The Mass Psychology of Trumpism
Since the Republican primaries of 2015-16, some people have turned to psychiatry in an effort to locate the irrational wellsprings of Trump’s victory, but so far little progress has been made. This is because most of the effort has gone into analysing Trump, who is often described as suffering from ‘narcissistic personality disorder’. Not only are such diagnoses, made from a distance, implausible; they also fail to address a more important question: the nature of Trump’s appeal. Constituting something close to a third of the electorate, his followers form an intensely loyal and, psychologically, tight-knit band. They are impervious to liberal or progressive criticisms of Trump or his policies. On the contrary, their loyalty thrives on anti-Trump arguments, and digs in deeper.
There is an older body of psychological thought, however, that illuminates the kind of tight bond Trump has forged with a significant minority of Americans. Inspired by Freud, this thought arose following the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe, when Americans, too, had become wary of authoritarian elements in their society. Southern politics had been rife with race-baiting demagogues like Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo since the 1890s, and the popularity of the pro-Mussolini radio priest, Father Coughlin, demonstrated the appeal of an authoritarian message to the immigrant North.
At the highpoint of the New Deal, it was widely understood that legitimate economic grievances needed to be addressed. But there was something more, which manifested itself in intense loyalty to agitators and demagogues like Coughlin. To understand that devotion, Frankfurt School refugees from Hitler – including Leo Löwenthal and Theodor Adorno – drew on a Freudian-inspired ‘mass psychology’ to analyse anti-Semites and demagogues in the US.
Their crucial innovation was the discovery of the special form that authoritarianism takes in democratic societies. Previously, the agitator had been thought of as a kind of hypnotist, while the crowd that responded to him was credulous and childlike. Open to rumour and fear, it demanded strength and even violence from its leaders. As the 19th-century French psychologist Gustave Le Bon put it, the crowd ‘wants to be ruled and oppressed and to fear its masters’. Freud had this model of crowd psychology in mind when he wrote that
the members of a group stand in need of the illusion that they are equally and justly loved by their leader; but the leader himself need love no one else, he [must] be of a masterful nature, absolutely narcissistic, self-confident and independent.
Hitler, Mussolini, Ataturk and even De Gaulle fit this model, as they drew on mass media, parades, sporting events and film to project themselves as father figures to enthralled nations.
Adorno realised, however, that the model only applied in part to American demagogues. What distinguishes the demagogue in a democratic society, he argued in ‘Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda’ (1951), is the identification between the leader and his followers. The narcissism in question is not only Trump’s. More important is that of his followers, who idealise him as they once, in childhood, idealised themselves. Beyond that, the demagogue has a special appeal to wounded narcissism, to the feeling that one has failed to meet standards one has set for oneself.
The successful demagogue activates this feeling by possessing the typical qualities of the individuals who follow him, but in what Adorno, quoting Freud, called a ‘clearly marked and pure form’ that gives the impression ‘of greater force and of more freedom of libido’. In Adorno’s words, ‘the superman has to resemble the follower and appear as his “enlargement”.’ The leader ‘completes’ the follower’s self-image. This helps explain the phenomenon of the ‘great little man’, the ‘Aw shucks’, ‘just folks’ demagogue like Huey Long. He ‘seems to be the enlargement of the subject’s own personality, a collective projection of himself, rather than an image of the father’ – a Trump, in other words, rather than a Washington or Roosevelt.
One might object that Trump, a billionaire TV star, does not resemble his followers. But this misses the powerful intimacy that he establishes with them, at rallies, on TV and on Twitter. Part of his malicious genius lies in his ability to forge a bond with people who are otherwise excluded from the world to which he belongs. Even as he cast Hillary Clinton as the tool of international finance, he said:
I do deals – big deals – all the time. I know and work with all the toughest operators in the world of high-stakes global finance. These are hard-driving, vicious cut-throat financial killers, the kind of people who leave blood all over the boardroom table and fight to the bitter end to gain maximum advantage.
With these words he brought his followers into the boardroom with him and encouraged them to take part in a shared, cynical exposure of the soiled motives and practices that lie behind wealth. His role in the Birther movement, the prelude to his successful presidential campaign, was not only racist, but also showed that he was at home with the most ignorant, benighted, prejudiced people in America. Who else but a complete loser would engage in Birtherism, so far from the Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Harvard aura that elevated Obama, but also distanced him from the masses?
The consistent derogation of Trump in the New York Times or on MSNBC may be helpful in keeping the resistance fired up, but it is counterproductive when it comes to breaking down the Trump coalition. His followers take every attack on their leader as an attack on them. ‘The fascist leader’s startling symptoms of inferiority’, Adorno wrote, ‘his resemblance to ham actors and asocial psychopaths’, facilitates the identification, which is the basis of the ideal. On the Access Hollywood tape, which was widely assumed would finish him, Trump was giving voice to a common enough daydream, but with ‘greater force’ and greater ‘freedom of libido’ than his followers allow themselves. And he was bolstering the narcissism of the women who support him, too, by describing himself as helpless in the grip of his desires for them.
Adorno also observed that demagoguery of this sort is a profession, a livelihood with well-tested methods. Trump is a far more familiar figure than may at first appear. The demagogue’s appeals, Adorno wrote, ‘have been standardised, similarly to the advertising slogans which proved to be most valuable in the promotion of business’. Trump’s background in salesmanship and reality TV prepared him perfectly for his present role. According to Adorno,
the leader can guess the psychological wants and needs of those susceptible to his propaganda because he resembles them psychologically, and is distinguished from them by a capacity to express without inhibitions what is latent in them, rather than by any intrinsic superiority.
To meet the unconscious wishes of his audience, the leader
simply turns his own unconscious outward … Experience has taught him consciously to exploit this faculty, to make rational use of his irrationality, similarly to the actor, or a certain type of journalist who knows how to sell their … sensitivity.
All he has to do in order to make the sale, to get his TV audience to click, or to arouse a campaign rally, is exploit his own psychology.
Using old-fashioned but still illuminating language, Adorno continued:
The leaders are generally oral character types, with a compulsion to speak incessantly and to befool the others. The famous spell they exercise over their followers seems largely to depend on their orality: language itself, devoid of its rational significance, functions in a magical way and furthers those archaic regressions which reduce individuals to members of crowds.
Since uninhibited associative speech presupposes at least a temporary lack of ego control, it can indicate weakness as well as strength. The agitators’ boasting is frequently accompanied by hints of weakness, often merged with claims of strength. This was particularly striking, Adorno wrote, when the agitator begged for monetary contributions. As with the Birther movement or Access Hollywood, Trump’s self-debasement – pretending to sell steaks on the campaign trail – forges a bond that secures his idealised status.
Since 8 November 2016, many people have concluded that what they understandably view as a catastrophe was the result of the neglect by neoliberal elites of the white working class, simply put. Inspired by Bernie Sanders, they believe that the Democratic Party has to reorient its politics from the idea that ‘a few get rich first’ to protection for the least advantaged. Yet no one who lived through the civil rights and feminist rebellions of recent decades can believe that an economic programme per se is a sufficient basis for a Democratic-led politics. This holds as well when it comes to trying to reach out to Trump’s supporters. Of those providing his roughly 40 per cent approval ratings, half say they ‘strongly approve’ and are probably lost to the Democrats. But if we understand the personal level at which pro-Trump strivings operate, we may better appeal to the other half, and in that way forestall the coming emergency.