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Adorno’s Uncanny Analysis of Trump’s Authoritarian Personality

Part 2

This article ntegrations the text of one of four presentations delivered at the roundtable entitled “Reading Adorno’s Fascist Propaganda Essay in the Age of Trump,” held at the New School for Social Research on September 11, 2017. The other contributions can be found here.

During the election, Trump bragged that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” (January 23, 2016). In claiming this, Trump understood something about the social-psychological bond between his core supporters and himself that his critics have noted but largely ignored. Arguably, apart from sheer incompetence and erraticness, the signature threat of the Trump presidency lies in the specific character of his bond with his followers, since it is this bond that marks the arrival of a new form of authoritarian nationalism into American politics. Trump intuitively understands that it is the specific character of the bond with his followers that is the source of his political authority, which is why he continues to address his attention primarily to them, while ignoring the rest of American populace. Reaching beyond his base is irrelevant for the kind of power he possesses and seeks to maintain. He feeds them and they feed him.

Clearly this bond does not depend on value rational authority — Trump would appear to lack identifiable and orienting value commitments; or on legal-rational authority — technical rationality and expertise is a continuous object of derision and skepticism by Trump and his followers (see under: climate change); or on traditional authority — the bond preceded his attaining office. By elimination, we are left with only charismatic authority. But that states an obvious fact, which by itself explains nothing. What kind of charismatic authority does Trump have? And what is the relation between this formation of charismatic authority and this novel American version of authoritarian politics? Adorno’s “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” provides the terms of an answer to these questions, the text often reading as if it was written precisely in order to address the Trump phenomenon.

In the essay, Adorno is seeking to extend the framework he had begun developing with colleagues in The Authoritarian Personality, a project in which the effort was to join the complexity of European social theory to the empirical methods of American social science. Two core theses seem important here. First, instead of the anodyne static and perennial personality types that were circulating in the psychology of the time, critical theory began developing an American, sanitized version of Carl Schmitt’s friend-enemy theory through a reformulation of the already operative social scientific distinction between in-group and out-group. In order to make Schmitt’s theory available to social psychology, it was necessary to read behind his friend-enemy formula. One plausible interpretation of Schmitt’s master concept is to consider it as a political reconstruction of the relation between love and hate. This is implicitly marked in Schmitt’s own introduction of the friend-enemy formula:

The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation… [Theoretically and practically] the political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear an an economic competitor… But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient of his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible… The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism become that much more political the close it approaches the most extreme point, that of the friend-enemy grouping. (Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 26-7, 29)

I take it that the intensity of the formations of union or disunion at stake, and the claim that the enemy must be designated in a manner suitable for it becoming an existential antagonist, together spell out that these terms are intended to be political and socialized versions of love and hate. Nor should this be surprising. Schmitt argued that the foundational concepts of democratic liberalism – individual rights, the separation of powers, the primacy of private (economic relations) over public (political relations) – not only lacked existential pathos that would enable the primacy of the political community over private life, but equally failed to connect its value terms with either the kind of social bond citizens should have with one another, or with the kind of authority necessary for a political community.

What Adorno and his colleagues intended by shifting from Schmitt’s friend-enemy construction to one structured by the relation of an in-group to an out-group was the possibility of defusing the necessity of portraying the other as a stranger and an alien, and thus replacing the friend-enemy logic with a dialogical conception of group identity that, while having the potentiality of tipping into group antagonisms, was not constituted by the potentiality of explicit hatred and hostility. Dialogically, it could be that our affirmative value system is just different from that of the other; say, the American presidential system versus the British parliamentary system, or Christian churches that do or do not owe their allegiance to the Pope (a formally benign difference that has historically been routinely death-dealing).

Second, however, is the case of the potentially fascistic individuals – and it was this potentiality that theory of the authoritarian personality was attempting to profile and diagnose – who come to define themselves negatively, essentially through a negative relation to multiple out-groups: “they fall, as it were, negatively in love” is how Adorno expresses it (T.W. Adorno, et. al., The Authoritarian Personality (1950), p. 611). The startling phrase, falling negatively in love, is meant to capture the idea that some of the great accomplishments of love relations – the bonding with others, the discovery of a source of attachment to the world, the injection of a living vitality into everyday experience, the attaining of self-worth, the discovery of objective meaning, the finding of freedom in relation to others, etc. – can be partially and illusorily attained through hatred, through attaining oneself and one’s connection with like fellows by the force of one’s repudiation of the other: “I/We are categorically and absolutely not Them.”  Adorno goes to state that the usual target for formative hatred, the Jew, can easily be substituted for by “Mexicans and the Greeks. The latter, like the Armenians, are liberally endowed with traits otherwise associated with the imagery of the Jew.” Evidently, our nationalist present was already visible in outline seventy years ago.

From these modest premises, the general form of analysis is put into place. Adorno and his colleagues were intent on demonstrating how the Schmittean account could be given a more resilient social psychological accounting, an accounting compatible with the findings of depth psychology (psychoanalysis), while being nonetheless subject to empirical survey and analysis. In this social psychology, hatred of the other, reaching to the level of paranoia, could each be harnessed in order to dissolve existing patterns of social solidarity or generate a novel form of collectivity when affirmative forms of group formation have failed.

Negative integration occurs when positive egalitarian and solidaristic ideals have failed, when economic anxiety and failure is pervasive, when extant social pathways leave no route into the future, when one’s role identities come under threat, losing their authority and significance, and when, as a consequence, social anomie has become rampant. Even when affirmative ideals, norms, and identities fail, a practical analogue of the social space of meaning and worth can be accomplished through social hatred: the worthless and dangerous out-group becomes the negative source fueling self-affirmation. Negative integration generates an in-group without affirmative content; it takes its identity almost wholly from what it is not, from whatever differences will support its claimed difference from the out-group, when the out-group can be depicted as stranger, alien, threat, and danger, and thus when difference from the out-group can be sustained through hatred.

Under these conditions, race can become a decisive factor because it involves the systematic deployment of empty difference, difference whose very emptiness is a condition of its outrageous inflation, whose very emptiness is what makes it a vehicle for intense and limitless libidinal investment. Adorno had already picked out this feature of race in the “Elements of Anti-Semitism” chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment: “Race is not, as the racial nationalists claim, an immediate, natural peculiarity. Rather, it is a regression to nature as mere violence, to the hidebound particularism which, in the existing order [the class society], constitutes precisely the universal. Race today is the self-assertion of the bourgeois individual, integrated into the barbaric collective” (p. 138). Contemporary economic white nationalism is the dynamic form of hatred of what is different for its own sake. While race-based hatred is a fundamental mechanism for sustaining in-group affiliation through vilification of the out-group, the fact that race-based hatred is contentless equally allows it to be mobile and shifting in its targets: Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims; but also: the Clintons, the media, the Washington swamp, the technocracy, etc. Ritual repetition – “Lock her up!” “Build the Wall” “Drain the Swamp” – appear sufficient for targeting and outing the object.

Race-based negative integration has been a continuous element of the American social bond for large sectors of the citizenry since the founding, but almost always qualified and repudiated with the reminder that “we” are a nation of immigrants. The join between these two features of the American social bond are arguably the foundational contradiction in the idea of America. But negative integration on its own does not deliver Trump, will not deliver the expansion and recharging of the negative social relation in the authoritarian manner realized by Trump. What the “Fascist Propaganda” essay adds is an account of the role of narcissism. Adorno’s essay provides a virtually uncritical appropriation of Freud’s 1921 monograph on Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, recognizing that Freud’s account of group psychology could be used to analyze fascism without much in the way of amendment or elaboration: “The fascist community of the people corresponds exactly to Freud’s definition of a group as being ‘a number of individuals who have substituted one and the same object for their ego ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego’” (“Freudian Theory and the pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” in J.M. Bernstein (ed.), The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 121). The mechanism whereby a group identity is formed through each individual taking on the same object as its ego ideal undergoes a particular inflection when the idealized object is a narcissistic personality – there is all the difference in the world between Nelson Mandela and Donald Trump as leaders.

Adorno argues the object of love is some unattained ego ideal of our own. This is the pivotal passage in Freud’s account of the relation between narcissism and idealization that Adorno’s account turns on.

We see that the object is being treated in the same way as our own ego, so that when we are in love a considerable amount of narcissistic libido overflows on to the object. It is even obvious, in many forms of love choice, that the object serves as a substituted from some unattained ego ideal of our own. We love it on account of the perfections which we have to reach for our own ego, and which we should now like to procure in this roundabout way as a means of satisfying our narcissism. (Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Chapter 8)

The leader’s idealization of himself is promoted in his followers; in making the leader their ideal, each follower is allowed to love himself, to get “rid of the stains of frustration and discontent which mar his picture of his own empirical self” (Adorno, 121). Further to allow narcissistic identification, the leader has himself to appear unabashedly and unapologetically narcissistic – a performance of preening self-love: “…the leader himself need love no one else, he may be of a masterly nature, absolutely narcissistic, but self-confident and independent” (Freud, Chapter X). Finally, Adorno argues, in order for the leader to be loved, he must not himself love (Adorno, 122).

Before elaborating this central claim, and asking how it matches the program of negative integration, we need to ask how anyone could be seduced and attracted by preening self-adoration? Some of us find the appeal of the Trump persona utterly opaque. How can flagrant narcissism intrude upon public space?  Consider for a moment the structure of David Fincher’s 1999 movie Fight Club – a movie terribly resonant with our present. There the alienated protagonist, the nameless Edward Norton character, escapes his anomic life in consumer society by coming to imagine an alter-ego, who throughout the movie we accept as real, only coming to realize at the end of the movie that this powerful ideal figure is the protagonist’s own wish-fulfillment conception of himself, who he would like to be, in short, his ego ideal. That confusion between fantasy and reality is the “trick” the movie plays on the viewer. But it is only a trick, a technical gimmick, if we fail to understand the role of fantasy in ordinary experience. More precisely, while most persons carry within some ego ideal, some image of their best self, typically this ego ideal is an idealized version of their actual self. Fantasy kicks in when operative ego ideals – being a good husband and provider – become troubled and need sustaining in order to sustain the minimum of self-love and self-worth necessary for social survival. The protagonist’s confusion of his ego ideal with reality, his identification of his broken empirical self with the better self of his ego ideal is the way he forges a new life for himself, a new life that, in fact, tips into violent politics.

Put that issue aside for the moment, what I am interested in here is how the protagonist finds an ego ideal; where in the desert of American consumer culture are viable ego ideals to be found? Since no ordinary ego ideal is sufficient for the critical purposes to hand, only a heavily idealized ego ideal will do. As the protagonist plumbs the memory-bank of his unconscious, the only image of a better self available is that of a Hollywood star: the charismatic beauty of Brad Pitt. Although the alter ego figure has a proper name (unlike the actual protagonist), Tyler Durden, everything in the movie turns on him being Brad Pitt, that no viewer of the movie can even possibly separate the Tyler Durden character from the truly ripped and beautiful movie star. Hollywood stardom was, throughout the heyday of the movie era, the safe space for the production of narcissistic ego ideals. Hollywood stars could be ideals of power, masculinity, sexiness, courage, freedom, whose distance from their audience generated the space for idealization, and whose narcissitic indifference to their audience enabled adoration without the possibility of the failure reciprocity to become an issue.

In our American present, it was not a Hollywood star, but an equally imaginary figure from Reality Television who took up the surplus of disappointment. Trump was and is an imaginary star generated by a culture industry production whose precise mechanism in this instance involved deleting the difference between Hollywood stardom and reality. Reality television is the effort of that deletion. Without the hybrid mixture of fantasy and reality of reality television, there is no Donald Trump, that is no figure of narcissistic idealization who could cross over into political space. For his followers, there was no crossover: Trump was a fantasy figure installed in a fantasy reality that was indistinguishable from reality. There is no “fascist propaganda,” that is, there can be no empty messages that are nonetheless capable of forging an affectively charged social unity without the dynamics of narcissistic identification.

The social bond through which Trump is connected to his followers is exorbitant. The Adorno-Freud analysis of this kind of exorbitant bond requires a particular formation of the most powerful forms of human bonding available: love and hate. What makes this formation authoritarian is that both the love and the hate, both the identification with the leader and the negative integration through hatred of the out-group, are empty. Adorno begins pacing out the argument this way: because the leader is, above all, an image, and further because there are so few positive contents available with which to hold the authority of the leader in place, then a negative integrating force needs to be found. As he recognizes, Freud had already come upon the idea of negative integration: “The leader or the leading idea might also, so to speak, be negative; hatred against a particular person or institution might operate in just the same unifying way, and might call up the same kind of emotional ties as positive attachment” (Freud, Chapter VI). But because the bonds of love connecting leader and followers (and followers with themselves) is contentless, receiving all its authority from what which it repudiates, “negative integration feeds on the instinct of destructiveness” (Adorno, 125). Said differently, because there is no content to the collective bond, where the stakes of the collective bond are self-love itself, the capacity to have a conception of oneself as worthy and lovable which is conferred through group membership, then any criticism of the group or the leader is intolerable: dogmatic rigidity is a consequence of a value vacuum that has only violence with which to respond to criticism. Because the criticism cannot be rationally rebutted, the critic must be destroyed. While the broad outlines of this analysis are compelling, what is unnerving and uncanny about Adorno’s essay is how accurately it point-by-point accounts for the Trump phenomena. Among the characteristics of the Trump phenomenon that Adorno’s analysis highlights are:

  • “in a group the individual is brought under conditions which allow him to throw off the repressions of his unconscious instincts” (Adorno, 117)
  • “individuals are made to undergo regressions which reduce them to mere members of a group” (Adorno, 119)
  • “the potential short-cut from violent emotions to violent actions” (Adorno, 118) belongs to the logic of group psychology
  • “While appearing as a superman, the leader must as the same time work the miracle of appearing as an average person… as a composite of King Kong and the suburban barber” (Adorno, 122)
  • “…the leader’s startling symptoms of inferiority, his resemblance to ham actors” (Adorno, 122)
  • “The leader can guess the psychological wants and needs of those susceptible to his propaganda because he resembles them psychologically” (Adorno, 127)
  • “The famous spell they exercise over their followers seems largely to depend on their orality: language itself, devoid of its rational significance, functions in a magical way” (Adorno, 127)
  • “the objective aims of fascism are largely irrational in so far as they contradict the material interests of great numbers of those whom they try to embrace” (Adorno, 129)
  • “The continuous danger of war inherent in fascism spells destruction and the masses are at least preconsciously aware of it” (Adorno, 129)
  • “The category of ‘phoniness’ applies to the leaders as well as to the act of identification on the part of the masses and their supposed frenzy and hysteria.” The followers do not “completely believe their leader. They do not really identify themselves with him but act this identification, perform their own enthusiasm, and thus participate in the leader’s performance” (Adorno, 131)

I could go on. In general, however, it would appear that these distinguishing characteristics all derive from or are otherwise symptoms of the specific intensity and value emptiness of the social bond between leader and followers. When I first read Adorno’s essay, I was suspicious that he had tailored his analysis in order that it would fit the phenomena. In reading Adorno and Freud once more, that the analysis so perfectly captures the Trump phenomenon should lead us to a more intense appreciation and study of this theory.

One last point. In generating his account, Adorno occasionally equivocates on the Freudian model. Behind the passive masochistic attitude of abject surrender to the authority of the leader, Freud proposed a work of identification. Identification is what Jessica Benjamin calls “like love.” In the extreme version that Freud hypothesizes, identification happens through devouring the beloved object. So devoured the leader becomes a projection of oneself. I am not sure about this, and I am even more unsure about the story of the murder of the father of the primary horde. Freud was himself unsure about the status of these speculations. As I have begun reconstructing it, Adorno’s account works through a simpler dynamic of positive and negative love, of the ambivalence always at work in love, and of how negative love can take over when the great cultural work of producing substantive ethical ideals fails. This thought goes along with Adorno’s closing claim, that at the end of the day fascism is not a psychological phenomenon. This is a surprising thesis to offer after having provided a depth psychological account of the particular formation of the authoritarian collective in relation to the authoritarian leader. What then does Adorno mean by saying that fascism is not a psychological phenomenon?

As I understand Adorno, his claim is that psychology is what happens when ethics fails; that when practical life can no longer be supported and sustained through shared norms, ideals, and the forms of attachment that attend them, then the underlying mechanisms of psychological life take over, appearing nakedly, so to speak. Adorno takes this thesis to also be Freud’s own view; it is what is meant by the thesis “Where id was ego will be.” (Freud, New Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey, (London & New York: Penguin Books, 1932), p. 112.) Roughly, pathological experience involves one becoming subject to the dynamics of one’s own psyche; when this occurs, one becomes intently aware of one’s own psychological life, one’s own mind or psyche becomes an object of fascination. Oppositely, when one is released from pathological psychological suffering, the image of one’s own mind recedes, and what comes into view is simply the world itself. The other side of Adorno’s account involves the thought that where id is fascist manipulation occurs. Here the claim is that what comes to order psychological life when authoritative norms cannot is the manipulations of authoritarian propaganda. One becomes, as it were, a perfectly heteronomous being, a being in thrall to the manipulations of the propaganda machine – tweeting all day long.

Adorno’s inference here is that although one cannot understand the deformations of authoritarian nationalism without depth psychology, that understanding will not be crucial to combating authoritarianism. Authoritarian nationalism occurs because of the collapse of viable political alternatives; negative integration is the placeholder for positive integration. The answer to a failed form of political life is a new and different, vital and value substantive political formation. Nothing less will do.

J.M. Bernstein is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. His most recent book is Torture and Dignity: An Essay on Moral Injury (2015). He is working on a manuscript with the tentative title: Law as Ethical Life: Reflections on the Rights Characters of the Human.

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Jay M. Bernstein

  • frank

    Where is part I?

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