The crushed and anonymous man in the crowd identifies only with the heavyweight champion and Al Capone. His ultimate dream is fulfilled by the political ascendancy of the absolute Dictator who embodies his own frustrated desires … While not every German could have become an Adolf Hitler, within every German lurked the little Hitler struggling to emerge. – Wilhelm Reich, 1946
I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters. – Donald Trump, 2016
Ironically, Americans’ taste for personal liberty lends itself to dictatorship, since their absorption in their private affairs compels them to neglect public life and deliver their country into the hands of tyrants. Under the guise of democracy, Americans neglect their first civic duty, which is to remain their own masters. – Alexis de Tocqueville, 1832
When I was twenty-one, I worked on the assembly line at National Steel Car in Hamilton, Ontario until my asthmatic lungs packed it in from all the welding fumes. During my brief tenure there, I came to know an aging German electrician named Klaus. He kept to himself a lot, thumbing through old paperbacks or chain smoking in the welding pit. But one day I made a comment within his earshot about our line foreman being a “strutting little Hitler”. Klaus looked at me sharply and growled,
“What the hell do you know about Hitler?”
That night over a few pints at the Sherman pub, Klaus told me about his life as a young man in the Third Reich. His tale bored me after awhile, with its rambling account of the problems in his marriage, their overcrowded tenement flat, and the noise from all the street fighting and torchlight marches that kept them awake at night. I wanted him to get on to the important stuff, so I said,
“But what about the Nazis? Why do you think they came to power in the first place?”
Klaus squinted at me from behind a wreath of smoke. Then he said soberly,
“They told us we could become great again, and we believed them. It made you feel you were part of something bigger and better than yourself.”
I’ve seen a lot of America over the past five years: mostly the everyday nation in its countless small towns and truck stops. Beneath its fractious politics and passions dwells a sad bewilderment that stares out from people, the kind of look I see among the loved ones of the deceased at funerals. Americans are angry, but their rage arises from a sense that their nation has disappeared. And like all people who have forgotten or never known what it is to govern themselves, Americans’ grief has made them yearn for a leader to set things straight and bring them home again.
Allow me to avoid the hackneyed observation that the Trump “presidency” represents this Fuhrerprinzip-longingamong middle Americans. Perhaps that’s a little too obvious. In a broader sense, Trumpism is the next logical step in the corporatization of America and the world, where billionaire oligarchs rule governments directly and autocratically rather than through their usual paid political minions. Small wonder that Donny Boy and Vlad “The Impaler” Putin are such good mates. Assuming it ever existed, democracy in practice is as dead as the rule of law.
Many Americans know this from experience. My days are filled with calls for help from parents who have had their children grabbed, trafficked and violated by churches or government agencies, and from people defrauded by the IRS or crushed by corrupt judges and cops. There is no longer even the pretense of accountability, legality or fairness in government, business or religion. And yet, perversely, many of the same people who are targeted and victimized by this corporatized tyranny look to that very system and its figureheads – Trump or others – for their salvation.
Wilhelm Reich called such dependent, self-destructive behaviour the Little Man Syndrome. Reich was a psychologist and political activist who worked in the slums of Berlin just prior to the Nazi takeover. He was also one of the few writers ever to probe into the mass psychology that produces and sustains totalitarianism. (1)
Why did so many ordinary people adulate Hitler? Generally, because from a young age they had each been pre-conditioned by family, religion and capitalism to see themselves as a cog-in-the-wheel “little man” of no power or importance, and to devalue and surrender their own autonomy and authority to another: a parent, “god”, a boss, or a Fuhrer. They had also learned to habitually desire their own subservience. This conditioning was adeptly exploited by Adolf Hitler, who understood, in his words,
“How fortunate for rulers that the masses of people do not think. They are like a child that seeks to be instructed, disciplined and guided by a father. They welcome the lash as they do the embrace and they love the firm hand that punishes and rewards them.”
Why do so many ordinary Americans adulate Donald Trump? For the same “little man” reason that Wilhelm Reich describes, of course; but also because of many peoples’ radical disenchantment with the political-economic system – an estrangement that is reminiscent of Germans’ attitudes during the Depression-wracked 1930’s. But there’s a third aspect to the current mania, and is demonstrated by otherwise lucid activists who have morphed into “Trumpbots” and can hear no criticism of their megalomaniac leader. That aspect is none other than the American impulse (fueled by a fundamentalist Christian legacy) to bi-polarize political differences in extremis into irreconcilable camps of “good” and “evil”.
These lethal ingredients have combined to spark a national civil war in America. It’s a war that serves no-one’s interests except America’s geo-political rivals, China and Russia, and their domestic corporate accomplices like Mr. Trump himself, who strives daily to bear the title “King Donald the First”.
I sense the spirit of Wilhelm Reich hovering over America these days and having a field day. It might observe that the nation’s political fracturing is an externalization and projection of a deep inner conflict within every American: a clash between his innate impulse towards personal liberty and community, and the atomizing influence of a stultifying corporate culture. These rival centrifugal and centripetal energies are tearing people apart at a basic level and fueling mass psychosis and personal dissociation. Just watch the evening news or any internet debate on Trump to see what I mean.
Historical moments of social dissolution like the present also give us the chance for transcendence. Even as the Little Man identifies with and votes for the Big Man dictator, he yearns for something better than winners and losers, but he fears the freedom of equality. As a social psychologist and a Marxist, Wilhelm Reich saw no purely personal remedy for the Little Man syndrome and the tyranny it sows. The cure must embrace everyone.
My old buddy Darryl Adams was a Viet Nam veteran who died last year. I remember at a public forum some decades ago Darryl was asked why vets had such trouble “fitting in” to society when they came home. Darryl replied,
“In Nam, under fire, we lived with a purpose. We were ready to die at any minute. We gave our lives for each other every day and we never did anything just for ourselves. That’s the kind of courage and love humanity is supposed to have for itself, it’s how people are supposed to live. Then after Nam we came back to this cutthroat, dog eat dog society where there’s nothing more important than grabbing what you can for yourself at the expense of some other guy. Where is the meaning in that? How the hell do you fit in to that kind of crazy, fucked up system? Why should we have to?”
Behind America’s war against itself is the promise of which Darryl spoke. Like in pre-Nazi Germany, the disenchantment that can lead to revolutionary change is sprouting in people everywhere across America. That force can go either in a liberating or a tyrannical direction, depending on how it’s channeled, and by who: either by We the People who love and are sworn to our Constitution, or by the absolute Monarch in Waiting who goes by the title of President of the United States. All of us stand at such a crossroads right now.
At the end of the day, our fate will be determined by our capacity to overcome our conditioned infantile need to defer to a parental figure, and step away from our Little Man into complete responsibility for our minds, our lives, and our nation. We will have to relearn and reclaim the liberty that we have allowed to be stolen from us. Once we take even one step down that road to revolution, the rulers we have enthroned over us will crumble: first in our hearts and minds, and then in the world.
As our own firebrand patriot Patrick Henry declared to the monarch who sparked our own revolution in 1776,
“Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the first his Cromwell, and George the Third … may profit by their example.”
And so may King Donald the First, and every other tyrant.
(1) The Mass Psychology of Fascism by Wilhelm Reich (1933)
Kevin D. Annett is an award-winning author, film maker and human rights figure of joint American and Canadian nationality. He is the recipient of the Prague Peace Award (2016). He has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his historic work in exposing, documenting and prosecuting crimes against humanity by Church and State in Canadian Indian residential schools.