Understanding this Turbulent Era through Tarot’s Major Arcana
Donald Trump: hero or villain; skilled negotiator or fraud; destroyer of America or defender of the common man. Whatever your personal politics or opinions of the man, the Age of Trump marks a turning point in history. With fiercely strong opinions on both sides, it can seem impossible to see Trump and this time in history with a clear mind. It’s been a tumultuous few years, so let’s take a step back and a deep breath. If we look beyond the daily news cycle and partisan politics, we may find a profound meaning behind this pivotal era we’re experiencing.
Why does Trump fascinate or disgust us? What does he represent in us, individually and collectively? And what are the ramifications of his presidency? Undeniably, Trump is a giant, mythic figure. As such, he appeals to our base inner sensibilities, whether positive or negative. We project our subconscious aspirations and fears onto him, and hold him up as the hero or villain, depending on our personal point of view. Love him or hate him, Trump is more than just a man; he’s an archetypal figure who represents something primordial within all of us, both collectively and individually.
To gain a bigger picture and deeper understanding of the man and this era, we need to look beneath the surface of our daily experience. But how, with the never-ending news cycle keeping us in a constant state of confusion or outrage? We can look to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who taught us that there is a hidden dimension within all of us called the collective unconscious. This place within is free of mental chatter and holds deep wisdom. This wisdom is displayed in archetypes, a term which can be best understood as universal symbols.
Tarot is a set of symbols contained in a deck of 78 cards. This makes tarot a uniquely valuable tool for gaining greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. By engaging with these symbols, we are transported beyond the confusion of our hectic daily lives and see ourselves and life with a refreshing depth of clarity and understanding. In essence, we access the dimension of the collective unconscious through tarot’s symbolic language.
What follows is an attempt to gain greater understanding of Trump and this turbulent era through the wisdom of symbol that is contained in the tarot’s major arcana.
Within the standard tarot deck is a set of 22 cards called the major arcana. These special cards symbolize the principle themes of the life experience. “Major arcana” translates to a great hidden reality. This hidden reality is everywhere all the time, but remains unseen because we are so busy and distracted by the daily grind of modern life. But once we gain familiarity with these cards, we gain access to the deeper truth that is so elusive most of the time.
In a bizarre coincidence, the major arcana are commonly referred to as “trump” cards. And the 45th president uniquely embodies many of these archetypes. Let’s begin to take a fresh look at Trump through the lens of symbol, specifically that of the “trump” cards.
Trump as The Emperor is an obvious fit. This symbol is the world builder, deal maker, alpha male, sitting on his throne, with the nation at his feet. The Emperor is major arcanum number 4, which numerically symbolizes structure, power, and authority. With golf courses, hotels, and other properties across the world bearing his name; “Trump” has always been synonymous with luxury and commerce. Who else but the Emperor would live in a house made of gold, as Trump did before entering the White House? The Emperor is the ultimate ruler, and we may remember that Trump assured us during his presidential campaign that he alone could fix the nation’s problems. Trump has also intimated that anything he does is legal exactly because he is president, an idea that does not apply to democracies with the Rule of Law. This idea is common to nations led by absolute rulers: Emperors.
The Fool is another archetype befitting Trump. The Fool is card 0, symbolic of emptiness or pure potential. And Trump may easily be seen as a clown, a child, someone devoid of direction or conviction. Many world leaders think of him as a joke, uneducated, and not serious. Contributing to this viewpoint, Trump is perhaps the least knowledgeable president America has had in recent history, in terms of policy and governance, another sign of his emptiness of substance. He loathes feeling reigned in, even verbally; he prefers to give unprepared speeches, where he can riff spontaneously in the moment. He flips his position on nearly every issue, sometimes in the very same speech. His reputation is of someone who needs constant reassurances from sycophants he surrounds himself with, filling the hole of insecurity within him.
We may also see Trump as the Magician. He pulled the biggest upset victory in recent electoral history out of a hat, as if by magic. He is a master communicator, shaping the daily news cycle to his will, through his Twitter rants and various obfuscations. The Magician – major arcanum number 1 – is a skilled doer, but also an illusionist, skilled at misdirection. Is his magic a true feat of skill or little more than sleight of hand? Donald Trump has a history of dubious business dealings, bankruptcies, a “university” that was little more than a scam. He is also the first president in modern history not to release his tax returns, leading many to wonder what he’s hiding. In his famous book, The Art of the Deal, he suggests the use of hyperbole and exaggeration as the way to success, which is perhaps an admission of lying as a means achievement. Are Trump’s massive accomplishments genuine or is he a total fraud? We may get a sense that in some cases, like that of the current leader of the free world, there is a conflation of the two, each feeding upon the other.
The Devil, major arcanum number 15, makes an obvious choice as a symbol for Trump. The Devil is synonymous with materialism, wealth, deceit, and the abuse of power. Throughout his electoral campaign and presidency, Trump has become notorious as a pathological liar. He insults women, the disabled, foreigners, “losers”, and anyone who does not agree with him. He appears to go out of his way in his cruelty, making draconian cuts to programs for the poor, elderly, schools, and the environment. His administration has ruthlessly separated children from their families at the border and locked them in cages. He’s openly threatened nuclear war, picks fights with America’s longest-held allies, and expresses admiration for the world’s worst tyrants. Adding to his devilish credibility, Trump is a hero of the alt-right, best known for its worldview of white supremacy and desire to tear down the institutions of democracy.
As tempting as it may be to see Trump as a “Devil”, a deeper look may reveal something important about what he represents.
With the Devil, our examination of Trump shifts. It’s inadequate – although more comforting, perhaps – to view Trump as the Devil without deeper scrutiny. But let’s now shift our focus from Trump the man to what Trump represents. Let’s pivot from looking at Trump to looking at us.
The Devil is most easily associated with evil, but a more helpful interpretation of this archetype is as the shadow side that resides within us all. Our shadow is not intrinsically malevolent, but merely hidden deep inside, insidiously bringing out the worst in us. A widely understood phenomenon in psychology is the universal tendency for people to project their worst qualities onto others to avoid having to deal with those qualities within themselves. Our shadow, then, creates unconscious behaviors and beliefs based on our most taboo and unacknowledged aspects of ourselves.
We cannot eliminate the shadow by ignoring it. If we try, it shows up in different and increasingly noticeable ways until we’re forced to deal with it. Eventually, the shadow becomes so obvious there’s no more mistaking it. Like an alcoholic who eventually hits rock-bottom, a day comes where we are forced to deal with the underlying bits of ourselves we try so hard to ignore. Every person has a shadow; it’s intrinsic to being human. Possessing a shadow doesn’t make us devils, but that shadow does represent the little devil inside each of us.
Like individuals, every collective entity – such as a nation – has a shadow as well. That shadow remains buried underneath the collective consciousness, until eventually a day of reckoning comes, and everyone within that collective comes face to face with it.
The election of Trump represents a flash point, where America has elected and manifested its own shadow.
The 22 cards of tarot’s major arcana are a sequence. Their order is not arbitrary; they can be understood as a natural progression that a person makes throughout their lives, or during specific chapters of their lives. Or seen in macrocosm, the majors may represent the evolution of a collective entity, like that of a nation.
The Devil is card number 15, and what follows is number 16, The Tower. After electing the projection of our collective shadow, America has wittingly or unwittingly brought forth the Tower.
Think for a moment of a symbol that best represented Trump before he ran for president. More than his television show, his playboy lifestyle, or any other aspect of his legacy, Trump was always best known for his real estate empire. And nothing symbolizes that better than Trump Tower.
In terms of the tarot archetype, a tower is a structure that has been building over an extended period of time. Because it’s been built so high, that tower structure is ripe for toppling by some greater force. Therefore, the Tower represents sudden and colossal change. It is the toppling of old power structures; a shock to the system; tearing down the old without regard for what’s to follow. It is destruction and mayhem, brought on by a tower having grown too high for its own good.
We can look at the physical structure of a tower and see how it applies to metaphorical structures, such as institutions, organizations, and long-held assumptions taken for granted. The longer a tower is built, the higher it gets and the further removed it is from where it began. By its nature a tower is a high structure, and therefore becomes increasingly unstable as it grows over time. No tower can keep growing forever; a point comes when any further attempts to grow it are met by catastrophe.
The Tower as a description of the Trump Era is eerily prescient. We are witnessing in real time the toppling of an American government that in some crucial ways had become corrupted and in need of radical changes. It’s undeniable that for at least a generation, powerful moneyed interests have increasingly written most of the laws in Washington through their lobbyists. We could easily see Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” as to “topple the tower” that was a bloated government in desperate need of a redeemer and emancipator of the rot. He’s approached his mandate enthusiastically, shaking the foundations of norms, alliances, and long-held customs we’ve taken for granted our whole lives.
The current Tower era is being experienced collectively by all of us, while felt individually by each of us. In the process, our personally held mental structures are collapsing as our institutional ones do. Just as physical towers can grow too high, mental towers can as well. Our assumptions can be taken too much for granted, and only through their destruction can we look at things in a whole new way.
There are plenty of examples. Those who believed racism was a thing of the past after Barack Obama was elected are seeing fascists marching through American streets. Those who always assumed American democracy immune from outside meddling have now seen the Mueller Report, showing clear evidence of Russian influence to undermine the 2016 election. Those who assumed an objective truth would always provide society a common ground are witnessing a significant segment of the population become increasingly prone to outlandish “fake news” and conspiracy theories. There are countless others.
The longer an archetypal Tower is built up – either physically or metaphorically – the more prone it is for a fall. Eventually some greater force will intervene to bring it down. The toppling comes seemingly out of nowhere, and changes circumstances and perspectives in profound ways. The Tower is chaos and is met with horror, but is also cleansing and necessary for renewal. In the grand scheme, the upheaval is a blessing and clears the way for transformational change, to the collective and all the individuals within it.
Examples of the archetypal Tower can be found in myth, fiction, and reality. The Tower of Babel myth from the Book of Genesis is a morality tale about the perils of humanity’s hubris. The story provides an explanation for the shocking event when humanity no longer spoke one common language. In the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the location of Devil’s Tower plays a crucial role. Director Steven Spielberg chose this location for humanity’s first contact with creatures from outer space, an event that would of course be shocking and change the world profoundly forever. And, far more sobering, we are still living in a world forever radically altered by the destruction of the World Trade Center Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.
How long the Trump Tower Era will endure is anyone’s guess. Four years, or eight? Or it’s likely to be much longer, depending on how radical the changes are, and how profoundly they change us collectively and individually. Placements on the Supreme Court, for example, can last a generation. How long might it take to recover old alliances with our allies? How long will it take to come back economically from the trade wars being waged by Trump? What if there’s an economic crash worse than 2008, brought on by financial deregulations currently being enacted? Will the climate ever recover from the slow dismantling of the EPA and America having pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement? Even if he were to leave office tomorrow, the effects of his administration are likely to be felt for a very long time.
Although some of Trump’s supporters are driven by racism and xenophobia, many voted for him for other reasons. They had grown deeply frustrated with the corruptions that have been festering and building within the American Tower. They will say Trump is exactly what we need. The system needs to be destroyed so that the nation’s ideals can be saved. There is logic to this; if the system is rotten, does it not make sense to destroy it and start again? When people get desperate and do not feel they are being listened to, they resort to extreme measures.
But is the rage toward the “system” just a substitute for taking an honest look in the mirror? It’s much easier to direct our anger toward an outside entity like the government or our representatives than to turn within and take an honest look within ourselves.
Carl Jung stated it best: “There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
It is much easier to blame the system – and even to destroy it – than it is to look within ourselves and face our own shadows. It is also easier to project the shadow parts of ourselves onto our perceived enemies than it is to see those characteristics as part of ourselves. What if each of us took greater ownership of ourselves and the world we live in, and each of us made a humble and honest attempt to do what we could to make them better?
Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, our institutions are representative of us. The government, media, and businesses are comprised of us as individuals and are symbols of the collective us. This is especially true in the United States of America, a nation founded on the very principle of self-governance. We made these institutions, and it is we who have the power to change them. But what good will destroying them do if we haven’t changed?
Replacing our toppled institutions is going to ultimately require us to topple the outworn ways of thinking within ourselves. If the internal changes don’t bring about the external ones, then the radical changes to our nation and world will force the internal changes on us. We can choose now to look within ourselves or we will be forced to do so as the world burns. As we look at a Tower card, we see the horrified figures falling, liberated from their old outworn structures, and forced into a new way of being. This Tower moment in history is our collective call to wake up, but it is going to be done individually, each of us within our own hearts and minds.
By electing Donald Trump as the leader of the free world, we have essentially – and mostly subconsciously – said that’s what we want. We have chosen to force changes upon ourselves and our institutions that we have been unable or unwilling to make on our own until now.
After the catastrophic changes of The Tower, the internal and external worlds we once knew are permanently destroyed. What follows?
The next card in the sequence of the major arcana – number 17 – is The Star. It symbolizes the calm after the storm, hope after despair, and a vision for the way forward. The Star is self-discovery and realizing a sense of purpose; it heals us and fills us with wonder. The archetypal Star is the light within that may always inspire and guide us.
So despite all the craziness we see happening everyday, in the form of one outrage and indignity after another, we may take some comfort in the belief that there is a larger purpose being served. Once we’ve been through this self-chosen purging period of the Tower, there is the potential for the healing and calm of the Star that comes afterward.
Before we can reach The Star, however, we have to deal with The Tower. And this period of the Tower is challenging and changing us in deep and profound ways. The scope of the transformation currently happening on multiple levels is almost impossible to comprehend, both in terms of the systems of American government that have been in place, and within all of the people experiencing these changes.
Regardless our personal political identification, many of us are coming to terms with how we feel about humanity’s most pressing concerns. Conservative, liberal, or not interested in politics at all, most of are being forced into discovering our personal truth of how we feel about issues we may have taken for granted our entire lives: immigration, the role of media, money in politics, the second amendment, the rule of law, the future of energy and environmental policy, and many other pressing concerns that will shape the nation and world that follows the Era of Trump. Trump is forcing us to wake up, individually and collectively.
There does not have to be an apocalypse for us to awaken, but there just might be one if we don’t. Each of us can have a personal awakening as soon as we become fully willing to look within ourselves and be completely honest. We must open our hearts and minds and become willing to change. We have to break free of the tribalism that forces us into intractable camps at constant war with each other. We must be committed to not projecting all our worst traits onto others, and to look at ourselves. The change starts within each of us. We are the leaders of ourselves; not the media, big business, the government, or even Trump.
If we don’t awaken, however, we’re faced with a certain dystopian future which will have been chosen by us, just as Trump was. Fascism is on the rise, in America and abroad. With worldwide existential threats of climate change and ecological collapse, it’s not a stretch to say the fate of the world is at stake now. Meanwhile we’re led by a man-baby who hardly seems equal to the moment. He’s a uniquely contemptible man for an especially desperate time, who just may transform the world by bringing about enough pain and suffering.
This is a scary time, and a truly exciting one too. Instead of an actual apocalypse, I believe we are in the process of countless personal ones. We are awakening to our better natures, but only after our old ways of thinking and being have been destroyed. With each new outrage, each of us comes to a new understanding of our personal truth. As we awaken individually, we are slowly and painfully reaching critical mass where we will have reached a collective awakening. A new world awaits, for each of us and all of us.
For now, we’re in the hands of the Emperor, Fool, Magician, and Devil that just enough American voters chose to lead us. He was elected largely for building the Towers that bear his name, and he’s been elected to destroy them too.
Frank Kwiatkowski is the author of Rise & Shine: A Guide for Experiencing Your Midlife Awakening and a professional certified life coach. He is also the founder of Tarot Awakenings, a website and blog dedicated to the subjects of spiritual awakening and his favorite tool for awakening, tarot. For further details, please visit www.TarotAwakenings.com. Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cover image: AH at Pixabay.com
Other images: Tibor Janosi Mozes, Pixabay; Cecile Lacaux, Pixabay; Ralf Genge, Pixabay; Ira Lee Nesbitt, Pixabay; Smith-Waite Tarot Deck; Pete Linforth, Pixabay; Legacy of the Divine Tarot; Voyager Tarot