The Big Lie

Eli Zaretsky

The impeachment hearings that have just finished in the United States will be remembered as a significant moment in our history, despite the preordained acquittal with which they ended. Modern journalism, even before the internet, makes it almost impossible to form a realistic picture of what is going on in the world. It breaks knowledge up into unco-ordinated categories and ignores context and connection, which are the soul of historical understanding. Above all, the news distracts. A stream of articles or news items clamour for attention, each forgotten as ‘breaking news’ takes its place. It almost never happens that society stops long enough to develop a coherent narrative about its own experience while it is happening.

That, however, is what the ‘impeachment managers’ were able to do. They laid down a clear, coherent and compelling narrative that situated the invasion of the US Capitol on 6 January in the context of Trump’s long history of sanctioning violence, his strategy of discrediting elections, his connections with racist right-wing paramilitary groups, his undermining of institutions and norms, the minute by minute co-ordination between his words and the rioters’ actions, his dereliction of duty in failing to stop the invasion, and his lack of remorse afterwards. They situated their account in broader themes of American history, including the nature of the constitution and the presidency but also lynching and the disfranchisement of African-Americans. Running through the entire presentation was a unifying theme, the ‘big lie’, and they suggested the ease with which a dictatorial personality can intimidate others – largely implicitly, since some of those intimidated by Trump were among his jurors.

In the process, the managers produced a masterly description of a contemporary demagogue. As Congressman Jamie Raskin put it, most governments throughout history have been run by tyrants, despots, bullies, autocrats and thugs. Democratic self-government is rare and fragile. Raskin’s intent was to show how Trump’s behaviour, culminating on 6 January, violated both the norms and the legal protections on which democracy rests. Raskin, to be sure, was making a constitutional argument, but the problem can be restated in historical terms.

The liberal political order, as we may call it, referring especially to the English Revolution of 1688 and the US Constitution of 1787, was meant to apply to a new kind of society, namely market capitalism. On the one hand, political revolutions laid down principles that have become precious and irreplaceable to us, such as equality before the law or even the rule of law itself. On the other hand, the new legal systems and institutional orders revolved around the protection of property, and tried hard to contain and even justify fundamental forms of inequality. After the abolition of slavery, the most important of these inequalities was capitalism itself, but capitalism did not produce a revolution, at least in democratic societies. Instead, struggles over material interests, economics and the regulation of markets led to the organisation of society into class-based parties and trade unions. Protest, in other words, was organised around economic interests and property, as liberalism itself was to a great degree. Protest movements were not anti-systemic. As a result, democratic societies such as Britain and the United States have had relatively stable histories until recently, even given the blatant facts of class division and exploitation, and continuous struggle over economic issues.

The story is no doubt complicated and varies from country to country, but overall, in the second half of the 20th century, changes in the socio-economic system weakened and eliminated the class-based identities that had provided this rough stability. This weakening opened new structural faults for politics, such as gender, race and sexuality, but it also precipitated the emergence of the modern masses, the so-called ‘age of the crowd’. While a new politics of identity emerged, so too did large numbers of individuals whose identities were not socially given, or explicit. These individuals served as the social basis for mass psychology. They could be brought together innocently, as in celebrity culture or sport. But what makes for a very powerful group or mass or ‘crowd’ is a shared feeling of grievance, of being wronged. To be sure, trade unions and leftist movements of the past had similar feelings, but they were not the basis of their identity or their politics.

In the modern era – generally said to begin with the late 19th-century outburst of populists such as Georges Boulanger in France and Karl Lueger in Austro-Hungary – demagogues have been able to bring together a vast number of diverse hurts, which have little or nothing to do with one another, and weld them into a cohesive force, whose identity and outlook is essentially psychological. Arguably this phenomenon has increased since 1989 and especially since the 2007-8 financial crisis. The managers’ description of Trump can serve as a model for this phenomenon. It involves five elements: violence; personal dictatorship; mob or crowd regression; racism and ethnocentrism; and the big lie.

From the beginning of his 2016 candidacy, Trump continuously sanctioned violence against the liberal order in a variety of ways. The first was to disregard norms, especially by assailing the vulnerable: the disabled, Gold Star parents, Mexican immigrants, women new to politics, Black demonstrators. Like most bullies, Trump favours hitting people when they are down. Understanding his deployment of sadism is fundamental to understanding his appeal. He brought together large numbers of people who would have liked to lash out, but didn’t have the courage. He made them feel that their anger and contempt – whatever its source – was legitimate. And, very importantly, he convinced people viscerally that the norms of civilised society were part of a rigged system.

His deployment of violence went beyond the verbal. He sanctioned and encouraged physical violence by the police and his followers. He urged the police to hit demonstrators’ heads against the roofs of police trucks when they arrested them. At his rallies he urged his followers to push, hit, or trample counter-demonstrators. ‘Kick the crap out of them,’ he shouted. He congratulated Gregory Gianforte – now the governor of Montana – for assaulting a reporter: ‘Any guy that can do a body slam is my guy,’ he said, imitating a body slam. When a Biden-Harris campaign bus was taken over by his supporters in Central Texas, Trump tweeted a video of the incident with martial music added and the words ‘I love Texas.’ Perhaps most telling was his chant of ‘lock her up,’ aimed at a series of women from Hillary Clinton to Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan. He egged on the protesters who sought to occupy the state capitol, and refused to condemn the would-be murderers that tried to kidnap and execute her. The siege of the Michigan statehouse on 30 April ‘was effectively a staged dress rehearsal’ for 6 January, Jamie Raskin said. ‘It was a preview of the coming insurrection.’

By continually toying with the line between civic peace and violence, Trump was undermining the web of preconscious understandings on which liberal society depends. He was opening the way for an eruption of anger and ruthlessness of which 6 January was a foretaste. This evisceration of the social bond was facilitated by the second characteristic of Trump’s presidency, namely the personal dictatorship he exercised over his followers. Hundreds of rioters have by now been arrested. ‘We did this for Trump,’ they said. ‘Trump asked us to do this’; ‘I wouldn’t go unless POTUS told us to go.’ This evidence was buttressed by recordings taken at the event, and social media posts afterwards.

The demagogue, Freud argues, turning to the second component of our template, does not command loyalty on the basis of shared ideals or values. Rather, the demagogue is like a hypnotist who says to his followers: pay attention only to me; nothing else matters; concentrate entirely on me. This accomplishes three things. First, it shunts the ego aside; it replaces reason with loyalty. Second, it resolves conflicts arising from frustrated and unfulfilled narcissism, by fostering identification with a leader who has demonstrated his mastery by a willingness to deploy sadism by bullying and humiliating others. In this regard, Freud points out, the successful demagogue need possess only the typical qualities of his followers, but in a ‘clearly marked and pure form’ that gives the impression ‘of greater force and of more freedom of libido’. Third, because Trump established the same identification with every one of his millions of followers, he fostered an experience of shared equality among them. In Freud’s words, ‘the members of a group stand in need of the illusion that they are equally and justly loved by their leader; but the leader himself need love no one else, he must be of a masterful nature, absolutely narcissistic, self-confident and independent.’

Being in a crowd – the third component – makes individuals feel, think and act differently. Many of the people shouting ‘Hang Mike Pence’ or ‘Find Crazy Nancy’ (Trump’s nickname for Nancy Pelosi) might have been perfectly peaceful in their home lives. Being in a mob encourages feelings of omnipotence, suggestibility, and a proclivity for action. Trump’s crowds know no doubt or uncertainty, go directly to extremes, and are intolerant and blindly obedient to authority. His followers are loyal to one another as well as to Trump.

Racism, the fourth component, is at the core of the argument linking Trump to the riot on 6 January. The demonstration was called to prevent or slow down the ritualistic certification of election results by Congress. But it is not difficult to see that many of the votes Trump challenged, in Philadelphia, Detroit and Atlanta, were the votes of African-Americans. The riot at the Capitol was not only part of the effort at voter suppression that Trump had been preparing for months; it also built on the country’s long history of suppressing the Black vote. Throughout his political career Trump has whipped up racist feelings as part of his mobilisation of a group identity based on personal loyalty. He launched his political career with claims that Barack Obama is a not a US citizen. He kicked off his primary run by calling Mexican immigrants ‘rapists’. At a 2016 Republican debate he claimed that most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims hate the US. Before he was permanently banned from Twitter, he persistently retweeted messages from white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Trump’s racism is linked to his willingness to deploy violence in order to foster identification. Racism is the reason the Second Amendment is so important to so many Americans, at least historically. The ‘right to keep and bear arms’ was aimed not to protect US freedoms so much as to put down slave revolts. State militias were slave patrols. Much of our early diplomacy was aimed at controlling slaves. After the Civil War, a pervasive Confederate identity survived, at the heart of which was violent voter suppression, beginning with the Ku Klux Klan and continuing to the present. Lynching, which went on for nearly a century, can stand for the whole rotten history, and this was celebrated in the riot on 6 January with the prominent presence of a gallows.

This brings us to the big lie, our fifth component. A big lie is not a claim subject to contradiction, or a statement of fact that can be disputed. The concept was first put forth in Mein Kampf, where Hitler defined it as an untruth so colossal that people ‘would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously’. Trump’s claim that he had won the election ‘in a landslide’ and victory was stolen from him by a corrupt establishment is a lie of this sort. The American electoral system is decentralised, and run by many thousands of officials at the state and county level. More than half of them are Republicans and both parties have legal protections allowing them to monitor the other’s actions. Stealing a national election would also require collaboration from the media and from the numerous judges who weighed the evidence. It is simply impossible for any moderately rational person to believe that a national election can be stolen (except in a situation like the 2000 race, which came down to a few hundred votes in a single state).

It is the psychological work that the big lie performs that makes it so important. Its essence is that something terrible has been done to an innocent individual or group. Hitler claimed that Germany had actually won the First World War, but the victory had been stolen by civilian leaders, Marxists and Jews. In Trump’s case, the most sacred act of the American citizen qua citizen – voting – was allegedly suppressed by an evil force, the so-called Democrat Party. The lie protected a core paranoia as well as mobilising Trump’s personal dictatorship over his followers, who were meant to feel this as if the harm had been done to them personally. Not only had Trump been denied his presidency, but 75 million Americans had been disfranchised. And it mobilised racism through projection. According to the big lie, it was white America, the real America, that had been victimised, not Black people who have been systematically denied their right to vote throughout history, and are systematically targeted by police violence.

The House managers framed the question of impeachment in the light of Trump’s overall pattern of behaviour. As they repeatedly explained, the charge of incitement does not refer to the specific words he spoke on 6 January but to the fact that he prepared for the riot with months of false claims; organised the rally and set the date so as to interfere with the official certification of the ballots; repeatedly hinted at the possibility for violence; mobilised the demonstrators around protecting his person; was regularly cited by the rioters as being in charge; refused to call in the National Guard or issue a statement condemning the riot for hours after it had unfolded; assailed his vice president by tweet even when he knew that Pence had been targeted; praised the rioters when he finally did tell them to ‘be peaceful’; and never showed either remorse or anger.

Trump’s defence team based their case on a technicality, arguing that since the penalty is removal from office, someone already out of office cannot be convicted. But Trump was impeached while still in office and it was Republican delays that stopped him from being tried before Biden’s inauguration. Most important, the purpose of impeachment is to defend the Constitution and the managers overwhelmingly showed what it means for that to be at stake.

I would add to their argument that Trump’s movement can only in part be understood as a political movement. While it stands for some older political ideas – such as support for the police, the importance of markets and the need to affirm American identity – as well as some newer ones, such as economic nationalism, the Trump movement must also be understood in mass psychological terms. This does not mean that either its causes or its remedies are psychological. Its causes are socioeconomic – for example, globalisation and technological change – and so too will the remedies be. Still, the movement is not a direct response to its causes. Social causes left an opening for psychology, and that is the opening that Trump exploited.

Finally, it is important to remember that democratic change and progress depend on collective forces, collective feelings, movements of public opinion and, yes, crowds, like those of the civil rights, anti-war and feminist movements of the 1960s. We need to defend demonstrations, to recognize that crowds sometimes take on a life of their own, and that such values as pragmatism’, ‘compromise’ and ‘bipartisanship’ are often a cloak for maintaining illegitimate power. Crowds foster regression but not all regressions are the same. Without the incredible crowd formations of the 1960s we never would have advanced such understandings of freedom as Black Marxism, women’s liberation and gay liberation. These movements sought to formulate what they were doing historically, which links the impeachment managers to them (something which emerged dramatically when Raskin spoke about Julian Bond and Bob Moses, the leaders of the SNCC). Above all, these movements were an expression of the historic project of the left, ultimately based on rationality, critique and the strength of the ego, which is to provide, as Steven Lukes has written, ‘a demanding answer to the question of what equality means and implies’.


  • 15 February 2021 at 11:42pm
    C W says:
    The impeachment leaders did a great job, and Trump's guilt is beyond doubt, but the hearings will not "be remembered as a significant moment in our history" because within a month they will barely remembered at all.

    • 16 February 2021 at 2:17am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ C W
      it is hard to predict the future, that's true, but I think you are wrong. THe impeachment has given meaning to Biden's Presidency, beyond its immediate contingent purposes.

  • 16 February 2021 at 9:06am
    XopherO says:
    An excellent analysis, which reaches way beyond the Trump impeachment. Anyway, the result was 57 - 43 which is 'guilty, guilty, guilty' in any language, and should be stressed over and over. It is a technicality that the constitution suggests otherwise. It is surely definitive that the Republican leader said as much. What has become of the infernally corrupt GOP itself, and Trump's continuing dangerous presence, will surely keep Jan 6, the impeachment, and 7 brave Republicans in the news.

    • 16 February 2021 at 1:29pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ XopherO
      thanks. I'm afraid Trump will be around for a while more.

  • 16 February 2021 at 9:27am
    Paul Werner says:
    Thanks, Eli. Very taken with your description of Lueger's clientele as a "cohesive force, whose identity and outlook is essentially psychological." It's hard not to connect this outlook with the true heirs of Lueger, the so-called "Liberal" Bourgeoisie of Austria and elsewhere whose psychological outlook has been endlessly cited under the heading of "Modernity." "Resentful Modernity" sounds like a useful designation for a social tendency which, though not as obviously violent, led to "revolutionary" outcomes in Europe which we Americans have been spared, at least so far.

    • 16 February 2021 at 1:31pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Paul Werner
      thats very interesting. Can you recommend something to read on this?

    • 16 February 2021 at 5:34pm
      Paul Werner says: @ Paul Werner
      Well, I'm bouncing off a brilliant review by Malachi Hacohen, "The Culture of Viennese Science and the Riddle of Austrian Liberalism." in Modern Intellectual History (2009) which is really a take-down of the whole exculpatory exercise of historians of Red Vienna. I came across it in the process of reviewing the latest exculpatory exercise. I suspect Zygmunt Bauman will have something to say about this in his "Modernity and the Holocaust."


    • 16 February 2021 at 5:54pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Paul Werner
      thanks, I'm checking it out now, eli

    • 16 February 2021 at 6:26pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      I'm a big admirer of Hacohen;s book on popper incidentally

    • 16 February 2021 at 8:19pm
      Christopher Bellavita says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Good gracious. An author asking someone in the comments for a reading suggestion so the author can learn more about what the commentator discussed?

      Is this still the internet?

      Thanks for the reminder of why I subscribe to the LRB.

    • 16 February 2021 at 8:36pm
      Alex Callinicos says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Thanks for a great article. If you haven’t read Carl Schorske’s Fin de Siecle Vienna, which brilliantly fuses culture and politics in analysing figures as different as Lueger, Freud, Schoenberg, and Klimt, you have a treat in store.

    • 16 February 2021 at 9:10pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Christopher Bellavita
      you're welcome, eli

    • 16 February 2021 at 9:11pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Alex Callinicos
      Of course I have, my secrets of the soul is organized entirely around schorske's brilliant work, but thanks-- i know your work too, eli

  • 16 February 2021 at 5:49pm
    Granite Sentry says:
    It is not Trump but the left that is far and away the worst bully in modern politics, and this willfully deceptive offering is just the latest example of the ongoing pattern of slander and lies about Trump specifically and conservative Americans generally. Thanks for letting me see this, but I'm going to pass on any more LRB fiction. Adios.

    • 16 February 2021 at 5:55pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Granite Sentry
      really? You think I'm slandering Trump?

    • 16 February 2021 at 6:34pm
      Neil Brown says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Playing the victim card is a big part of the Trump supporter playbook. They see slights at every corner even though the man they support went out of his way to trash/slander/whatever you want to call it.

    • 16 February 2021 at 6:44pm
      Graucho says: @ Granite Sentry
      Waah! He started it! What he did is far worse than what I did. When will you trumpies ever grow up and transcend the arguments of immature school kids?

    • 16 February 2021 at 9:12pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Neil Brown
      Truly, that is the key to the whole thing. I should have mentioned that when i was talking about the big lie.

    • 16 February 2021 at 9:13pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Neil Brown
      I sent my comment to th wrong place, I agree that the victim psychology is the key to the big lie, eli

  • 16 February 2021 at 5:55pm
    R Srinivasan says:
    Good article! Deserves careful study (which I plan to undertake). In the meantime, a devil's-advocate question: Trump's "big lie" scared the US Congress and caused the death of five Americans. Trump is crude and annoying, no doubt. But you know something? He showed great restraint, during his days as president, in not starting a major war. Compare that with the record of the smooth-talking and urbane Bush-Cheney duo. Their big lie, as you know, resulted in five thousand American causalities and hundred-times that in Iraqi causalities. IMHO the democrats could have easily influenced Trump and delivered on big infrastructure projects, Trump-care, etc., just like the Republicans used him to binge on judicial appointments. Instead the were in denial of HRC's loss and kept harassing a duly elected (2016 that is!) president. Trump might have done better with handling the pandemic if hadn't been distracted by the (1st) impeachment.

    • 16 February 2021 at 6:29pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ R Srinivasan
      I completely agree. In a conversation with my grandson he accused me of supporting Trump. I denied it he said "all but." I am with you all the way. but the impeachment brought out the element in liberalism that cannot be surpassed and that must be part of any left critique I was trying to capture that, eli

    • 16 February 2021 at 7:25pm
      Sam Folmar says: @ R Srinivasan
      You can't be serious. His response to the pandemic was totally predictable. He did nothing beyond sow discontent within the ranks of his true believers, including targeting Democratic states with his pandemic "policies." How is it that he remained "distracted by the first impeachment" for the entire year? When was he going to drop his sense of victimization and actually come up with a pandemic policy? He had no policy, other than artificially goosing the economy to get himself reelected.

      This article is the first coherent discussion that I have read about the attraction of trump to otherwise rational people. I've been aware of this guy since the early 80s, and it has always been clear to me that he is a conman and a criminal. Until now, I have been unable to imagine what his appeal might be. At least this article makes a credible case, but I'm still amazed that anyone would give him a second thought.

    • 16 February 2021 at 9:14pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Sam Folmar
      thanks, I do agree with yuo about trump and the pandemic

    • 16 February 2021 at 9:30pm
      R Srinivasan says: @ Sam Folmar
      Actually his team did a good job with "Operation Warp speed." Vaccine-discovery missed the election by just a week, remember. (Yes, Pfizer claimed they didn't take any gubmint help, but the Warp speed czar, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, is a competent and credible professional.) Trump's pronouncements, however, were totally predictable, I agree. That disconnect (which cost him the re-election), I submit, may have been due to the distraction of the 1st impeachment.

    • 16 February 2021 at 10:22pm
      Frank Solomon says: @ R Srinivasan
      @R. Srinivasan
      Between the outbreak and the vaccine - that was the place for Trump’s federal government to do a good job, meaning public health measures. And it didn’t. Just look at this horrific second.

    • 17 February 2021 at 2:59am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ R Srinivasan
      thats no excuse

    • 17 February 2021 at 7:20am
      Robert van Krieken says: @ R Srinivasan
      Well, I'd submit that Trump made a calculation, he figured the political damage he'd suffer from an economic downturn resulting from lockdown would outweigh what he'd suffer from 400k deaths, I think that's clear from the comments it turned out he made early in the piece. Nothing to do with impeachment. Anyway, one can walk and chew gum at the same time, for heaven's sake.

    • 17 February 2021 at 4:07pm
      Sam Folmar says: @ R Srinivasan
      Operation Warp Speed may have been a success (arguable). However, the fact that your measure of its success is a vaccine in time for the election tells you all you need to know about trump. He was willing to sacrifice untold victims to his reelection. That's despicable.

  • 16 February 2021 at 6:11pm
    DawnRaven says:
    A truly excellent historical analysis. You cite Freud on many underlying psychological dimensions. While perhaps they are tangential to the core political issues you address, I feel the bizarre conspiracy theories linking organized child trafficking and pedophilia to Trump's savior role carry an enormous atavistic charge with his followers. Traditionally, no punishment was considered too severe for those who perpetrated such abysmal crimes against children, and people were entitled to take the law into their own hands to administer such punishment. I wonder if you might integrate this emotional landmine into the mass psychology of your superb arguments.

    • 16 February 2021 at 6:31pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ DawnRaven
      terrific point. I hope to follow it up in my work. Will take some doing. Freud is fabulous when it is not reductionist, eli

  • 16 February 2021 at 6:11pm
    Alices Restaurant says:
    To the contrary: It was a glorious event -- the people in the people's house -- that the DNC Politburo's impeachment nonsense only reinforced. China Joe will soon disappear from public view and be replaced by the Neo-Marxists and globalists now temporarily residing in the White House. The national "struggle session" will continue till 2022 when both the Senate and House will return to the Trump party and then the White House in 2024.

    • 16 February 2021 at 6:31pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Alices Restaurant
      I doubt it. Apparently huge numbers are fleeing the Republican party now.

    • 16 February 2021 at 6:40pm
      Alices Restaurant says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      DNC Politburo press release? Or just more Neo-Marxist self-serving delusion?

    • 16 February 2021 at 6:47pm
      Graucho says: @ Alices Restaurant
      "the people in the people's house". Well fair enough. White trash are people too. " China Joe" - well there's a giveaway for a Faux News addict.

    • 16 February 2021 at 7:01pm
      Alices Restaurant says: @ Graucho
      He runs a crime family through a crackhead son. Miss the DOJ investigation. Sorry, to put thumbs in your eyes. But the truth hurts, even for the benighted and delusional left. Need to stop shooting up on that Marcuse old-time religion and "American" Sovietized mass media.

    • 16 February 2021 at 7:08pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Alices Restaurant
      very witty. We could use you on the left! Think it over.

    • 16 February 2021 at 11:49pm
      Lem Coley says: @ Alices Restaurant
      say hello to Putin.

    • 17 February 2021 at 3:42pm
      Sam Folmar says: @ Alices Restaurant
      "He runs a crime family...." That sounds like trump, not Biden.

    • 17 February 2021 at 7:48pm
      Graucho says: @ Alices Restaurant
      I don't suppose the thought that Trump happened to be the U.S. president at the time, so setting a good example and defending the constitution happened to be part of his job description ever crosses tiny trumpie minds.
      This is the critical passage from Trump's speech...
      "and then we’re stuck with a president who lost the election by a lot, and we have to live with that for four more years. We’re just not going to let that happen."
      He personally assembles a crowd on the day Biden is due to be confirmed as president and gives them an explicit instruction not to let it happen. When he made that statement all peaceful means of overturning the election result had been exhausted . Over 60 court cases lost, not enough house votes and Mike Pence wasn't playing ball, something he complained about in his speech 3 seperate times. He knew that, the mob knew that. He then sends them off to the Capitol building chanting "Hang Pence".
      Now, put your brain in gear and answer this question. Having told the crowd "We’re just not going to let that happen.", how did Trump think they were going to achieve this? Did he think they were going to light candles, hold hands and sing a couple of rounds of 'We shall overcome' and 'Kumbaya' ? Seriously ?
      If your allegation that Biden "runs a crime family through a crackhead son" has substance he will ultimately see himself impeached. The GOP will see to that and as I understand it Hunter is under an investigation which has not been halted. It is however utterly beside the point. Western Democracy has just had a near death experience and for a number of elected representatives a physical rather than a metaphorical one.
      This isn't a matter of thumbs in my eyes. It's one of the blinkers superglued to yours.

  • 16 February 2021 at 6:13pm
    Thomas Welsh says:
    I would add that much of what was manifest in the Insurrection can be explained by the violent nature of a settler state such as the USA and practically every State from Canada to Argentina. The initial conditions of establishment will be played out until the fail. Only failure will open the way to a shift of Ideology.

    • 16 February 2021 at 6:33pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Thomas Welsh
      yes, I tried to register the settler element too. However, i am not necessarily in agreement with you re: Biden. I am open. In general though the center is almost invariably anti-left.

  • 16 February 2021 at 6:56pm
    RegPresley says:
    Thank you. An interesting piece that chimes with a few other things I've been reading recently, such as Democracy for Realists by Achen and Bartels and Michael Sandel's Tyranny of Merit. These themes of the politics of identity are pervasive at present and there is quite a convincing case that people latch on to an identity prism when they need a sort of group security that their socio-economic status is not providing.

    I was struck, though, by your comment that the remedies will be socio-economic, because the causes are. This seems to cut across Sandel's point that the deeper problem is the way an economic paradigm has taken over all political discourse. This leads to the idea that redistribution of material wealth is the goal, which in turn rather hollows out the moral component of society. The Trump lawyers were making very transactional points; but Jamie Raskin was impressive because he came across as a Good Person.

    • 16 February 2021 at 7:10pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ RegPresley
      yes, good point. I think it would be more precise to say the the remedies will be "social." I was trying to get away from touchie-feelie type thinking but you are right. The deep problem is the meaning of "economic" and the way it corrupts the liberal tradition.

  • 16 February 2021 at 7:35pm
    Lem Coley says:
    Good stuff, but I think our obsession with DT can be a substitute for thinking about what should be done. Of the millions of words read since the election, a line by Mike Davis in LRB sticks w/ me the most--(paraphrase) The Democrats have had a generation to come up with an answer to the question, How will you bring jobs back to Flint (Mi), or Eirie etc. And they haven't done it. But Trump is definitely fascinating. William Burroughs had a line "burning a hole in the reality film." Trump had a real flamethrower.

    • 16 February 2021 at 9:17pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Lem Coley
      74000000 votes demand attention; I dont think Mike Davis's point ends the discussion. I am not defending the Democrats here. But theuy outdid themselves inthe impeachment.

  • 16 February 2021 at 7:36pm
    John Giraudo says:
    Thank you Eli. This is an excellent analysis with which I wholly agree. I think you are especially correct in this observation: “ but overall, in the second half of the 20th century, changes in the socio-economic system weakened and eliminated the class-based identities that had provided this rough stability.”

    What caused this to happen and why? I would appreciate your thoughts. It would explain how we got here and enabled Trump to exploit the situation.

    • 16 February 2021 at 9:19pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ John Giraudo
      yes, that would be good. I;m not sure. THis problem is related to the chronology. Of course, the problem has always been there but there is a change. Obviously globalization is part of it, eli

  • 16 February 2021 at 7:50pm
    Selim Ozalp says:
    Great analysis. The question I have in my mind, and others who believed in civic society and its narratives, -as you put it at the beginning of your article- “breaks knowledge up into unco-ordinated categories and ignores context and connection, which are the soul of historical understanding” is damaged beyond the repair. Even at the moment Democrats are sitting on the driving seat they don’t seem to hold the control of historical narratives. Can we still hope the reversal of “ anti- historical “ progress?

    • 16 February 2021 at 9:20pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Selim Ozalp
      A lot depends on individuals. THe impeachment was a complete surprise. Probably we owe it to Jamie Raskin. It cold have been a big snore like the last one.

  • 16 February 2021 at 8:10pm
    DrVanini says:
    Nearly all of the criticisms of Trump could have been written without bringing Freud into it. A man who could say, in 1913, “We possess the truth; I am as sure of it as fifteen years ago”, who regularly questioned the mental health of his critics and who thought he had cured the 'Wolf Man' has a few things in common with Trump.

    • 16 February 2021 at 9:21pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ DrVanini
      I think you should look a little more deeply into both his life and thought. These are rumors, slander really. There's a lotof good scholarship.

    • 17 February 2021 at 10:38am
      DrVanini says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      "The King can do no wrong" describes many Freudians as well as many Trump supporters.

    • 19 February 2021 at 9:38pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ DrVanini
      there are no kings in psychoanalysis.

  • 16 February 2021 at 8:33pm
    Jean Layzer says:
    I am so grateful for your analysis, which acknowledges the key role that racism played in Trump's efforts to seize power. Even though there is greater recognition in the US of the continued and pervasive influence of racism, many analyses continue to stress the responsibility of "globalism" and "global élites" for Trump's supporters' embrace of extremism and violence. That kind of analysis overlooks several realities: that not even a majority of those committed to Trump are disadvantaged; and that, in states like Ohio, with communities adversely affected by the new global economy, minority voters managed to see hope in the Democratic message, while whites opted for the message of hate offered by Trump.

    • 16 February 2021 at 9:23pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Jean Layzer
      thanks, eli

  • 16 February 2021 at 9:06pm
    Murray Sperber says:
    Excellent article. One of the most lucid explanations of Trump and Trumpism that I have read. One quibble: you reference Georges Boulanger as being an early equivalent of Trump; however, by all accounts Boulanger was an empty-suit--a very handsome but not too bright or articulate guy. More important and dangerous in France for rightist ideology, hate mongering, and hate greviences were Charles Maurras and Leon Daudet and their Action Francaise followers. This led--with Hitler's aid--to Vichy France and Petainisme (although again, Petain was something of an empty-suit, especially when he achieved power). But Zaretsky's article is outstanding--also a nice use of Freud.

    • 16 February 2021 at 9:24pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Murray Sperber
      I definitely get your point, but as to the overall phenomenon of demagogue, Boulanger is earlier, a good starting point but of course he is not the beginning of French fascism, whereas the people you are mentioning are.

  • 16 February 2021 at 9:18pm
    Rafael Ferrer says:
    This article is the best historical explanation of how we got to Trump and the trap we find ourselves in.If capitalism did not bring forth a revolution or according to Marx didn't have the seeds of it's own destruction, it seems that it's absolute power lies in converting anything and every thing into entertainment . Enter Trump via fake fame, fake news, reality TV which turns anybody into an Icon. Adorno and the Frankfurt School : Coming Attractions. Andy Warhol's 15 minutes in nano seconds.

    • 17 February 2021 at 3:00am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Rafael Ferrer
      yes, entertainment is part of it

  • 16 February 2021 at 9:20pm
    Helen Landau says:
    "cohesive force, whose identity and outlook is essentially psychological."

    I respectfully disagree. Nothing binds people together more then their shared economic status. The majority in that rowdy crowd had more than enough means to get to Washington & booked the hotels there. Their "shared feeling of grievance" is still financial. They are the petite bourgeoisie who either never made it to the upper capitalists echelons or suffered after the 2008 crisis. Their political alliances are based on their financial status. Not that we should not be empathetic to their source of suffering, of course, we should, my point is--psychology is a poor guide to both organizing and analysis. There is a much larger social group where all these rioters as well as the cowardly GOP senators belong: the last defenders of the Patriarchal order. Which is being threatened, and they feel it in their gut. The order that is, hopefully, domed. Give or take another couple of centuries. :)))

    • 17 February 2021 at 3:01am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Helen Landau
      economically, trump's followers are very diverse.

  • 16 February 2021 at 10:09pm
    ChrisT says:
    This analysis seem to lack anything on the audience approval ratings, did the crowd scream for more? - “bring on the witnesses, the show must go on”. Will it really shift the middle-ground in favour of the Democrats. I doubt it, as you say in this era of news bombardment the overload generates amnesia. What is clear is the senate ‘court’ was loaded, as loaded as courts in Iran, Egypt or Russia, no independent jury here, in a country that goes in big time for jury selection. Not one, correction, perhaps one Senator was persuaded by the arguments What it did allow was Democratic senators with an eye on the long game, the big one, to showcase their talents. There’s not much doubt that their performance will be heavily self promoted in the months and years to come.
    In the UK, just don’t like the US we are saturated with documentaries on Trump, just this week ‘The Trump Show’ and ‘ How Trump took on the world’ it’s glorious light entertainment, - Trump wanting Macron to agree with him that May and Merkel were ugly losers and Macron not knowing what to say, had me and no doubt thousands of others hooting with laughter. The Trump show is going to run and run, he is the ultimate ugly American and millions of ugly Americans will continue to aggressively support him. A message the rest of the world needs to retain.
    Chris Thomas

    • 17 February 2021 at 3:04am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ ChrisT
      as i said, entertainment is an important part of the story, eli

  • 16 February 2021 at 10:17pm
    Michael Goldhaber says:
    Hello Eli,
    A very thought-provoking piece. Can you give a more precise citation of Freud on demagoguery, please?

    • 16 February 2021 at 11:26pm
      George Williamson says: @ Michael Goldhaber
      The main source of the comments by Freud used in this essay is "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego," first published in 1921. That book can be seen as an extended gloss on Gustav Le Bon's "Psychology of Crowds" (1895), a work that influenced Mussolini, among others. (And I agree with you that this is a very thought-provoking piece.)

    • 17 February 2021 at 3:02am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ George Williamson
      yes, thats right. thats the source

    • 17 February 2021 at 3:02am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Michael Goldhaber
      michael, its been too long. I still have copies of the attention economy, eli

  • 16 February 2021 at 11:20pm
    Peter Horsman says:
    Thank you. Interesting and apt (from up here in chilly Canada) however, the extreme re-distribution of $ from down to up in recent decades south of the 49th is to my mind a root cause deserving of emphasis that I don't see it getting mainline. Remove the barriers to higher education - how can a family who can't put together 500$ for an emergency finance higher education for their kids at something like a couple of hundred grand per head - or pay interest to the financial sector -- while other sectors have ensured they have the loot for their progeny -- ditto for health care -- and perhaps Trump would not have been so successful a lightning rod (perhaps the other "identity" issues might dissipate). Yes, the big lie, but don't forget to foreground `The Big Short.'

    • 17 February 2021 at 3:05am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Peter Horsman
      I'm with you eli

  • 17 February 2021 at 1:59am
    Michael L Hays says:
    Quite right in all respects. The choice is an easy one in this democracy. You either believe in equality--racial, gender, religious, etc.--or you believe in some form of autocracy. There is no middle ground. Bigots are those who need to rely on a sense of inequality. They feel a sense of superiority to others or have a fear of the superiority of others (e.g., antisemites fear all-powerful Jews). So it is fair to say that any prejudice is a "tell" of an un-American.

    • 17 February 2021 at 1:08pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Michael L Hays
      there are some complications in that.

  • 17 February 2021 at 2:09am
    James Walter says:
    This is a terrific analysis. Media preoccupations may mean that Trump's insurrection will be displaced in the short term, but his followers have not gone away and we will continually be reminded of the mass psychology behind their eruptions. Nor will historians forget what happened, so his infamy will be an unavoidable factor in presidential histories.

    • 17 February 2021 at 1:09pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ James Walter
      I agree

  • 17 February 2021 at 6:51am
    Robert van Krieken says:
    Great piece, thanks for writing it, always like your work, Eli. There's a book in there waiting to be released! There's a nice line in Frank Ankersmit's Political Representation, where he talks about the other mass psychology theorists like Le Bon and Tarde, alongside Freud: "And this loss of the individual self into the collectivity is not at all a brutalization of the individual by the group or crowd; we see here rather a voluntary self-amputation by the individual of those personality aspects that stand in the way of loss into collectivity. The adaptation of the individual to the collective crowd arises spontaneously from the individual and is emphatically not the result of some external constraint or of the tyranny of the crowd's leader." (p. 64) So the societal underpinnings of that inclination to 'volunarty self-amputation' (I did it for Trump) is one of the core issues. Alongside all the others...Looking at Paul Werner's comment on 'Resentful modernity', the concept of 'ressentiment' and how that's been discussed recently would also be interesting.

    • 17 February 2021 at 1:10pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Robert van Krieken
      very helpful

  • 17 February 2021 at 10:44am
    Dyfan Lewis says:
    Trump has always evoked for me William Burroughs' character AJ the Last of the Bigtime Spenders (who whipped his troup of purple assed baboons to a frenzy before turning them on an object of his amusement).
    Eli, your article is profound and amazngly valuable.
    Regards, Dyfan

    • 17 February 2021 at 1:10pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Dyfan Lewis
      great image. thanks for the comment

  • 17 February 2021 at 11:30am
    Alphonso Capriolo says:
    best article on trumpism , I have read. Its a pity the author does not enlarge his scope by noting how some of the classic attitudes outlined have their outlet also in American foreign policy. The genocidal racism shown towards vietnamese, iraqi, syrian and a host of other nations was exhibited long before trump, and envelops both parties and different types of leaders; different images same ruthlessness.

    • 17 February 2021 at 1:11pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Alphonso Capriolo
      excellet point

  • 17 February 2021 at 12:25pm
    Ted Eames says:
    Many thanks for this excellent summary.
    I would add one further element to your five: the immovable presence of an ossified electoral system and Constitution that are no longer fit for purpose.
    The American electoral college system now has little connection to democracy. The Constitution has taken on the status of a holy writ which neither party will risk changing. The Supreme Court is determined by political party bias.
    The current Democrat refrain that "democracy is fragile" is even truer than they appear to comprehend.

    • 17 February 2021 at 1:12pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Ted Eames
      worth going into this question

  • 17 February 2021 at 1:11pm
    Graucho says:
    There is a raison d'être for Trump's bullying in addition to those mentioned in the piece. He is a consumate con artist and bullying is an essential component of the fraudster's tool kit. Divert and distract, keep the mark's eye off the ball. Every time something negative about Trump's presidency came up he would do something outrageous to change the headlines. The MO was to outrage your opponents to the point where they were so incensed that they couldn't think straight. Remember Robert Maxwell ? He used similar tactics. Threats of writs and attacks on his critics. Hardly surprising Trump is good friends with his daughter. Birds of a feather and all that. Trump's tax returns show him to be an abysmal business failure. He was rescued by the enormous success of The Apprentice which enabled him to commit the second biggest con of his career. Convincing the U.S. public that he was a good businessman. The biggest con was convincing them that he would be a competent president. Well as McMillan had it "Events dear boy events". The corona virus is immune to bullying. It laid his inherent incompetence bare for all to see.

    • 17 February 2021 at 3:49pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Graucho
      well put

  • 17 February 2021 at 3:42pm
    amanesciri says:
    A big lie, so infuriating to so many, still captures the imagination of the aggrieved and believing crowd.
    He knew what he was doing. He must be confronted in court for his unconscionable acts.

    • 17 February 2021 at 8:28pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ amanesciri
      lets hope so

  • 17 February 2021 at 4:56pm
    Atique says:
    The picture of America as a good place ... is gone

    • 17 February 2021 at 8:28pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Atique
      idealizations die slowly

  • 17 February 2021 at 7:11pm
    Sherry McHarg says:
    Best book that covers this subject was written in 1973 by Ernest Becker, professor of Cultural Anthropology at Berkley. It won the Pulitzer prize for best non-fiction in 1974: The Denial of Death

    Post humously, his wife and publisher decided to publish his final work, Escape from Evil, that really lays out the cataclysmic consequences of the human response to the denial of death, as he takes on heroism in the form of Adolf Hitler and other examples of scapegoating and transference from time in memorium.

    • 17 February 2021 at 8:29pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Sherry McHarg
      I'm wondering why you say this. I know Becker's book of course but I'm not sure of the connection. Would love to hear more.

  • 18 February 2021 at 6:55am
    Peter L says:
    A really illuminating analysis of the new Big (or Yuuge) Lie. Looking forward as well to the future publication of these essays in some form. The point at the end that not all "regressions" of the crowd are the same is a very important one, as is the subsequent distinction of the role of crowds in the Black, women's, and gay liberation movements of the 60s: the latter expanded our understanding of freedom, but also gave a response to the meaning and implications of equality in the historical present.

    Doesn't Freud's category of "regressions," though, hinder rather than help making these necessary distinctions between forms of the crowd? His analysis definitely does not present the same kind of blatant projection that, following in the steps of fascism, Trumpism does (conservative white American voters and small property owners as the real victims, not Black people who have been historically disenfranchised or subjected to systematic police brutality; the claim of a "stolen election" that serves to subvert and actually steal the electoral vote, etc.). Nonetheless, Freud thought that the crueler forms of intolerance towards out-groups and non-believers could return after their secular decline if "socialistic" ties replaced the libidinal ties of religion, a political prognosis that, as Adorno argued, blamed "the 'socialists' for what their German archenemies did." Benjamin had similarly criticized Le Bon for conflating the "petty bourgeois mass" (the "compact mass" subsequently mobilized by fascism) not just with the masses as such, but more specifically (to use his old language) with the "class-conscious, proletarian mass," which only appeared compact from the perspective of the ruling elite. This second mass form could loosen the rigidity of the former through the work of solidarity. To stay with the recent genealogy of far-right capitol sieges emphasized by Raskin, the collective song of "solidarity forever" led by the late Anne Feeney at the Wisconsin capitol in the uprising of 2011 can serve as a useful contrast:

    Benjamin's conception of the compact mass--itself tied to the earlier age of mass media--should, in my view, be extended to the social media or industry of the present, and the rise of so-called identity politics. Identity politics can, no doubt, also take more compact forms. And progressivism, insofar as it congeals into an identity, can make "regression" appear a paradoxically up-to-date way of categorizing all collective action. But for the kind of reactionary crowd in the Jan 6th insurrectionary act, it is hard not to see a new iteration of Benjamin's supposedly out-dated formulation: Trumpism (or Bolsonarismo...) gives the masses "expression" in keeping property relations unchanged, rather than ceding to the masses' "right" to changed property relations. (The more cult-like appeal to second amendment, free speech, or back-to-work "rights" would not be an exception to this rule but its confirmation, just as the fight for universal healthcare or a green new deal would require at the very least an alteration of neoliberal property relations). As the history laid out in Eli's illuminating essay above attests, property, like property relations, is not some pure natural, legal or economic form, separate from a society formed through settler colonialism and slavery. Contra more obtuse left critics of identity politics as necessarily "petty bourgeois," I'm with those who continue to say, after the previous wave of uprisings, when Black Lives Matter, everyone lives better.

    • 18 February 2021 at 4:46pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Peter L
      Peter, this is a terrifically interesting and sophisticated post. Perhaps more sophisticated than me! First some questions 1) are you the peter Lehman from Arizona State? 2) Ehere does Freud say this: Freud thought that the crueler forms of intolerance towards out-groups and non-believers could return after their secular decline" 3) Where does Benjamin talk about the "compact mass" and what does he mean by this. (I plan to write onBenjamin). Give me some references.
      4) Id like to hear more about this: property, like property relations, is not some pure natural, legal or economic form, separate from a society formed through settler colonialism and slavery.. Can you email me at so we can continue this conversation.

    • 18 February 2021 at 7:29pm
      Peter L says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      I am, alas, not that Peter Lehman. Judging from what I've seen of his numerous titles, he may know his Freud much better than I do, but the references above were from 2) Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego, I believe, and Adorno's analysis of it in "Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda," which has had a resurgence in both the U.S. and Brazil since the rise of Trump and Bolsonaro; and 3) a long footnote in the Work of Art essay, I think all versions, though I am working from the second. I'll have time for an email later today, Best, P

    • 18 February 2021 at 10:14pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Peter L
      thanks, look forward to your email, eli

  • 18 February 2021 at 5:23pm
    Peter Morningsnow says:
    The clause: "It is simply impossible for any moderately rational person to believe that a national election can be stolen" needs qualification. In 2016, it wasn't irrational to think Russian hackers helped tilt the election toward Trump. Nor is it irrational to allow other "rigging" might offset an election in the present or the future. (There was once even a rumor of dead souls in Chicago being the deciding votes for Kennedy.)

    • 18 February 2021 at 7:01pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Peter Morningsnow
      well, there is a difference between "helped tilt" and "stolen." Many factors "helped tilt" the election to the Democrats, including many that are unfair. But "stolen."

  • 18 February 2021 at 10:01pm
    StephenKMackSD says:
    I don’t think that anyone can doubt the failure of the whole of America’s Political Class! Trump is just the symptom. Neo-Liberalism’s Social/Political/Economic Engineering destroyed what was left of The New Deal, and in its place Free Market Utopianism gained powerful friends and allies: Reagan and then The Clintons.Except that in 2008 it Crashed ,with resounding thud! We have yet to regain prosperity, or anything resembling it.

    Eli Zaretsky’s watery emulsion of Freud and Politics, leaves this reader wondering about the time I spent reading its meander. After watching four days of the highlights, of this American Political Melodrama, without witnesses or evidence- it did not restore my confidence in that Political Class. After The Mueller Report, and the first ‘Impeachment Trial’, and this episode, the best I can muster is cynicism.


    • 18 February 2021 at 10:15pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ StephenKMackSD
      watery emulsion! I love it! Eli

    • 18 February 2021 at 11:06pm
      StephenKMackSD says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Recall this oldy but goody?

      'Eli Zaretsky on Political Freud, a comment by Philosophical Apprentice'

    • 19 February 2021 at 3:29pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ StephenKMackSD
      I never saw this before. I look forward to reading it, eli

  • 19 February 2021 at 11:51am
    Doro Marden says:
    From Leslie Sklair, via my partner Doro's account.
    Thought-provoking, definitely - but as a London (UK) based academic who has enjoyed a rather sheltered existence in several US universities in the past, there is one glaring omission in the essay and the comments, namely the absence of any serious engagement on the Left with the problem of the 70+ million who voted for Trump. This mirrors in some respects the absence in the UK of serious engagement with the Brexiteers. In both cases the Left (in general) brands these people as racist and xenophobic. Clearly some are but it is questionable that most are or that White Supremacy is their driving motive for rejecting the "liberal" and "left consensus" in the US and UK re Trump and Brexit. Let's not forget that many well-informed people in the US thought that Bernie could beat Trump, this should tell us something about the complicated composition of the "base" and the rest. Like the Labour Party in the UK, the Democrats in the US seem increasingly distant from what we can still call the "working class" (note that Biden in his Inauguration speech specifically referenced the "middle class"). We can all celebrate the fact that Biden did beat Trump, but if genuine radical change is to be achieved the Left in the USA, as in the UK has got to work out ways of communicating with the "working class", Trump-voters and Brexiteers.

    • 19 February 2021 at 3:30pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Doro Marden
      I was trying to engage with them. Eli

  • 19 February 2021 at 6:25pm
    pittsburgh joe says:
    The Democrats should have attacked the GOP lawyers as follows: Who do YOU think won the election? Do YOU think that Barack Obama is an American citizen? How has your client answered these two questions? What manner of man would give the answers that your client gave? That is why we are here today.
    Who knows what the response would have been? But would have been a teachable moment to end all for millions of people.

    • 19 February 2021 at 9:40pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ pittsburgh joe
      they did ask the lawyers the first question

    • 20 February 2021 at 2:17am
      pittsburgh joe says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Thanks for the correction.

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