Potential Space

by Alexandra Guhde, PsyD
Ever since arriving in Australia--aka Oz--natives have been warning me about "Tall Poppy Syndrome." An apparently defining complex of Australian culture, Tall Poppy Syndrome originated in ancient Rome--as recorded by Livy, by way of Herodotus--before spreading northward to England where it was eventually transported to Australia during Queen Victoria's reign.
As the story goes, Tarquin the Proud, Rome's seventh and final king, is said to have issued the order to put to death the most illustrious citizens of a town under his dominion. The arrogant king issued his command via a demonstrative metaphor, scything the heads off the tallest poppies in his garden. Since the time of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, this tale has become a fable of submission, envy, and talion dread: Don't stand too tall or be too colorful, don't get ahead of yourself...or you might find yourself without a head!
And indeed, in Australia, playing fields are intended to be level, rather than colorful. Everyone is meant to have "a fair go," and expected not to go too far. Voting, for example, is mandatory. Individual voices must carry equal weight. Even awards for sportsmen--the flowers Australia encourages to bloom most brightly--go to the "best and fairest." Sun-thieving, self-serving poppies are not tolerated. (Or so the cultural story goes. In actual practice, of course, the complex is, well, complex.)
The first time an Australian described Tall Poppy Syndrome to me I couldn't help but think it sounded much like the inverse of another, more familiar, cultural complex: The American Dream. We--the USA--are a nation of tall poppies. We are all rugged individuals seeking greatness. Instead of lopping the heads off our tall flowers, we admire, aspire, strive, and compete.
When Donald Trump won the presidency--emphasis on winning--I thought of tall poppies, the tyrant King Tarquin--who was eventually overthrown, making way for the Roman Republic--and American dreams. I've heard Donald Trump called a tyrant; a narcissist; a snake-oil salesman; a messiah; an advocate; a hero; the ordinary face of evil; a natural regression on the path of progress; the end of democracy; and the humbug behind America's curtain of supposed greatness. I haven't heard him called a sun-stealing poisonous poppy, but I have heard plenty of people call him orange.
How to define what Donald Trump is, and means, to the United States--to us--is a compelling endeavor. But, there are other questions that comes to mind. In the words of L. Frank Baum, the creator of the Oz of my childhood--not the land down under, but the one over the rainbow and far away--"I am Oz, the Great and Terrible, spoke the Beast, in a voice that was one great roar. Who are you, and why do you seek me?"
These are important questions.