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Daniel Burston: “It Can’t Happen Here”

Trump, Authoritarianism & American Politics:

 “It can’t happen . . . Here. It can’t happen . . . Here.” I was 15 when I heard Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention intoning this phrase repeatedly against a background of cacophonous (and vaguely distressing) noise on one of their early albums. Their real message? To my innocent imagination, this bit of surrealist theater, wedged into an equally puzzling and digressive “song”, seemed to be saying: “Hey stupid, it can happen here!” Or worse yet, perhaps: “And yes brother, it will happen here if we lull ourselves to sleep with phony reassurances like these.”

I did not know this at the time, It Can’t Happen Here is the name of a semi-satirical novel written by Sinclair Lewis published in 1935, and adapted for the stage by John and Lewis Moffit in 1936. It tells the story of a fictional politician, “Buzz” Windrip, whose campaign slogans eerily presage those of Donald Trump today. Windrip wins a Presidential election and, once in office, relies on paramilitary organizations to circumvent the law and impose his will on the American people, trashing the constitution and freedom of the press. Windrip’s character was modelled on Hitler, but also on Louisiana Governor Huey Long, who was pondering a run for the Presidency at the time.

Of course, Lewis wasn’t the only American novelist to explore the theme of fascism in America. Jack London took a prescient crack at it in Martin Eden (1909.) Then, long after the fact, so did Philip Roth in The Plot Against America (2004.) But even their catastrophic scenarios didn’t prepare us for the awful spectacle of Donald Trump’s campaign. Moreover, while they provided us with cautionary tales, they do not actually explain why millions of “normal” Americans enthusiastically embrace a flamboyant anti-establishment candidate who rose to fame with a “reality TV show” in which he dominates, controls and humiliates prospective employees, a candidate who promotes “law and order” and quotes Mussolini, a candidate whose policy pronouncements frequently ignore (or negate) the constitution, who thrives on tabloid style conspiracy theories, who lies and fabricates freely, without inhibition or remorse, whose sexist, racist and anti-Semitic attitudes and inclinations are plain to see, and who openly praises dictators like Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin.

According to some social scientists, the best answer to the question “Why is Trump so popular?” is “authoritarianism.” Though this concept is in widespread use in social science research today, the basic idea behind the “authoritarian personality” originated in Weimar, in the 1920s, among a group of left-leaning (and mostly Jewish) psychoanalysts and social scientists who were trying to fathom the seemingly inexorable rise of fascism, which destroyed what little was left of Weimar, prompting them to flee to the United States in 1933 (and subsequently.) Among them was a dissident Freudian named Wilhelm Reich, who authored an influential text entitled The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933.) Reich was intent on exposing the causes of what he termed “the patriarchal-authoritarian character”, and interpreted the religious and mystical dimensions of Nazi propaganda and ritual – which were steeped in neo-pagan and occult symbolism – as expressions of pronounced sado-masochistic tendencies in the collective psyche. Why?

When it is used to describe a sexual perversion, the word “sado-masochism” denotes a kind of emotional numbness, or an inability to experience full sexual arousal and release without first inflicting pain on others, or having pain inflicted on oneself. But this narrow definition of sado-masochism was abandoned, or more accurately, expanded by Freud and his followers early on. Freud noted that sadism and masochism seldom appear in pure form, and that sadistic and masochistic tendencies are always found together in the same person. As a result, a person who prefers the sadistic role, as a rule, still harbors masochistic tendencies. (This explains why sado-masochists often exchange roles.)

Taking his cue from Freud, Reich said that our definition of sado-masochism must be expanded beyond overt sexual behavior to include sadistic and masochistic character traits, which may or may not take on an overtly sexual form. People with a predominantly sadistic character may not practice kinky sex, but they take great pleasure in dominating and humiliating people, robbing of their dignity and their powers of autonomous action. They love power and control. Masochistic characters, by contrast, take pleasure in submission. They become anxious unless they are attached to a more powerful person who tells them what to do. They love power and control, but typically seek it out in others, rather than trying to seize it for themselves. Many of Hitler’s followers fit the masochistic profile. To participate in the Nazi movement, they willingly silenced their consciences and critical faculties and obeyed their leader, regardless of how heinous and bizarre his ideas and behavior were.

Another psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, went on to note that neither the sadist nor the masochist – in this diffuse, characterological sense – is capable of genuine love or compassion for other human beings. In his book Escape From Freedom (1941), Fromm said that authoritarians can only manage a kind of sordid intimacy with others that he called “symbiotic attachment.” Fromm thought that people with a pronounced and open preference for sado-masochistic sex are relatively rare, but that sadistic and masochistic character traits are quite prevalent in the general population, and when they proliferate beyond a certain point, authoritarian and anti-democratic regimes flourish. In such circumstances, people who are relatively normal in terms of sexual behavior will support narcissistic leaders whose sanity is often quite precarious. The more grandiose and inflated the sadistic leader’s ego becomes, the more his followers revel vicariously in their leader’s (real and imagined) power. This attitude toward power legitimates the use of force and deception to solve problems, and abets an ideological emphasis on the natural inequality of man, which justifies the oppression of one race (or sex) by another.

Escape From Freedom remains Fromm’s best known study of authoritarianism, but his initial research on pro-fascist sympathies among factory workers in the Weimar Republic actually took place in 1929, when he was Director for Social Psychological Research at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, a post he held for a decade. Fromm left the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research – which had relocated to Columbia University in 1937 – in 1938, and was replaced by Theodor Adorno, who used Fromm’s (still unpublished) work as a pilot study, which informed his (much larger) study of pro-fascist attitudes among Americans, called The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al., 1950.) Adorno found some striking correlations between what he termed “pseudo-conservative” trends and proto-fascist thinking, and between these and racism, anti-Semitism and intense religiosity. The study’s R scale, which purported to measure a test subject’s religiosity, appeared to imply that there is a very strong correlation between intense religiosity and authoritarian (and/or racist and anti-Semitic) trends.

The idea that religiosity per se is a symptom of immaturity, or a product of psychopathological trends, is an Enlightenment bias that Erich Fromm, for one, never shared. Fromm trained for the rabbinate before becoming a psychoanalyst, and even after becoming an atheist, claimed that in his own quiet way, he was doing God’s work! How do we make sense of this strange state of affairs? In a book entitled Psychoanalysis and Religion, published in 1950, the same year as Adorno’s landmark study of authoritarianism in America, Fromm wrote the following:

“The psychoanalyst is in a position to study the human reality behind religion as well as behind non-religious symbol systems. He finds that the question is not whether man returns to religion and believes in God, but whether he lives love and thinks truth. If he does so, the symbol system he uses are of secondary importance. If he does not, they are of no importance.”

Put differently, Fromm was saying that a person’s theological frame of reference or personal belief system is far less important than the way that they actually live their faith. If they truly embrace and embody the commandment to love their neighbor, and to speak (and to think) the truth, it doesn’t really matter whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. And conversely, if they do not embrace and embody these core values, the fact that they think of themselves as Jewish, Christian or Muslim is irrelevant, because they are not really religious, but pseudo-religious – people who have embraced a particular set of rituals or a particular group identity but who, deep down, remain idolaters, at least in Fromm’s terminology. The real objections of their devotion – success, money, the state, the free market or the Aryan race, for that matter – are not graven images, but potent abstractions that estrange them from human reality.

While seldom cited nowadays, Psychoanalysis and Religion was a noteworthy book, because unlike Reich, Adorno et al., Fromm differentiated between humanistic and authoritarian religious attitudes and sensibilities. Only the latter disfigure our character and conduct, said Fromm, because they demand blind obedience to irrational authority, dull our conscience and warp our critical faculties. And unlike Adorno et al., who’d conceived of authoritarianism as a purely Right wing phenomenon, Fromm found American authoritarianism flourishing on the Right and the Left alike. He lamented the idolatrous, corrosive nationalism of Cold Warriors – “My country, right or wrong”, “Better dead than Red”, etc. – but also called attention the blinkered mentality of Stalinists.

While Left wing authoritarianism was – and quite honestly, still is – a genuine (and worrisome) phenomenon, often linked to Left wing anti-Semitism, the most potent threat to American democracy nowadays is obviously Right-wing authoritarianism. One doesn’t have to be a psychoanalyst to be alarmed by Trump’s thuggish, bullying demeanor, his thinly veiled (and sometimes utterly transparent) incitements to violence against his critics and opponents, his denigrating remarks about women, his palpable contempt for minorities and handicapped people, etc., all of which are heavily tinged with sadism. So indeed, is his relentless, compassion-free (but widely admired) obsession with “winners” and “losers.” Admiration for strongmen and “winners” goes hand in hand with the need to revile and reject vanquished opponents or competitors, and those who fall from power, who provoke the authoritarian’s derision and scorn.

Are all of Trump’s followers as authoritarian or sadistic as he is? No, not necessarily. Many of Trump’s fans are low-intensity authoritarians who admire strongmen and “winners”, but who would be quickly disillusioned with him after a brief period in office; when it would probably be too late. And if Nazi Germany was any indication, an authoritarian society does not merely contain “winners” and “losers.” It also contains a much larger group of passive and increasingly indifferent people who simply “go along” with the status quo, maintaining a façade of normalcy and respectability in the process. Unlike violent strongmen and their lackeys, the numbed and generally silent majority tries to avoid becoming targets of violence or foul play. In so doing, they avoid losing what they have, or increase their chances of doing better by not opposing the powers that be. As a result, silent compliance swiftly becomes the “new normal”, and in due course, a tacitly accepted part of prevailing social and cultural mores. Even when they are complicit in hiding or abetting heinous misdeeds of some kind, people like this often angrily disavow any wrong-doing, because they have deluded themselves into thinking that docile conformity with prevailing cultural norms and expectations makes them “good.”

While not consciously conflicted about their survival strategies, perhaps, in the final analysis, people like this are also victims – although they are complicit in their own victimization, and sometimes rewarded handsomely for it. But like victims everywhere, they harbor feelings of unconscious self-loathing, which they assuage by indulging in a defense mechanism called “identification with the aggressor”, in which they unconsciously idealize their oppressors, and internalize their attitudes towards the less fortunate – those at the bottom of the social ladder, or those who ran afoul of the power elite. As a result, they share the strongmen’s sadistic contempt for the weak and oppressed.

Though less conspicuous, on the face of it, the same sort of attitude underlies the quiet contempt for the underdog embedded in the hearts of “respectable” people, though instead of resulting in overt sadism, it furnishes them with the perfect pretext for passivity and indifference to the victimization of others (passive aggression.) It also fosters a vaguely psychopathic absence of remorse when the ugly truth finally comes to light. As two German psychoanalysts, Alexander and Marguerite Misterlisch discovered, for example, the belief that the victims – and especially the Jews – really “had it coming” was quite prevalent in Germany after the Holocaust.

So, Right wing authoritarianism is alive and well in America today, and thanks to Donald Trump’s incendiary populism, is flexing its muscles and gaining visibility more than any time in recent memory. Despite (and because of) Trump’s diminishing chances of being elected President, he is claiming that the upcoming election will be rigged against him, suggesting that he will not go quietly into that good night, reminding us – if we needed reminding – that incipiently fascistic movements and ideas will continue be a potent political force on the American political landscape for some time to come. If Trump loses, even by a considerable margin, we’d be foolish not to reflect on recent history, and to call Republicans account for their handiwork. As Sinclair Lewis and Frank Zappa both discerned, it can happen here – and if we don’t remain vigilant, eventually, it probably will.

Copyright 2016 Daniel Burston

Daniel Burston is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Duquesne University. He is the author of a number of books including The Legacy of Erich Fromm published by Harvard University Press.

6 comments on “Daniel Burston: “It Can’t Happen Here”

  1. icareviews
    March 11, 2017

    Is this supposed to be a parody website or are these profundities offered sans irony? It continues to boggle my mind how Trump could have Jewish friends, Jewish campaign staff, Jewish financial backing, a positively irrational support of the Jewish state, and even Jewish in-laws and grandchildren, and yet still be considered “anti-Semitic”. Never mind that the ShouldTrumpRun website launched back in 2011 to test the waters for a Trump presidential bid was a project of a Jewish pharmaceuticals magnate and two Jewish attorneys. But look – you can find pictures where Trump’s head is photographed with a similar expression and at a similar angle as Mussolini’s so … clearly Trump is a capital-F Fascist and goosestepping Nazi who wants to gas six million Semites! Enjoy Trumpism while it lasts. He’s actually one of you.



  2. Daniel Burston
    October 28, 2016

    Hello Michael,

    Hmmm . . . At the end of the day, metaphysics – dualistic or otherwise – wasn’t Fromm’s bag. And I’d say principally, not exclusively. Depends where you look. In Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950) Fromm scolds Western thinkers for neglecting and/or misjudging the Dharmic (Asian) religions. In The Art of Loving (1956) he commends the Asian religions for their superior realism. And he co-authored a book entitled Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis w with D.T.Suzuki (1960.)

    Doesn’t that count?


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Daniel Burston
    October 28, 2016

    Hello Daniel,

    You raise some troubling and important questions. Freud believed that the average individual in any society gravitates toward charismatic (and fundamentally narcissistic, self aggrandizing) leaders who project strength, give them a feeling of being loved and understood, and promise to beat up the bad guys for them – and that they do so spontaneously, regardless of how they’ve been raised or educated. Reich, Fromm and Adorno, by contrast, all attributed the rise of “the authoritarian character” to authoritarian child-reading and educational practices, which presumably warp the individual’s personality and stifle their critical faculties. For my part, despite my affinities for Fromm’s perspective, I often fear that Freud was right, while fervently hoping that he was wrong.

    Leaving psychological origins and dynamics aside, history suggests that the best way to diminish both the supply of and demand for Trump-like demagogues is to avoid the kind of political polarization and sense of powerlessness that inevitably accompanies the grotesque income inequality we have in this country today. Fixing our educational system so that

    1) people of all income levels have a fundamental respect for factuality and little tolerance for “spin”, and therefore a diminished attraction to conspiracy theories, would also be good, and

    2) less collective amnesia, and more awareness of historical precedent

    would also be a big help.

    My strong sense of it is that the economic policy prescriptions of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders would take us in the right direction. We can only hope that they keep Clinton honest – if that is really possible, at this stage of the game – or at least hold her to her promises.

    Best wishes,


    Liked by 1 person

    • daniel r. cobb
      October 28, 2016

      Thanks for your reply Daniel. Enlightening, as always. When Clinton is elected, it will be our collective responsibility to hold her responsible to those liberal, progressive voters who elected her.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. daniel r. cobb
    October 28, 2016

    I appreciate the energy and analysis that went into this essay. It is a complex piece and I don’t pretend to understand the majority of it. My question becomes, how do we as a society, work to avoid the rise of personality traits in people that dispose them to becoming fervent followers of “Donald Trumps”? Are people genetically predisposed to following megalomaniacs, or are they the result of the environment, childhood experiences? Perhaps both Or is it just basic human nature common to all of us, that when economic conditions become severe enough and a charismatic leader, ripe for that moment, gains enough attention, that people, by the millions, simply abandon all that is supposedly humane and caring in humankind, and become “animals” ? Is this just who we are?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. michaelgregoryaz
    October 24, 2016

    Well and good, but it should be noted that Fromm thinks of “religion” principally, if not exclusively, in terms of monotheism, and the “big three” monotheisms in particular, and avoids interrogating the socio-political implications of the related (dualistic) metaphysics.

    Liked by 2 people

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