Why Authoritarian Leaders Are Like Toxic Therapists
On politics as therapy.
Posted June 28, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Some leaders are like toxic therapists: By displaying both power and victimhood, they abuse people’s fears and frustrations.
- People tend to project their pains onto their leader’s wounds and introject the leader's strength to seek revenge and redemption.
- Some Americans feel like victims, a sensation that may be driven by narcissism and manipulation.
This post is part 2 of a series. You can see part 1 here.
While US and Israel have a “special relationship,” their leaders can be psychically connected. Former US president Donald Trump and former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (aka Bibi) are such a paranormal pair, their personalities and recent political trajectories oddly corresponding.
Both are said to be authoritarian, or at least anti-liberal, leaders, agents of populism and post-truth, sowing the seeds of fear and hate to harvest people’s hearts. Both have, and were consequently elected to lead their countries. And while both were ousted over a year ago and currently face severe allegations and indictments, they have successfully defied the legitimacy of their democratically elected successors.
They marshal tremendous public support in the polls, the streets, and social media, and may well retake the helm. Trump has secured near-unanimous Republican support and Bibi just managed to topple the Israeli government. What’s their allure?
By now, it’s clear that it’s less a matter of policy than of personality. In recent years, Republicans often upended their party’s revered agendas, especially in foreign policy, just because “Trump said so.” And in Israel, Bibi’s successor, Israel’s first religious prime minister, led right-wing policies with decent achievements. Never mind; for Bibists, as for Trumpists, it’s enough that the successor is not their leader to damn him a traitor and fight for the return of the One. What is it about the character and conduct of Trump and Bibi that appeals to the people?
How people turn politics into therapy
Familiar psychological accounts help. As Jean Lipman-Blumen argues, toxic leaders attract by projecting authority and promising safety and belonging. Still, while this may explain why presumed strength attracts—why does victimhood? To answer, we must dig deeper, to understand how people turn politics into therapy: politico-therapy.
Politics, Lasswell (1936) famously said, is about “who gets what, when, how.” And with Keith and Mick, we might add, “You can’t always get what you want,” but you can make others suffer for it! And some leaders are all too happy to teach us how, by both displaying strength (for which we adore them) and victimhood (with which we identify). Hence politico-therapy. Previously, I showed how Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar helps us understand this: Politics allow us to cast our personal resentments onto the public sphere. “Hail Caesar!” we say, hoping to heal ourselves.
This is the mass appeal of the mighty martyr, boosting Trump, Bibi, and kindred leaders. But this appeal is not just cerebral, it’s corporeal. Politico-therapy is about hearts, minds—and bodies, often with a touch of transcendence. When Shakespeare’s Antony suggests his compatriots “would go and kiss dead Caesar’s wounds, and dip their napkins in his sacred blood,” we may be excused for thinking of another mighty martyr of the time. The historical mass appeal of Jesus Christ owes much to the carnal symbolism of his tormented body, to the sight of his affliction as onlookers ponder their own. Few bonds are stronger than the stigmata, the bodily scars and wounds corresponding to those of the crucified Christ, turning righteous rage into vengeance against the traitors. It has been a driving force behind traditional anti-Semitism.
Judaism too has its metaphysical variation of the theme in the image of the mighty martyr Samson: Betrayed by his beloved Delilah, his eyes gouged out, the biblical judge asked God for one last exercise of his superhuman powers to bring the Philistines’ temple down on them, and himself. As I discuss elsewhere, Samson’s vengeful last words are nowadays chanted by ultra-nationalist Israeli Jews, targeting Palestinians (Abulof 2022).
Hobbes’s Leviathan augmented, the body of the mighty martyr serves as a canvas to paint over our own pains, turning the body politic into a mental battleground of corresponding wounds: We project our fears and frustrations, our hurts and humiliations, onto the wounded leader, and enraged, we introject the leader’s superior, reassuring, strength to seek revenge, and redemption.
In his brilliant review of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, George Orwell wrote, looking at Hitler’s photograph: “It is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself … He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds.”
Entitlement and victimization: Two sides of the narcissistic coin
“We’re all victims. Everybody here. All these thousands of people here tonight. They’re all victims. Every one of you," said Trump at his first rally after his defeat in the 2020 presidential election (December 5, Georgia).
He taps into an emotional wellspring in our societies. According to a recent study by Armaly and Enders (2021), most Americans feel like victims, whether driven by egocentric entitlement (“I deserve more”) or social unfairness (“we deserve more; the system is rigged”). They also discovered it’s less about class, partisanship, or ideology, and more about personality traits. Entitlement and victimhood are the two sides of the narcissistic coin. Equally telling, their study reveals top-down dynamics: “Political elites can rhetorically weaponize victimhood and actually instill these feelings in individuals.”
The "mighty martyr"
Fusing heroism and victimhood is the political alchemy of the mighty martyr, and Trump’s and Bibi’s secret of success. We need not see our Julius or Jesus bleeding in order to fight for him as if he were. Today’s authoritarian leaders project the strength of Caesar while employing Antony’s enflaming martyrology. And like Antony, these leaders would shrewdly add, “let me not stir you up to such a sudden flood of mutiny,” while doing exactly that. The return of the mighty martyrs can hardly be stopped without, first, realizing their malignant politico-therapy and exploring what we can do about it.
Abulof, Uriel. 2022. "Samson, Unchained: Biblical Undercurrents in the Political Sentiments of Israeli Jews." Israel Studies 27 (2):125-144.
Armaly, Miles T., and Adam M. Enders. 2021. "‘Why Me?’ the Role of Perceived Victimhood in American Politics." Political Behavior.
Lasswell, Harold D. 1936. Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Lasswell, Harold D. 1948. Power and Personality. New York: Norton.
Lipman-Blumen, Jean (2005) The Allure of Toxic Leaders : Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians--and How We Can Survive Them. New York: Oxford University Press.