries a shaming message for those who are struggling financially is one part of the shadow of American Society. Another aspect of our shadow is the breakdown of governmental institutions, and an undermining of the United States Constitution by those sworn to uphold it. Garrett Epps writes in The Atlantic: “A few weeks ago I wrote that the rise of Trump is a sign that the Constitution is gravely, perhaps terminally ill. I underestimated how far the rot has spread and how hard it will be to cure. A constitution is not simply a collection of words, or even a set of rules, it is a complex focus of text, history, values and institutions. And as the nation forsakes the values, and devalues the history, the institutions -for all their marble majesty-are hollowing out. The Comey episode, (in which the FBI director interfered with the election by releasing damning information on the Clinton e-mail server issue just before the voting,) is but the latest symptom of a seriously ailing civic culture.[10]

The role of hidden money in U.S. politics, made possible by the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court in 2010 is, to my mind, one of the worst attacks on our democracy, being a cynical and obvious effort to undermine the principle of one person, one vote. Whatever legal arguments can be made, every citizen knows in their heart that corporate money in politics is only spent to buy favors and steer legislation to one’s advantage. Since mainly corporations and their owners have large amounts of money, corporate kleptocracy is officially sanctioned at the expense of the public interest. The movement of Senators and Congressmen and women from the House and the Senate into the lobbying firms on K Street further underlines this evident corruption of our political institutions as do declining corporate tax rates and decreases in effective taxation on the rich.

The Supreme Court and the institutions of the law are not exempt from corruption either, given their history of racism and the meddling in the Presidential election of 2000. Nor is the executive branch immune, as the widespread use of mass surveillance of American citizens and others has not been abandoned or even significantly curtailed under Obama, while the illegal use of drones to kill both U.S. citizens and foreigners continues unabated. There can be little surprise then when the Pew Foundation found in 2014 that only 19 percent of voters trusted the government to do its job, and 74% thought that elected officials put their own interests ahead of the public’s. 11) No wonder Trump’s promise to drain the swamp of Washington echoed so widely, even among loyal Democrats.

Cultural life reveals similar weaknesses with the media being controlled by corporate advertisers and largely owned by six families. Add to this the mass surveillance of citizens by the National Security State and the militarization of local police forces through the transfer of surplus equipment from Iraq and Afghanistan and we have a lot to be concerned about.

As with government and the state, education in schools and universities is also increasingly driven by a corporate agenda where teachers and parents are excluded from policy decision-making and forced to work with a mandated set of guidelines known as the Common Core. Colleges also copy the forms, thinking, objectives and procedures of well- known corporations.

We seem to have drifted a long way from the American Dream, from the promise and hope of freedom, equality and brotherhood/sisterhood, or the hope of a diverse community of striving, developing and caring human beings on a new continent full of natural blessings. In recognizing this loss we are also asked to face the fact that our very way of life, our striving for material abundance through the creation of industrial and post -industrial societies, is severely threatened. Climate change is perhaps the greatest shadow of our times, a scourge which raises questions about the continuation of life on the planet. As a critical issue for the future of humanity it was not discussed once during the Presidential debates.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump each strongly represent aspects of this threefold shadow of American Society. Trump embodies the shallowness, narcissism, egotism, materialism, misogyny and racism active in our culture. His victory assures us that national politics will continue to mirror the dynamics of reality show television as he brings his show to the national stage, with the media echoing his every tweet. For many, Hilary embodies what is wrong with our political system, which serves the well connected and the wealthy while pursuing the interests of Wall Street and the bi-coastal elite and not those of people living in the heartland of America. And both, in different ways, portray the self-serving, egotistical, and often corrupt nature of our economic system.

Transforming Shadow in Self and World

I do believe that “a sense for truth is the silent language of the soul,” that we are all aware, albeit semiconsciously, of these shadow elements not only in ourselves but also in our history and in our society. [12] The election has revealed this long developing economic, political, moral and spiritual crisis in American life. The resulting anxiety, a deep angst about our future, has led to aggression, pessimism, vitriol, fear and shame at what we have become. Unfortunately, neither candidate could address this longing for a new and moral articulation of an American future, although I think Sanders tried, and so many chose an immoral outsider, a personification of the worst aspects of the American psyche out of fear and in the hope that he would change the system, even if he might break it in the process. Decisions based on anxiety and fear, in which our collective shadow promotes a person who embodies the darker aspects of our nature, unfortunately seldom have good outcomes.

Perhaps, as one commentator noted, we need to add 11/09, (the election), to 9/11, as an important marker in our history. The call for “regime change”, which the “War on Terror” led us to promote in other countries, has now come home to haunt us fifteen years later, in a strongly media manipulated election. First, there is strong evidence that the Russian State attempted to influence the election through hacking into the Democratic and possibly the Republican Party servers and producing false news to discredit the Clinton campaign. Secondly, as previously noted, the head of the F.B.I., James Comey, made an unwarranted and, in all likelihood, illegal, announcement eleven days before the election, re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s e-mail servers.

Then there is the dimension of the media’s increasing ability to manipulate people’s voting directly. Roger Ailes, the long -time President of Fox News and a friend and advisor of Donald Trump, saw the potential of the media for manipulating feelings in politics as early as 1968 and is reported to have remarked, “This is a whole new concept. This is it. This is the way they will be elected forevermore. The next guys will have to be performers.” [13] Fox News and Facebook have proved his insight true, demonstrating the power of the media to shape the thoughts, feelings and actions of large numbers of anxious Americans. [14]

I am stunned and find it deeply ironic that part of the American electorate, being aware of and suffering most deeply from this threefold shadow of American society and clearly seeing corporate kleptocracy at work, would choose a President who represents the worst aspects of these shadow elements. And Trump’s recent appointment of so many military officers and corporate CEO’s to his cabinet seems to cement the military industrial complex’s take-over of American society.

So what can we do? Yes, we must be watchful and support and join groups that are concerned about the environment, about economic fairness and jobs and above all about the state of democracy and human rights. We can also meet with friends and develop a sense of what we want to practice with others, such as a commitment to truth, increasing our giving to causes that protect democracy (for example the ACLU), not support leaders that engage in hate speech or promote simple solutions, learn to be calm and thoughtful in times of threat, and conduct open, nonthreatening conversations with people who supported Trump. Each of us can develop a list of such practices and values and discuss their application with others to promote a renewed sense of civic-mindedness and democracy in our culture.

The election also offers us a deeper opportunity and a warning: either we pick up the challenge of self-development, of transforming our personal shadow and learn to become more open, less prejudiced and more caring, or we risk a further undermining of democracy in ourselves and in society at large. As Gandhi said many years ago, “The only devils in the world … are those running around in our hearts. That is where the battle should be fought.[15]

This battle can be fought if we channel at least some of the anxiety and fear we feel about the election into self-reflection and inner work. Creating moments of inner quiet is a start; and regardless of our spiritual or religious orientation, developing gratitude and expressing thanks to a divine order of the universe for the life we have been given, even with its difficulties, is an important next step. The journey then requires that we pay close attention to the ways in which our life and our partners' and colleagues' reveal our own shadow to us. This help is often unpleasant since our partners, colleagues, and children have the unique capacity to push our buttons and in so doing to pierce through our self-assurance, our authority or our defenses. Indeed, life itself is the great school, continuously asking us and at times demanding that we acquire self-knowledge. Reflecting on our experience in life, seeing that which is being asked of us and that which we need to transform, is also essential for our sanity. This is what allows us to take more responsibility for our lives, thereby avoiding the externalizing of our pain through blaming others in a ritual of victimhood.

Working with the shadow asks us to explore what it is in us that we seek to deny, or hide. This is also true in our families and places of work. What are the things which cannot be talked about, that are excluded from conversation automatically, and which, if mentioned, lead to anger, aggression and blaming? I remember a family conversation many years ago between my brothers, sister and myself as well as our partners about the role that my grandfather, a retired naval officer, played during the Nazi time in Germany as the governor of a small rural county. Clearly he must have cooperated with the Gestapo. Very quickly the conversation degenerated, ending in shouting and tears. We were not yet ready to face this aspect of our family history, just as we as a country seem not yet ready to face the racism of our legal system or many of the other shadow dimensions of our society.

Facing shadow elements in ourselves and in our relationships, and bringing some awareness to the fact that we are each capable of behavior which we deplore in the world at large, releases energy and gives us an experience of meaning and of more personal freedom. We can then begin to have a small sense of that experience which the English poet and playwright Christopher Frye expressed in a drama called “The Sleep of Prisoners”. “Thank God our time is now when wrong comes up to face us everywhere…Affairs are now soul size… [16]

In doing such inner reflection we deepen the capacity for moral discernment and I would say truer political and social judgment. Having some awareness of our personal shadow allows us to begin acknowledging the collective shadow of American Society, of the erosion to our freedom, the challenges to equality and democracy, and the gross inequities of our economic system.

As we work on ourselves and begin transforming our shadow, we can also begin practicing the principles of a more wholesome society with others. When listening deeply to an adolescent child in trouble or paying careful attention to a colleague with whom we disagree , we are acting as a guardian of the other’s freedom. When we let this listening deepen, we invariably come to experience the other’s essential humanity and will want to safe-guard their rights rather than undermining them or wishing to marginalize them. Seeing and understanding the other in a conversation, in a family or in groups and institutions awakens a genuine desire to help, to serve the other in word and deed. This becomes the basis for a sharing economy, an economy that seeks to enhance life rather than exploit other human beings and the earth.

As we begin to practice the principles of a new society in our own life, we can bring to consciousness three deep longings which I think live in all human beings: the longing for inner and outer freedom, the longing for the mutual recognition of the equality of all human beings, and the longing for meaningful work and the wish to serve others. These yearnings, while in us, are often covered over by our egotism, our fear and our prejudice. A willingness to reflect, to wake up, and to work on oneself will uncover them as a force for joy as we work toward being more caring and loving human beings. In this way we are also working with the second great commandment of the Bible, “Love thy neighbor as Thyself.” [17]

I have described two basic steps, using the election as a spur to working on our double, and then taking a second step of practicing the principles of a healthy society in our relationship with others, with our partners, in our families, with friends and colleagues and at work. [18] The third step is supporting and joining the many thousands of groups who are wanting to protect what has been achieved against the likely ravages of a Trump Administration and are also busy creating a new, freer, more democratic and sustainable society in the United States and around the world. This largely hidden, new society is visible in many towns and regions of the United States and abroad and is movingly described by Paul Hawken in Blessed Unrest as a global movement of civil society seeking to undo the unholy alliance between big business and big government. [19] Some of its manifestations are sustainable food networks and CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture), direct democracy initiatives, citizen councils and sociocracy efforts, cooperatives and employee owned businesses, socially and environmentally responsible local investment networks, corporate charter groups and groups working on getting money out of politics. One can add many local, regional and national groups committed to social justice, to environmental reform, to neighborhood education, and thousands of groups focused on physical, psychological and spiritual health.

The three steps, which are not sequential but must be practiced together, are summarized in this simple chart:

I think the election of Trump represents an effort by an older world order, based on egotism, nationalism, materialism and exploitation to reassert itself. It can be the spur to our practicing a more open heart toward others and the world, toward transforming the shadow of empty materialism and the wanton search for power to a resurrection of the American Dream. America could again become a beacon for the world, but only if we combine deep inner work with the disciplined desire to create a caring, sustainable society and if we remember and make real that “America is the fact, the symbol and the promise of a new beginning”. [20]

Christopher Schaefer Ph.D. is a retired adult educator and community development advisor living in the Berkshires. He is the co-director of the Center for Social Research at the Hawthorne Valley Association, and the co-author of Vision in Action: Working with Soul and Spirit in Small Organizations, and the author of Partnerships of Hope: Building Waldorf School Communities .

Notes :

  1. Wendell Berry, Standing by Words: Essays, p.65, North Point Press, San Francisco, CA. 1983

  2. Quoted from the L.A. Times, Vol. 16, Issue 791.

  3. These two books give a detailed and caring account of the plight of working class people from Appalachia. Joe Bageant, Deer Hunting with Jesus : Dispatches from America’s Class War, Barnes and Noble, NY.,N.Y. 2000 and the more recent

J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, Harper Collins, N.Y, N.Y.


  1. The Beauty and the Beast was a fairy tale written by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, and made into an animated film by Disney in 1991. The Picture of Dorian Gray, was a controversial novel published by Oscar Wilde in London in 1891, ( Ward, Lock and Co.)

  2. J. Abrams, (ed.), The Shadow in America: Reclaiming the Soul of a Nation, p.25 Nataray Publications, Novato CA. 1994

  3. J. Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam, N.Y.,N.Y. p.3. A deeply philosophical and moving reflection on our history and society.,

  4. Declaration of Independence , passed by the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776.

  5. The effective poverty rate was judged to be 17.9 percent in 2012, and has dropped somewhat since then. See The unemployment rate, counting those who are underemployed and have stopped looking for work is presently around 11 percent. See CNBC, Nicholas Wells, June 3,2016.

  6. Michael Lerner,” Psychopathology in the 2016 Election” in Tikkun, Autumn 2016. A very insightful analysis by the founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

  7. Garrett Epps, “Trumpism is the Symptom of a Gravely Ill Constitution” The Atlantic, September 20,2016

  8. Pew Research Center, Research Report, Beyond Distrust: How Americans View the Government, 2014.

  9. R. Steiner, Staying Connected, p 38, Steiner Press, Great Barrington, Mass, 2009

  10. Douglas Kellner, Television and the Crisis of Democracy, p. 65, Westview Press, CA, 1990

  11. In a report from 3D Research by K. Sokoloff it is suggested that the Trump campaign developed a highly sophisticate Facebook program to target individual Trump supporters in key battleground states and that this effort was much more effective than TV advertising. 3D Research Report .”What I learned this Week, Nov. 24th,2016.

  12. Quoted in Abrams, (Ed.), The Shadow in America, op.cit., p 41

  13. Poem contained in play by Christopher Frye, A Sleep of Prisoners, Oxford University Press, 1951, NY.NY

  14. Mathew, 22.36-40, Bible, King James Version.

  15. P. Hawken, Blessed Unrest : How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, Viking, N.Y. 2007

  16. See Otto Scharmer, “ On the Making of Trump, The Blind Spot That Created Him”, Huffington Post, Nov. 11, 2016 for an insightful perspective on the election in which he refers to the shadow elements I have described as blind spots as well as giving a picture of a new society.

  17. Needleman, The American Soul, op. cit. p.5