I recently re-read an article by a historian, Richard Hofstadter from 1964, reporting paranoia in American politics had been around a long time (before the alt-right discovered it),only its targets have changed—from the Anti-Masonic movement in the 1820s, to the Catholic Church conspiracy in the 1850s, the international bankers and munitions makers of World War I, to the Communist conspiracy in the 1950s.
Hofstadter was focused on the differences from earlier movements that stood for causes and personality types that were still in possession of their country—fending off threats to their established way of life. But beginning in the 1950s, the followers felt dispossessed—the old American virtues had been taken away from them by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism had been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence had been destroyed by treasonous plots, having their powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old, but major statesmen who were at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the radical right found both conspiracy and betrayal here at home.
What was at stake with conspiracy movements was always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, it was necessary not to compromise but be determined to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy was thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated. Since the paranoid had no access to political bargaining and decision-making, he failed to learn one of the most valuable things about history—how things do not happen. By not developing such awareness, deprived from exposure to events that might enlighten him—the paranoid resisted enlightenment.
More recently I noted an article on vox.com reporting a working paper by two psychologists who recently interviewed a large number of alt-right members to build the first psychological profile of their movement. While alt-right members saw the interests of “white people” threatened by other groups—like black Americans, Muslims, feminists, and journalists—the researchers were surprised to learn that members were willing to admit that they see these people as “less evolved,” sort of hunched-over proto-humans.
De-humanizing Muslims at a 55 on a scale of 100, Black people at 65, and Mexicans at 68, enables alt-right members to engage in violence toward these people because it’s easier to inflict pain on people who are not people.
Unsurprisingly, the alt-right wants and supports organizations that look out for the rights and well-being of white people. Historically, this has been done by striking fear into the hearts of immigrants, Jews, and minorities.
The personality traits that showed up among alt-righters were authoritarianism and the “dark-triad” of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Yet, members reported having a number of close friends, not isolated or lonely people—but members of a community. Also, they weren’t all that concerned about the current state of the economy—which meant they were motivated by racial issues, not economic anxiety.
The survey also revealed that that they were afraid of being displaced by increasing numbers of immigrants and outsiders, seeing themselves, like those in Hofstadter’s paranoid movements before them, as potential victims.
The psychologists undertaking this study believe that defining the nature of the alt-right threat may be the key to stop white supremacist views from spreading—that knowing the motivations of behind the alt-right worldview would enable us to block them. “If we can change the motivation to express prejudice, maybe that gives us a way to prevent aggression.”
This may be easier said than done. I am reminded of Escape from Freedom, a book by Erich Fromm who identified the mindset of Germans who supported the Nazi movement in the 1930s. Fromm set forth three personality types that subvert freedom. The first was the tendency to give up the independence of your own independent self, and fuse with someone or something outside yourself, in order to acquire the strength which your own individual self was lacking. This accounted for the strivings for submission and the wish to be dominated. You often had feelings of inferiority, powerlessness, or individual insignificance, showing a marked dependence on other people and institutions.
The second personality trait which subverted freedom was also rooted in individual powerlessness, but took the form of domination toward others and destructiveness toward the world. To escape your own powerlessness with the outside world you choose to destroy the world, rather than be crushed by it. Duty, conscience, and patriotism were used as disguises to destroy others, waiting only for an opportunity to express this destruction. This destructiveness was the outcome of an un-lived life—the suppression of spontaneity of your sensual, emotional, and intellectual capacities.
The third personality trait was when you cease to be yourself, become exactly like others, and do what others expect. You give up your individual self and become an automaton, identical with millions of automatons around you, never to feel anxious or alone anymore. The price of conformity, however, was the loss of yourself. The loss of self and submission to a pseudo self leaves the individual with a loss of identity and an intense state of insecurity. To overcome the panic, you seek an identity by the continuous approval and recognition of others. Since you don’t know who you are, at least others will know—if you act according to their expectations.
Fromm believed that the threat of fascism (or any other domineering movement) could be overcome by getting in touch with your emotional and intellectual potential. This potential was present in everyone, but becomes present only to the extent it is expressed. Spontaneous expression was possible if you do not suppress essential parts of yourself and are willing to risk disapproval of others. It enables you to have a rightful place in the world based upon a positive freedom. This implies there is no higher power to dominate you, that you are the center and purpose of your own life, and that your individuality must never be subordinated to purposes alleged to have greater dignity.
The takeaway from Fromm is that the best way to overcome the spread of the alt-right is to become your own person and take charge of your life; from Hofstadter, conspiracies will continue to blow in and out again from the paranoid mindset; but from current research, the degree of dehumanization found among white supremacists is alarming. Hofstadter had failed to mention the dehumanization of Blacks by Southern slave-holders, the violence perpetuated upon Blacks for over a century following the Civil War, the brutal violence upon Florida Indian settlements in the 1830s, the sadistic euphoria in annihilating the Plains Indians following the Civil War, the violence shed upon Chinese railroad workers in the 1870s, and the internment of Japanese citizens in California during World War II.
As a nation, we are all culpable of dehumanizing others to minimize their dignity and to intimidate, inflict pain, and justify racial violence without remorse. Fear of being displaced by increasing numbers of immigrants or foreign ideologies simply doesn’t cut it. The closest explanation may come from Fromm’s second personality type—the destructiveness of others as an expression of an un-lived life. Just as the German Nazi used duty, conscience, and patriotism as disguises to eliminate Jews, we seem to be waiting only for another opportunity to express this kind of hatred and destructive violence upon others here at home.
This blog was co-published with PsychResources.com