Mass Psychology in the Age of Trump.

Why is Trump driving liberals berserk? Is it him or us—or both?

By John T. Jost and Orsolya Hunyady

Tagged Donald TrumpLiberalismpsychology

Photo by Oli Goldsmith via CC 2.0 .

 

It has been more than a year now, and while the initial shock may have worn off, the horror of President Trump, for liberals, has not. Weekly, daily, sometimes hourly, Trump does something that liberals experience as not merely wrong or politically abhorrent, but something that violates all the norms and principles of public life that we hold most dear. He drives liberals crazy in ways that even Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush never did.

Why? What is it about Trump’s personality, his followers, and the brand of authoritarian conservatism they share? And what is it about liberals that renders them so apoplectic in this situation? Pop psychologists and pundits have brushed up against these questions, but no one has quite wrestled them to the ground. We think we know why Trump makes liberals go berserk. The answer is only partly about Trump. It also has to do with the essential characteristics of liberal ideology and psychology, that is, the very qualities that make liberals “liberal.” We’ll get there, but first we need to establish a few points about conservatism, authoritarianism, Trump’s personality, and the psychology of the liberal mindset.

The Slippery Slope from Conservatism to Authoritarianism

Let us acknowledge that there is something human and intrinsically valuable about the “conservative” impulse to preserve social, economic, and political legacies. As the late Marxist philosopher Gerald A. Cohen pointed out, nearly all of us possess a “natural” bias in favor of existing value and are often heard bemoaning the fact that “things ain’t what they used to be.” When political conservatives tout the importance of the nuclear family or the Constitution or even American exceptionalism, they strike a chord that resonates with most if not all of us.

The understandable, even admirable reverence for tradition can, however, easily slip into more dangerous forms of ideological calcification that wittingly or unwittingly prop up existing forms of exploitation and oppression and stifle opportunities for progress, equality, and social change. Thus, Cohen added that he could never be a conservative about matters of social justice, “because what conservatives like me want to conserve is that which has intrinsic value, and injustice lacks intrinsic value (and has, indeed, intrinsic disvalue).” The challenge, for all of us living in a liberal democracy, is to distinguish clearly between elements of the societal status quo that possess intrinsic value and those that do not, and to conserve only the former. No doubt, this is more easily said than done.

More than any other political system, democracy—as Plato pointed out long ago—has the inherent ability to actualize its own demise. By manipulating the democratic process, elites can limit the freedoms of individuals or social groups and put in place leaders who are not democratically inclined. In a very concrete sense, democracy depends upon ordinary citizens’ capacities and motivations to absorb democratic values and tolerate those with diverse social, cultural, ethnic, and ideological backgrounds. These are precisely the values that those on the right wing have been attacking for years, and they have exploited the inherent popularity of conservative ideology to do so.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford observed a close connection between the holding of extremely conservative, system-justifying values and authoritarian tendencies. They took a multi-methods approach, conducting structured interviews and administering questionnaires and projective tests to countless samples of American adults. Among other things, they observed that people who endorsed statements like “America may not be perfect, but the American Way has brought us about as close as human beings can get to a perfect society” were also more likely to express prejudice, anti-Semitism, and anti-democratic sentiments. Conversely, “liberals” who felt that “poverty could be almost entirely done away with if we made certain basic changes in our social and economic system” were less likely to exhibit authoritarian tendencies. Ever since the Democratic Party first took a strong leadership role on the issue of civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s, authoritarian tendencies have consistently predicted support for Republican presidential candidates.

Social scientists have long known that highly threatening historical periods are accompanied by an increase in authoritarianism in the general population. Thus, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there was a predictable uptick in support for authoritarian conservatism, as well as decreased commitment to tolerance and the protection of civil liberties. Similar shifts have occurred in response to bombing and terrorist attacks in India, Israel, and throughout Europe. The fear of terrorism has broadened to encompass the so-called “migrant crisis.” And there is plenty of reason for economic anxiety after 40 years of flat wages (despite increased worker productivity) under capitalist economic systems that have become more and more efficient at exploiting resources of labor.

Whatever the proximal psychological causes, we are bearing witness—all over the world—to the rebirth of extreme right-wing movements that thrive under conditions of anxiety. These movements promise a return to “traditional” (often religious) values, a curtailing of reproductive and other rights of women (as well as sexual minorities), and a revival of nationalistic (often ethnic) pride and the “restoration” of national boundaries, along with a dismantling of the “administrative” welfare state and the imposition of illiberal reforms and vindictive immigration policies. Once in power, they flirt with (and sometimes embrace) totalitarian practices, such as intimidating and even incarcerating protestors, journalists, academics, and any others whom they find potentially threatening or disruptive. With the support of conservative voters, illiberal governments have gained power in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and many other countries. Radical right-wing parties are also resurgent in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, and the United Kingdom. Understanding mass psychology in this day and age, and the ways in which authoritarian politicians have so successfully tapped into it, is of paramount importance for understanding how this happened and how it can be fought; that is, for the long-term preservation of democratic systems.

Trump This! Authoritarianism by the Book

Even before Donald Trump was elected President, many worried that his campaign style signaled a sea change in American politics—a new danger that right-wing authoritarianism would finally triumph at home. Other Republicans had been accused of dog-whistle politics, using coded language to cue fairly subtle racial biases, but Trump makes comments that come off as overtly, unabashedly racist, sexist, and xenophobic. To some citizens, these comments are taken as evidence of Trump’s authenticity—a breath of “fresh air”—and principled opposition to “political correctness.” To others, it has been shocking to see a successful candidate for President using crass language and defending violence. According to Time, Trump said he’d “like to punch protesters in the face and offered to pay the legal fees of supporters who did.” His rallies were “punctuated by his roar—‘Get ’em out!’—when a dissenter [began] chanting or raising a sign.”

Whatever the psychological causes, we are witnessing the rebirth of extreme right-wing movements that thrive under anxiety.

The reality of the situation throws into stark relief the fact that political scientists today are working with an impoverished conception of authoritarianism—one that emphasizes little more than child-rearing values of obedience and conformity. Contemporary researchers often distance themselves from Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford, in part because of methodological problems that were not as obvious in the 1940s as they are now, but also because these authors were influenced by Marx and Freud, who have fallen out of fashion. Some social scientists have backed off from using the concept of authoritarianism altogether for fear of alienating social conservatives. Others simply put a smiley face on authoritarianism, claiming that in-group loyalty, obedience to authority, and the desire for “purity” are legitimate moral values that liberals ought to respect rather than suspect.

It is worth recalling that Adorno and his colleagues identified nine characteristics of the authoritarian syndrome (not just one or two or three): (1) aggression against those who deviate from “the norm,” (2) submission to idealized moral authorities, (3) uncritical acceptance of conventional values, (4) mental rigidity and a proclivity to engage in stereotypical thinking, (5) a preoccupation with toughness and power, (6) exaggerated sexual concerns, (7) a reluctance to engage in introspection, (8) a tendency to project undesirable traits onto others, and (9) destructiveness and cynicism about human nature. These characteristics provide an uncanny description of Donald Trump. It is as if he has been doing authoritarianism by the book.

It is unnecessary to analyze every one of these characteristics, but let’s consider a few. Not only has Trump courted violent aggression against detractors, he has demanded submission from peers, including Republican opponents during the primary debates, whom he belittled in various ways. Is Trump preoccupied with toughness and power? Here is how he announced a presidential endorsement from boxer (and convicted rapist) Mike Tyson: “Iron Mike. You know, all the tough guys endorse me . . . when I get endorsed by the tough ones, I like it, because you know what? We need toughness now. We need toughness.” And is Trump preoccupied with sexual concerns? How else can we understand bizarre comments about his daughter’s “figure” and the menstrual cycles of female journalists—as well as his claim that Hillary Clinton was “schlonged” when she lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in 2008? It is also a useful thought experiment to imagine what authoritarian conservatives would have done if Obama had been accused of cheating on his wife with an adult film actress, as Trump has been. As for reluctance to engage in introspection, Trump admitted in a 2014 interview: “I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see.”

In other words, Trump perfectly exemplifies the “authoritarian syndrome,” and surveys confirm that Trump supporters differ from other voters—including other Republicans—in terms of their affinity for right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. Regardless of whether he has truly significant mental health problems—narcissism, sociopathy, or some other personality disorder—his behavior is crazy-making. He tweets one thing, then the opposite. Policies that may affect millions of people, especially immigrants, are dashed off on a whim, inspired by the latest rant on “Fox and Friends.” “Why are we taking people from ‘shithole’ countries?” asks the President of the United States, in all seriousness. Cavalierly, he tosses paper towels to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.

Does this mean that Trump has pulled off an authoritarian coup? Certainly not. His government is disorganized and largely ineffective, and in terms of policy he has accomplished little other than tax cuts for the rich and the dismantling of certain forms of economic regulation during the first year of his presidency. But many of his appointments to the judiciary and various governmental units will inflict harm on liberal causes, including the environment, for decades to come. These are angst-ridden times for American liberals, even if the illiberal ambitions of the President—and, worse, many of his supporters (our friends, our co-workers, our family members)—will fail in the long run. In the long run, as they say, we will all be dead.

The Liberal Conundrum: Tolerating the Intolerable

A mad social scientist could not have devised a character who is more antithetical to the liberal worldview than Donald Trump—even a staunch conservative with a more disciplined commitment to right-wing ideals. Trump is unique in his ability to provoke, upset, and irritate those with liberal sensibilities. No doubt this is part of his appeal to a certain segment of the population—the ones who have been told since Nixon that “liberal elites” were laughing at them.

The writer Katha Pollitt confesses that, “I sometimes feel like I’m a different person now. I’m fidgety and irritable and have trouble concentrating . . . But the main difference is that I hate people now. Well, not all people, of course. Just people who voted for Trump. People who do their own ‘research’ on the Internet and discover there that President Obama is a Muslim and Michelle Obama is a man.” Likewise, Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times observes, “What now passes for ordinary would have once been inconceivable. The government is under the control of an erratic racist who engages in nuclear brinkmanship on Twitter. . . . It’s been a year, and sometimes I’m still poleaxed by grief at the destruction of our civic inheritance.”

What precisely is it about Trump that drives liberals to these cataclysmic views? The answer has to do as much with liberals as with Trump himself. First, there is the nature of liberal ideology itself, which—because of its peculiar characteristics and internal contradictions—contributes to the present situation. Second, there are psychological factors, the dispositional tendencies of those who are drawn to liberal ideology. These two elements are related because there is a close and reciprocal connection—what Max Weber called an “elective affinity”—between psychological needs on one hand and the philosophical contents of an ideology on the other.

The Tensions in Liberal Ideology and Psychology

Liberalism as an ideology is a system of values. The distinctive ideological contents of liberalism are openness to social change (or progressivism) and the promotion of social, economic, and political equality. If a conflict arises for liberals but not for conservatives, it is probably because liberalism prioritizes equality above all else. The liberal call for diversity (and, by extension, pluralism) is, among other, things, a call to treat different values equally—to avoid elevating one over others in terms of status and respect. This applies even to conservatism. On some abstract level, liberals feel compelled to proclaim that conservative intuitions are equally acceptable, equally valuable, and equally valid to their own intuitions. At the same time, when it comes to the specific content of conservative opinions (on affirmative action, universal health care, Social Security, gun control, climate change, gay rights, and so on), liberals are convinced that conservatives are dead wrong. Strictly speaking, this conflict is not resolvable and is manifested as genuine ambivalence.

The hate speech debate illustrates the conflict. On one hand, it is impermissible, understandably so, for liberals to simply declare certain kinds of speech or ideas or values off-limits. And yet hate speech severely undermines liberal values, and, to the extent that it gains traction, undermines liberal-democratic societies. What often follows for the liberal in such a quandary is a quixotic, obsessional attempt to identify precisely what qualifies as “hate speech.” One way in which liberals cope with the contradiction is to be permissive in theory, but to become more prohibitive when it comes to specific cases (like Richard Spencer), without ever being able to resolve the inconsistency.

Another manifestation of liberal ambivalence is to advocate (relentlessly) for increased open-mindedness (“we should listen to Trump supporters and figure out what we are missing”), while at the same time slamming Trump himself. Liberals want to validate the needs and desires of fellow citizens that gave rise to the Trump vote without validating the vote itself. They struggle to separate Trump and his actions from the people who elevated him to power, and in doing so, they retain the ability to be empathetic and critical. It is an ingenious trick of the unconscious, the essence of compartmentalization: Trump is not the same as his followers; his followers are not all like him. Do conservatives engage in similar contortions of a political psychological nature? No, because their philosophy (and their psychology) does not require it.

Liberals, therefore, face a special conflict that they are especially ill-equipped to resolve: between tolerance and the “tolerance of intolerance.” If the conflict is unavoidable, and ultimately unresolvable, one can commit to one side only at the expense of the other. If the liberal decides that openness and acceptance matter above all, that we should never treat anyone as “the other,” and that we always need to listen, this inevitably comes at the expense of progressive political goals, including the single-minded pursuit of ideological opposition to the conservative agenda. If, instead, she decides that enough is enough, that the time to fight is now, she is accused—even by fellow liberals—of being “closed-minded,” prejudiced, intolerant, and hypocritical—and, indeed, comes to worry herself that this may be the case. Fifty years ago, Bob Dylan chastened himself for “fearing not that I’d become my enemy in the instant that I preach.” Today many liberals are virtually paralyzed by such a fear. The liberal conundrum cannot really be resolved, and in this way the suffering under Trump and his ilk is compounded and quite possibly prolonged.

The conflict in liberal political ideology manifests itself in liberal psychology as well. We have recently conducted a quantitative meta-analysis of 181 studies based on more than 130,00 research participants, and it reveals that, in comparison with conservatives, liberals exhibit the following psychological characteristics: openness to new experiences, tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, cognitive flexibility and complexity, and need for cognition (or enjoyment of thinking). Liberals also score lower than conservatives on measures of dogmatism and personal needs for order, structure, and cognitive closure. To be sure, there are epistemic virtues associated with a more “deliberative” thinking style: Liberals are less likely than conservatives to exhibit self-deception, and they are generally less receptive to conspiracy theories and “pseudo-profound” bullshit.

But the prototypical liberal is also someone who exhibits the defense mechanism of intellectualization and may engage in compartmentalization and other forms of obsessional thinking, which divorce feelings from thought and action. The liberal wants, sometimes desperately, to maintain hope and trust in the positive aspects of human nature, even when it comes to those who are self-declared enemies of liberalism. She sees herself as driven by compassion and is therefore uncomfortable (or ambivalent) about her own competitive and aggressive impulses. Liberals promote the ideal of cooperation and the metaphor of government-as-caretaker (or, in George Lakoff’s phrase, “the nurturant parent”), and they place a strong emphasis on equality and acceptance of difference. And it is true that values such as care and cooperation can, to some degree, provide a psychological bulwark against feelings of guilt, anger, resentment, and helplessness. But there are downsides as well. Politics is not—and probably never will be—as rational as the liberal would like.

The Problem with Trump

We are now equipped to answer the question: Why does Trump—even more than other conservatives—make liberal brains go haywire? It is because he makes it impossible, in practice, for liberals to be tolerant (egalitarian), rational, and optimistic about human nature—three things that are essential aspects of liberal ideology and liberal psychology. Trump makes it preposterous, in other words, for liberals to be “liberal” in the usual sense.

Even Reagan and Bush, for all their dog-whistling, never resorted to language that was explicitly authoritarian, racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic. But Trump does so regularly; he states that some neo-Nazis are “very fine people.” Liberals cannot in good conscience tolerate these “values”—or treat them as equally valid (or “moral” or “tribal”), when their opposites are readily available. Second, while other Republicans (and some Democrats, too, of course) have lied in office, no one has ever displayed so little regard for the truth. How can anyone who deeply values reason and scientific evidence countenance the biggest conservative bullshitter of them all, a man in power who appears to care not one whit about the facts of the matter on issue after issue? Any observation he dislikes, no matter how grounded in reality, is dismissed as “fake news.” On top of all this, liberals must somehow come to terms with the fact that roughly half of the Americans who voted wanted to put him in office. And 35 percent appear willing to stand by him no matter what, even if—as he boasted during the campaign—he were to “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody.” Our faith in tolerance, reason, and humanity, in our neighbors, in our liberal-democratic institutions, all of it seems to be shattering in real time.

This is because Trump’s personality, even more than his politics, oozes authoritarian ugliness. The fact that his authoritarianism is so utterly ordinary, shared by millions around the world, gives no comfort. To take the anti-intellectual crudeness of his persona, his incessant bullying, his disdain for the cherished norms of liberal democracy, and his erratic behavior from “The Apprentice” and move them into the West Wing—this is a special kind of affront to “blue America.” Trump feels vindicated by the mere fact of having been elected President—a fact that he brings up constantly. He has more power than any one person in this country to influence the lives of millions, yet he shows no signs of comprehending the significance or moral responsibility of this. Why not destroy the families of immigrants? They’re not even white. Like a spoiled, spiteful, indifferent king, he makes no pretense of listening to or representing us—half the nation—in any way. In this respect, he is worse—more personally contemptuous of liberal norms, traditions, and accomplishments—than Nixon, Reagan, and Bush. If Trump were more religious he would resemble a pre-Enlightenment figure; it would be difficult to find a less scientifically informed member of the upper class. And yet the whole country, it seems, is held hostage to his narcissistic wounds, authoritarian rants, and Twitterstorms.

Liberals share a miserable concoction of disenchantment, astonishment, and outrage, but—like a herd of cats—their notions about what has happened since November 8, 2016 (and why) differs wildly from person to person. To be sure, many are committed to some form of “resistance,” but others worry that the problem lies with us. Thus, Pollitt agonizes, “I know what you’re thinking: you are the problem, Katha, alienating Trump voters with your snobbish liberal elitism and addiction to ‘identity politics.’” Some liberals hit the conservative think-tank circuit to blame “cultural Marxists” for our nation’s woes. Others worry that we liberals are just not tolerant enough. Is liberal “political correctness” to blame for the rise of Trump and alt-right? Perhaps we have not listened closely enough to our conservative brethren. Should we “take our fingers out of our ears?” Are we overreacting?

More pertinent than ever is Robert Frost’s admonition that “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” Or, to put it in game-theoretic terms, liberals just can’t help wanting to cooperate (at least some of the time) with conservatives, while American conservatives always defect. Now, in the face of authoritarian demagoguery and a “predatory world view,” liberals must realize “how ineffectual were Obama’s nostrums of bipartisan cooperation, conciliation, and reasonable compromise, or Hillary Clinton’s insistence that America is great because it is good,” as the noted psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin puts it. Even if we assume that some diversity of opinion is expected, useful, and healthy within a community that otherwise shares a given value system (like democracy), could it be that “liberal” responses are too fragmented, too ramified, and too idiosyncratic to constitute a coherent form of opposition to Trumpism? Is there a sense in which liberals are unwittingly participating in self-sabotage, holding themselves back from doing what it takes to reclaim their country?

At least some of the reactions to Trump’s presidency that have taken the form of introspection or “self-examination” (something that would never even occur to the authoritarian conservative) reflect a psychological discomfort with placing blame squarely onto “the other.” To be sure, rational, objective analysis and a dedication to learning from the past (even the recent past) are indispensable characteristics of sound democratic deliberation. But a failure to distinguish between important and unimportant details is unhelpful and, in the language of attachment theory, avoidant. A woman registering voters for Jill Stein insists that Hillary Clinton is just as bad as Donald Trump and glides away, saying that it doesn’t matter anyway, because Trump could never win the election…

Conservatives hammer liberals for being too “idealistic”—indeed unrealistic about the selfish, “dark side” of human nature—as well as hypocritical and elitist (even as liberals take up the cause, if not the lifestyle, of the underdog). There is some truth to this. As Benjamin points out, liberal political failures often stem from “an inability to acknowledge harming, to admit that such destructive, anti-democratic forces are and have always been part of our legitimated political structure.” Much more than liberals, conservatives take the “dark side” for granted—and many justify it, advocating for the very things that call it out: the relentless pursuit of material self-interest, competition, power, discipline, obedience, and conformity. Conservative politicians demonstrate a willingness to bend or break the rules, to do everything “necessary”—or more precisely, possible (such as gerrymandering, voter suppression, and outright obstruction)—to win. For nearly a year, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell successfully prevented Congress from even considering President Obama’s nomination for the Supreme Court so that they could install one of their own after Trump was elected. Liberals may feel betrayed, but what do they do about it? What can they do—without turning into “the enemy”?

Joining the Fray

None of what we are saying should be taken to suggest that there is a dearth of effective, creative, passionate, and courageous activists (or would-be activists) on the liberal left who are capable of meeting the challenges of our time. There are. Many “liberals” (whether or not they embrace the term) report being galvanized by the Trump presidency, the Charlottesville riots, ongoing sexual harassment scandals, and other recent events. They resolve to take a stronger, more active political stance than ever before. And, historically speaking, we should never forget that most of the things that Americans truly celebrate are, in fact, liberal victories over illiberal institutions and arrangements, from the eradication of slavery to the defeat of the Nazis. Liberals should be proud of their historical legacy, and they should own it. But every one of those victories was hard fought: They took persistence, resilience, and an unwavering commitment to winning.

It may yet turn out that Trump’s presidency will mobilize the liberal left in ways that are innovative, far-reaching, and enduring. But it is part of the liberal conundrum to worry that whenever we take truly decisive action we are becoming just like conservatives: closed-minded, prejudiced, biased, intolerant, hypocritical, and so on. Every day Trump gives liberals new reasons to be despondent, livid, and contemptuous of what he is doing, how he is doing it, and what he represents. But these feelings are themselves a source of threat for liberals—and where threats emerge, defenses rally. At an unconscious level, many liberals turn inward—to a place of self-doubt, even self-recrimination. “And of course, I hate myself, too,” writes Pollitt. Fortunately, she has not stopped fighting, but these dynamics hamper many a liberal’s ability to take effective—indeed, combative—measures to vanquish the right.

The liberal conundrum cannot be resolved ideologically (philosophically) or personally (psychologically). We lash out at our political opponents and regret it almost immediately. We try to maintain a sober, rational distance from our own emotions, because we cannot trust their epistemic value. Our adversaries, meanwhile, are all “guts-and-glory,” with no time for introspection, no energy for deliberation, and certainly no patience for us. Some conservatives, it must be recognized, are appalled by Trump’s behavior. From David Frum and Bill Kristol to Jeff Flake and Mitt Romney, conservatives who know something of history and philosophy, freedom and tolerance, reason and democracy are finally as horrified as liberals at the direction the country is headed in. But too many conservatives are not. They deflect criticism of the President reflexively by engaging in “whataboutism”—shifting the topic of conversation to the failings of Obama or Clinton or Al Franken or whomever. While many conservatives understandably dismiss the liberal’s tentative, ambivalent entreaties, the half-hearted attempts to “reach out,” “open-minded” liberals attack one another for not being tolerant enough. Every now and then, frustration peaks, and rage boils over. We unload, finally, on the men in power—they are racists, sexual predators, plutocrats, polluters, quislings, and worse. We are not wrong, but it doesn’t feel entirely right to participate in the culture of denunciation either, at least not for long.

There is a certain continuity to liberal ideology in Western political thought, and there is also something quite distinctive to what we, in the twenty-first century, consider to be the “liberal left” in the United States. Sometimes liberals forget that liberalism does not exist in a vacuum; it is yoked, inextricably, to its conservative counterpart—and American “conservatism” has changed quite radically over the past few decades. The effectiveness of the “progressive agenda” therefore does depend, in one sense, on how attuned it is to what is happening on the other side and how well it counters that. Ideological rigidity undermines success. But so, too, does any lack of resolve or unity in opposition. For Lincoln and FDR, as Jessica Benjamin writes, “the willingness to identify and call out enemies was a crucial action.” Today conservatives are far more comfortable than liberals with the zero-sum nature of ideological legitimacy, competition, and conflict.

Liberals would be better off “owning” the struggle in this historical moment. Rather than playing out our own internal contradictions, we should try to become as fully aware of them as possible. The situation forces a confrontation, a battle for America’s future, perhaps—a bitter conflict that most liberals wish to avoid, that they will never be enthusiastic about. Liberals must also face up to the fact that “the powers that be” will never side with them for long, and that is one reason why liberal guilt is so misplaced: The liberal left does not set the political landscape in the United States, and never really has. Liberals today are in the unenviable position of responding to whatever is taking place, outside of their control. This is an unpleasant state for anyone to be in. But for liberals to be put here by Donald Trump, of all people, this is an indignity that is practically unbearable.

In a preface to The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Wilhelm Reich wrote that “‘fascism’ is only the organized political expression of the structure of the average man’s character.” The fact that authoritarian inclinations are so mundane and quotidian means that they are a constant danger—and a constant source of anxiety for the liberal. It would be foolish at this historical moment to suggest that fascism has come to America. It has not. But to many of us, it feels as if we are closer to it than we ever thought possible.

 

John T. Jost is Professor of Psychology and Politics and Co-Director of the Center for Social and Political Behavior at New York University.

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