Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933/1943) poses a question familiar to many Americans bewildered by the presidency of Donald Trump and the igneous qualities of his base. That the question was answered so long ago, and affirmed by other less controversial figures than Reich, including Erich Fromm and Erich Neumann, indicates a persistent naiveté, or an unwillingness to face unpleasant facts. The question heard on cable news and read in our daily newspapers is formulated like this: How can Trump continue to fool so many Americans? The subsequent question is something like: Is there nothing he can do to alienate his base? Questions such as these are asked in bad faith, and against the evidence of psychology and history. The Mass Psychology of Fascism argues—I believe correctly—against the polite explanation that the supporters of authoritarians are fooled, befogged, deluded, victims of psychosis and propaganda, pawns of a demagogue from whose hypnotic powers they will awaken, or can be awakened with some rational silver bullet of policy. No. The authoritarian is successful, in Reich’s analysis, “only if his personal point of view, his ideology, or his program bears a resemblance to the average structure of a broad category of individuals […] Only when the structure of the führer’s personality is in harmony with the structures of broad groups can the ‘führer’ make history” (35). Simply put, authoritarianism begins at home: fascism or any totalizing ideology is not a form of top-down psychosis; the underlying character of the constituents only gives rise to the individual who must be both messiah and scapegoat for the resentments of the group, in their fulfillment and when things fall apart. To ask, How can so many be fooled by such a man? is absurd, narcissistic. ‘They’ are under no illusions. Therefore, the authoritarian will sense his own ‘accidental’ aspect, that he is merely an instrument of history. Frequently, he will confuse this with his inevitability. The truth is that he is under their spell, not they under his. If and when the authoritarian is defeated, or the ideology implodes under the pressure of its consequences (the reluctant awakening of a reasonable self-disgust or pragmatism within the group) then he is transformed from their messiah to their scapegoat. His critics also scapegoat him for the pathology of the mass of which he is a symptom, and so the confrontation with actual psychological conditions is avoided. He is a fetish.
The question: Why do people consistently vote against their interests? is both idiotic and patronizing. People vote precisely for their interests; liberal analysts are particularly naïve about what these interests actually are, projecting their own mistaken beliefs about class-consciousness, as did those bewildered to discover that the proletariat chose Nazism over Communism in 1933. And people do lie to pollsters, of course. The people are not ‘swindled,’ and they activate the authoritarian from within. Another question: When will the incoherence of his policy will be sufficient to undermine his support? The answer, as Reich says and as history demonstrates repeatedly and tragically, is that these contradictions are irrelevant. Reich cites an article by Wilhelm Stapel, a Nazi who wrote that, “For the very reason that National Socialism is an elementary movement, it cannot be gotten at with ‘arguments.’ Arguments would be effective only if the movement had gained its power by argumentation” (Reich, 34). Reich explains: “In several passages of Mein Kampf Hitler stresses that true mass psychological tactics dispense with argumentation and keep the masses’ attention on the ‘great final goal’ at all times” (ibid). Further, it is of little consequence whether the ‘great final goal’ is accomplished. The contradictory or nonsensical argumentation of the authoritarian is consistent with the contradictions in the mass of individuals who comprise his constituency. Donald Trump is frequently incoherent, he contradicts himself, his policies and attitudes are neurotic, the great final goal of the southern border wall will remain unrealized, but none of this is of consequence. And there are lessons to be learned by those on the nominal ‘left’ who seek to eradicate contradictions in the psyche and culture; this impulse to censorship is totalitarian; to live with inconsistency is the essence of human transcendence. As Neumann says in The Origins and History of Consciousness, “The struggle between the specifically human and the universally natural constitutes the history of man’s conscious development” (16). Or, as Fromm puts it in The Sane Society (1955), “It is man’s fate that his existence is beset by contradictions which he has to solve without ever solving them” (362). The danger, Fromm says, is “robotism” (363). The resolution of our contradictions by edict or censorship is totalitarian, dystopian.
What Reich says of the generative character of fascism is that it is emotionally rebellious and socially reactionary. The apparently revolutionary, rebellious emotional appeal is less to freedom than it is to authority. This is true of both left and right totalitarianism. It will seem to some that I am drawing a false equivalence between Hitler and Trump, so be to clear, this is not the comparison to be made. The alignment I am drawing is between the emotionally rebellious, socially conservative desire for authoritarianism that is a mass psychological fact in the ascendency of both authoritarians in their electorate. ‘Blood and soil’ nationalism as directly analyzed by Reich, Fromm, and Neumann is, from ancient Babylon to Mein Kampf, incestuous. To the extent that—in various ways—Donald Trump is a media myth, an Internet-driven president, it is not as bizarre as it may initially sound to consider the intensification of pornography as an indicator in the resurgence of the blood and soil narrative. The archetypes of modern American pornography—intensified by the web—are essentially familial and class-derived: She as Mother (in-law, or someone else’s), Sister (step- or friend’s), Lolita, Secretary, Maid, Nurse, Sex-Worker, Nun, etc.; He as Father, Son, Boss, Police, Worker, Innocent Prole, etc. The once-removed relationships, where they appear, are Oedipal strategies. It is not that our present authoritarian was elected despite his relationships with Playboy model Karen MacDougal and porn star ‘Stormy Daniels’, nor that he was elected despite his admitted and reported sexual assaults; rather the intensification or visibility of sadism and incest in contemporary pornography renders him the ideal messiah/scapegoat for those living with these contradictions. He fulfills a mass psychology; he does not define it. Pornography does not dictate, it responds, and if it appears pathological or neurotic, it does so only to the extent that we are pathological or neurotic.
It is not surprising that there exists around Donald Trump a persistent father-daughter incest mystique. By the sadistic and incestuous standards of a mass of mainstream American culture, there is nothing deviant about Donald Trump. He is the masturbatory incest fantasy of a significant mass of conservatives. He is a little man with disproportionate power, granted him by other little men, afraid of their freedom, tethered to a nationalism that has its root in incest. “Fascist mentality is the mentality of the ‘little man,’ who is enslaved and craves authority and is at the same time rebellious. It is no coincidence that all dictators stem from the reactionary milieu of the little man. The industrial magnate and the feudal militarist exploit this social fact for their own purposes after it has evolved within the framework of the general suppression of life-impulses […] The little man has studied the big man’s behavior all too well, and he reproduces it in a distorted and grotesque fashion” (Reich, xv). Nor is there anything surprising in the reality that Bill Clinton gained in popularity subsequent to, and not despite, his affair with Monica Lewinsky—America’s response, even when unspoken, was a collective ‘wouldn’t you?’ Liberal feminism and knowing better were no match for libidinal drives and the transgressive contradictions enacted there. These are—however problematic we might ‘know’ them to be, even if we believe as such—some of the honest moments American politics. We should not be shocked to discover that blood and soil nationalism is a reality in America when parallel indicators of incest fantasies are so visible in mainstream culture. Stanley Milgram’s experiment demonstrated explicitly that sadism is a latent characteristic of a significant majority of people. All that is required is a messiah/scapegoat in whom to excuse these characteristics and through whom to articulate the taboo. Nietzsche identified resentment as a force as potent as the will-to-power. For as long as mainstream analysis persists with the delusion that fascism and its constellations project down from the charismatic individual, rather than up from within a constituency in an ambivalent or contradictory relationship with its own freedom, we will ask the same bad faith questions.
Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.
Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990
Neumann, Erich. The Origins and History of Consciousness. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
–James Reich, May 12, 2019