Will Americans Submit to Despotism in an Urge to 'Escape from Freedom'? Erich Fromm Saw It Coming

Human Rights

President Donald Trump took his rancorous feud with the press to a frightening new level last week when he posted an inflammatory tweet that echoed tyrants of the past, calling the all-caps “FAKE NEWS” media “the enemy of the American People.”

As many were quick to point out, the phrase “enemy of the people” has a disturbing and violent history, and has long been used by totalitarian dictators to foster resentment and hatred of certain groups, and eventually to crush dissent and opposition. The infamous French revolutionary and Reign of Terror apologist Robespierre declared that the revolutionary government owed “nothing to the enemies of the people but death,” while the term was widely used in Stalinist Russia to single out dissidents, who were either imprisoned, executed or sent to the Gulag (in the end, almost all of the original Bolsheviks became “enemies of the people” during the great purge — which in reality meant enemies of Joseph Stalin).

Needless to say, the fact that President Trump thought it was appropriate to use this incendiary language on the free press — long considered the “bulwark of liberty” — is dangerous and alarming, and just the latest manifestation of the Trump administration’s authoritarian tendencies. Just one month into his term, the president has spent most of his time in public scapegoating and demonizing the free press, blatantly lying and espousing conspiracy theories that undermine faith in the electoral system and displaying his contempt for the idea of separation of powers and judicial review (once again attacking a sitting federal judge).

None of this behavior is particularly surprising for a man who has spent that past two years shattering democratic norms — e.g., threatening to jail his political opponent, encouraging violence against peaceful protesters, publicly sympathizing with oppressive dictators, advocating war crimes and so on.

It is tempting to write this all off as Donald being Donald — an impulsive, thin-skinned little man-child who can’t take any criticism — but that would be a mistake. Trump has surrounded himself with sycophantic enablers and right-wing extremists who appear eager to advance his authoritarian agenda. One of these individuals is the president’s 31-year-old senior adviser, Stephen Miller, a weaselly young man who would be perfectly cast as a Star Wars villain. Last week, Miller made the almost cartoonish assertion that “our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

Like the phrase “enemy of the people,” this is the kind of language used by party hacks in a totalitarian state, not a free and democratic society.

Not long ago this kind of rhetoric would have provoked outrage from both sides of the aisle and widespread disapproval from the populace. But today, in our hyper-partisan political landscape, many Americans have instead cheered Trump and his administration’s increasingly dictatorial and undemocratic behavior. This invites the question of whether the American people will stand up to autocracy if and when it comes, and how much of the populace is actually prepared to give up its freedom and submit to a strongman.

Shortly after the election, Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who recently said that we have “at most a year to defend the Republic,” wrote a chilling article in Slate narrating Adolf Hitler’s unexpected rise to power — without once saying his name — to draw parallels with our current historical situation, and to highlight how the German people quickly fell in line once Hitler had consolidated power and established his totalitarian regime.

One of the many brilliant Jewish intellectuals to flee from Germany after Hitler’s rise, philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm attempted to explain the shocking spread of totalitarianism in his lifetime with his influential and urgent 1941 book, “Escape from Freedom.” This classic investigation into the psychology of authoritarianism can help elucidate some of what is happening today. In the first half of the book, Fromm surveys the profound cultural, economic and political changes that had occurred since the Middle Ages with the Protestant Reformation and the emergence of industrial capitalism, and explores how these shifts impacted the human psyche and the individual’s interaction with the external world.

Fromm posits that industrialization and the rise of liberalism resulted in the “complete emergence” of the individual (i.e., “individuation”), along with newfound freedom, but also upended “primary ties” that had once provided men and women with “security and a feeling of belonging and of being rooted somewhere.” In other words, modernization freed man from traditional authorities that had greatly limited him, but also provided him with security and meaning in life. “Growing individuation,” writes Fromm, “means growing isolation, insecurity, and thereby growing doubt concerning one’s role in the universe, the meaning of one’s life, and with all that a growing feeling of one’s own powerlessness and insignificance as an individual.”

That brings us to Fromm’s powerful thesis:

If the economic, social and political conditions on which the whole process of human individuation depends, do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality … while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world which promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of his freedom.

The crucial point Fromm was trying to get across is that personal freedom may not be enjoyable or even desirable to the individual if it also leaves him or her feeling isolated and powerless, or without any kind of meaning or purpose in life. Like Karl Marx, Fromm believed that capitalism had turned human beings into cogs in a machine, sapping them of their individuality and creativity, and leaving them alienated and susceptible to authoritarian forces.

Fromm distinguished between negative freedom, or the “freedom from” traditional authorities and cultural/social restraints, and the positive “freedom to” live authentically and realize one’s true individual self. If one is granted negative freedom without positive freedom, and thus left uncertain, alone and powerless, he or she may be inclined to escape from freedom and submit to a higher authority. An analogy would be the urge that many adults have felt at least once in their life to return to their mother’s womb, where one is deprived of freedom, but safe from the dangerous and chaotic outside world.

It is not hard to see this psychology at work in modern America, where economic inequality has grown rapidly over the past several decades, where livelihoods have been outsourced or automated and where communities have collapsed due to the forces of globalization and the technological revolution, leaving millions of people desperate and isolated. When these economic factors are combined with other factors, including the perceived dangers facing America (i.e., Islamic terrorism) — which are greatly inflated by the mass media and politicians — and cultural/social shifts over the past few decades, the victory of an authoritarian demagogue like Trump becomes less surprising (as does the fact that Trump supporters are more likely to display authoritarian personality traits).

The danger of the increasingly authoritarian Trump administration is heightened by the growing number of Americans who are now prepared to support a strongman if it means restoring, as it were, “primary ties” that once provided “security and a feeling of belonging and of being rooted somewhere.”

Seventy-five years ago Fromm argued that to counteract this dangerous drive toward authoritarianism, it was necessary to “expand the principle of government of the people, by the people, for the people, from the formal political to the economic sphere.” Democracy, he continued, “will triumph over the forces of nihilism only if it can imbue people with a faith … in life and in truth, and in freedom as the active and spontaneous realization of the individual self.”

Like Bernie Sanders today, Fromm advocated democratic socialism and believed that only a truly democratic society — politically and economically — could stop the dark clouds of despotism. Today, as President Trump rehashes the language of past tyrants, one can only hope that the desire for freedom will triumph over the urge to submit.

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