Earlier in his career the world had watched him with amusement, that people refused to take him seriously, and as one action after another met with amazing success, this amusement was transformed into incredulousness. It was inconceivable that such a thing could actually happen in our modern civilization. A madman had become the leader. Having classified him in this way you might think that all we need to do is to eliminate the madman from the scene of activities, replace him with a sane individual, and the world will again return to a normal and peaceful state of affairs.
Then there was the cautionary note.
Focusing on the individual’s madness begs the question as to the sanity of society that created him as its spokesman and leader, that a reciprocal relationship exists between the leader and the people who spawned him. Removing such a leader is simply removing the overt manifestation of the disease. Focusing on the madman does not take us very far in understanding those who support him.
The assessment above is from the group of psychiatrists who wrote a World War II report, “A Psychological Analysis of Adolf Hitler,” for the Office of Strategic Services of the United States Government.
Donald Trump is the object of a relentless 24-hour news cycle where he is adored by an enraptured base that sees an attack on him as an attack on themselves, and for his opponents he is often described as a narcissistic personality, an attachment-disordered, shameless populist demagogue with no regard for facts, law, morality, or humanity. The question raised by Hitler’s psychoanalytic inquisitors applies to contemporary America; is he really that idiosyncratic and anomalous or more the child of neoliberal capitalism in the United States?
I argue that Trump represents one class and one large subsection of Americans that rebelled against the politics of the so-called “Golden Age” and the “Great Society” that contributed to the transition from the “Golden Age” to neoliberalism, the effects of the which shifted the political economy of the US to the right and the resulting epic inequality, macroeconomic instability, and the social and health crisis that followed.
In the 1970s, in response to declining profitability and economic and social turmoil, the business class very deliberately set out to get neoliberal policies enacted at the state and federal level in order to restore the rate of profit and change the balance of power in the United States. Neoliberalism has been characterized as a class-based project which emerged as a political practice in the 1970s, aimed at redistributing wealth and power toward the capitalist class. And they were successful.
Yet, the fact that the capitalist class organizations with their use of capital strike and flight, lobbying, funding right-wing “grass roots” organization like the Tea Party, think tanks, media and Chicago School intellectuals wanted to drive economic policy in a certain direction, and even with the ample evidence that they organized to do so, does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that they would have succeeded in achieving these goals. Neoliberal policies could not have been implemented in even a nominal democracy without at least a modicum of support from its victims. Remarkably, large sections of the American electorate vote for and support policies that favor the very business class that has profited from their economic decline.
The neoliberal American upper class under siege?
For Marx, alienation in capitalism is experienced even by the most powerful among the capitalist Class, as they feel themselves to be subject to impersonal forces—the immutable laws of the system—which spare no one. Even if capitalists feel empowered in relation to workers and citizens because of their wealth and power, there is always the actual and potential threat of organized labour, competitors, or political challenges to their hegemony. They are suspicious of the source of their own wealth, dependent as it is on the unworthy worker and the state, both of which they “know” to be at once parasitic and essential. The question to be asked is what sort of social psychology evolves from these circumstances? This may be especially true of the new titans of neoliberal capitalism in this return of a Gilded Age.
In his remarkably popular tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty rejects the idea that those at the high end of the income distribution deserve their lavish rewards. According to Piketty, between 1990 and 2010, the fortune of Lilianne Bettencourt, the heiress of L’Oréal, “who never worked a day in her life” grew from $2 billion to $25 billion. Even those who have put in some time at the office, like the iconic entrepreneur Bill Gates, whose wealth increased from $4-billion to $50 billion over the same period, do not merit their affluence. Gates’s wealth was created, in large part, by monopoly rents and the work of thousands of engineers and scientists rather than any individual genius on his part. Further, his wealth grew at the same rate after he stopped working (Piketty makes no mention of how Gates’s fortune is augmented by the low wages and desperate working conditions in the Chinese and Indian firms that contract to Microsoft).
Also on the academic front Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright report that the top one percent of US wealth-holders “are extremely active politically and are much more conservative than the American public as a whole” with respect to economic policies concerning “taxation, economic regulation, and especially social welfare programs,” where the top one-tenth of one percent “tend to hold still more conservative views that are even more distinct from those of the general public.” “We suggest that these distinctive policy preferences may help account for why certain public policies in the United States appear to deviate from what the majority of US citizens wants the government to do. If this is so, it raises serious issues for democratic theory.”
Nancy Hollander describes the characteristics of capitalist neoliberal psychology: a sense of omnipotence bred in the class that enjoys the accumulation of capital and profits , an inability to tolerate the limits of reality, and the narcissistic need to control one’s objects, which includes workers, resources, and the state confusing self-interest with the common good.
As widely reported in the news, the legendary Apple Corporation, we discover, has relied heavily on US government funded research, has exploited and poisoned Chinese labour, and has become expert at tax avoidance, which collectively explains a significant portion of its legendary profitability.
A prescient cultural moment can be found in the movie version of Bonfire of the Vanities. The Wall Street tycoon’s angry wife responds to their daughter’s question as to what does Daddy do to make money. She explains that while others make the birthday cake sitting at their dinner table, Daddy’s job is to take the icing off the top. He is unproductive, a parasite, who consumes at the top of the food chain without contributing to the necessary economy.
In the aftermath of the crisis that began in 2008, as their profits, wealth and income continue to grow, increasing doubts are being raised as to the contribution upper classes make to the economy. The financial sector, a big growth sector of neoliberal era America and a primary source of instability and inequality, has come under attack. Liberal Nobel Prizes winners Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have argued something unthinkable a few years ago: a call for the nationalization of the big US banks because the taxpayers paid for bailing them out and because their economic behaviors are inimical to the public good. Lord Adair Turner, the chairman of Britain’s top financial watchdog, the Financial Services Authority, has described much of what happens on Wall Street and in other financial centers as “socially useless activity”—a comment that suggests it could be eliminated without doing any damage to the economy. “It is possible for financial activity to extract rents from the real economy rather than to deliver economic value,” Turner wrote. The FBI concluded that an epidemic of corporate fraud was the primary reason for the subprime crisis.
Documentaries about Wall Street with the titles Inside Job, Too Big to Fail, and Too Big to Jail have become part of the cultural discourse. Public Broadcasting’s Bill Moyers regularly places America’s problems at the feet of its corporate class. Rolling Stone magazine’s Matt Taibbi famously described Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor at Columbia University, is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals, asserts that “the world is drowning in corporate fraud, and the problems are probably greatest in rich countries—those with supposedly good governance… Hardly a day passes without a new story of malfeasance. Every Wall Street firm has paid significant fines during the past decade for phony accounting, insider trading, securities fraud, Ponzi schemes, or outright embezzlement by CEOs… There is, however, scant accountability. Two years after the biggest financial crisis in history, which was fueled by unscrupulous behavior by the biggest banks on Wall Street, not a single financial leader has faced jail.”
As widely reported in the press, researchers in the department of Psychology at UC Berkeley and the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto have found that, in contrast to lower-class individuals, upper-class individuals have more favorable attitudes toward greed, are more likely to break the law while driving, exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies, take valued good from others, lie in a negotiation, cheat to increase their chance of winning a prize, and endorse unethical behavior at work than lower-class individuals.
Of late are numerous reports of Wall Street and Silicon Valley billionaires funding the growth of apocalypse dwellings by “preppers,” those preparing for radically bad news, spending millions on luxury underground bunkers to survive while the rest of humanity perishes or as Greg Grandin reports, “Post-Cold-War globalization has afforded corporations their own endless horizons. And the fantasies of the super-rich, no less than their capital, are given free range: They imagine themselves as living in floating villages beyond government control, or they fund research meant to help them escape death, upload their consciousness into the cloud or fly off to Mars.”
Upper-class pathology: Trumpeting their innocence against all charges
Goldman Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein’s response to a reporter when asked about the increasingly negative popular perception of the big banks said, he is just a banker “doing God’s work.”
Goldman Sachs International Vice Chairman Brian Griffiths, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, described giant paychecks for bankers as an economic necessity: “We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all.”
According to the British think-tank Demos, the affluent have different priorities, more ways to shape politics, and are prone to block or ignore the priorities of lower-income Americans. Peter G. Peterson, the Wall Street mogul and former Nixon administration cabinet member, has reportedly dedicated a billion dollars of his fortune to promoting the idea that “entitlements” are going to impoverish our grandchildren.
Freud considered “bad” actions and feelings that cannot be accepted as one’s own would be projected to the outside world on to others. Splitting is the defense mechanism where others are divided into those that are all bad or all good, depending on whether or not they gratify the subjects needs to see themselves as worthy and entitled. If you unconsciously “know” you are wicked or contemptible, you will find a place outside of yourself to deposit these feelings. An attack on the core identity produces feelings of humiliation and rage.
In a 2012 article in the New Yorker entitled “Super-Rich Irony,” the question is asked, “Why do billionaires feel victimized by Obama?” In the article a hedge fund billionaire drew a parallel between Obama’s election and the rise of the Third Reich; a Silicon Valley entrepreneur compared Barack Obama’s treatment of the rich to the oppression of ethnic minorities; another made the comparison to battered wives (“He really loves us and when he beats us, he doesn’t mean it; he just gets a little angry”), still another stated that “hedge funds really need a community organizer,” and accused the White House of “bullying” the financial sector. As author Chrystia Freeland says, “The rich feel that they have become the new, vilified underclass.”
So, here is a case where the narcissistic super-rich identify themselves as a battered, bullied minority in need of a community organizer as if they were a part of the ethnic, female underclass instead of a rentier class entitled to their wealth in spite of their catastrophic effect on the lives of others.
Freeland suggests that the antagonism between the super-wealthy towards Obama can seem mystifying because of how well Obama has served the rich. He gave them a $700 billion TARP rescue package, resisted the calls to nationalize the big banks, to undertake serious reform, to initiate criminal prosecution, as all the while these same people have taken hugely disproportionate shares of the post-2008 recovery pie. Hostility toward the President was particularly strident among the ultra-rich. What had Obama done? Occasionally, he had raised some questions about the effect of Wall Street on Main Street and whether they were paying their fair share. When he raised the point that wealthy CEOs are paying the lowest taxes they ever have and are doing well while the middle class and the American treasury are not—suggesting they can still ride on the corporate jet while paying more taxes—hedge fund billionaire Leo Cooperman considered this a declaration of class warfare. Their response was to proportionally shift their financial and public support to the much more emotionally reliable kindred spirit, Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.
An American president as a black man should know better than to persecute this very tiny minority who provided so much to his campaign coffers and the world at large. Obama was an ingrate who occasionally chided Wall Street in spite of their generosity of money and spirit. Feeling betrayed, the unconsciously guilty-bad billionaires attempted to transfuse the responsibility of their actions into their critics’ bloodstream in such an exaggerated way as to reveal their derangement; in the case of Obama, mistaking their benefactor for an enemy.
Who voted for neoliberalism
It is important to point out that historically affluent whites can be more reliably counted on to vote Republican – and often for good reason if one ignores the deteriorating social and physical environment. This is the traditional Republican constituency, and their economic interests more often align with Republican economic policies. However, between the 1960-64 and 1968-72 election cycle, LEWS (less educated whites, meaning having less than 12 years of education; this is not the working class because the working class includes many people of color nor is it the white working class because this includes, among others, the self-employed and small business owners) support for the Democratic candidate, according to Abramowitz and Texiera, dropped from 55 percent to 35 percent. By the 1980 and 1984 elections, Reagan averaged 61 percent support among the LEWS compared to 35 percent for Carter and Mondale. Over the course of one generation, the LEWs’ support for the Democratic Party dropped by about 20 percentage points. It is important to recognize that this dramatic shift in LEWS voting preferences occurred by and large before the advent of the so-called “rust belt.” Pew Research reports that manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979.
In the 2004 presidential race, LEWs favored George W. Bush over John Kerry by 24 points. For college-educated whites, Bush’s lead on Kerry was only 5 points (52 to 47). In the 2004 Presidential race, LEWs (without college) favored George W. Bush over John Kerry by 24 points. This result holds true at different income levels. For example, among poorer LEWs (without college) with household incomes between $30,000 and $50,000, Bush (62 percent) beat Kerry (38 percent) by 24 points. However, in the same income group, whites with college split evenly (49 each) between Bush and Kerry. Moving up to the $50,000 to $75,000 household income group, a massive 70 percent of the LEWs voted for Bush with only 29 percent opting for Kerry, a gap of 41 points. For college educated whites Bush’s lead on Kerry was only 5 points (52 to 47).
In the 2012 election, Romney beat Obama 48 percent to 35 percent among the LEWs (without college), while among college-educated whites, the vote was split almost evenly. Indicative of a forty-year trend beginning with the Reagan Democrats, in 2008, non-college white voters backed John McCain over Obama by a resounding 58 percent to 40 percent; Republicans won even more of them (63 percent) in the 2010 Congressional election. The numbers are similar for Kerry vs. Bush in 2004. Although the percent of LEWs in the total population is dwindling, they still make up about 50 percent of the electorate nationally. But we still have no clear answer as to why the LEWs vote for Republicans. Why aren’t they voting for Democrats and pulling them further to the left as they did in earlier decades, which would be the rational course for a people in economic decline looking to improve their economic lot? Better yet, why not grab a pitchfork and head for the next gated mansion, demanding progressive tax and progressive labour market policies for all? What needs explaining is not their continued allegiance, but the shift of a large portion of the LEWs, who are undeniably harmed by the pursuit of aggressive neoliberalism, towards hard neoliberal candidates in sufficient numbers to make an electoral difference.
Why did the LEWs shift to the right and Republicans?
The Public Policy Research Institute recent survey of voters found that more than 62 percent of what they refer to as white working-class Americans believe the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens American culture, believe American culture and way of life has deteriorated since the 1950s, feel like strangers in their own land, want to deport illegal immigrants, and believe discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Those who identified as Republican were 11 times more likely to support Trump as those who did not identify as Republican, and 60 percent say things have gotten so far off track, we need a strong leader who is willing to break the rules!
One answer to the increasing Republican leanings of the LEWs is that the Democratic Party has ceased to represent their interests. It is certainly true that despite the different income growth of the different groups highlighted above, the Democrats are a different party than they were in the past. According to Abramowitz and Teixeira, between the 1930s and 1960s, the LEWS supported a Democrat platform based on the expansion of the welfare state and government infrastructure spending on “roads, science, schools, and whatever else seemed necessary to build up the country.” Broadly speaking, the Democrats were backed by an organized working class due to their policies that helped lower-skilled workers attain middle-income lifestyles in a policy package in which cultural issues were peripheral. As the voting data mentioned previously demonstrate, by the early 1970s, this arrangement was crumbling.
Was it crumbling because Democratic policies offered little to the LEWs or because the LEWS abandoned progressive democrats, leaving the party open to center-right politicians pandering to corporate interests.
Abramowitz and Texiera argue that during the 1960s and 1970s, the Democrats broadened their reach to include people and issues that had so far been largely ignored by the two dominant parties. Perhaps most importantly, this included supporting the demands of Black America for equality and economic progress, but the party also attempted to expand its constituency by backing equality of gender and sexuality along with an admittedly perfunctory tip of the hat to the antiwar and environmental movements. In the eyes of many of the LEWs, the Democratic Party liberalism of the New Deal had degenerated into a “liberal fundamentalism,” associated with high taxation, welfare dependence, tolerance of crime, and antipathy towards traditional cultural values. Generally, the LEWs felt they were displaced by this grab bag of interests, a phenomenon that Texieira and Abramowitz term “white backlash.” No Democrat Presidential candidate has won the majority of white voters since the 1960s.
It was only after the Democrats under Lyndon Johnson pursued a progressive agenda to expand their party’s constituency that the LEWs shifted to the Republicans, resulting in the heavy McGovern defeat by Nixon in the 1972 election. It is then that the nascent Democratic Leadership Council proposed a reconfiguration of the Democratic approach that included fiscal conservatism, mandatory sentences, welfare reform, and, among other things, support for capital punishment.
To the extent that the Democrats have branded themselves as the party of inclusion—of different races, genders, ethnicities, and sexualities, while the Republican Party has, to put it politely, placed more emphasis on more traditional values, it is unsurprising, if not still disappointing, that the Republican message would gain traction with LEWs, whose color premium has been in decline. In a number of important ways, not the least of which is economic, white males have historically enjoyed considerable privileges over a wide range of “others,” but that hierarchy, while still present, is not now what it once was. Between 1996 and 2014, the real mean wage and salary of LEWs (with only high school) fell by nine percent, while college-educated whites enjoyed wage increases of 23 percent. The gap between white wages and those of African Americans has also been declining. In 1960, an African American male without a high school degree earned 36 percent less than a white male with the same education. By 2014, this gap was only four percent. For those with only a high school degree, the trend was similar but less pronounced. Between 1960 and 2014 the income gap between African American and white males with only high school fell from 35 to 29 percent.
Similar trends reveal themselves in poverty data. In the 1970s, about 30 percent of African Americans lived below the poverty line, compared to about 8 percent of whites. By 2014, the poverty rates of African Americans declined slightly (to 26 percent), while those of whites increased to 10 percent. Recall this group whose mortality rates have been increasing due to a combination of deaths by “despair” and other worsening economic determinants of health. The optimism of White Americans about their future economic prospects was at a 25-year low in the mid 2010s. So, those who argue that whites are still privileged members of the labour force are correct, but the premium of that privilege has been dwindling. The LEWs, who correctly perceive that they are not doing as well as they did prior to the 1980s, or relative to other groups, have been expressing their dissatisfaction through opposition to programs such as affirmative action, quotas, and social assistance, which they feel are helping “line cutters” from other groups at their expense.
This channeling of legitimate discontent among the LEWs against those gaining on them was both tapped into, and deliberately fostered by, the Republican Party. As early as the 1960s, the Republicans “Southern strategy” promoted racism against African Americans, successfully shifting white voters to the Republican party and the party to the right by, for example, peddling the myth of the “Welfare Queen,” a racialized story of black women living a luxury lifestyle by manipulating the lenient and overly generous welfare system.
For Jonathon Mezl, author of Dying of Whiteness, the wages of whiteness were traded for solidarity with workers of color that would force benefits from the American upper-class to make the lives of all working-class people better. Instead, for example, they literally chose to deny themselves access to life-saving state-funded healthcare in many US States in order to deny it to Black Americans.
Barack Obama offered a common explanation for this, famously opining that in response to economic hardship, “[t]hey (the working class) get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Thomas Frank adds that this cultural uprising (the LEWS animus for people not like them includes “wine sipping elites”) only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. “They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. ‘We are here,’ they scream, ‘to cut your taxes’.” They have in fact been big supporters of Republican tax cuts.
The social psychology of the LEWS
Corey Robin argues that conservatism is not defined by a commitment to limited government, the libertarian defense of the free market, the celebration of the atomistic and autonomous individual, or holding on to the past. These are just elements of historically specific and ever-changing modes of conservative expression that above all else are about hierarchy. In Robin’s book, The Reactionary Mind, the masses must either be able to locate themselves symbolically in the ruling class or be provided with real opportunities to become faux aristocrats in the family, the factory, and the field. Perversely ordinary people may see themselves in the ruling class by virtue of belonging to a great nation among nations, and they also get to govern lesser beings through the exercise of imperial rule at home and in the world. Conservatism is about the need to subjugate men and woman to the rule of an elite. The question becomes why and when does the hierarchy impulse determine the body politic?
In their book Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers, John Dean and Bob Altemeyer describe the followers as submissive to authority but who then, in turn can be aggressive on behalf of that authority. “They are conventional in their thinking and behavior, highly religious, have less education, are highly prejudiced against other groups, oppose equal opportunity, lack critical-thinking skills, and often hold inconsistent positions.” They “have only a superficial belief in liberty and democracy,” the authors write. When authoritarians and their followers talk about how much they value freedom, they are talking about their own freedom—not that of others. They believe in being lenient if they and their leaders break the law but merciless against those they deem inferior.
Eli Zaretsky challenges the usefulness of the turn to psychiatry to analyze Trump because it fails to address the more important question of the nature of Trump’s appeal to a third of the electorate who form “an intensely loyal and, psychologically, tight-knit band.” Beyond impervious to the criticisms of Trump or his policies, the more The New York Times, CNN, Pentagon generals, and directors of the FBI denigrate Trump for the greater good, the more his base responds to these arguments by digging in deeper, wearing t-shirts expressing their preference for being citizens in Russia than being Democrats in the USA.
For Zaretsky, as if taking up the challenge of Hitler’s American psychiatrists inviting an examination of those who spawned him, argues that Trump’s corrupt business career confirms their view of what it takes to become wealthy. His Birtherism and ongoing support of white supremacy buttresses their racism. His sexual predation gives voice to their fantasy of libidinal freedom for these men and the desirability of these female supporters. An attack on Trump is an attack on them. Quoting Adorno for Zaretsky, “the superman has to resemble the follower and appear as his ‘enlargement’. The leader ‘completes’ the follower’s self-image.”
For Lorna Finlayson, both white men and women voted for Trump not simply because of their investment in a patriarchy that they perceived to be under threat, but because they associated that threat with a social and economic order that denies them the means to live satisfactory lives. Angry or frightened white men are turning on anyone they can—women, immigrants, and foreigners—in an attempt to retrieve some sense of superiority. Angry or frightened white women, many of whom have no interest in a feminism preoccupied with ‘representation’ in an unreachable political or socio-economic class, are doing the same: the majority of white American women voted for Trump.
Lynn Layton argues that this white citizenry has responded to the neoliberal trauma of economic inequality, vulnerability, “the loss of care and containment,” with backlash against and “hatred of the vulnerable ‘other’—women of all colors, gays the poor, non-Whites—and, in the case of the anti-abortion movement especially important to Trump’s evangelicals, an unconscious identification with the most dependent and vulnerable of all—the helpless fetus.”
Watching a Trump rally, Jay Frankel’s assessment comes to mind when he argues that being subject to greater power leads to those in a weak position to identify with the aggressor. “Hoping to survive, we sense and ‘become’ precisely what the attacker expects of us—in our behavior, perceptions, emotions, and thoughts. Identification with the aggressor is closely coordinated with other responses to trauma, including dissociation.” By identifying with the rich and powerful who have launched a wholesale attack on their material life, the LEWs have chosen to “revenge themselves on substitutes” rather than defend themselves against their exploiters. They perceive these substitutes as weaker than they are, although unconsciously they share with them the very same vulnerabilities, as they internalize the lies of their exploiters. If you aren’t rich, it is because of some combination of indolence, carelessness, willful ignorance, and lack of ability, and I am worse off because you have jumped the queue and demand what is rightfully mine, defying the gods: Trump’s losers.
For Frankel, the behavior of the victim does not necessarily result in passivity or apathy. The victims, in turn, react with urgency and aggression to those opposing their masters because these victims may not be able to tolerate difference, as it may seem dangerous. Frankel argues that, as with the Stockholm syndrome, the powerful identification with the aggressor allows the victim “to play the required role flawlessly.” In this case, there is an obsequious reaction to the rich, and an aggressive, intolerant reaction to those who might make things worse by making demands on and thereby upsetting their exploiters—and who, at the same time, challenge their own unconscious systematic misrepresentation of reality. This is anger, not apathy or greed: for Frankel it is potentially about fascism.
For greater context and more references see Robert Chernomas, Ian Hudson and Mark Hudson, Neoliberal Lives: Work, Politics, Nature, and Health in the Contemporary United States, Manchester University Press, 2019.
Robert Chernomas teaches economics at the University of Manitoba. He is co-author of the book To Live and Die in America.
This article originally appeared on SocialistProject.ca.