Halloween Horrorshow: Donald Trump is a Tulpa

It’s fair to say that Halloween is one of TGA’s favorite holidays—between the spooky folklore and urban legends, constellation of costumes, and rumors of supernatural activity, Halloween seems made for anthropologists. At this point, I hope that it is evident to most of our readers that culture is not a costume and careful consideration should always be taken to avoid cultural appropriation when deciding who or what you will inhabit come October 31st.

Halloween is also a day when cosplay is no longer a niche geek activity, but rather a common holiday goal. Within the anime, otaku and geek community more generally, many who participate in cosplay also choose to inhabit the mind and life world of their character. LARPing involves even more of a commitment to embodying the person, creature or being you’ve chosen to dress up as in your day-to-day life. On Halloween especially, we are given license to be anyone or anything we’d like to be. This embodiment, one could argue, involves a degree of grokking—to strive to understand at an emotional, empathic level how another sees and interacts with the world. Just as anthropologists strive to disentangle the webs of signification we call culture through an insider-outside perspective, the act of putting on a costume can involve a cognitive as well as a physical transformation. We get to play at being someone else. This sense of association and affiliation you may have with your costume or your chosen character for the evening shouldn’t end, however, after the Pumpkin King has retired for the evening—it’s a practice of identification and emotional understanding that should inform our interactions and ideologies at both a macro and a micro level. How would our political and worldview change if we spent more time attempting to inhabit those whose lives are strange and perhaps even frightening to us? If we consider the mental metamorphosis of cosplay, we could also posit the personal projection as a sort of daily praxis in the way we understand and interact with cultures and communities beyond our own.this-sense-of-association-and-affiliation-you-may-have-with-your-costume-or-your-chosen-character-for-the-evening-shouldnt-end-however-after-the-pumpkin-king-has-retired-for-the-evening

Many Halloween movies involve altercations with the embodiment of evil—whether it’s the anti-Christ, a demon possessing the body of a young girl, or an axe-wielding sociopath with mommy issues. Yet we also live in a political climate marred by the banality of evil (Arendt 1963), acts of violence, torture and crime that seem so routinized and normalized we’ve become inured to the scale and severity of its impacts. The banality of evil also hinges upon a politics of misrecognition, an inability to acknowledge and affirm the legitimacy of the claims or rights of a particular group of people. Halloween is a day (or a season, depending on who you ask) where we are called upon to reflect what frightens us most and confront what cultural configurations, ghosts and manifestations of the uncanny leave us shivering in the dark. This year, questions about the nature of fear seem especially prescient, especially considering that, in America at least, we are actively in the process of deciding what kind of society we want to be citizens of. This election cycle has been couched in the political rhetoric of scare tactics and fearmongering, catalyzed by the kinds of violence and ethical principles that guide national and cultural identity.

Halloween is also an excuse for haunted hayrides, zombie mazes, and other activities that force us to encounter the monsters of our cultural imagination. And yet it also raises questions about the kinds of fears that mobilize political action and the shadowy concerns we are content to live with, those monsters in the attic we’ve domesticated and kept at bay. Fear does not dissipate once the pumpkins have been thrown away and candy corn gone stale. Indeed, dread suffuses mundane operations for many citizens around the world—when bodies are deemed disposable by a nation-state that promises security, law and order; when control over one’s reproductive health is challenged by conservative principles; when suspicion comes easier than trust and one’s identity has been collapsed into a crooked stereotype for political gain; when the violation of a person’s body is a permissible power dynamic of hegemonic masculinity. Which do we fear more: a pandemic that turns half the population into zombies, or being complicit in a state where necropolitics matters more than equality and human dignity?

Let us venture, for a moment, down an anthropological rabbit hole. I’d like us to consider the concept of a tulpa. To vastly simplify a complicated theological concept, the tulpa is essentially the manifestation of a concept or idea of a person so compelling that it is conjured into existence. The Buddhist precursors of this concept and the creepypasta, Slenderman resonances of the tulpa have already been explored. If we take this concept to be true, at least in a theoretical sense, then we could perhaps claim that Donald Trump is our contemporary political tulpa. This tulpa is not simply a manifestation of the alt, Christian right conservative movement. While Trump may represent the hyperbolic radicalization of certain alt right sensibilities, he is also the product of leftist fears. Donald Trump embodies the antithesis of Democratic Party standards, while simultaneously inhabiting both the best and the worst qualities of the Republican Party. His popularity around the country depended on xenophobic, exclusionary demagoguery pitting “us” versus “them,” and establishing a series of reactionary straw-men bred upon hate, fear and distrust. The fact that he secured the Republican nomination is also an indicator of the extent of anti-intellectualism and suspicion the American public has of wonks. In this tumultuous political cauldron, Trump is a product of our collective American political system, no matter our party affiliations or level of political naïveté. If Donald Trump is indeed a tulpa, and not the facile agent of troll culture he has been cast as, then our solution is obvious. Ignore him. He gains his power, however indiscriminant and hateful, from our collective attention. How did he win the Republic primaries? He bullied his way to the top through a confluence of ignorance, bluster and “I am rubber, you are glue” rhetoric and attention-seeing. Whether or not he is a compelling candidate for our president is entirely beside the point–even Trump has admitted ambivalence about the desirability of running the country. The question is rather what kinds of collective fears and geopolitical anxieties allowed such a creature to spawn from our sense of national disquiet? The only solution is to avoid the vitriol, enmity and anger that promulgated such an entity and instead focus on cultivating conditions for an election and a Presidential candidate that doesn’t feel like a dark web simulacrum.

Finally, Halloween is not dissimilar from the carnival. As Bakhtin (1965) reminds us, the carnival is a period of transgression and revolution, when hierarchies dissolve and alternative social potentialities emerge through parody. Through costuming and the performance of grotesque inversions, the carnival can be leveraged as sociopolitical commentary, while illustrating the dangerous slippage between the mundane and the masquerade. This Halloween, amidst the tricks and the treats, I ask that we examine the masks we choose to wear and the ones others choose to present to the public.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: The Viking Press, 1963.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Indiana University Press, 1965.

Joffe, Ben (2016). “Paranormalizing the Popular through the Tibetan Tulpa: Or what the next Dalai Lama, the X Files and Affect Theory (might) have in common.” Savage Minds. http://savageminds.org/2016/02/13/paranormalizing-the-popular-through-the-tibetan-tulpa-or-what-the-next-dalai-lama-the-x-files-and-affect-theory-might-have-in-common/ 

Phillips, Whitney (2016). “Donald Trump is Not a Troll.” Slate. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/06/the_problems_with_calling_donald_trump_a_troll.html

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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  1. Beware the Slender Man: From Cyberlore to Conspiracy Theory | The Geek Anthropologist

    […] I’ve already argued about Donald Trump’s tulpa effect. It should be noted that, like Slender Man, Trump is also very much a transmedia figure, one that acts upon a series of unverified, but digitally crowd-sourced legends as a sort of political ostension. Chess and Newsom identify the publicity around The Dark Knight (2008) as one of the first compelling manifestations of transmedia storytelling, which included political ads for Harvey Dent’s bid for District Attorney. Over the past several days since Trump’s inauguration, we’ve witnessed the President employ a sort of transmedia political bricolage in his speeches and press briefings. His inauguration speech included vaguely plagiarized lines from Bane of The Dark Knight Rises (2012), his campaign tagline was eerily similar to a slogan used by Texas Senator Andrew Steele Jarret in Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Talents (1998), and his platform of “Keep America Great” is quite literally stolen from The Purge: Election Year (2016). In his refusal to receive briefings from the CIA or engage with scientists on climate change, Trump seems to receive most of his “news” from sources of illegitimate or partial journalism, news he then treats as “alternative facts.” He believes that his inauguration was attended by millions of people, and then asked the National Parks Service to find, or rather fabricate data to prove these imagined numbers. He continues to assert that millions of individuals voted illegally in the 2016 election, despite all evidence to the contrary. His investment in conspiracy theories has now devolved from symbolic violence into the prohibition of certain bodies into the country, and the endorsement of torture and military interventions against others. He is acting upon a lore he helped to create with the aid of digital platforms and participatory publics. […]


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