Fascism as Narcissistic Abuse
I’d like to offer some perspective on the current political chaos in the United States using my experience and training as a therapist applied to a broader social context. I have noted (along with others) that the Trump movement is an exemplar of the patterns and commonly-used methods of narcissistic abusers in private life. A large percentage of my therapy clients are recovering from this type of trauma, administered by their primary caregivers when they were children. This can take the form of physical and sexual abuse as well as emotionally abusive manipulation, menacing, isolating, gaslighting, shaming, and other domineering tactics. Now our entire nation is subject to such abuse, emanating from the White House and its enablers.
To understand this politically, we must first be able to identify Trumpism as a nascent fascist movement, and acknowledge that fascist ideology has been burgeoning in the Republican Party for quite some time. Whereas fascist elements have been active on the fringes of the Republican Party since the movement’s birth in the 1920s, fascism has only moved into the mainstream of party attitudes and practices in the past two decades. These include attempts to subvert both democratic norms and democracy itself: the dismantling of voting rights, voter suppression, Clinton’s impeachment, unprecedented obstructionism to the point of national sabotage under Obama, the theft of the 2000 election, naked gerrymandering, and withdrawal from the entire democratic process with the Merrick Garland nomination and Republican vows to deny a future President Clinton any Supreme Court confirmations, sight unseen.
The growing fascism among Republican ideology also includes increased armed interventions, defense and use of torture, support for extrajudicial exercises of force, militarized and unaccountable policing, and hyper-nationalism. Added to this are ongoing transfers of power to the billionaire class and powerful corporate and financial interests, and bringing bigotry out of the shadows and back into the mainstream, with vociferous demonization of African-Americans, Latinos, Queer People, and Immigrants. Remarkably, the Trump movement has even brought antisemitism back into mainstream political discourse.
The seeds for this movement, planted long ago, were nurtured by the surrender of the nation’s radio waves to the right-wing hate speech of Rush Limbaugh and his subsequent imitators, then supplemented by Fox News and now Breitbart, the latest and most blatant iteration of this fascist ideology. The Trump movement merely demonstrated the flowering of this preparatory work into broad daylight. Over the past year, the nation has asked, “Who are these new Trump voters?” The answer is, they largely consist of the same Republican voters that already existed, molded into their current form by the aforementioned fascist media and political movement of the previous 20 years.
The phenomenon that made this possible was the creation of an alternative reality. This is our gravest danger. The construction of an alternate reality is also a central component of what makes narcissistic and psychopathic abuse possible. The term “gaslighting” is the commonly-used term to summarize these tactics. Through well-crafted lies and manipulation, the abuse victim is made to question their own sanity, their own perception of reality. They are made to blame themselves for the abuse, to believe the abuse is administered out of justice or even love.
For the narcissist, the alternate reality also serves the purpose of justifying and perpetuating the ongoing abuse. The narcissist is able to see himself as the victim. The abuse is not abuse, but necessary to protect himself, necessary to achieve good, and then later is outright denied and forgotten. The narcissist believes his own lies. Reality is constantly pliable to his changing needs and shifting circumstances. The picture in his mind remains solid in one way: he is always justified in his actions, both victim and hero, self-righteous in his tactics and beliefs. Furthermore, third parties are also brought into the gaslit reality. They are cajoled and seduced into believing the abuser’s projected story and become his enabler. They assure the victim that the abuser is not really abusing them, is not really a threat. They encourage the victim to reach out to their abuser, to try harder to please him, to understand him, to placate him, to take responsibility for his actions.
By now, it has become common for thoughtful observers to identify Trump’s narcissism. Where we lag behind still, is to differentiate between the regular spectrum of narcissism that all of us inhabit to some degree and the extreme version exhibited by Trump. We are still hesitant to identify his extreme narcissism for what it is: psychopathy. While exhibiting all of the textbook insecurities and pathologies of a severely afflicted narcissist, his narcissistic lack of empathy is elevated to the psychopathic level: an aggressive and compulsive need to hurt others, and an apparent enjoyment in afflicting them and asserting dominance thereby. Others pulling the strings behind the Trump movement, such as Steve Bannon or Vladimir Putin, share in these psychopathic abusive tendencies, as do some of his followers. The vast majority of the Republicans surrounding him or voting for him are not abusers themselves, but fill the role of enablers. They have allowed themselves to participate in, normalize, and even endorse the false reality created by the right-wing media and Trump’s fascist movement because they have identified ways in which it benefits them or serves an unmet emotional need. Thus, like the narcissist, they perpetuate the gaslit reality and begin to see themselves as victims and heroes, to see the abuse as justified and righteous — not abuse at all.
While their alternative reality is intact, it is impossible to appeal to their better nature, because in that reality, they are already acting on their better nature. This is why the persistence of the alternate reality is the most dangerous element of fascism, as well as the most dangerous element of privately-administered abuse. To the degree that its falsehood remains impenetrable, the abuse is impossible to prevent, on a societal or on an individual level. And so we can see fascism for what it is: a societal justification of abuse, an outlet for unprocessed emotional pain, transferred into rage and violence, and fostered in a container created by unexamined lies and the false realities created thereby.
Who are the victims? That is easy to see. The victims are those who are most vulnerable in society: the poor, the different, the powerless. Vulnerability to the societal abuse of fascism is calculated as an intersection of these factors. Factors that determine one’s vulnerability/power include but are not limited to income and wealth; ethnic, racial, nationhood, religious, sexual, and cultural status; and educational attainment, gender, age, ableness, language skills, and acculturation. The vaunted poorly-educated white voter at the center of the Trump coalition is the tragic case of of the victim identified with the abuser, in this instance hoping to mitigate their own powerlessness by benefiting from the oppression of others who can be targeted for abuse due to minority status. The false reality, the container that holds the abusive rationale, allows them to identify with their own real victimhood, but falsely identify their abusers as those who are even more deeply victimized, not the actual abuser. Thus we witness the absurd phenomenon of a nationwide Stockholm Syndrome — downtrodden white constituents entrusting the most pure representative of the abusive class possible, namely Trump, to deliver them from his very abuse.
Sadly, this is not uncommon. As a therapist, I encounter this in sessions every week on a micro level. A large percentage of mental health clients are survivors of narcissistic or psychopathic abuse, or of the milder, but still damaging phenomenon of the dysfunctional family system. These conditions exist on a spectrum of severity, but produce the same class of effects: a fractured sense of self, deep-seated experiences of shame and self-blame, desperate attempts to escape from or process the pain via addictions or reenactments of the abuse in new relationships. Indeed, the narcissistic abusers themselves are almost invariably products of the same kind of abuse, suffered during their own childhoods. The child may emerge into adulthood as an abuser, may fall prey to new abusers and remain victims, or may do both at the same time, often through internalization — abusing themselves through self-sabotage of various kinds.
My task as therapist for these clients is to encourage self-compassion, to encourage them to safely separate themselves from ongoing abuse, but most of all, to assist my clients in escaping the false reality that fostered the abuse in the first place. To recognize the abuse and the abuser for what they are and were. To recognize the injustice. To recognize that they did not deserve this treatment. To learn to love themselves, however frightening, however scary, however undeserving they may feel. To learn that this is where healing is found. Many of my clients are tempted to justify the actions of their abusers, locating their own self-worth in this selfless act. As therapist, my role is to caution them against this. It can be useful to empathize with the source of their abuser’s pathology (their own history of childhood abuse) because it helps my clients recognize that their trauma was not caused by themselves. But if their abusers have not been healed, remaining deep in the grips of their narcissistic alternate reality (which tragically, is usually the case), extending license to their abusers in this way only fuels their narcissism and ongoing abusive practices. It only perpetuates the false reality that allows the abuse to continue.
The same holds true on a societal and political level. For those of us who recognize the growing fascist movement in America, our primary duty is to resolutely defend our shared reality, adherence to history, to facts and evidence, to identifying the actual victims and actual abusers, the actual threats to democracy we are facing. This has nothing to do with demonizing Trump, Bannon, and the rest of their ilk. The false reality of “alternative facts,” climate-change denial, fake news, reverse victimhood, normalization of these, and of false equivalence (pretending Democrats or the left are equally implicated) is the foundation of the fascism we are now forced to resist from the White House. It is imperative on us as individuals, and on all members of the press who would preserve democracy, to speak out with clear voices and determination in defense of our shared reality. We are called to take action to limit the dissemination of the false realities that breed fascism. Our society as a whole is now tasting the fruits of untold generations of narcissistic abuse writ large on the national stage. Our task is to break this history. Our task is to honor and defend reality itself.