A Psychological Approach to Fascism/Tyranny



As I see things, fascism is on the rise again in both Europe and the United States, perhaps worldwide.

What I mean by fascism I will state below. I will not stop here to give a definition except to say that I use fascism as interchangeable with the older word, tyranny.

In what follows, I find it useful to remember that fascism is a buzz word that often leads to strong reactions. For some it has positive connotations. For most, I guess, it brings up fear and anger.

I divide this essay into six discussions: 1) a discussion of different levels or degrees of fascism, 2) a discussion of the situations that can lead to the different degrees, 3) a rough definition of fascism, 4) a discussion of “the” fascist personality, 5) a discussion of different evaluations of the fascist approach, and 6) some thoughts about trying to handle the emotional issues raised in 1) to 5).

I will try to avoid (or, at least, hide) my emotional responses and moral judgments — not because I am above them or able to resist them or think they are out of place when talking about fascism — but because I want, as much as possible, to have a calm discussion. I want this essay to be like a demilitarized zone for discussion and mediation. I want it to be like a marriage counseling session in which the counselor tries to remain neutral and keep his or own feelings out of the mix. Still, the warring parties may remain irreconcilable.

I am not an expert or researcher on fascism. I am a retired clinical psychologist who is using his point of view (including his own introspection) to glimpse phenomena we all experience and to comment on them from his point of view. I hope this statement will help you view this essay from a more objective perspective and will help explain its strengths and weaknesses.

I should add that I was never at the top rung of the professional hierarchy of psychology. I rate myself as a good clinician overall, maybe with a “B” average.

Finally, I don’t see this essay as adding new ideas to the discussion of fascism. Rather, I hope it presents the issues involved from a different, but still useful, perspective. I will consider it a success if it makes us stop and think, to become more willing to struggle with genuine questions and confusions and to become more conscious of and better able to tolerate real ambiguity, ambivalence, and contradiction in ourselves and others.

— A caveat: I am not offering a formal psychological analyses or diagnoses of any of the particular people I mention. I don’t have enough personal information about any of them to give any sort of formal professional opinion.


1. Different levels or degrees of Fascism

Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Mao Zedung, Idi Amin, Kim Jong-un, the leaders of the Ittihad ve terakki, and other such humans were (are) authoritarian dictators in the sense that what they wanted, they were able to make happen; what they ordered, was carried out. A country run by a dictator imposing his (or her) will and molding the country to his taste is what I think of as a fascist country or government.

Nothing on earth is 100%, so it is certain that none of these leaders had absolute power They had to have support within their countries and would have had to cater, to some extent, to those who supported them. From this angle, there are no 100% fascist countries either.

There are levels of or degrees of fascism and dictatorship. There is a scale of fascism and dictatorship, and countries and people can be ranked. We all fall somewhere on this scale: Some of us have little of the fascist tendency or trait, and some of us have a lot. It’s a matter of degree.

Without implying a moral evaluation, I would rank Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedung, and the others on the list on the highest level, being examples of the highest degree of dictatorship attained to this date.  They had the power over life and death over everyone in their countries, or nearly everyone, and they used it freely. They could kill pretty nearly anyone they wanted to, and they did.

There are fascists who do not have total power. They live in countries that don’t allow them to live out all their tendencies. They rank at the highest degree on the fascism scale (in terms of motivation) and may have attained to the highest level of government, but they don’t have unlimited power and can not rule as they wish to rule.

Alternatively, these fascists who have not achieved total power can be looked at as incompetent fascists. I am not meaning to be facetious when I say that tyranny is, for many, an ideal. It is something to attain. It requires a skill set and perseverance and not every would-be fascist has the patience and skills to reach their goal.

I classify Donald Trump as a fascist on the higher end of the scale who is limited, at the time of the writing of this essay, by others in his government and country.

It is my view, that, if Donald Trump were given complete power, he would shut down news media that didn’t praise him, kill competitors who got in his way, and have illegal aliens expelled or shot. And he would be proud of it. He would brag, “I’m no weakling! I’m tough!”

I have expressed this view to others whose opinions I admire and value, and they disagree. They think President Trump wouldn’t go that far. I base my view on his open and visible admiration of Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, and his stated view that we need to be strong and never back down — ever.

If you don’t think Donald Trump is a fascist or if you think him lower down on the scale — not wanting as much control and/or not being willing to do whatever it takes to get it — or as an incompetent fascist, so be it, though I think, if President Trump was told that you ranked him lower on the scale than, say, Mussolini or Franco, he would probably feel insulted.

At a still lower level of the fascist hierarchy, there are countries who don’t have a dictator at the top but who flirt with the idea and have fascists in high government positions, and so on.

At the lowest level, there are countries that have fascist civilians who are ever present but who have little power.

So there is a scale of fascism with respect to individuals and with respect to countries. Everyone and every country is somewhere on the scale. From a psychological perspective, it is safe to say that no person or country is completely free from fascist tendencies and that no one is a hundred percent pure fascist.


2. What, in a country, brings out fascism and dictatorship?

From my reading and observations as a layman, what sets the stage for an increase in fascism in a country are conditions that lead the citizens to feel intense fear. The world feels more and more chaotic; it is harder and harder to picture the future and how you will get by in it; you feel more and more you are losing your grasp on reality.

The closer the people of a country are (or think they are) to, say, starvation, or being attacked by an enemy, the greater the likelihood the country and its citizens will become more fascist, at least during that turbulent period. Intelligent, competent fascists wait for these moments.

Spain was fascist for a time. So was Germany. It seems, looking back, to have been a phase in the histories of these countries. But relative economic and social stability may end. We don’t know if fascism will return to these countries or appear in “virgin” countries.

Individuals go through similar phases with respect to their own fascist tendencies. We fall into fascist moods, fascist ways of thinking and reacting, come out of them, and then return to them. We all do — at least, according to my observations of people including myself.

It is possible that fascism, as I am using the term, is our natural state, that the original society was one dominated by absolute monarchs: kings and queens with their princes and princesses waiting in the queue. Democracy may be a temporary experiment, a fad. Alternatively, the world and its individuals might be developing further and further away from fascism.

At some point, if survival is felt to be an issue, most of us will forget whatever moral feelings we have and will do or sanction more and more extreme measures in order to survive and/or to help our loved ones survive. Freedom for others and respect for them means less and less as we become more and more desperate. Our social world shrinks, and we feel on our own, like newborns, strangers in a strange land.

It is easy to judge others as fascists, but most of us have never been tested. We don’t know how we will think or feel or act under most types of extreme stress.

And we can be feeling extreme stress and be unconscious of it and our reaction to it.

As things become worse and worse, there is a tendency to long to be protected and cared for and to fantasize a super strong parental figure or messiah coming to save us. We tend to stop caring as much about our own freedom, let alone the freedom of others. We lose faith in our own abilities and judgment and become like lost children.

By this understanding, the United States is not, in June 2018, in danger of extreme fascism, at least not now. There is genuine economic anxiety here among many and fear of terrorism and fear of uncivil political conflicts, but there is no comparison with the conditions in Germany when Adolph Hitler was voted into power (for example).

I predict that (and am willing to bet that), unless things turn a lot worse for this country, Donald Trump will not be given the power to dominate and dictate and run things as he sees fit, even if he tries his best to get these powers. In time, an event will occur that will flip the way people see him, and there will be more and more defections. (I add the caveat that, if I am underestimating the anxiety and fear in this country, then all bets are off, and Donald Trump or, more likely, one of his successors, could well be given more and more power.)

On the other hand, there is enough anxiety to have led to a turning up of the fascist dial, as seen, among other things, by the election of and support for Donald Trump.

We seem to get adjusted to fascism within our own countries, we begin not to notice it — like living next to an airport — unless it begins to crash into us directly. In psychology this is called adaptation. It is easier still to adjust to the oppression, and even stamping out, of those around us who we see as strangers or strange, more so if we perceive them as possibly dangerous.

When we’re feeling strong, many of us make an effort to tolerate others. When reality begins to dissolve, we have more and more trouble maintaining this tolerance, even if we still want to try.

By my understanding, the Great Depression in the United States made fascism more likely, even more so after the country entered the second World War. By my definition, when the Congress granted Franklin Delano Roosevelt more and more power, our country was heading in the direction of a fascist state. Roosevelt never was granted and maybe didn’t want absolute power. If it had been given to him, he may have turned out to be a loving person, a benevolent dictator, but that is neither here nor there. My point is that the situation in the United States, from what I have read, was not as desperate, even then, as it was in other countries, and this is part of why a full-blown fascism didn’t develop here.

This is not to say that conditions by themselves, automatically produce dictatorship. The dictator needs high motivation, talent, and a skill set as well as being born into the right times. This is true for a person whose goal is to become a dictator as much as it is for a person whose goal is to win a Nobel Prize. If a man tries to gain recognition for his scientific research and theories and fails, he can blame others or tell himself he is a misunderstood genius who is ahead of his times, instead of faulting his own abilities, work ethic, etc.

The same is true for wanna’ be dictators. We notice how President Trump responds when he doesn’t get his way: He blames his staff, the country, the news media, and so on. It is possible though, that he lacks the competence, the abilities, for becoming a first class fascist, or he may, deep down, not be as ruthless as he says he is and maybe thinks he is.

— (As an aside, I can imagine a university for training dictators, not for studying them but for training them. One textbook for Practical Fascism 101 would be Machiavelli’s, The Prince .… But this line of thought takes us in a different direction than I want to go.)

Dictators often want more than to dominate their own populace; they want world domination. This can bring them into conflict with each other as when Hitler and Stalin clashed. Given the results of the clash, on a fascist scale of values, Stalin seems to have been a greater dictator than Hitler. Trump, on this scale, is nowhere close to being in the first class, and he may develop an inferiority complex if he ever thinks about it.

These are desperate times! The destruction of the world is possible, many think inevitable. Pick your worry: terrorism, economic collapse, meltdown of cultural values, nuclear war, global warming, the disrespect of nature, and on and on. Whatever worries me seems real and important, and I minimize the other terrors. This is a fertile breeding ground for dictators. A psychologist, Mike Ozar, speaks of liberal fascism and conservative fascism. It’s easier to see the fascism in others than in ourselves.


3. A definition of fascism

My definition of fascism is very broad, too broad, but I adopt it for a reason. It is a temporary, working definition to be used only in this essay. It is a tool I have made for this one project, since I can’t find the right one in my everyday toolbox. It’s a mental ladder I think I need to climb to a perch for a more complete view of the phenomenon on which we are focusing our attention.

I use the word fascism to apply to an aspect of all natural processes from smallest to largest, from specific to abstract, from inanimate to animate, to individuals and within individuals, and to countries.

For the fascist quality on the physical dimension, different words and phrases can be used: Destructive Power, Force, Rigidity, Energy (as opposed to Mass or Density or Inertia), Acceleration, Momentum, Tension, Stress, Heat, Light.

In inorganic nature it appears, most obviously, in the metals (iron, steel), in fire and in the sun, in powerful storms like tornadoes and hurricanes (though it is not an airy quality), in tidal waves, and so on. In the plant kingdom, successful fascists might be compared to giant sequoias and spreading oaks and sprawling vines, and they might see those they try to eradicate as weeds. With respect to animals, fascists portray themselves as lions and wolves, eagles and vipers, and see themselves as ridding their countries of spiders and ants and worms and mice and rats — vermin.

Regarding abstract qualities, a fascist country might see itself as pure and unalloyed and eternal instead of impure, mixed, contaminated, and evanescent. Fascists feel superior and haughty, though not lofty or high. They think of themselves as the opposite of humbled or lowly or underfoot.

In humans, fascism appears as the urge to Fight, to Control (including to control one’s self), to Dominate, to be Strong and Tough, to let ones Instincts out (whoever is hurt), to be Harsh and Angry and Cruel and Sadistic and Arrogant and Closed and Insensitive and Stubborn and Heartless and Hardhearted and Soulless. It is Muscles and Fists, not Heart or Head.

It is also found in the Ambition towards Mastery. The desire to master anything, by my definition, is a form of fascism. It is there in anorexia and in all other forms of Perfectionism. It is in the unwillingness to let go of a thing or a project or a person or a moment in time. It is there in the desire to get to the bottom of things, come what may, and to get in the last word.

In its most abstract form, it is an aspect in all Change. What is old is broken down and dissolves and disappears and is replaced by the new. What begins, is in full power for a while, and then is pushed out, destroyed in the next second or moment or year. It’s as if Time itself is a fascist, destroying our youth and then our lives and the lives of everyone we know.

If we think of this destructive force symbolically, the Hindu god, Shiva comes to mind. He is the god of destruction, the Destroyer of Worlds. He can be found physically, in fire, but he is also present, more abstractly, when any thing or any moment comes to an end. And he is there when everything feels it is falling apart.

The opposite of this force I am calling fascist, the opposite side or pole on the scale, is, in humans, Passivity, Weakness, Acceptance, Self-Sacrifice, Humility, Meekness, Love, Morality, Receptivity, Openness, Softness, Gentleness, Having a Heart, being Soulful, being Forgiving, and so on.

Which pole we view positively and when we view it this way and what words we use to name it and describe it depends, in part, on our personality and on our circumstances at a specific moment. Immediately after the 9-11 attack on the United States, some of the gentlest people I know said they hoped the government would torture captured terrorists for information.

As I see it, destructive forces are necessary parts of nature, and we need them to survive. They can not be uprooted or destroyed. If you could push a button and destroy them (a possibility which has a touch of the paradoxical), the world would disappear and all of our lives with it.

It follows that we can’t get rid of all fascist tendencies in our countries, in our relationships, in our own actions, and in our own souls. Again, sometimes these forces seem to lead to good for us; sometimes to bad for us. 

The fascist (destructive, powerful) tendency takes many forms and does not always appear powerful. It has been pointed out that, in a sense, water is more powerful than fire, as it can destroy it and more powerful even than rock in that, over time, it can wear rock away. And icebergs and glaciers are forms of water. A drop of poison from a cobra kills as surely as the crushing strength of a lion’s jaws.

When we judge an aspect of ourselves as bad and try to suppress it or get rid of it, we are giving sway to one form of the destructive force in us. When we judge others and find them guilty of some evil, we are exercising our harsh judgment even if we are right in our judgment and even if we are trying to be good and responsible and even if we are, in fact, being good and responsible.

The opposite of this destructive urge is not the desire to protect and defend ourselves, as this is another example of the same urge for survival. To survive is, to some extent, to dominate and win and destroy: to eat, for example, is to break down, digest, and then make part of ourselves.

The opposite of the fascist urge is the urge to weakness, to passivity, to self-sacrifice, to allowing to happen whatever happens. (At times, even this can be a form of destructive action. A dramatic example would be if you are told that your family will be killed if you don’t set off a bomb in a government building, and you let your family die rather than agree.)

A relationship based on loving feelings and softness and receptiveness and weakness, will, psychologically speaking, always have a power aspect. Husbands and fathers, traditionally, have had their overt ways of dominating, but so did wives and mothers, and even children have their ways of fighting back and getting under the skin of the parents. You don’t have to be big to cause trouble — witness some bacteria and viruses.

Why stress and stretch the word fascism so much?

Though there are obvious reasons against stretching the definition as much as I have, even if it is just for this essay, the following are arguments for it.

Fascism is a human quality, and this is easy to forget when you are a victim of it or are afraid of becoming a victim. It is almost impossible, especially in extreme moments of terror, to avoiding thinking of your oppressor as a monster and of you as innocent. And there are times in life when this is true, and there are other times that, at least as a matter of survival and mental health, it is necessary to think it is true.

But when we pull back and reflect — if we escape from the monster and have the luck and luxury of being able to reflect again — and if we are perfectly honest, we realize that monstrous tendencies are there, ready to be awakened, in all of us.

Further, many of the smaller misdeeds we ourselves commit are not big acts of fascism, high up on the scale, but they are on the same scale. It is inaccurate to dismiss them as nothing. If you think you are in no way fascistic, you will not recognize the small acts of fascism you commit. This can be as naive and as dangerous as dismissing a seed of a poisonous plant as harmless. What is a minor act of fascism to the person stepping on may be a major one to the person being stepped on.

This is not to mention the fact that often we would do worse but don’t have the power or the nerve. We may even envy those with the courage to stand up and do what they want, “Damn the consequences!”

Further, when we don’t give the proper name to what we are doing, we may be proud of something that, under another name, would make us ashamed of ourselves.

Psychologically, it is dangerous to project the desires to win and to dominate onto others, to see them only in them when they are also in us.

It is dangerous, in part, because projection prevents us from seeing our enemies clearly. We don’t see that they are human, and so we under or over estimate them.

For example, it is dangerous to forget that Stalin seems to have loved his children and that the terrorizing dictator allowed them to dictate to him in certain situations and that he, himself, was often terrified that his enemies would destroy him and his family — he was as terrified as you or I.

And, is it wrong to say that two of Stalin’s positive qualities were courage and perseverance and even to admire these qualities and wish we had more of them? To do this does not mean we will not, in the next moment, turn our head a few degrees and see his other side and shiver at it.

If we see Stalin as pure evil and as 100% opposite of us and deny his positive qualities, we will not even allow ourselves to wonder if he ever wondered if he went too far, if some of what he did was unnecessarily cruel — How can we understand and face our enemies without asking questions such as these?

It is natural, I think, for even the enemy of a fascist to watch him with admiration and fascination, spellbound by his tenacity, like watching an ant roll a large stone uphill or a cheetah chase down an antelope.

Projection, as we have discussed, blinds us to our own black misdemeanors and crimes, because we assume, that, prima facie, we are innocent and incapable of even minor evils, let alone bigger ones; we assume that some of us have zero fascism.

For example, when we lose our temper at a loved one, it is not, we tell ourselves, because we are being dictators but because we are standing up for ourselves after being misunderstood and disrespected. Or we might believe, and tell our loved one, that we are correcting them for their own good. — This is not just a tendency towards fascism; by my definition of fascism it is an example of it, even if we are right that they did something wrong. — I am being ruthless in applying the word!

And projection blinds us to our part in greater atrocities that we don’t commit ourselves but whose outcome we secretly couldn’t care less about or even welcome. Many are tolerating Donald Trump’s fascism, because their stocks are going up or because the regulations on their businesses are being removed or because judges they like are being appointed or because he seems to be standing up to North Korea. They are secretly happy he is shaking things up, though they may not be able to admit it to themselves.

Going still further, refusing to see — or being unable to see — that force is sometimes necessary, makes us believe that all responses, on any level, that require strength, toughness, the ability to draw lines and boundaries, and so on, are wrong. We react to the word force and suspect and shrink from any response that requires us to feel and manifest our own power. Like it or not, these shrinkings can lead to our own harm and to the harm of our loved ones and can come to be seen, later, even by ourselves, as acts of cowardice.

And, from the opposite end of the scale, when we are proud of our strength and toughness and self-reliance, and begin to think we are tough though and through, 100%, we are in danger of losing our souls and, with them, any chance for relaxation and joy and love, all three of which requires letting down ones guard and trusting, at least for a while. Psychologists can confidently say to the fascist: “You will never be happy, never get what, deep down, you are probably seeking!"

From still another angle, being aware that we all have fascist tendencies and that they come out, like it or not, on an ongoing basis, helps us understand the outrage and pain of people around us who feel victimized by us when we can’t see why. Even if we think we did something wrong, we minimize what we did, and our perception of the other person becomes distorted: “Why is she (or he) making such a big deal of it? She’s overly sensitive.” If we are alert to the fact that even we, ourselves, are fascists at times, we better understand some reactions of others to us, and we have more freedom to stop ourselves if we want and to better figure out how to handle difficult situations.

Accepting we have a fascist side also helps us understand our own dreams in which, for example, we are dressed up as Stalin or Hitler or are being tempted to join their political parties. — We can be both nice and loving, and fascists.

We all know we all are the same in fundamental ways, but none of us acts as if we believe it.

But, in saying all this, we have to be aware of an important danger of our definition: We can not forget the distance between the two poles of our scale. Certainly your and my minor misdemeanors — if we come to see them as misdemeanors at all — weigh “millions of pounds” less than major crimes. Stalin yelled and cursed at his daughter when she told him who she wanted to marry. This was a form of intimidation and fascism but on a lesser level than when he created an artificial famine to starve five million Ukrainians. (I think it is relevant to this discussion that, though Stalin tried to prevent his daughter’s marriage, in the end he let her go ahead with it.)

There are different levels or degrees of fascism in terms of outcome and/or morality. With this in mind, though, I remind myself that words can kill and so can a look or a touch and, probably, even a thought. And every angry act is a killing on the level of the soul. In particular cases, such angry acts might be good or bad, necessary or unnecessary, but they kill. And let’s remind ourselves again that morally judging someone is condemning them and hurting them, even if we are right (as Nietzsche saw so clearly) and even if they will benefit from being punished.

Speaking further about this most subtle level, far from the sound of marching armies: looks and touches and words (spoken and written and thought) can heal as well as make sick.


4. What is the fascist personality?

Fascism, I am saying, is an aspect of reality, an aspect of nature and of the nature of all of us, but so too is its opposite, Passivity. Whether there is something that is deeper than fascism and passivity, a substratum of which these two poles are a part or manifestation is a question I am not capable of answering.

It seems that, like all other human traits, each of us exhibits more or less of the trait of strength/weakness. There is, I would guess, a bell-shaped curve for this trait as with all other human personality traits. Some are, by nature, more likely to be passive; others are more likely to attack and to try to dominate.

There are different ways of trying to dominate, some open and obvious and some, like the use of poison, more secretive. It is possible to hide our true motives from each other and even from ourselves, so it is not easy to assess who is what.

Further, even the most passive amongst us have at least some will to dominate, and vice versa, so it is never easy to tell what is what with people with respect to this trait (as with other traits). And, our own passive side and/or destructive side might be unconscious even to ourselves even when they are visible to others.

And, as Nietzsche pointed out, even passivity can be used as a weapon to undermine a perceived oppressor.

It is also unclear, as with other human traits, how much is nature and inherited and how much is learned.

It seems to me that, if you try to evaluate the amount of fascism within yourself, there is a tendency to under or overestimate it. If you try to figure out your rank, your place, remember that how much money you have and how many people listen to you and fear and respect you at this moment doesn't determine your true social or political or professional position on the scale.

We imitate our parents, but we also can rebel and try to be the opposite of them.

In addition, if we are beaten down, we may develop a philosophy of fighting back and of dominating others before they dominate us. At the other pole, if we grew up in a loving family, we might come to believe that we can get what we want in life by being loving and trusting and nice.

And it is possible to get stuck in an attitude and way of behaving long after it has stopped being effective.

How much of our behavior and attitude is imitation, how much learned, how much decided upon, how much habit, and how much our nature is unclear in every specific human being.

And, of course, different situations can bring out different sides of ourselves. We know, if only by seeing the example of others, what we might do in extreme situations. All hell can break loose in us, and we can be swept up and swept away by outer forces. Only God knows why some of us resist and some of us go in whole hog.

Acknowledging, but putting all these complications out of our minds, we can say that, on a surface level, some people seem more dominating, more power hungry, more controlling — more fascistic. Others seem weaker, more accepting, more peace loving, more receptive, more considerate, more gentle, more loving. And, as we will remember, these traits can be described positively or negatively relative to person and situation. Love can be seen as weakness, and so on.

We are all mixtures of strong and weak, angry and loving, dominant and passive. We all fall somewhere on the curve.

Tribes, peoples, countries, civilizations seem to fall on the same curve.

For most of us, no matter on which side of the fascist/passive spectrum we fall, our other side sometimes breaks out strongly. The mild man finds himself yelling; the dictator finds himself having a soft spot for a friend; the ascetic finds he has a weakness for chocolate. — (I should mention that this fascist/passive trait, if it exists, is not identical with any of the five personality traits in the so-called, Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality, but I will not discuss this here.)

There are also degrees of how far each of us would go in different situations, so this is another factor in determining our place on the scale. Not all Germans joined the Nazis party nor did all Russians become Communists.

As already discussed, no one is 100% fascist. Even those on our list who had the highest degree of this trait and who had the opportunity and ability to act it out, were not fascist in every one of their responses.

I think it’s possible to say something about people at the two extremes: Anyone stuck in the power “gear” and who can’t shift out of it even when it is not necessary to use it, is crippled, and may, because of this limitation, get into an accident and injure himself (or herself) and others.

And the same has to be said about someone who is stuck in and who can’t shift out of the self-sacrificing “gear.”

From a practical point of view, we each have both “hands” and should use both as needed, not tie one behind our backs. Power and Love are like two hands: Sometimes we should use one; sometimes the other; sometimes both together.

People without one arm, know they have a lack, what they lack, and understand that this creates a limitation. People who lack one pole of the tough/soft trait may not know they lack something, may not see it as a problem (often they see it as a strength), and may not see how this lack limits their ability to respond to situations.

The fascism of Donald Trump

(Again, I note that I can not offer a professional analysis of Donald Trump, the real person, because I’ve never met him. I have an image of him, and it is this Donald Trump I am analyzing.)

For any individual fascist, it is not clear whether the trait comes from heredity, philosophy, training, imitation, reaction to abuse, or habit. It is even possible for part of the fascist impulse to come from a desire for activity, excitement, stimulation, challenge, and change (like a high speed racer) and/or from a felt need to escape from ones own inner life. In extreme cases, it may stem, in part, from a suicidal impulse. It is hard to tell what is what with Donald Trump.

The following is a story that indicates that part of his fascism might be philosophical, willed, decided upon and that it may be dependent on simplistic thinking combined with inability and/or a laziness for a certain form of work.

As of today, June 20, 2018, there is a conflict between two sides in the United States about securing our southern border with Mexico. For whatever reason, the Trump side (the side in power) has separated 2,300 children from their parents who were seeking entrance into the United States. People at the other pole in the argument have demonstrated vigorously against the Trump side.

So we have two poles, two sides of an issue: the weak pole and the strong pole. In my language, the strong pole, in this essay, I am calling fascist, though, as I have stated more than once in this essay, it can be called by other names and looked at as a good or a bad.

For whatever reason, it seemed, in the last few days, that the weak or loving pole (depending what word we choose to label it) has gained momentum to the point that President Trump today appeared to back down, and he signed an executive order ending his own policy of separating children from parents.

The point here is not to make a moral judgment or to take sides or to claim to know how he will react tomorrow. What I want to do here is to try to extract the man’s way of looking at the situation from something he said to Senator Lindsey Graham about what the President called “the dilemma … a tough dilemma.”

“Lindsey, the dilemma is that if you’re weak, if you’re weak, which some people would like you to be, if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people. And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps I would rather be strong, but that’s a tough dilemma.” (https://www.vox.com/2018/6/20/17484506/family-separation-trump-immigration-congress)

This sounded to me like a straightforward and honest statement of how President Trump understands his position, his dilemma.

Every one of us in the United States has the issue of what to do with people who try to enter this country illegally, and the President sees it through one pair of glasses. To him, it is a matter of whether to be weak or strong, and he sees it is Either/Or.

But this is not the only way of framing the problem. We can look for a solution that is reasonable that will be as tough as necessary (and no more) and as humane as possible. It is possible to be tough and humane (we may imagine how Lincoln, for example, might have reacted to the problem). Assuming this is not an urgent (today) problem and that we don’t have to rush to solve it here and now, we have time to utilize both poles to work out a solution.

This will be hard work with no promise of a perfect solution or even of success. It is work of a special kind that, like all work, requires skills that have to be developed and practiced and patiently employed. If you want to do this work it implies you value it and are willing to put in the time.

What if you are a sadist, committed to hurting and killing, looking for a way to avoid any humane solutions? Ugh!

Returning to the quote, we can say that the President seems honest in telling us his fantasy that, if we are weak, millions will overrun the country and, presumably, hurt him and all of us. This, to me, is a paranoid fantasy — like a nightmare we wake from and take as true — and, like many paranoid fantasies, there may be some truth in it in less exaggerated form. Countries, to be countries, have to have borders, and a border is a place where entry can not always be allowed — or so it seems to me. A border is often a symbol in dreams. It is a complex, ambivalent place in both dreams and reality.

Not only does this incorrect thinking present only two choices and not only does it have a paranoid flavor, but it also indicates a lack of personal experience and familiarity with those on the other side of the border. Such a lack of familiarity breeds irrationality, as our imaginations are all we have to go on. The stranger in our imagination can be wonderful, but, as in the imagination of the President, the stranger can be terrifying. This leads to irrational behavior on our side.

President Trump’s thinking, as expressed in the quote, suffers from all these defects.

For completeness I need to add that a person wedded to the idea that we always have to be gentle seems to show the same error in thought, and this approach has similar dangers as the ones we just discussed. We will remember that here is a liberal as well as a conservative fascism.

In the United States, many liberals talk as if they’re still in power. They pick and snipe at and bate the President in a nasty, haughty, self-righteous, and supercilious way. Aside from whether this is right or or wrong, it seems naive. If Donald Trump is a true fascist bear, why poke him with a stick? Sour grapes and immature, impotent whining are not effective weapons with fascists. And fascists are proud they lie, are proud they contradict themselves! They play be different rules than those established by Aristotle in his writings on logic.

An idealistic thought is that we all are facing real problems, and many of these are understood as such by everyone. Is it possible to aim our rage at the problems instead of at each other? I don’t know.

In the end, it’s not about Donald Trump but about us and not really about us but about me. It really is about me. And about you and you and you. I told patients who wanted to complain about, say, a parent, “Start by looking at yourself!” If the rule made sense then, it makes sense here, in this psychological essay, this psychological approach to our subject.


5. Pros and cons of fascism

I have been trying, as best as I can, to bracket my emotions and moral feelings out of this essay, but I will try even harder in this section. I am doing this with the goal of looking at fascism with a pure, though pragmatic, intellect.

Here is a Warning! It can be dangerous to approach our problems intellectually! For this essay, this exercise, I am treating Good and Evil as abstractions. But, in our real lives, there is a universe of difference between whether a stranger we are about to deal with is good or evil. In living reality, there is a palpable difference between Good and Evil. But the thinking function can only note this reality as part of an argument, since Good and Evil are just two different marks on the same ruler.  

In other words, there is a danger of slipping into a sociopathic-type attitude in which we box up our empathetic and moral reactions. The intellect is so seductive that it is easy to slip into treating the biggest moral issue as if it were a fascinating and fun intellectual game or puzzle. If we slip into this, the essay itself becomes an evil, an escape from the monsters out there and the monsters in ourselves. We don’t want to forget this danger and become like naive children having fun skipping along after our thoughts as they lead us hither and yon.

And it is easy to forget the dangers in and around us. As Freud pointed out, everything in us wants to forget them, to escape from them. It is very easy to forget our own petty misdeeds, but it is also possible to forget or ignore the meaning of the greatest misdeeds going on around us, even the ones that may soon be affecting us. Even if we know they are dangerous, we still adapt and forget (and, psychologically, we have to in order to live!). Stalin said something to the effect that one death is a tragedy, a million is a number. We forget and have to forget, but I don’t want the thinking I am doing here to be an example of this escape from moral reality.

Yet I continue now with an intellectual point: I think we are all alike, wherever we fall on the fascist/passive scale, in that we all destroy and kill. There is a way to be meek or helpless in relation to certain things and behaviors but it is relative. A young girl being dragged to her death by the fascist police is scrapping the ground with her feet, crushing new blades of grass, over-turning a rock and uprooting a family of pill-bugs.

Intentionally or unintentionally, knowingly or unknowingly, consciously or unconsciously, we destroy. All the time. Saint or sinner. Even when we breath: We suck up (displace) and then destroy the oxygen that would have been able to continue its existence if we had not existed.

It seems impossible to avoid. We can’t decide, “I will never destroy anything!” and then live out this decision. Even suicide — the elimination of ourselves and our ability to destroy — would itself be a huge act of destruction both towards ourself and towards others. And, because of this, suicide, with the motive of eliminating one person’s power to destroy, has an air of paradox. And not all suicides have this motive. Probably most of them don’t.

I knew a woman who had tried to drown herself in her bathtub. Her son found her and saved her life. She said she put on her clothes, got into the bathtub, took some pills, turned on the water, and lay down. I asked (among other things) why, if she was going to die, had she put on her clothes. She said, “Oh, don’t you know, silly? I didn’t want my son to see me naked!” Apparently she thought it would be more upsetting for him to see her naked than dead.

Looking now at the opposite pole, I assert that every destructive action has creative and positive outcomes, every fascist does help someone or something even by his most destructive acts. This may be a horrible thought, but, if we do our best to keep out our emotional responses, the following stories can be understood as examples:

The victim is removed, possessions and property taken, and then killed. Atrocity for the victim (and for all of humanity), but someone gets the property and the home, and the new owner has a place to live and a means for him or her self and family to survive for a while. The new owners will eventually all but forget the previous owners. And, if some new invader comes along and takes the property, the family will feel an atrocity is being committed against them, that their home and property are being taken from them.

Syrians leave their country, escaping fascism, looking for freedom, innocent victims, maybe brave heroes setting out with no possessions, on foot, to a promised land where they and their children will be safe and can thrive. But the people in those lands are entrenched and many feel fear that they will be crowded out and lose their livelihoods. And they respond by electing fascists and supporting them and becoming fascists themselves. From an inner viewpoint, they are, mistakenly or not, seeking survival and are no different than the Syrian refugees.

Everything I have said about the history of the United States is from the point of view of the European immigrant. The American Indians see things completely differently. This does not mean European Americans should idealize the Indians and identify with them to the point of forgetting themselves.

A wave of immigrants replaces the previous wave. Every layer of civilization is built on the tels of ones that came before.

Floods cover fields but fertilize them. Fire destroys forests but stimulates seeds that now have open ground in which to grow and thrive. Lionesses kill and eat a zebra which allows them to nurse their starving cubs. I do not find this beautiful as some do, but I find it true.

We all live on land that was forcibly taken from other humans and, if not from humans, from animals, and if not from animals, from plants. And we forget.

What we call “keeping our house in order” is pure fascism to the spiders we exterminate. We sweep them out and then step on and crush the black widows in the garage, poisonous creatures that creep us out and give us the chills, and frighten us to the point of appearing in our nightmares.


6. How to handle these paradoxical forces in and around us

Nothing I have said so far is original to me, and what I am about to say is not new, and it is not an answer to the confusion created by the paradoxical, ambiguous, and ambivalent forces we have been discussing. If I thought I had the right approach, here is where I would write it. What I have to offer is a few scattered thoughts representing my own struggles, the struggles of a psychologist.

First, central to depth psychology is the belief that, in addition to keeping our eyes peeled for outside dangers, we should, at least for the purpose of self-knowledge, try to see what we are really like. This is difficult.

It is impossible to see the back of our own heads without a mirror. It is the same with our personalities. One “mirror” in which we can see the back side of our personalities, the dark and shadowy side, is to listen to how others see us.

According to Jung, another way to see our personal Shadows, as he called it, is to keep an eye on the content of our dreams. The assumption here is that dream figures sometimes are images of aspects of ourselves. In “looking” at them, we are seeing different sides of our personalities. For example, the homeless man in my dream is an aspect of me — not me, but an aspect of me.

It is also possible, within our imaginations, to interact with these figures and affect them and be affected by them. This is what Jung called Active Imagination, and he meant really and truly going back into the imagination and talking with the figures, arguing with them, coming to compromises with them, painting them (during the day), and so on. The goal isn’t just to interact with them as if they were real; they are real! (in a sense).

I have found Active Imagination to be useful for me and my patients. It is an approach that, in my experience, can bring, for a time, a feeling of integration. After you take back a projection you feel that, before this you had been in a dream, that you had not been in reality even though it felt real. If you ever are angry at a person who stood you up for a meeting, and then you find he didn’t stand you up but had an accident and was rushed to a hospital, if you ever have had such an experience, you know what I mean. You are left with all these feelings and thoughts and images of yours that, a second before, you thought were completely outside of you and that now you realize are in your own head, your own psyche.

I think of this essay as, in part, my own Active Imagination on the two poles. It is a work on myself.

An advantage of Jung’s approach is that, if I am busy struggling with my inner figures, I am less likely to meddle in the affairs of others. — (It is my experience, however, that though this makes sense in theory, in practice returning to outer reality after a period of Active Imagination with its deep introversion, a person (I) can be more grumpy than ever. It’s like readjusting to the sunlight after having been in a dark room or cave.)

Any knowledge we might gain about ourselves in these inner exercises, can be useful in our lives. Generally speaking, knowledge is useful in daily reality and this includes knowledge about ourselves. If you are in a negotiation, it is helpful to know the goals and strengths and weaknesses of the person on the other side of the table (and knowing what we are capable of can help us know what he or she is capable of). If we also know something about our own selves, this is an added dimension that can be useful for myself and also for the other person and for the overall negotiation.

Second, as stressed over and over in this essay, everything has two sides. Everything is ambivalent, however, how we view these sides is relative to us. I mention again that even extreme forms of fascism have benefits, though these benefits are not benefits for everyone. We ourselves can be benefitted by a fascist government (currently, for example, the economy is thriving, possibly, in part, from the actions of the President).

It is often mentioned that Hitler had excellent roads constructed. These roads were good then for his army and good now for contemporary tourists but bad for the Allies who suffered deaths because of them.

If Donald Trump makes a real peace with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, most people will benefit (or so it would seem). Earlier, less fascist presidents, couldn’t make a real peace. It may be the very fascism of Donald Trump that allows him to pull it off, if his tough stand actually works.

Third, even if a fascist can, at times, pull something off that no peaceful person would ever have been able to do, it seems short-sighted for us, impressed by the fascist’s successes, to turn our power over to this person. All individuals have blind sides and stupidities and weaknesses. Unlimited power means these will be magnified without being buffered. Failures will follow that will be as big as or bigger than the successes. This is a rule based on the psychology of human beings. — For example, what if the leader has suicidal impulses.

In addition, if I idolize and idealize one person, I infantilize and stunt myself. Even if I gain something, I lose something.

People love fascists, and they love them for different reasons. As an example, people seem to genuinely love Donald Trump. Some probably love his belligerent attitude; some his voice; some, maybe, his hair; some the paraphernalia he puts out such as the red baseball caps. Some don’t love his personality and are even repelled by it, but love his policies. Some may love, not so much him, but the atmosphere of his rallies.

The danger of this type of love is that it can crash down suddenly, on a dime. It is like being drunk and then sobering up. It’s the same when you love any political figure.

It is less obvious but hating fascists can indicate projection and projection can indicate an unconscious fascination and attraction. Ditto for hating liberals.

Fourth, psychologically speaking, from the point of view of the fascist, it is never possible to completely control your environment or yourself. If you doubt this, remember your own nightmares: swarms of evil creatures, large and small. I run but escape only temporarily. I fight back and stamp them out, but they return.

If you are Donald Trump, this is as true for you as it is for everyone. You order someone to obey, and they do, and you’re on top of the world. But already forces are at work undermining your success. Even if you get what you want, it may be different from what you expected. This is the way life is for all of us. It’s a rule!

Sometimes the spontaneous, instinctual response is best. Sometimes fighting works. Sometimes fleeing works. Sometimes stopping and pondering works. Sometimes nothing works or could work.

Fifth, There are moments when we feel we have found an answer as to how to handle life, a method that works when we apply it to ourselves and to our environment. We feel we have found ourselves and the right and best way to live. These moments of certainty and clarity are rare and rarely last for more than an hour or so. Some of these may turn out to be genuine advances, or they may be illusory, but even if some are steps in the right direction, they may take years and years to develop fully — even if there is such a thing as fully.

A feeling of being lifted out of all the conflicts in the world and of ourselves — out of what Nietzsche called “the human, all too human” — is a real and meaningful experience, but other experiences compete with it and are equally real. If there is a genuine answer, a true method, a genuine union of opposites, can it bring something that lasts? If not, what’s the point of searching for it? I don’t know.

Jung thought he had found, couched in different occult practices and terminologies, a process he called individuation. In Alchemy, for example, the alchemist began the Magnum Opus (the Great Work) with a substance he (or she) called the lapis which was a “blackness blacker than black.” The alchemist thought that through different procedures, the lapis could be transformed, first into two “warring” substances, and, ultimately, in the final stage of the work, into an indissoluble and permanent unity, a Mysterium Coniunctionis (Mysterious Union), an alchemical gold and the goal of their work.

Jung understood this work of the alchemist as a projection of his or her inner process onto matter. He thought that the more sophisticated alchemists understood that the Magnum Opus was a psychological work and that the transformation they were seeking was in themselves, the transformation of the crippling darkness of the warring factions within into an inner, permanent, unified dazzling gold.

Jung found and documented similar symbols and symbols of transformation in religious and occult writings from all over the world and from all times. (A similar process can, I think, be found, in the progression of the numbered images of the Tarot card, and in certain kabbalistic meditations on the Shema where ecḥad {אחד, One} is the central focus).

Jung also found them, in his own dreams and visions and paintings and in those of his patients. He came to think that there is, in each of us, the potential for this individuation processes to unfold, and that, with hard work and luck, it will lead to consciousness of the opposites in us and, ultimately, to an experience of some sort of unity.

Jung stressed that this is not an abstract, intellectual process but a real and emotional confrontation within our imaginations, with the images of opposites. The application of our little flame of consciousness to the to’s and fros of their interactions is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the work to succeed. And it always involves the greatest suffering.

This last sentence is worth expanding on for another paragraph: The greatest suffering are words, a phrase, but the agony of the so-called inner work seems beyond words. There is no method for becoming conscious. Even if you can label the stages of transformation, a labelling that makes them sound orderly, going through them is not an A, B, C matter. The blackness that’s blacker than black, the falling to the bottom, the impossibility of knowing if you’ll ever come out or what you will be like if you ever rise from the ashes, the danger of falling apart (into the opposites), of being ripped apart, of becoming unglued, and so on — all these are phrases representing real pains and real dangers. Madness and hospitalization and medication is a possibility. When you’re feeling good, it’s impossible to imagine these mental states which, it must be kept in mind, are also physical states. The body can erupt with headaches and itches and indigestion and heart irregularities and other torments.

And even if we get this far, the unification can fall apart. This dissolution can be excruciating in itself and will lead to more suffering. And, even if a unification is less fleeting, the result is not happiness or bliss, but greater consciousness of self and surroundings. Often it is like being forced to watch something you find unbearable to see, and this something can be external or internal. A spotlight is being thrown on something that has been in darkness and that will take to get used to.

The individuation process may be a cure for a certain type of sickness in a certain type of person, but it is not a cure-all. It doesn’t solve anyone’s problems all the time let alone the world’s problems. It may be a cure for a certain kind of suffering, a certain blindness, but not for all suffering. If it helps others at all, it may be in you bothering them less.

Whether the outcome is ever more than a series of momentary unifications, whether it is possible for it to become a permanent and indissoluble state is an open question for me. It is also an open question whether you or I have the talent and fortitude to journey to the end of the path, to complete the work. And, for me, it is an open question of how unifications from any work on myself can or will affect others.

There is a mystical idea that this sort of change in one person can change the world. In Lurianic Kabbalah, for example, it is thought that spiritual exercises called Yichudim (unifications) can lead to Tikkun (the healing or unification of the whole world {tikkun olam} and even to the unification of the male and female sides of the Godhead). This is an idea that appeals to me whether or not it is true.

It is an interesting exercise to treat oneself as both raw material and artist. We are the blacksmiths, who, with skill and fortitude and patience, may be able to create a useful work of art out of the fire and iron in ourselves. Or, to use another image, I am a painter whose morning aches and pains and moods and fantasies are the pigments I have been given to shape my day into a meaningful work of art. To shift metaphors again, the more varied the ingredients used by a cook, the more complex the cooking process and the more that can go wrong, but also the more possibility for a rich and healthy meal. — If we ignore the fascism in ourselves or the pathetic weaknesses or any of the other parts of ourselves that we, by nature, turn away from, we will never have a chance of creating our deepest and most complete masterpieces.

(For a useful discussion, from the Jungian perspective, of the effect on Armenians of the Armenian genocide by the Turks, please see Uncle Toros: Towards Understanding Genocide through Dreams, Ara Chutjian, Psychological Perspectives, 61: 54-66, 2018.)

Sixth, and finally, if we attempt to grab a view of what is good and bad in the overall economy of the universe as a whole, we seem bound to fail. We don’t know and never can know what is what. We are too small, and our view is too limited and our mental and emotional abilities are not vast enough. And, if we did know, we may not like how things really are. We may not be able to bear the face of reality which may be why we don’t see more of it to begin with.

Maybe, we couldn’t even stand a glimpse, a flash of how things are. Maybe in the United States we are ahead in many ways but are naive children in our ability to stomach reality. We all experience a duality between ourselves and others: We, on our side, are good; they, over there, are bad. Can we bare it if the “here” and “there” are both in each of us?

In Judaism there is a view that God has two hands, the Left and the Right. The Right is His anger, and the Left is His love. The right is represented by the Archangel Michael and the left by the Archangel Gabriel. There is a prayer to God that is said to have been given each year by the Israelite High Priest at the holiest moment on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Israelite calendar: “May your Mercy outweigh your Judgment.”

Bringing morality back into our discussion, it seems we can and should do our very best to understand the conflict within ourselves and to take back projections. But, in the end, we are probably limited in this project by our limited power and abilities, our limited intellect and wisdom, and by our limited patience. (Relevant for these considerations is Lost Innocence by Herbert Morris from his book of essays, Disclosures: Essays on Art, Literature, and Philosophy, 2018.)

It may be that the image of the two hands of God is an image of our own two sides. Is it possible to use both hands consciously and wisely and in an integrated way? Maybe this is the best we can do or hope to do.

In the end, perhaps it is best to pray — whether we are a screaming fascist or a pathetic weakling — to whatever we hold sacred in ourselves, in others, and in the universe: “May Mercy outweigh Anger.”

Perhaps each religion has a similar prayer.



The mind is a strange thing! It has only been a few hours since finishing the above ten thousand words, and, already, I feel removed from them, as removed as if they were last night’s nightmare. I hate all the words! They sound like philosophical whining! What a waste of time! Why inflict them on you? You are not my parent or analyst!

I decide not to show this essay to anyone, unless I can tunnel out of the pain it is causing.

What was the point of forcing myself, over and over again, to remember the most awful things about us? Black thoughts! An image I picked up somewhere comes to mind of swallowing a red hot iron ball. I have forced myself to swallow a red hot iron ball! I can’t spit it up, and I can’t digest it!

Worse! I now feel compelled to quote from a letter. It was written by a woman, and there is a note appended by her twelve year old daughter, Junita. It was written to the woman’s husband, the girls father, before the woman and her daughter were executed.

The mother’s part ends with

… I cannot convey to you our suffering. … The one thing you can do for us is to avenge our murders. We cry out to you: Revenge! I kiss you passionately and bid you farewell before we die.

Any fear or hopelessness this woman felt transformed in her into vengeful hatred. She seemed to pray for the opposite of what the High Priest prayed for. Her prayer to God would have been, “Revenge! May your Vengeance outweigh your Mercy.”

Junita’s addition:

Dear Father, I am saying good-bye to you before I die. We long so much to live, but all is lost — they won’t let us! I am so afraid of this death because they throw small children into the mass graves alive, Farewell forever. I kiss you, kiss you. Your J

What would we write back to our daughter? How could we live with the pain and go about our lives? How do we live with this pain, because aren’t we and our loved ones also in the jaws of the monster right now?

Terror of what is lying in front of us can turn to rage (not just outrage). If you’re not used to rage, you can feel you are going to burst with it, that you can’t keep it inside. And what you think of doing frightens you and fills you with self-loathing.

How to go on living a routine, normal life with what’s going on inside? How to hide it and not inflict it on others? How will life ever be bearable? 

Some act on their rage. What about the meeker of us who are not attracted to overt violence or to suicide?

My psychological experience over the last thirty five years tells me that, Lo and Behold, I am at a dead end! I think and think; no answer comes.

I fall asleep torturing myself. And now a dream can come!

But what about we who believe that turning to dreams for answers is just dangerous superstition, religious mumbo jumbo?

I thank James Kirsch, a Jungian analyst, for the following thought:

People throughout history who, in desperate situations received a message from their god, got it in an experience. Even if we have fallen away from thinking in terms of gods, I still have my experience.

The more desperate I feel, the more I am likely to have an experience that evens things out. This is not religion but a psychological fact, a law of psychology.

Such a balancing image in a dream (or visionary experience) is often from the iconography of the religion in which we were trained, but not necessarily.

The time lag between feeling awful and feeling good can be an instant.

Meaninglessness turns into meaning. (Using an image Jung researched, One is added to Three, and then there is Four.)

Such a Solution, to use a word from Alchemy, may not be permanent, but it might give life joy just when it is needed, at least, for a time. This is not a matter of “toughing it out” or of “letting go of this bad feeling” or of “looking on the bright side” or of “telling myself that things will get better” or of developing a stoic acceptance of pain. It’s not controlling oneself, destroying the weakness or wrong attitudes within. It’s more like a candle being lit in a dark room.

Psychological research gives us knowledge that such an experience is not isolated, as it happens all the time all over the world. We can expect the sudden appearance of healing images in similar situations in our own futures. But only when everything is lost and feels lost and hopeless.

Research even suggests we might begin to sense meaning growing, hesitantly, from the amorphous darkness and the strange and painful work we have been doing on it here.