Beyond, or beneath, “Fascism”

From the Series: American Fascism

A view of the crowd northeast of the Washington Monument, shortly before President Trump's speech, January 6, 2021. Photo by Gregory Starrett.

Not long ago I spoke to an ardent Trump supporter who said, “I know the lies aren’t true, but I still believe them!” She was furious about the 2020 election results and Trump’s subsequent impeachment. At the time, it was clear to me that she felt much more than that an election had been “stolen” from her and her group, and the helplessness she was experiencing was further fueling her anger. I know this person and I do not believe she subscribes to any singular or coherent political ideology, nor do I believe she deserves to be called a “fascist.” What I do know is that she currently feels deflated and defensive.

I offer this vignette to say that while I appreciate current inquiries having to do with American fascism, I do not think fascism—regardless of how we define it, can explain this woman’s feelings or outlook. Nor do I think it can explain the capitol riots and the rise of right-wing extremism and political violence in the United States more generally. There may be value in trying to understand our present in terms of one or another fascist past, but I think other and more interesting options are available to us. With this in mind, I propose that we bracket fascism and instead try to understand how the entanglement of group psychology, leadership, and rage may have impacted the feelings and outlook of the woman just mentioned, and the millions of other Americans like her. Put differently, I propose that we attempt to go beyond, or perhaps beneath, fascism.

To do this, I suggest that we take ideas familiar to psychoanalysts more seriously, starting with the notion that de-routinizing experiences are often coped with in regressive ways, and these regressive processes are amplified in groups. This is to say that things like the Covid-19 epidemic, economic scarcity, racial unrest, political paralysis, and other ruptures of normative order can and do give rise to psychologically immature attempts to ward off anxiety and fuse with sources of goodness and protection. Groups play key roles in this, in part, because they can provide individuals with a sense of protection, support, and worth. But as Sigmund Freud (1922) noted, participation in large groups can also result in the weakening of individual moral constraints and the capacity for self-reflection. Moreover, group membership is often accompanied by the idealization of a leader who functions as a parental surrogate, a leader who may be loved, feared, and even cast as the purveyor of absolute truth as a consequence of severe regression and powerful dependency needs. Here much hinges on the personality of the leader, whose maturity can help mitigate against the onset of group pathology, or whose narcissism and paranoia can infect the group, ultimately dividing the world into trusted “insiders” who must be protected, and malevolent “outsiders” who must be neutralized or even destroyed.

Additionally, we might think about how these processes can give rise to something akin to a group-self that comes to serve as the repository of values and ideals dear to those who constitute it. And we might think about how attacks on those values and ideals (or their representatives), along with shared group experiences involving humiliation, defeat, or helplessness are metabolized by followers, especially when they are felt to be personally injurious. In most cases, these developments evoke narcissistic rage accompanied by a paranoid thirst to get back at perceived victimizers and reestablish a sense of security and superiority.

There is clearly much more to say about all this and the psychoanalytic literature on these and related issues is substantial. My point is simply that, as a psychoanalytically trained anthropologist, I believe this literature is good to think with. This is not to say that I believe the ideas just mentioned have universal relevance or are worthy of widespread acceptance. It is merely to say that there is value in entertaining them and seeing what they might help bring into focus. Specifically, I believe the few ideas just presented give us good reasons to think a bit differently and perhaps more deeply about the underpinnings of the political polarization and violence associated with the Capitol attacks on January 6, 2021. I also think they may help inform ethnographic efforts to understand the current state of affairs.

I say this because these ideas prompt us to start reflecting on both individual and group-selves and their changing investments in the idea of “America.” They invite us to think about the ways political speech having to do with theft and loss, fighting and surrender, and loyalty and betrayal is resonating with people who perceive their values and ideals—important parts of themselves, to be under attack. They compel us to think about the myriad fractures in the national social and political fabric that are ripe for exploitation by leaders, as well as the injuries, unmet needs, insecurities, and desires carried by those dependent upon them and everything they symbolize. They allow us to think anew about the current attraction of conspiracy theories and other forms of disinformation that protect cherished versions of reality while channeling moral rage at perceived threats to those realities. As the vignette I provided suggests, some “lies” cannot be extinguished by mere facts; their appeal has other determinations. And these ideas invite us to consider our own engagements in these processes. They give us reasons to question whether labeling people “deplorables” or “fascists” is an answer to something, or the enactment of something. Finally, they force us to ask how much of this is uniquely American and tied to twenty-first-century concerns, and how much of it we have seen in other times and places. In sum, they give us lots of reasons to think beyond, or beneath, what may or may not be “fascism,” and to do so in the spirit of truly trying to understand one another and become a better “us.”


Freud, Sigmund. 1922. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Translated by James Strachey. New York: Boni and Liveright.