Many of today’s politicians appear to appeal to the basic human need for safety, presenting their versions of strong leadership as the best hope for order and safety in a fearful world of growing instability and risk. Much evidence confirms that this appeal is certainly an important factor in the political landscape.
But alongside this, other psychological dynamics are currently influential in a number of Western democracies – particularly in attracting people to support populist leaders and their agendas.
One of these – which is of particular relevance to the impeachment trial of the US president, Donald Trump – concerns the pleasure and excitement that some citizens appear to find in a leader who breaks rules and ignores taboos. These transgressions can come in various forms, such as controversial statements, unconventional lifestyles or disrespectful approaches to the political process. But they can also extend to improper activities and abuse of power – such as those detailed in the impeachment charges against Trump – or anti-democratic activity and violence.
I suggest that support for this kind of leader can be understood as “identification with the transgressor”. This is an idea modelled on the concept of “identification with the aggressor”, a term coined by the psychoanalyst Anna Freud in 1936. Since then, psychologists have used the concept to understand a range of behaviours, including our tolerance of or collusion with bullies.
Different types of transgressive leader can appeal to transgressive parts of ourselves. Like others before him, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Anna’s father, observed that some measure of resentment towards authority and of a longing to cast aside the rules, is a universal feature of the human psyche. In its development since Freud, the psychoanalytic tradition has examined how this longing is a legacy of the painful process of emotional development we each undergo very early in life as we come to accept the limits placed on us as requirements for membership of human society.
Where there are good reasons to think that normal political processes are failing, many people can feel a surge of gratitude towards a leader who breaks with some conventions with the aim of bringing more integrity and legitimacy to political life. Lech Wałęsa in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, and others who led the way out of totalitarianism for countries in the Communist bloc, were certainly transgressors within the political worlds they confronted. They could be identified as a force for good in a corrupt or sclerotic system.
But given our built-in ambivalence towards authority and rules, we can also identify with political leaders whose transgressions are driven at least in part by more destructive impulses. While promising their supporters a better world, these leaders use rhetoric that focuses on the urgent need to attack existing authorities and destroy existing arrangements, with little real attention paid to how to replace them.
One example is a coup leader who, once in power, has little plan for bettering their country. At worst is the leader free of most if not all moral constraint, who is contemptuous of international standards of conduct, and unconcerned by the human costs of his or her own conduct.
Impact on voters
Therefore, one psychological question hanging over the US impeachment proceedings is the extent to which Trump’s support base will judge him negatively over the events at the centre of the impeachment trial. When Americans head to the polls in November 2020, how many will be inclined to enjoy Trump’s truculent dismissal of any criticism, and his capacity to brazen it out?
Remember, evidence of Trump’s questionable moral conduct was available to the US electorate in 2016. Following the release before the election of a videotape in which he boasted about groping women without their consent, 91% of those likely to vote for Trump said in a CBS/YouGov poll that the tape didn’t change their view of him. And Trump was elected.
The refusal by many voters to censure Trump for his transgressions has a powerful psychological basis to it in the wish to break free of authority. This can also be enjoyed without the guilt that would, for most people, usually accompany an assault on widely held values.
That’s because a leader like Trump offers an opportunity to combine transgressive pleasure with the moral high ground. This emotional package is offered to those who identify with Trump’s (somewhat erratic) self-presentation as a fusion of pleasure-seeking rebel and visionary saviour, leading an insurrection against the corrupt authorities – “the swamp”.
The eulogistic book on Trump by Conservative commentator Ann Coulter is one of many demonstrations of how much his supporters are energised by the wish to attack the “establishment” for their own alleged transgressions. Of course, not all Trump supporters feel this way, or support him for the same reasons.
This populist attack on the established elite can enable the supporters of the transgressive leader to feel that they are on a moral crusade, as well there for a pleasure kick. This could be a powerful aid to Trump in the coming election. We should expect such a transgressor figure to continue attracting strong identification and support, unless challenged by a leader who can somehow disrupt the transgressor’s psychological relationship with their support base.
Trump meddled in a lot more than just the Stone case — he’s also using his DOJ to play favorites among corporations
Trump’s effort to influence the outcome of the prosecution of his buddy Roger Stone represents another threat to the rule of law in the United States. Yet it is not just the rule of criminal law that is endangered. The Trump Administration has also been meddling with civil law, particularly in the area of antitrust.
This has been going on for a while. Early in his administration, the Trump Justice Department sought to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, mainly, it appears, because the president wanted to get back at Time Warner subsidiary CNN for its negative coverage of him. Even after a federal court ruled in favor of AT&T and allowed it to close the deal, Justice continued its legal crusade. A year ago, some critics were arguing that Trump’s actions with regard to AT&T amounted to an impeachable offense.
Stop the nonsense: 2016 was not a working-class revolt
I’m not sure what congressional Democrats are thinking. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said her caucus will pivot from investigating the president to “health care, health care, health care.” I suppose, as Sheryl Gay Stolberg said in Sunday’s Times, the Democrats are indeed “recovering from their failed push to remove President Trump from office.” But this president continues to prove the arguments against him. Why stop now?
Donald Trump pushed for preferential treatment in the federal criminal sentencing of Roger Stone, his garrulous goombah. US Attorney General Bill Barr, the president’s favorite fixer, is trying to suppress a rebellion at the Department of Justice while weathering outside criticism from more than 2,000 former federal prosecutors who served presidents from both parties. They are calling for his immediate resignation.Trump is the perfect vessel into which the petite bourgeois can pour their anti-democratic bile.
If the Democrats nominate Mike Bloomberg, we’re facing four more years of Trump
Information mogul and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg — whose net worth is an estimated $62 billion — has, by absolutely blanketing the airwaves with ads, managed to buy himself a respectable polling position in the Democratic presidential primary race. In the national Morning Consult polling, Bloomberg has moved to third position behind Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Vice President Joe Biden. His massive fortune allows him to purchase a dizzying number of endorsements. As Biden's campaign continues its slow implosion — he placed fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary — the centrists of the punditry are turning their lonely eyes to Bloomberg, hoping his buy-the-election strategy can stop Sanders.