Psychohistory in the Age of Trump

Psychohistory in the Age of Trump
Published: Apr 09, 2017
As a cloud of political uncertainty descends upon us, what is to become of assumptions of personal freedom and national democracy? Drawing on research that goes back to WWII and includes Latin America in the 1970s-80s, psychologist Chellis Glendinning attempts to apply those hard, historical lessons to the current situation.

Declaring the 'disappeared' — Chile, 2013.

CHUQUISACA, BOLIVIA — As befits the times, I have been studying Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (‘concentration camps’translate as Konzentrationslager, hence ‘KL’) and re-reading Uprooted Minds: Surviving the Politics of Terror in the Americas, by Nancy Caro Hollander. As a resident of Bolivia, I’ve also had the chance to befriend Latin American activists who were jailed and tortured, or fled, during the dictatorships of the 1970s-80s — including one man who was among the very few to escape a massacre committed by the same battalion that years earlier had murdered Che Guevara (“Interview with a Revolutionary,” The Journal of Wild Culture, 27 Nov 2016), and another who fled, directly from being tortured, to the airport to escape to Sweden, his jaw broken and blood soaking his shirt.

Comparisons between Nazi Germany and Trump’s US-in-process abound these days. Naomi Wolfe has enlightened us with her recipe of actions cooked up by governments aiming for hegemonic control of populace, military, and institutions in her book, The End of America. Through the decades, US progressives have been regaled with grapevine rumors that camps, like those used to corral Japanese-Americans during World War II, are being outfitted to house ‘subversives’ and ‘terrorists.’ And as Ivan Krastev writes in The New York Times ('The Rise of the Paranoid Citizen,' 16 March 2017), “Yet the fundamental change in democratic politics is that when political identities are based on shared conspiracy theories, people are committed not to finding truth but to revealing secrets.” Read: consciously-constructed, interest-based inventions or well launched unconscious projections.

In discussion groups she uncovered a host of psychic mechanisms people had been using for decades . . .      

It’s true: we inhabit a topsy-turvy, post-truth world defined by the uncertainty produced by Trump’s emotional instabilities, postmodern media circus, and ideological maneuvers. So what’s a citizen who harbors a long-standing assumption of personal freedom and national democracy to do?

The transition from ‘today's more-or-less democracy’ to outright fascism is often imagined as an overnight event — as indeed it was on 11 September 1973 in Chile with the early-morning coup d’état that led to President Allende’s death and the demolition of the country’s democratic-socialist project. Historian Nancy Caro Hollander’s interviews with survivors of such transitions in Uruguay and Argentina reveal a slower, step-by-step process. Her interest is the evolution of theory and practice in the psychoanalytic community, before and through the dictatorships, and her interviewees tend to be analysts who favored the merging of human-rights politics with psychoanalysis and made their services available to poor and working-class communities and, as repression increased, to the tortured and families of the disappeared. Said interviewees describe not only the strain on their patients, but also their own inner tensions. As client loads became weighted toward those targeted by the military, analysts came to know too much for their own good. Decisions to stay or leave had to be made, often instantaneously, but living under a veil of not-knowing how far things would be taken, they themselves became subject to the tangled thinking induced by panic and the near-total erasure of logic that denial offers.

Three Mile Island accident (1978) . . . "life under the hair-trigger threat of the arms race."  

Such responses are endemic to life-and-death predicaments infused with ambiguity. Unless one’s name appears on a death-squad list for all to see, the psyche is vulnerable to any number of defenses. In the late-1970s, before the movie “The China Syndrome” and the near-meltdown of Three Mile Island reactor contributed to the detonation of anti-nuclear sentiment crystallizing as the Nuclear Freeze effort, psychiatrist Carol Wolman applied feminist consciousness-raising principles to life under the hair-trigger threat of the arms race. In discussion groups she uncovered a host of psychic mechanisms people had been using for decades to avoid thinking about nuclear weapons: dissociation as in disconnecting one’s self from the problem, such as “We’ll be fine. Northern California is the only region that will escape the toxic cloud”; splitting, believing in two contradictory things at the same time, such as thinking that US weapons are beneficial while Soviet arms are evil incarnate; flat-out denial that an untoward event would ever occur; a sense of grandiosity, for instance, that one’s study group will stop the arms race; escapism into hedonism or a flurry of activity; displacement, segueing concern onto other social issues that seem more manageable, like donating to the school choir. Meanwhile, in his acclaimed study of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, Death in Life, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton identified the response to the “unspeakable” — and unfeel-able — as psychic numbing.

Given that her interviewees were eager to talk about their experiences and vulnerabilities, Hollander uncovered similar defenses amid the muddle of truth and lies that arise as a society embarks on the road from relatively open to egregiously totalitarian. First off, as government repression morphed into out-and-out fascism, so psychological disorders mushroomed. Mental health professionals boasted packed schedules, and years later, when interviewed, they spoke of using the same unconscious defenses as their clients had.

Denial was extensive as patients and practitioners alike clung to fantasies of “normality” and attempted to live as they had before, sometimes the only bones thrown to admitting awareness of a change being clearing out their houses of subversive material. After the coup some Chileans sought relief by insisting that the US State Department and CIA (clearly unmanageable entities) could not have orchestrated it. Splitting was rampant. As an analyst in Uruguay explained: “I continued to believe in democracy when I was living in a country that was already totalitarian.” Dissociation abounded as well. A doctor who was treating a Tupamaro militant discounted his own vulnerability — until the day he himself was taken prisoner. An Argentine theater director with training in psychoanalysis said: “I employed an instrumental dissociation in order to go on. . . I told myself it would be all right, that I wasn’t a guerrilla, only a playwright whose theater dealt with the human condition.” The military came for him in 1978.

Pacifist Carl von Ossietzky: prisoner of the Nazis, winner of the Nobel Prize.

After regaling myself with research into the vagaries of the human psyche in jeopardy, to enhance my understanding of the process of escalation toward sadistic fascism I turned to Nazi Germany and its creation of the death camps. I mentioned my investigation to a friend, a Guatemalan anthropologist who grew up during the genocides and massacres of the 1970s-’80s. One might guess that, given his background, he would bitterly blurt out that the government absolutely knew from the get-go that its ultimate goal was to gas millions of criminals, social ‘deviants,’ and racially ‘unacceptables.’ Such a belief is exactly the kind of public misconception that Wachsmann corrects as he weaves together the subjective experience of the military, the police, the detainees inside the camps, and the populace outside them into a single, painstakingly researched narrative. In fact (and I use that word because Wachsmann is a thorough historian of Nazism with three books before KL under his belt), the devolution into death factories where dead bodies were produced as if candy bars on assembly lines was not imagined from the get-go. The journey to that end was a years-long, labyrinthine process fueled by the chaotic decentralization of the early camps: a seat-of-the-pants experimentation that led to constantly changing goals and techniques, political pressures that sometimes grew and sometimes waned, and the capture of absolute power by the supreme sadist Adolph Hitler. At one point, in 1933-35, state officials, legal authorities and even some SS commanders demanded and gained a downsizing of the camps by thousands of releases — and a popular push to shut the camps down entirely emerged. It was only scrapped due to the insistence and political pull of SS honcho/police commander Heinrich Himmler.

They highlight the ambiguity, uncertainty, and disorientation that reigns for victims and perpetrators.    

At first the camps were a hodge-podge of state prisons, existing workhouses, vacant hotels, and even pubs run by whoever was available among the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Schutzstaffel (SS), and the police. A potpourri of structures and rules existed, and treatment has been reported as relatively bearable, with inmates often released. The earliest targets were political resisters — communists, nationalists, and social democrats — as well as criminals, “beggars and vagabonds”, particularly as the 1934 Olympics in Berlin approached. But perhaps we could say that “the hand writing was on the wall.”

The first wave of violence — kicking and punching — erupted in 1933. The hands-on perpetrators, the guards, were often the poor and working-class men who felt wronged by society and whose anger had been fanned by instruction that inmates represented the very ‘scum,’‘swine,’ and ‘cancer’ that threatened Germany purity. Leaders were typically those humiliated by German defeat in World War I, then radicalized in paramilitary struggles against the reformist, social democratic Weimar Republic. Occasional outbursts of cruelty developed into institutional deployment of truncheons, whips, hoses, force-feedings, sexual abuse, perverse medical experiments, and sporadic individual and group killings. Devolution into outright obliteration was not far behind.

Surprisingly to me, the Nazis actually cared about public image — at least in the beginning. When prominent pacifist Carl von Ossietzky was imprisoned in 1933, held up as a trophy prisoner and openly abused, an international campaign to award him the Nobel Peace Prize was mounted. Feeling the pressure, in 1936 the government moved him out of prison into a hospital. He won the Nobel. 

A thousand people lay down on the sidewalk in Santiago, Chile during a commemorative action, 40 years after Pinochet took power.  

Yet, as Hitler solidified his grip within Germany, and as he steered war strategy toward brazen confrontations, conquering most of Europe by 1941, foreign opinion mattered less and less. All prisoner releases were banned and able inmates worked to death in the ‘Annihilation Work’ program. SS higher-ups and guards felt the license to unleash a pandemonium of sadism. Increasingly, Jews became the preferred scapegoat. That so many resisters of Nazism were Jews was seen as verification of a link between them and the ‘deviance’ of ‘Jewish Bolshevism.’ As Wachsmann puts it, “Radical anti-Semitism was part of the Camp SS code, a wild mix of traditional prejudice, racial mania, perverse fantasies, and political paranoia.” Upon arrival guards began to either send them directly from the train to the gas chambers or categorize them to accentuate inferior status by requiring the six-sided star badge. Anti-semitic ritual humiliation, maltreatment, and violence proliferated. 1941 was the year the KL stepped over the line, from killing the disabled and infirm because they were useless to slaughtering thousands of Soviet POWs. Calculated extermination of the Jewish population followed.

We might ask: how is such history relevant to this moment? Hollander and Wachsmann both highlight the prominence of ambiguity, uncertainty, and disorientation that reigns for victims and perpetrators as circumstances unfold. Given our current situation, we might do well to recall the old saw so popular during the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s: if a frog is thrown into boiling water, it will jump out; but if the frog is placed in cold water that is brought gradually to a boil, it won’t notice and will be cooked unknowingly.

If we can apply lessons learned from similar or metaphoric predicaments of the past, we might just become driven less by the vicissitudes of disorientation and fear and more grounded in reality. Albeit, without a crystal ball, the most crucial question remains as unanswered as it did for people of the past. How much can President Trump and his accomplices achieve on this express flight to dismantling democratic balances, uninhibited industrialization, hyper-militarism, social-service demolition, economic austerity, and license to murder the planet? One of Hollander’s points is that when we break out of our numbing and reject our helplessness by actively mobilizing the Resistance, we become less fearful, more resilient to future difficulties, and more alive. ≈©



CHELLIS GLENDINNING is a writer and psychotherapist specializing in trauma recovery. She is the author of seven books, including the award-winning Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy and Chiva: A Village Takes on the Global Heroin Trade. A US citizen, she lives in Chuquisaca, Bolivia.


I like this piece very much. The most thought provoking idea for me is the fact that the decay of humanness slips in slowly, and that the watering down of morality and personal integrity, mixed with fear and terror — et voila! — creates fertile soil for evilness. That definitely happened in Germany: decline by isolation and hatred — yikes. Being a child of the post-war generation in Germany, I experienced early the heavy shadow of the war within my family, my community and the country. We could not even look at the German flag for a moment and not feel guilty. How could they have done this — and why did they not stop it? Could it happen again? Yes, it could happen again. And, on a personal level, is this darkness in me as well? Let us be aware of what’s happening around us and be open to our divine being. This article is a clear and potent warning that we need to stay alert.

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 14:06

Submitted by Julie Kreis (not verified) on Thu, 04/13/2017 - 12:25


This article is excellent in bringing forth many historical points, including the existing and growing power of the ‘Trump Party’s’ control over the media. Because of the lies and untruths and their continued support by major media outlets, people are turning off — and not listening to what is going on. I have to make a great effort to seek out, read and listen to news that is well researched and is based on truth. Unfortunately, I see the slow erosion of my expectation that demands democratic and just actions from our government.

This article is excellent in bringing forth many historical points, including the existing and growing power of the ‘Trump Party’s’ control over the media. Because of the lies and untruths and their continued support by major media outlets, people are turning off — and not listening to what is going on. I have to make a great effort to seek out, read and listen to news that is well researched and is based on truth. Unfortunately, I see the slow erosion of my demand — and expectation — of democratic and just actions from our government.

I am deeply concerned that we are in a downward spiral that will allow the degradation of the rights of people, and prevent the preservation of a healthy environment-grown because of paranoia — partly fuelled by Trump's manipulation of the media.

As it is explained in this article, I see this happening gradually. The result is our lives could be seriously changed and the fundamental principles guiding our democracy, and our country, could be lost.

Julie Kreis
Thu, 04/13/2017 - 12:25

Submitted by Ralph Metzner (not verified) on Sat, 08/19/2017 - 14:56


I appreciate my friend Chellis’ premonitory analysis of creeping fascism in the present American political landscape. The relentless throwing
out, one after another, of environmental and social protections that have been won over two or three generations of hard political struggle, is creating a sense of being off balance, an alarmed sense of “what are they going to hit us with next?”, the poorer segments being randomly deprived of food security, immigrants’ families being randomly targeted for deportation. A series of instinctive psychic defenses spring up, as Chellis relates — denial, displacement, escapism, psychic numbing — that prevent people from openly discussing their fears and worries with one another. I was a nine-year old boy in Germany when the state system collapsed in 1945. I remember sitting in a train compartment hearing one passenger raising the possibility of Germany’s military defeat and another, an obviously more Nazi-aligned passenger, snarling “How do you mean that?” – and a cold knife-edge of fear going through my child’s body. Rumors of camps, deportations, confiscations, lists of unwanted aliens to be deported – all these are signs of incipient fascism to those who are sensitized to these signs through their own history, and easily dismissed by others as exaggerations, pointless fears, etc. The brain-washing of an entire population, or the majority segment of it, is a gradual, hidden, stepwise process, invisible to many, but undeniable and real when they come knocking at your door and telling you to pack your things, you’re not wanted here anymore. I worry for America in a way I don’t worry for European countries – America has never been defeated and
conquered militarily (although of course certain sub-culture populations, like the Native Americans, have been) — so this youthful state has that swagger of invincibility, that aura of “manifest destiny”, “the greatest military force the world has seen”, and so on, that makes people from the older European and Latin American cultures nervous.
“Pride comes before a fall” as the old saying goes. At the same time, the US is such a huge and diverse country, with its near 300 million people of diverse ethnicities, religions, sub-cultural forms. It seems hard to imagine them all aligning behind some kind of "supreme leader", as in North Korea, or the Philippines, or Germany's 20-30 million in the 1930s. So, size may matter here, making full-blown fascist-military dictatorship perhaps unlikely. We could get Civil War Act II, though. Let’s stay present and pay attention.

Ralph Metzner
Sat, 08/19/2017 - 14:56

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