Governments and other political institutions employ propaganda to sway public opinion, instill ideas, and exert a degree of control over people.
This essay is a lot more personal than any of my previous postings on this blog—or, indeed, any my writing anywhere else. It’s personal because it concerns a topic that is so important to me that I cannot bear to shroud it in a pretense of academic detachment and so overwhelmingly significant that the thought of writing about anything else seems grotesque.
On June16, 2015 Donald Trump descended the escalator to the lobby of his eponymous tower to announce that he was throwing his hat into the presidential ring. This announcement was the source of great amusement among my left-leaning academic friends, who thought of him as a buffoon who would, however ephemerally, inject some entertainment into what promised to be a lackluster Republican primary. Listening to Trump’s announcement, and his subsequent speeches and debates, I felt differently. Anxiety began to gnaw at my stomach. “This man is formidable,” I thought to myself. “He’s dangerous, and he stands a very good chance of becoming the next President of the United States.” My friends and colleagues had a great time making fun of him—ridiculing his hair, his peculiarly orange hue, and his propensity to describe things as “Huge!” But I couldn’t find it in my heart to join the party. I didn’t think that Donald Trump was a laughing matter.
As some readers may be aware, my research is mostly focused on the phenomenon of dehumanization. I look at how human beings come to conceive of other human beings as less than human. Consequently, I spend a great deal of time immersed in the study of some of the most hideous aspects of the human story—genocide, war, and oppression. I study the forms of political speech that make these horrors possible, and the psychological features that give this sort of rhetoric its purchase on human behavior. And as I listened to Trump’s announcement on that evening that now seems so long ago, his verbal choreography was all too familiar. He repeated, with remarkable fidelity, a rhetorical pattern that was used by Hitler and Goebbels during the 1930s.
The British psychoanalyst/philosopher Roger Money-Kyrle described and analyzed this pattern in a remarkable article entitled “The psychology of propaganda” published in 1941, and his analysis fit Trump’s speech like a glove. One reason why Money-Kyrle’s paper is so powerful is the fact that he was there. He attended Nazi rallies, listened to the speakers, and watched the behavior of the crowd. And while listening and watching he used his Freudian sensibilities to try and make sense of the horrible spectacle that was unfolding before his eyes. I described all of this, and a bit more, in a blog posting that was published here called, “The Politics of Illusion: From Socrates, Through Psychoanalysis, to Donald Trump.” This was in January 2016. A couple of months later, I was contacted by the journalist Gwynn Guilford, who told me that she was writing an article on the snowballing Trump phenomenon, and that she was interested in my perspective on it. Guilford attended three Trump rallies in Ohio, and wanted to test my claims against what she witnessed there. In her article “Inside the Trump machine: the bizarre psychology of America’s newest political movement,” which was published in Quartz on April 1, she commented “To test Smith’s case, I went through the many reams of observations I scribbled down reflecting on the Trump rallies. Nearly every paragraph fit Money-Kyrle’s sequence.” In the article, she explained exactly how.
As the months rolled by, my worries became more and more acute. I was losing sleep and had difficulty concentrating on my teaching. I was distracted and depressed. In the evenings I self-medicated with scotch.
What made the situation all the more bizarre was the fact that most of my academic friends—predominantly philosophers—did not seem to see the danger posed by the Trump train hurtling down the track. I posted increasingly urgent messages on social media, and was assured that Trump would never gain a substantial following. When his movement swelled I was confidently told that he would never get the Republican nomination. And after each of his increasingly outrageous and offensive remarks, I tried unsuccessfully to explain to my friends that these episodes—including his discourse about grabbing women’s genitals—would only fan the flames of his popularity. And after Trump won the nomination, I was assured that there was simply no way that Trump could win the election, and was even informed by a fellow philosopher that it was mathematically impossible for him to do so (so much for a priori reasoning).
This pattern of denial continued until the evening of November 9, when those damned numbers came rolling in. By this point, my prophecies of doom had earned me the nickname “Cassie” – short for “Cassandra,” the priestess who is condemned to make predictions, which, although accurate, are not believed.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
After a brief hiatus, many of my friends and colleagues found a way back to the comforting realm of denial. They started suggesting that maybe the Trump presidency won’t be all that bad after all. Surely, they said, he was just indulging in empty talk to garner support from the Republican base. He won’t really do those things. Even if it turns out that he means to put these crazy policies into effect, the Republican establishment won’t let him follow through. And even if Congress gives Trump the green light, our time-honored democratic institutions will keep things in check.
Trump is now making good on his promises. The deportations haven’t started yet, but they likely will soon. The Republicans have largely fallen into line, and Democratic opposition has been lukewarm. The Nazis had a word for what is going on right now. They called it Gleichschaltung, a word that referred to the process of falling into line with Nazi ideology. As Claudia Koonz points out in her book The Nazi Conscience, this word “has no equivalent in other languages.” “Gleich, “ she explains, “means both ‘equal’ and ‘the same.’ Schalten means ‘to shift.’ The conversion of A/C to D/C electrical current is a Gleichschaltung.” Koonz points out that many Germans did not need to be pushed or threatened. Instead, they brought themselves into line (in the lingo of the day, they engaged in Selbstgleichschaltung) and this insidious process “occurred so steadily, that most people hardly noticed” (Koonz, 2003, pp. 73-74).
Both Trump’s appeal and the tendency to close one’s eyes to it spring from the same psychological source. To understand that source, it’s helpful to turn to the thinking of Sigmund Freud, who stressed that our capacity to remain in touch with reality is both hard-won and fragile. We have a difficult time sustaining it, and very easily slip into illusion. In everyday speech, “illusion” is used to describe a kind of false belief. These are often perceptual beliefs—for instance, the optical illusions that trick us into seeing things that aren’t there, or the deliberate illusions engineered by stage magicians—but they can also be more conceptual—for instance, the false belief that the world will end on such-and-such a date. However, Freud meant something quite different by “illusion.” He held that illusions are beliefs that are driven by wishes. In other words, we suffer from an illusion if we believe that something is the case just because we wish it to be the case.
Freudian illusions don’t have to be false (although they are likely to be false). It’s possible to believe something because you wish it to be true and—coincidentally—for that belief to turn out to be true. Whether a belief is true or not is irrelevant to its status as a Freudian illusion. What matters is what motivates the belief. Freud’s notion of wishing also departs from the everyday meaning of the word. In ordinary speech, wishes are deliberate and explicit states of mind: the things that we make just before blowing out the candles on the birthday cake. But for Freud, wishing is an automatic, unconscious process. It is the deep and ineradicable tendency to misapprehend the world—to picture it in a way that seamlessly accords with our desires
If Freud is right—as I think he is—than there is something at the core of human nature that defies and undermines political rationality. Politics, after all, concerns basic human needs and how they might be satisfied. As such, it provides fertile ground for illusions. In my earlier posting drew on Money-Kyrle to describe how Trump manipulates the propensity for illusion by first getting his listeners to feel helpless and threatened and then offering them salvation from this appalling condition. It was the human proneness to illusion that got Trump elected, and the very same propensity that led many right-thinking people—including many philosophers with an exaggerated confidence in the hegemony of reason—to close their eyes to what was really going down.
That this country is moving down the road towards fascism is now difficult to deny. Every day seems to bring new and more disturbing news about the priorities and activities of the men and women in whose hands we have placed the future of our nation. Whereas comparisons between Trump and Hitler (or Mussolini) were once routinely shrugged off as hyperbolic, they are rapidly gaining credibility, while references to “the resistance” are increasingly commonplace. Women and men have taken to the streets, turning out in record numbers to protest against the new regime. These are all important developments, but it is also important not to overestimate them. Once the euphoria generated by the magnificent protests has worn off, and resistance becomes more and more costly, we will be inclined to close our eyes, get on with our lives, and yield to the enticements of Selbstgleichschaltung.
Let’s remain vigilant. Please.