This is an exposition fantasy-summary of an article by Bobby Azarian, which strikes me as interesting, but needing a shift into the social. All the good bits should be assumed to be his, the bad bits remain with me. Everything in block quotes or double inverted commas (“ ”) is from the original article.
We can begin by noting that apparently destructive politics seems triumphant at the moment, with Trump in the US, Johnson in the UK, Putin in Russia, Morrison in Australia, Modi in India, Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Andrzej Duda in Poland, and the list goes on.
These are people who deceive, appear immune when caught out, refuse to engage in genuine discussion, ostensibly lack compassion and empathy, may encourage violence, overtly benefit only small sections of the population, put their nation explicitly ahead of the world, and, on the whole, ignore climate change and other disasters, even proposing, and boasting of, acts which will make those disasters worse. For these leaders, it appears that the prime mark of competence, in their ministers (and anyone else) is loyalty to them.
Azarian’s original article is about President Trump, but it is probably expandable.
So let’s see.
First off, there is nothing much to be said about the mental state of such leaders. In a sane, well adjusted, society, they might be dismissed and have relatively little popularity or power, but today they have both. So the question has to be directed at their appeal to the ‘collective mind’. There are some severe problems with the idea of a collective mind, and how such a mind might arise outside of common social experience; consequently I will try and emphasise, or reinsert, elementary social processes into the exposition.
This helps remind us that the problems are systemic and organisational, rather than individual; the factors we might point to interact in particular social contexts, in complex ways, and may produce unexpected results. That is the main divergence from Azarian.
This list will begin with the more benign reasons for Trump’s intransigent support. As the list goes on, the explanations become increasingly worrisome, and toward the end, border on the pathological. It should be strongly emphasized that not all Trump supporters are racist, mentally vulnerable, or fundamentally bad people. It can be detrimental to society when those with degrees and platforms try to demonize their political opponents or paint them as mentally ill when they are not.
We can agree with that, so let’s avoid saying people with particular political dispositions are mentally ill, or in some way being abnormal or unusual. If there is a social mind (or collective consciousness), then it is widely distributed, ‘normal’, and socially influenced or even generated. If the problem is a collection of individually ill-minds then we will probably find those minds politically distributed all over the place.
So point by point.
1. Practicality Trumps Morality
These leaders tend to benefit the wealthy, the business sector, and sometimes the locally established Church, so no surprise they get support there. They also promise material benefits to ordinary people, and show a certainty which promises lack of anxiety. This can only work when people perceive themselves as losing out, and think that with these leaders the good times might be coming back. Another step towards making a version of ‘practicality’, the basis of morality, is the suppression of empathy towards those not in one’s in-group. Such empathy becomes defined as impractical. This shall be discussed in more detail later on.
It does not matter if the leaders seem immoral, as they appear to be strong and trying to benefit their people, which the normal system does not, and neither do normal politicians. Whether these people will stay with their leaders, when the benefits do not arrive is difficult to tell. However, they would have to know the benefits are not going to arrive, and they may never be able to know that due to the ‘mess of information’ (see below: point 7a), the discrediting of counter-information as disloyal, and with continual media bias towards the leader. People often seem prepared to wait a long time in political terms for promised benefits that may never arrive – say of free markets or communism. We start off with a wide spread social situation of alienation from ‘ordinary politics’, not a set of individual psychologies. Later discussion will try and explain this alienation.
2. The Brain’s Attention System Is More Strongly Engaged by Colourful leadership
All of these leaders are colourful. They engage the emotions, and bombard people with messages. Trump keeps both attention and emotional arousal high at all times. He uses twitter constantly. He generates fuss and reaction, which keeps him in view. Media, no matter how hostile, is focused on him, and its agenda is led by him. Putin is known for his bare chest and athletic feats, Johnson for being an eccentric and annoying his enemies. These people, largely keep themselves in the public eye, in a dominant and often hectoring position. They start discussions, even if they refuse to actually discuss and primarily engage in abuse or threat. They respond without shame, and gain attention. If something is going badly for them, they can largely ignore it, or shift blame and attention elsewhere.
If leadership is partly about being looked at, recognized, and setting the parameters of speech, then they are markedly leaders.
3. Obsession with Entertainment and Celebrities
This observation is obviously supposed to be primarily about the US, but I think the point is nowadays universal, and a celebrity is a person who has developed techniques of attracting attention and interest. So this is primarily a restatement of the last point, that the leaders are colourful, known, and gain media attention.
Celebrity has become a normal part of the ‘hype’ emerging from the economic system, providing guarantees of ‘star-power,’ sales, attention time, and excitement. “You are always left wondering what outrageous thing [the President] is going to say or do next. He keeps us on the edge of our seat.” As long as he discomforts whomever we identify as the villains, then this is fun to watch. It adds excitement to an otherwise staid, boring and probably depressing routine. It lifts people into another world, where change becomes possible, and identified enemies seem on the back foot.
4. “Some Men Just Want to Watch the World Burn.”
“Some people are supporting [these leaders] simply to be rebellious or to introduce chaos into the political system. They may have such distaste for the establishment” that their only hope is to rip it down. Yet this may not be entirely pathological, it could be that the system is dysfunctional, apparently oppressing, and ignoring, the leader’s supporters or the ordinary person. The supporters’ hope might be that good may come of ripping that uncaring system and dysfunctional system down. And if that is not much hope, then ripping it down is enjoyable and liberating, given how badly people have been ignored. ‘If I’m going down, so does everyone else. Suck on that, you creeps!’
Normally, people might glumly get on with things, figuring that if they get involved they may get hurt or lose out still further, but in this situation they perceive that someone is actually acting; they don’t have to do much other than vaguely support the actor at first. Later on, when it’s clear the leader is having an effect, they can get more actively involved.
If some form of instinctual psychoanalysis is correct, then normal society requires repression of anger, hostility and selfishness (even with legitimate cause), while the destructive leader liberates these drives against both the failing society and the out-groups that have been created (see below). This is especially so if their in-groups encourage both the suppression of empathy for others, and the possibility of imagining themselves in a similar position to the weaker people. Hence the popularity of destructive leaders finding a weak group such as refugees, or unemployed people and attacking them.
There is also the possibility that by participating in this right of anger and hatred, or directly in the process of harming those weaker than themselves, people may feel empowered, gain a ‘high’ and feel temporarily liberated, even if they are destroying their own lives in the process. This sense of liberation reinforces the sense that the leader is special.
4a. The Joy and Necessity of Self-Destruction
Freud hypothesized the Death Instinct to explain why people so often go against their real self interest and seem to gain pleasure from their own self-destruction. Christians posit the Fall and Sin, as the cause. Whatever the ultimate explanation, this is something anyone can observer for themselves, by watching people destroy their own lives and families for no reason that is obvious to the people involved.
In this short discussion we can suggest that some self-destructive urges arise from a confluence of several interacting factors, which should become clearer as we progress, such as: loyalty to a punitive hierarchy; emphasized in-group and out-group construction and polarization; suppression of empathy; suppression of awareness of existential threats (or substitution of more easily dealt with threats); information mess; a sense of relative deprivation; misguided attempts at total control, and being caught in a failing society that routinely does not deliver what it has promised.
Again this is a response to a social system which has lost its way as far as normal people are concerned. They have very little invested in its continuation; investing in its destruction by others, or by themselves, has potential.
5. The Fear Factor: Conservatives Are More Sensitive to Threat
It is possible that “the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening.”
a 2014 fMRI study found that it is possible to predict whether someone is a liberal or conservative simply by looking at their brain activity while they view threatening or disgusting images, such as mutilated bodies. Specifically, the brains of self-identified conservatives generated more activity overall in response to the disturbing images.
Let us presume this is a continuum, not a binary: in other words there is likely to be a fair amount of overlap throughout the population.
Conservatism is likely to be distributed, and there is nothing conservative about these destructive leaders. This may need emphasising. They are not claiming to maintain the status quo, but to demand either a reversion to a distant and imagined time, or the liberation of new, or already powerful, forces in society. If, what we are discussing is a conservatism, then it is a radical conservatism that does not conserve.
Similarly, it is only certain ‘disturbing images’ that are found frightening or else people could fear their heroes. One question is whether people feel this fear, if they think the hurt is going to be delivered to other people in some kind of out-group. In general, destructive leaders do not encourage empathy towards out-groups.
This lack of empathy, not only helps separate the in-group from the out-group, but forms the basis of official morality. At best, it is implied out-groups do not deserve compassion or help, even if this is something that it is claimed the in-group might do in safer or more settled times. Empathy is supposed to be impractical and difficult. It constitutes a hallmark of those other out-groups who would attack the leader to benefit the dismissed out-groups at the expense of the in-group. Indeed, the commitment of the in-group might well be shown by its ability to be practical and harden its heart. Once that has occurred, then abuse and harm of out-groups becomes more possible and fear of the out-group can be largely unchecked.
5a Making the Outgroup
In-groups and out-groups are normal to human social processes; we always tend to value those people we are closest too and consider most like us, or related to us. They often tend to be graded rather than binaries; perhaps people may consider they are closest to their family, then their town, then the nation, and different to people from another town or nation depending on the context. People, are usually categorised as male or female, and supposed to have things in common with other males and females, although they may feel closer to the other-gender people in their family than same-gender people elsewhere. Again, these identifications vary socially, and in different contexts. There is nothing wrong with this.
However, constructing fiercely bounded in-groups and out-groups (perhaps separated by fear), is part of the work of a destructive leader. An ideal outgroup should be easily separable from the in-group, have relatively little contact with the in-group, be easy to identify, and not be very powerful. Hence, people with different ‘racial’ characteristics, or strong cultural markers (such as dress or exaggerated non-mainstream interests), and who are in a relatively powerless minority, make good out-groups. Cultural differences can then be portrayed as marking ‘savagery,’ ‘brutality,’ ‘cunning’ or otherwise despicable people.
If the out-group is powerful, then they can probably defend themselves, and so is hard to attack. If the out-group is powerful and look like ‘us’ (as, for example, ‘the 0.1%’ may well do), then they are doubly hard to attack, and serve little motivating function.
If there is a history of conflict between the groups, then this adds to the impetus. Laws and threats can be directed at the out-group to make more tensions between the mainstream and the out-group higher. For example, voting or citizenship requirements can be made more or less impossible for the out-group to satisfy. Law enforcement procedures can be harder on the out-group and put disproportionate numbers of them in prison. The out-group becomes nervous about the mainstream, which increases the friction and inspires more separation.
For full effect, the out-group, or some of their reputed cultural behaviour, should be made to inspire visceral disgust, as well as fear. That way people’s reactions involve less chance of rational consideration, and there is less chance they may reach out to the out-group. You might know a good person in the out-group, but if you generally feel disgust, then that produces less challenge to the categorisation in the first place.
By portraying, more or less powerless, out-groups as powerful and threatening (terrorists, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, people aligned with the other main political party, intellectuals, stupid people), the destructive leader’s supporters are wired up to avoid (often fictitious) threat, and will seek safety in the Strong Man. The fear also helps explain why the system is dysfunctional, because it is under threat from these supposedly powerful, disgusting or brutal, out-groups.
5b: Making the Ingroup
The destructive in-group should be relatively easy to identify, or quite broad to attract the maximum number of people. They should be bound by identity (at least in opposition to the despised out-group). They should be portrayed as strong victims, strong to give hope and victims to give anger. They are not to blame for whatever is going on, that is primarily the fault of the out-group. The leader should, in some way, exemplify their ambitions, while being special – this is quite hard. Boundaries should be policed, and people who visibly stray from the group should be punished as an example for the others. This is probably why the leader values loyalty, and makes an example of those who appear disloyal. Or perhaps, this is the leader’s normal mode of thinking, and he/she encourages that mode of thinking everywhere.
When split into sharply bonded in-groups and out-groups, and pushed by destructive leaders, hostility can increase so rapidly that it heads to violence faster than most people will expect – as in former Yugoslavia, or Rwanda. So we shall consider some of the factors that can increase divisions quickly.
6. The Power of Reminders of Mortality and Perceived Existential Threat
humans have a unique awareness of their own mortality. The inevitably of one’s death creates existential terror and anxiety that is always residing below the surface. In order to manage this terror, humans adopt cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that act as a buffer by instilling life with meaning and value.
Psychologist Ernest Becker, named these kinds of worldviews, ‘immortality projects’. They are the views and acts which hide death from us, or mitigate its effects by proposing immortality, or something to thoroughly occupy our attention. This behaviour is clearly normal. When reminded of mortality through perception of threat then people will defend their prime cultural worldviews and immortality projects, and the future they promise. They may even intensify those views, in an effort to ward off, or conceal, the threat.
For example, threats of climate change can provoke responses which increase people’s aggravation of climate change, in an attempt to demonstrate and reinforce their cultural worldviews and their imagined future. People may well support ecological destruction so as to protect their cultural values or, on the other hand, they may have unrealistic expectations of the capacity of renewable energy to save their culture and life from crashing. Likewise, we may observe that when religious people feel they are under challenge, they may intensify the hardness of their views and their condemnation, and outcasting of sinners, apparently to get on side with God and guarantee their safe immortality.
in a study with American students, scientists found that making mortality salient increased support for extreme military interventions by American forces that could kill thousands of civilians overseas. Interestingly, the effect was present only in conservatives.
If the author had said ‘primarily in Conservatives’, then I might be more inclined to accept this, but categories are not always that precise, as I have argued above. We could expected some overlap. But let us assume, as a hypothesis, that constant awareness of threat from outgroups (especially out-groups identified as disgusting or brutal), is more likely to lead to support for violent responses against those out-groups.
By constantly emphasizing existential threat, [these leaders] may be creating a psychological condition that makes the brain respond positively rather than negatively to bigoted statements and divisive rhetoric.
People, in contemporary society, do face real and complex existential threats: from ecological damage, from collapsing economic systems, from collapsing welfare systems, from neoliberal workplaces that do not value them, from changing communities, from development projects, from entrenched high-level corruption, etc., and they do know about them, even if they suppress this awareness. The regularity of life and their immortality projects are threatened. So they are possibly increasingly likely to favour violent responses, if ‘good’ out-group targets are identified for blame.
7. Dunning-Kruger Effect: Humans Often Overestimate Their Political Expertise
The Dunning-Kruger effect applies to all forms of expertise that are important to people, not just politics. For example, engineers seem to routinely think they understand social science without training or study. People are often unaware they are uninformed, especially if they have not studied a field in detail. They don’t know how much they don’t know. They think they can understand complex fields with a few “common-sense” cultural axioms. Indeed, they are often right, cultural common sense is good at explaining things, that is why it is common; it just may not explain them accurately. People also think that “experts,” who retail theories at odds with cultural common sense are idiots – and sometimes, of course, they are correct.
7a Mess of Information
What I have called the ‘mess of information’, is socially generated confusion of information. Trust in the accuracy of information becomes largely influenced by people’s political allegiance, and the whole of society has been politicised during the rise of the destructive leader. Belief in particular kinds and sources of information, and a generalised distrust of information becomes a part of people’s self-identity as a member of some in-group or other.
False information and hype has become a standard feature of commercial practice, with companies smearing other company’s products, and promising that their unreleased products will be the best things on the market, to prevent sales of other products becoming established. Advertising is known to be untruthful, and is prevalent. Companies will prosecute people for ‘slandering’ or telling unwelcome truths about their products. Companies will dismiss members of staff who (even anonymously) express opinions which they consider detrimental to their profit, even if the statements are accurate. People know, and experience, that information is often biased and ‘interested.’
Many supposed experts give opinions which seem compatible with their employers’ interests, but not otherwise believable. For example experts have continually promised that tax-cuts for the rich will deliver prosperity for everyone, and still make those promises. WaterNSW can argue that huge extractions of water by big irrigation businesses, who are trying to farm high-water-use crops in near desert conditions, has no effect on river flows. Similarly, we can be told that unfiltered exhaust stacks for motorway tunnels have no health effects despite the large amount of medical evidence that suggests they do. And of course, we can be told we can keep burning fossil fuels without ill-effect, that we can keep on cutting down forests with no ill-effect, that we can over-fish without ill effect, that we can keep on pouring poisons into the environment with no ill effects, and so on.
It is possible for experts (as well as ordinary people) to live in a closed world, in which their agreed truth is taken for granted, and in those cases people who are not experts can have valuable insights. The clue is whether the experts take notice of those insights or blithely ignore them.
Real experts change their minds with evidence, but mainstream culture seems to insist that real experts will stick firmly to their position because it is right, otherwise they are considered to bend with the wind. This is a cultural and social problem of information. This problem is intensified by the tendency for people to believe people who are categorised as belonging their in-group, or to similar groups to themselves, or who reinforce what they already ‘know’. Information from out-groups is almost by definition wrong. This problem increases, the more in-groups and out-groups become separated by politicians and daily experience.
Knowledge is social. What is known, or considered true, is reinforced by other people who are valued by the knower. What people come to know, may distract them from evidence that might contradict that knowing. If a person primarily talks with their in-group, this reinforces their cultural common sense, and reduces their awareness of challenges to their ideas, ‘knowledge’ and facts.
We live in a society which encourages information overload, with deceptive information rendered normal as part of advertising and commercial action. Media organisations are excused from attempting to provide accuracy, because of political convenience and commercial ownership. As a result, data to support almost any position can be found with a bit of effort, especially data which supports established cultural common sense and reduces fears of real problems. There is too much information. We cannot evaluate everything, so we evaluate most of it through trusted others who appear to belong to our various in-groups. If the information comes from an in-group we consider it more trustworthy than if it comes from an out-group. This is the information mess. The Dunning Kruger effect implies that people almost certainly think they have the ability to navigate this mess, but actually do not – all the time.
In this kind of situation, if the in-group leader denies actual knowledge through simple cultural common-sense, especially if the knowledge fits in with experience and emotions, they are likely to be accepted as truthful far more easily than the scientist who is saying something difficult or complex, that is threatening, or which suggests the in-group is partially responsible for the problems they face.
A further problem with the mess of information is that an authoritarian hierarchy disrupts the flow of accurate information. Underlings will not want to be the bearers of bad news, and will tend to adjust information to mesh with the imagined desire of their superiors. People can be thought not to be committed if they give criticism upwards, or say the plans will not work. Whistleblowers who publicise the hierarchy’s corruption, veniality or stupidity will be punished, to make sure such disloyalty to the group, and its leaders, does not occur again. This hiding of knowledge and criticism, will happen all the way up the hierarchy. The people at the top will have very little idea about what is happening on the ground, or about how the system is not working, and will not be able to correct its faults, or mistaken actions. Similarly people at the top rarely find it necessary to explain the procedures and ideas that they are really using, while covering up their known failings and frictions with others on the same level, so those below have to imagine what is desired or intended by those above.
We could also ask where is it that people are going to get accurate information about their problems from? The media are corporately owned, so if capitalism or the corporate sector are the likely cause of problems, then this is unlikely to be covered. The same for any other ownership of media. And this problem becomes worse the more media ownership becomes concentrated, and the number of media owners decline. Furthermore, the destructive leader’s techniques of gaining support, may not come out of nowhere. In the US and Australia, the right wing commentariat have been using similar techniques, to the ones described in this article to gain celebrity, to persuade people, to build in-groups and out-groups to reward loyalty and to condemn those who disagree with them. In Australia we have: Alan Jones; Andrew Bolt; Miranda Divine; Janet Albrechtsen , Gerald Henderson; Paul Murray; Peta Credlin; Ray Hadley ; the list goes on. Destructive information distortion is already common (even if the information is true), and appears to come to cover up our real problems, through arousing passion and reflex condemnation. It also helps build loyalty to the commentator (and hence profit from advertising for the commentator) and a fear of looking for information elsewhere
In a quick summary we can make the following points. Self-destructive information mess in the kinds of system we have been describing arises due to:
- Too much information to process, and information generated to support any position is findable.
- Loyalty to an ingroup hierarchy.
- Fear of loss of status, or expulsion, if challenging a punitive hierarchy.
- Fear of loss of status, or expulsion if challenging the in-group’s beliefs.
- Looking towards the in-group for confirmation and reward, rather than checking what is happening outside; what we might call internal vs external adaptation.
- Guilt over breaking one’s ethical codes, and suppressing empathy, to stay in place or advance.
- Reassertion of failing “immortality projects” against the out-group’s insistence they are failing.
- Habituation by normal media styles of commentary – used to build audiences and keep people listening.
- The pleasure of upsetting the out-group, and building status in the in-group overwhelms self-preservation or the ability to listen to others.
- The immediate pleasure of suppressing anxiety about what the effects of what you are doing might produce.
Eventually the destructive authoritarian system grinds down in fantasy, unintended effects and unchecked destruction. And this is social.
8. Relative Deprivation — A Misguided Sense of Entitlement
Relative deprivation is:
the discontent felt when one compares their position in life to others who they feel are equal or inferior but have unfairly had more success than them.
Life is unfair and chaotic. People with less skills than you, will have more money and success, perhaps because of their parents and the inheritance of wealth, social position and contacts, or perhaps because of sheer luck. In other words success might be distributed by class of birth. As well, we might not understand what skills are needed to have success in a particular field, so this unfairness is reinforced by the previous points about the Dunning Kruger effect, and the information mess.
This relative deprivation can lead to resentment, which reinforces, and is reinforced by, point 4 “Some Men Just Want to Watch the World Burn,” especially if the person’s failure in life can be blamed upon the cunning or special privilege that has been given to some out-group (in reality or imagination).
This problem is increased by living in a society which promises us that happiness comes from endless consumption and acquisition, and that everyone can succeed if they work hard enough. Neither promise is always true, and acceptance of either can lead to desperation and disappointment. Then, life does not seem to be working out, or being satisfactory, when you have done everything you were expected to in terms of cultural common-sense.
This idea may imply that the middle classes are particularly prone to being seduced by authoritarian leadership as they are the ones who have suffered comparative decline and feel threatened from ‘above’ and ‘below’ <https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-13929-004>. Working class people may tend to expect that the system is rigged against them, and not feel so much deprivation or threat.
9. Lack of Exposure to Dissimilar Others
This seems common in contemporary society.
Intergroup contact, or contact with members of groups that are outside one’s own, “has been experimentally shown to reduce prejudice”. The problem of prejudice may be compounded as people seem to increasingly be selecting to be with those who are ‘like them’ and obviously part of the in-group. It is exceedingly hard to maintain internet groups which are not dominated by one particular faction, and which engage in discussion rather than name-calling.
The idea is that voters for authoritarian figures, may have experienced significantly less contact with minorities, or out-groups, than other people have. They may also have gone out of their way not to mix with out-group others, as those others are scary, don’t make sense, or whatever. Being with people who are part of one’s in-group lowers uncertainty in an uncertain world. You know what to do, and what not to do, to be accepted, to not offend others, or to receive support and sympathy. You probably won’t have to deal with that much disruptive knowledge. In this case, people can be more easily convinced of the terror of others and the necessity of keeping in-group boundaries up. So this merges with point 5, “sensitivity to threat” and the manufacture of in-groups and out-groups.
10. Authoritarian Conspiracy Theories Target the Mentally Vulnerable
The link between schizotypy and belief in conspiracy theories is well-established, and a recent study published in the journal Psychiatry Research has demonstrated that it is still very prevalent in the population.
I don’t like this idea, that mentally ill people tend to be attracted to conspiracy theories.
There is a big problem here, as we could exist in a conspiratorial world. It is relatively well documented, that neo-conservatives ‘conspired’ to have a war with Iraq before 9/11 and got one afterwards, despite the lack of evidence implying Iraq had any involvement, and despite the inconvenient evidence of possible Saudi Arabian involvement. Evidence was manufactured, or distorted to give an excuse for the wanted war, whether deliberately or not. Neoliberals spent years ‘conspiring’ to convince people that ‘free markets’ (in which the main aim of governments is to support big business), deliver good results for ordinary people rather than funneling wealth off to the already wealthy, and setting up an even more thorough plutocracy. Politicians do appear to have lists of talking points, so they can appear on topic and unified (no matter how abruptly the points will have surfaced), and it can appear that some media goes along with this.
Ordinary people plan together, so why can’t powerful people plan, or take advantage of others’ planning, to have an effect on the world, which could be expected to benefit them?
All people like to make sense of the world. Conspiracy theory manages to link things which otherwise appear disparate, and provides an over-arching narrative giving the believer a sense of their place in the world with others, without subjecting them to the threat of randomness. Trump and other authoritarians are good at making what, looks to me, like fictional explanations, which distract people from their real oppressors (such as Trump himself). This is not new, and may particularly arise when planning has been giving benefits to the ruling groups which are not shared with others, and the harmful consequences of that planning can be blamed on the out-groups who opposed that planning, or who happen to be generally disliked.
Because the world is complex, it may need to be stated that plans do not always have the expected consequences. The second Iraq war did not make the US dominant and safe. It demonstrated that the modern US is defeatable (or can fail in fully extending its military might) and that it rarely has a taste for a long painful war of attrition. The US has great powers of destruction, but little power of holding onto what it has gained against popular opposition and it will create popular opposition.
11. The Nation’s Collective Narcissism
Collective narcissism is an unrealistic shared belief in the greatness of one’s national group.
I’d say this occurs when a group’s previously taken for granted superiority is challenged, and they don’t know what to do about it, and they never felt that powerful anyway. It’s a consequence of apparent social decline, or loss of hope in normal social practice.
People might see a previous ethnic minority climbing up the ladder to success while they, themselves, are in decline. There might be more people who came to the country as migrants, disrupting expectations about who one will meet, and how to behave. Women might get to speak, and put forward their views, challenging males who feel they are losing privilege and respect for no observable benefit for themselves (and are indeed losing respect and power because of actions from other sources such as neoliberal economics and corporate power).
Sometimes the group, which feels in decline, can, in reality, still be dominant, even if the majority of its members remain poor or relatively powerless, while they are told out-group members are secretly dominating everything and holding them back. The upper groups in the US appear to be primarily male, but feminists can be blamed for the average male’s sense of powerlessness. Scapegoats, and scapegoat out-groups, are usually easy to find, and the expulsion or destruction of the Scapegoat is a common human process – as it can help build unity amongst the expellers.
Rather than think deeply about problems outside cultural common sense, people tend to think they are being victimized. I’m not sure this process can be called ‘narcissism’. People do struggle and don’t get ahead and this really does generate a problem. That is the way class society works, and if out-group members appear to be taking positions members of the in-group might have normally been expected to occupy, then this generates resentment, yet again.
Left-wing identity politics, as misguided as they may sometimes be, are generally aimed at achieving equality, while the right-wing brand is based on a belief that one nationality or race is superior or entitled to success and wealth for no other reason than identity.
I’ve said that before as well. Must be true 🙂
However, this point is really a further elaboration of point 8 “relative deprivation”. People feel they have lost something, which was previously there, and this may have to do with the rise of an out-group.
12. The Desire to Want to Dominate Others
People like control, which is not surprising. Not being in control can be life threatening.
However, the point the author is making is that some people:
have a preference for the societal hierarchy of groups, specifically with a structure in which the high-status groups have dominance over the low-status ones.
Hierarchy is normal, and probably gives people a sense of place. It may give them a sense of life progression, if they think they can move up the hierarchy as they age, or make an effort to do so, giving them more control over other people and more status and respect. Humans like status and respect.
Hierarchy, might also mean that there were out-groups who previously had to give you respect, perhaps because they were oppressed. This rarely happens when social disruption is widespread or democracy has spread, and people are starved of status and respect, no matter how hard they have worked or served others.
Nowadays, with high rates of social change, older people are often treated as though ignorant of the contemporary world, with nothing to contribute. Their possessions and hard work have not given them what they expected. Their experience is revealed to be useless every time they try and work out a new remote control. Their kids know more than they do. It’s unfair. It leads to resentment, a sense of meaning collapse and provides a challenge to established immortality projects. People are more likely to be happy to tear things down, in the hope established meaning can be restored. Once again, they find, through their experience, the current system does not work or fulfil its promises. Cultural common sense is threatened.
Authoritarian leaders often reinstate the hierarchies, or the idea of hierarchy, forcefully, and hence appeal to the displaced, because they are implying that those people deserve respect again, and the possibility of advancement. All they have to do is follow and trust the leader.
However, when we live in complex societies, ecologies and climate systems that are changing, total control is, in reality, impossible. Unintended effects and consequences of actions are routine. The only way to appear to approach total control, is violence, suppression of contrary evidence, and complete fantasy. Still more authority appears to be needed to deal with the compounding divergencies from the aims of the control, and the systems keep getting harder to live with. The problems are not solved.
13. Authoritarian Personality
Authoritarianism refers to the advocacy or enforcement of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom, and is commonly associated with a lack of concern for the opinions or needs of others. Authoritarian personality is characterized by belief in total and complete obedience to authority. Those with this personality often display aggression toward outgroup members, submissiveness to authority, resistance to new experiences, and a rigid hierarchical view of society. Authoritarianism is often triggered by fear, making it easy for leaders who exaggerate threat or fear monger to gain their allegiance.
If we accept that the left is ideally about increasing equality, and opportunity for everyone who has been marginalised (workers, women, gays, previously despised ethnic groups) and the right is about enforcing hierarchy and authority, then this is, by definition a right wing position.
But it is a pointless truism to say authoritarian politics, appeals to authoritarian people. I don’t know what we gain from this statement at all.
I’m inclined to dismiss this point as contributing little to our understanding, other than a reminder that authoritarianism seems as normal a human response to life, as demands for participation and democracy. Everything else is explained by the functions of hierarchy.
14. Racism and Bigotry
Not every supporter of authoritarian and destructive leadership is racist. But it goes with the processes of finding scapegoats and out-groups to blame, and the fear factor.
Destructive leaders routinely appeal to prejudice as a solution to problems, and routinely try and shut down discussion between groups to increase prejudice, which indirectly increases the information mess. Once again, this is simply a technique of increasing the bonds of the in-group and making them feel threatened by, and superior to, an out-group scapegoat of some kind. It does not seem to be a new point.
15. Pathological Structures
This point is not in the article.
There is an argument that forms of organisational patterning, like corporations and dictatorships select for pathological personality types. For example, business may select for people who can sacrifice everything for money and power. Dictatorships select for those with a loose relationship to truth, and an easy brutality. Both types of organisation select for people with low levels of concern for others, or low empathy – hence what normal people may think of as moral behaviour is truncated in both situations – but the ordinary person has to go along with it, or their existence within the organisation is threatened. They may tend to believe they are only following orders, there is nothing much else they can do, and that those they are persecuting are not that valuable anyway, and probably deserve punishment.
These dynamics cause the organisations to be even more uninhabitable by mentally ok people, who have to react by leaving, or by becoming crazy to survive – and the more people who become crazy to survive the organisation, the worse it gets….
Corporations routinely exploit people and routinely treat them as expendable or disposable. In contemporary politics, government bodies have been forced to behave in a corporate manner, as is almost every other institution. This is neoliberalism in action. Everything hinges on profit, the “bottom line,” and the latest management fad. People are restructured every couple of years and have to learn new ways of doing the same work, rather than accumulating skills, expertise and respect. Workers are usually sacked in the restructuring process, for reasons which are never completely clear, and which therefore cause worry (and more work) for everyone. After they are sacked, people face harassment from the organisations which are supposed to help them survive and find new work. If you are old enough, you know the system no longer works as well as it used to. If you are young, the advice of your elders about dealing with the situation is massively out of date. As a result, very few institutions are not malfunctional. Very few institutions support human existence.
Why should anyone have loyalty to such institutions? Why shouldn’t they feel angry and threatened? Why shouldn’t they want to rip them down? Why doesn’t the experience of work, make them crazier than they might otherwise have been?
Our society sets itself up for a fall, and the authoritarian destructive leader, delivers.
Looking at all this, we are constantly coming back to: identity groups; loss of social meaning; perception, and suppression, of existential threat; challenges to (or loss of) immortality projects and routines; and the consequences of information mess. Society, and its hierarchies no longer function as they are supposed to according to cultural common sense. People rarely get satisfaction and status from adhering to normal social routines. Indeed, normal routines may seem pathologically destructive. The world both looks like, and feels like, it is falling apart. Social identities are challenged, and people feel they are being left out or suffering relative deprivation. This will generate discontent. And rightly.
What the authoritarian leader does is: attract attention, find compelling scapegoats, reinforce in-groups, and help alienate out-groups, while promising to tear down the tattered remnants of the corrupt, non-functional, society which gives people nothing, and which has alienated them from power, work and satisfaction. He will restore their lost dominance and place. The mess of information and Dunning-Kruger effect reinforce this cultural common sense, and the information system gives prominence to the leader and furthers their ability to attract attention. This gives people hope. They don’t care that much about the leader’s morality, because the morality of the society they live in seems non-existent – and certainly does not benefit them. Almost anything is better than what they have now. They are content to watch the corrupt, useless system be destroyed, and even participate in its destruction; they may find this pleasurable as well. The leader, and they way he operates, may give them a pleasurable high, or sense of liberation, which reinforces their sense he is right.
All of these factors interact and reinforce each other, but they do not set up a stable system – and in a future post I hope to explore the ways that destructive leaders and the forces which support them can be overcome.
That is an explanation for what is happening, and yes it depends on the interaction between social process and human psychology. Not one or the other, but both.
That all sounds correct to me, sadly.
The book Winner Take All Politics goes a long way to describe many of the ways US laws have changed to make that society far less fair. The book The Next Hundred Years (and, come to think of it, Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent) provides a lot of wider social context across the world to help answer the obvious questions “Why is this happening now?” and “How did we get into this situation?”
So, all that seems true. How do we fix it so our societies become healthier? Do we need some new insight to see the mechanisms that manipulate us to act against our collective self interest?