Trump, Sanders and Reich

Wilhelm Reich 1897-1957,
(not Robert Reich)
As we move forward into TrumpWorld, everyone should familiarize themselves with the general argument made by Wilhelm Reich in The Mass Psychology of Fascism. (It's not just his hair that make him pertinent to discussions of Donald Trump.)  Reich analyzed why the German Left failed to stop the rise of Hitler despite the deteriorating living standards of the German people. He concluded that the failure was in the economism of the German Left. They talked about income, wages and living standards, but that appeal was less of interest to the Germans than the stuff of their psychosexual frustrations and fantasies. While the analysis of the latter was of its time, the general holds true. In times of great stress, people do not vote their pocketbook, but their ids.

This is why while Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump may appear to be speaking to the same anger over the decline of the middle class, income stagnation, and the sense that the economy no longer works for the ordinary person, Sanders and Trump voters are motivated differently. If the Sanders strategy for victory is to win over the Trump voter, I think that it will not work.

The Trump voter is drawn to the unaccountable hero; the fantasy of being the winner, the man freed of petty restrictions of 'political correctness' in his speech and actions, unfettered economically, entitled to what is rightfully his, and able to do what he pleases. It is literally a sadistic fantasy -- the thrill of unlimited power to be exercised despite the objections of those on whom it is unleashed. In the American context, this enactment of sadistic power is the lynch mob and the gang rape and the gay bashing. It is also the mass deportation, the carpet bombing, and the use of torture. The appeal of this type of power is more seductive than a bit more economic security, a better pension, less paperwork at the hospital, and confidence that Wall Street is being appropriately regulated.

The Sanders voter shares the surface appearance of being a rebel against the Establishment, but beneath the surface, there is something else going on. The Sanders voter wants a more equal society, and more public goods, which includes better transit, better health care, free public college and more fairness. Like the Trump voter, they are tired of being pushed around by the elite.

But in order for Trump voters to become Sanders voters, they will have to move toward an egalitarianism and empathy for the other that they currently lack. They will have to start moving on beyond their investment in white racism, male chauvinism, heterosexism, transphobia, xenophobia and all that. And that is the hard part. And the more radical the Sanders program is, the harder the journey from Trump to Sanders.

Capitalist ideology believes in "Economic Man," a mythical creature who makes all his decisions rationally on the basis of economic self-interest. Notice that someone like Rand Paul, a libertarian deeply entrenched in the belief in Economic Man, doesn't understand why we would need laws against racial discrimination in public accommodations. He asks "why would anyone want to restrict their customer base?"  "Why wouldn't they want to hire the best person for a job regardless of race?" Because the payoffs and pleasures of racism far outweigh narrow economic self-interest. Trump's invitation to be a part of a Great America again outweighs narrow economic self-interest.

The traditional Left also believes in the myth of Economic Man. The Left asks "Why won't people see that if we all unite across our many differences, we can get a better deal for all of us?"  Who wouldn't want to live in Denmark?  An appeal to better wages and pensions should unite the working class. Well it won't because the payoffs and pleasures of racism, sexism etc. far outweigh narrow economic self-interest.

A Sanders victory in the general is certainly possible, but it will depend on the mobilization of millions of hidden, non-voting, progressives. I don't think that it will come by melding together the votes of Sanders and Trump.


  1. Anonymous3:26 PM

    Interesting Reichian interpretation of Trump, especially the displaced sadism part, but I could have done without the reference to the "id" which does not exist and is a misleading Freudian concept.

    I have been a long time student of Reich`s so when Trump came along I had the same reflex to try to apply perspectives from Reich`s mass psychology book, even though I don`t think Trump is a fascist.But I have not gotten around to it yet.

    You may be interested in knowing that Sanders was well acquainted with Reich`s writings because he wrote an interesting article about Reich`s cancer work in a Vermont counterculture journal about 45 yeras ago. I found this out by accidentally coming across an article called "The origins of Sander`s ideology in his own words" on the CNN site. That Sanders article is available within the main CNN article.


    Marco Ermacora


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Complicating the Great Reformation: Dialectical Theology (Part 11 of many)

The 8th Principle

the difference between "principles' and "virtues"

Denise Levertov's Poem about Thomas

The Great Reformation (Dialectical Theology, Part 10 of many)