Why we love tyrants
David Livingstone Smith
Why have people welcomed tyrannical, authoritarian leaders time after time? For millennia, philosophers and political theorists have tried to explain why we willingly participate in our own oppression by submitting to authoritarian leaders. And today, the ominous rise of authoritarian regimes the world over renders this question as pressing as ever.
Plato was one of the first and most influential thinkers to address the problem of tyranny. He argued in the Republic, written around 380 BCE, that democratic states are destined to collapse into tyranny. Plato was no fan of democracy, perhaps because it was the Athenian democracy that sentenced his beloved teacher Socrates to death. He believed that democratic forms of government create a licentious and undisciplined populace who are easy prey for smooth-talking politicians skilled in the art of pandering to their desires. In the Gorgias, written around the same time as the Republic, he tells us that such politicians entice the masses with unhealthy promises rather than nourishing the public good. ‘Pastry baking has put on the mask of medicine,’ Plato disparagingly remarks, ‘and pretends to know the foods that are best for the body, so that if a pastry baker and a doctor had to compete in front of children, or in front of men just as foolish as children, to determine which of the two, the doctor or the pastry baker, had expert knowledge of good food and bad, the doctor would die of starvation.
Now fast-forward two-and-a-half millennia to the early 20th century, and consider the work of the German sociologist Max Weber. Weber, one of the founders of sociology, developed the concept of ‘charismatic authority’ – a ‘certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities’. Charismatic leaders inspire devotion, and are regarded as prophetic figures by their followers. Weber’s insights deepen Plato’s sketchy account. The rising tyrant has a special, almost magical aura. His followers believe that he can work miracles and transform their lives. But how does this happen? What is it that induces otherwise rational people to yield to adopt such dangerously unrealistic views? To explain it, we need to dig deeper.
At precisely the same time that Weber was developing his theory of charisma in Berlin, Sigmund Freud was wrestling with similar ideas in Vienna. His thinking culminated in the book Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). Group Psychology focuses on the psychological dynamics of followership. It is, like most of Freud’s works, a complicated text, but there are two main themes that stand out. First, Freud argued that those who are attracted to authoritarian leaders idealise them. The leader is seen as an exemplary, heroic human being shorn of every serious flaw. Second, he argued that followers identify with the leader by substituting him for what Freud called the ego ideal. The ego ideal is a mental representation of one’s guiding values. It consists of beliefs about right and wrong, what is obligatory and what is impermissible. It is our moral compass: essentially the same as one’s conscience. In taking the place of their ego ideal, the authoritarian leader becomes the conscience of his followers, and his voice becomes the voice of their conscience. Whatever the leader wills is, by definition, good and right.
Freud’s thesis comports very well with what happened in Hitler’s Germany. Consider the example of Alfons Heck. As a youngster, Heck had been a member of the Hitler Youth. In her book The Nazi Conscience (2003), the historian Claudia Koonz writes that when Heck watched the Gestapo rounding up the Jews in his village for deportation, including his best friend Heinz, he didn’t say to himself: ‘How terrible they are arresting Jews.’ Instead, having absorbed knowledge about the ‘Jewish menace’, he said: ‘What a misfortune Heinz is Jewish.’ As an adult, he recalled: ‘I accepted deportation as just.’
The fact that the community of followers has a common identification with the authoritarian leader has another important consequence. The followers identify with one another as parts of a ‘movement’, and they experience themselves as merging into a collective whole. This intoxicating sense of unity, and the subordination of personal self-interest to a greater cause, is a very important component of authoritarian systems. It is found in a great deal of authoritarian rhetoric, as exemplified by the Third Reich. The idea that the individual human being matters only as a vehicle for the race or Volk, and that one’s duty to this greater, transcendent spirit trumps narrow self-interest, was pervasive in Hitler’s Germany. German children were instructed to keep their blood ‘pure’ – that is, to avoid miscegenation. Their blood did not belong to them, they were told, but to the German race – past, present, and future – and through it they would have eternal life.
‘Hitler was seen less as a normal politician and more as a prophet touched by the divine’
Participating in authoritarian systems has unmistakably religious overtones. It involves surrendering oneself to a higher power and relinquishing individual ego boundaries, for the sake of purity. It evokes eternal life, rebirth and redemption. The quasi-religious nature of Hitler’s rise been described in The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler (2012) by the historian Laurence Rees:
The hordes of Germans who travelled – almost as pilgrims – to pay homage to Hitler at his home in Berchtesgaden; the thousands of personal petitions sent to Hitler at the Reich Chancellery; the pseudo-religious iconography of the Nuremberg rallies; the fact that German children were taught that Hitler was ‘sent from God’ and was their ‘faith’ and ‘light’; all this spoke to the fact that Hitler was seen less as a normal politician and more as a prophet touched by the divine.
Following in the tradition of the German philosophers Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx, Freud argued that religious beliefs are illusions, yet he has a unique take: what distinguishes illusions from non-illusions, he posits, is not whether they are true or false, but how they come about. Illusions are beliefs that we adopt because we want them to be true. Such beliefs are usually false, but they sometimes turn out to be true. Suppose you buy a lottery ticket because you woke up that morning with a burning conviction that you will win the lottery. And suppose that, coincidentally, you actually do win the lottery. Even though your belief that you would win was a true one, it would still count as a Freudian illusion.
The most compelling illusions qualify as delusions. Delusions are illusions that are both false and highly resistant to rational revision, because of the immense power of the wishes that fuel them. Religious convictions are Freud’s prime examples of delusions. They are, he wrote, ‘fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of these wishes.’
Like God himself, the leader is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent
The wishes that underpin religious belief have to do with deliverance from human helplessness. We are vulnerable to the forces of nature, such as disease, natural disasters and ultimately death, and also to the acts of other human beings who can harm us, kill us or treat us unjustly. In recognising our helplessness, Freud thinks, we are thrown back on an infantile prototype: memories of the utter helplessness that we experienced as infants – our complete and appalling dependence on the adults who cared for us (or failed to care for us). Religious people deal with their feelings of helplessness, he suggested, by clinging to the illusion of a powerful, protective deity who will grant them an afterlife.
There are clear links between Freud’s analysis of the religious impulse, and psychological forces at play in the political sphere. Politics is, explicitly, a response to human vulnerability. Our deepest hopes and fears permeate the political arena, and this makes us susceptible to political illusions, which are often clung to with such impassioned tenacity, and so refractory to reasoned argument, that they fit Freud’s characterisation of delusions. From this perspective, authoritarian political systems echo monotheistic religions. Like God himself, the leader is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. His words define the horizons of reality. He must be praised and appeased, but never challenged. His enemies are, by definition, in league with the forces of evil.
If religions were only about wish-fulfilling fantasies, they would be all sweetness and light. But they are not. The sweet promise of heaven is meaningful only against the threat of hell, and salvation requires something one needs to be saved from, even at the price of austerity, suffering, and – in the case of religious martyrs – torture and death. The same is true of authoritarian political discourse. It is not all pastry: it is also poison.
In 1932, Money-Kyrle briefly visited Berlin at the invitation of his friend, the diplomat Arthur Yencken (who was later murdered when Nazis planted a time-bomb in his plane). Yencken took him to a Nazi Party rally, at which both Joseph Goebbels and Hitler spoke. Money-Kyrle was fascinated and disturbed by what he saw and heard, and tried to make sense of what went on by examining the speeches and crowd dynamics through a psychoanalytic lens. The outcome was the article ‘The Psychology of Propaganda’ (1941).
By the time he visited Germany, Money-Kyrle was strongly under the intellectual influence of the Hungarian-born English psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Klein held that all human beings are haunted by profound and terrifying fears that she called ‘psychotic anxieties’. She thought that these anxieties, and our responses to them, drive a great deal of human behaviour – for good or for ill. In the Kleinian scheme, there are two primary forms of psychotic anxiety: paranoid anxiety, which is the terror of being persecuted by evil, eternal forces, and depressive anxiety, which is the sense that one is guilty of having destroyed what one loves and values. Klein also described what she called the manic defence, which is a denial of helplessness and dependence on others by delusions of power, grandeur and self-sufficiency, and is expressed in the attitudes of triumph, control and contempt.
Money-Kyrle used Klein’s framework to make sense of the power of Nazi rhetoric. He concluded that Hitler and Goebbels induced something like a mass psychosis in their audience, and shaped it for political ends. He wrote:
[T]he speeches themselves were not particularly impressive. But the crowd was unforgettable. The people seemed gradually to lose their individuality and to become fused into a not very intelligent but immensely powerful monster … [that was] under the complete control of the figure on the rostrum [who] evoked or changed its passions as easily as if they had been notes of some gigantic organ.
Observing Hitler and Goebbels in action led Money-Kyrle to the idea that, for political propaganda to work, propagandists must elicit a sense of helplessness in their audience (the poison) and then offer them a magical solution (the pastry). First, they make the audience depressed – to get them to feel that they have lost or destroyed something immensely good and valuable. They have been brought to their knees. They are a laughing stock. They have betrayed the great destiny of the German people. As Money-Kyrle describes it: ‘For 10 minutes we heard of the sufferings of Germany … since the war. The monster seemed to indulge in an orgy of self-pity.’
‘The induced melancholia passed into paranoia, and the paranoia into megalomania’
The second step is to identify some minority or group of outsiders as perpetrators of one’s suffering. They are forces of evil, persecuting us from the outside or consuming us from within. Money-Kyrle wrote:
Then for the next 10 minutes came the most terrific fulminations against Jews and Social-democrats as the sole authors of these sufferings. Self-pity gave place to hate; and the monster seemed on the point of becoming homicidal.
The third step is to offer a manic cure for the terrors of helplessness:
[S]elf-pity and hatred were not enough. It was also necessary to drive out fear … So the speakers turned from vituperation to self-praise. From small beginnings, the Party had grown invincible. Each listener felt a part of its omnipotence within himself. He was transported into a new psychosis. The induced melancholia passed into paranoia, and the paranoia into megalomania.
The crescendo of this final, manic phase of Hitler’s performance was an appeal to unity, which Money-Kyrle thought was crucial to the success of authoritarian propaganda, for if ‘he had nothing but thunderbolts to offer, he could hardly have remained the god he is’. Sounding this powerful, positive chord at the conclusion, Hitler promised paradise on Earth; ‘This Paradise, however, was only for true Germans and true Nazis. Everyone outside remained a persecutor, and therefore an object of hate.’
Whether or not the psychoanalytic diagnosis of the appeal of such leaders is correct, some such analysis of the psychological wellsprings of the craving for authoritarian leaders is needed. Understanding the attraction of authoritarian illusions could help to inoculate us against it, and so avoid being led once again into the abyss.
The herd instinct
Freud isn’t interested in how the rock star’s fans decide to stop fighting among themselves but only in the fact that they do. His account is stronger descriptively than analytically. But his notion of identification is still a powerful tool for dissecting mass behaviour. For Freud, a successful leader invites the crowd to identify with him, which in his usage involves a big dose of idealisation. Think here, Freud says, of the little boy’s identification with his father – the boy wants to grow up and be like him. Identification can also be based on the perception of commonality with someone else, the sense that there’s something shared between us. The leader is at once larger-than-life and familiar, bigger than I am and just like me. He’s heroic and at the same time recognisably human.
Today, these dynamics converge in the figure of Donald Trump and his acolytes. Like Freud’s exemplary leader, Trump invites identification. In the eyes of his supporters, he’s both an idealised hero capable of extraordinary feats (‘Make America Great Again!’), but also an ordinary guy just like one of them. His gilded lifestyle is aspirational but his tastes are accessible (a ‘beer taste on a Champagne budget’, as one commentator put it in The Guardian). Trump’s roiling resentments, fears and disgusts are openly on display, inviting and authorising imitation. And he is a master of playing to the crowd’s desire for transcendence, deploying his own grandiosity to make them feel part of something bigger than themselves. First, he points to the crowd’s humiliation: ‘We’re tired of being the patsy for, like, everybody. Tea party people… You have not been treated fairly. You talk about marginalising.’ Then he declares himself their tribune: ‘At least I have a microphone where I can fight back. You people don’t!’ Finally, he shares his power with them, telling the crowd: ‘You don’t know how big you are. You don’t know the power that you have.’ Trump and the crowd are one; the identification is complete.