As violence increasingly permeates rallies for Donald Trump in stride with the speaker's unrelenting animus against women, Muslims, Mexicans, and protesters, analysts have scrambled to interpret the source of his disturbing power. Cogent economic and political interpretations have been offered. However, deeply irrational group behavior also needs to be analyzed in terms of what we know about collective regression. The behaviors seen in Mr. Trump's rallies demonstrate that both leader and followers often seem to operate in a realm dominated by raw emotion and fantasy.
When large groups confront leaders with frustration, anger, and longing, different responses are possible. Effective leaders can draw on a repertoire of strategies to answer urgent group feelings. For example, they can demonstrate real understanding, give voice to the group's sense of urgency, and propose realistic courses of action. In short, they can acknowledge powerful feelings while also pushing back against them by offering something more in exchange. Sadly, for some leaders, riding the crowd's waves of emotion may feel intoxicating, and fuel a need for power and acclaim.
Group members may at times set aside their own individual "brakes" on aggression as they identify with a leader who not only permits or encourages "bad" or angry feelings, but who also makes expressing them "fun". In such a group setting, there can be immense enjoyment in briefly sharing "badness" in the guise of playful irreverence with others in the crowd. Stand-up comedians often add to their popularity by initiating brief suspensions of what is usually considered to be polite speech. However, for groups under the sway of a wilfully or unintentionally exploitative leader, this temporary suspension of civility can be whipped up into something more dangerous.
Donald Trump engages with the crowds who come to see him with an initial sense of "play": "We have fun here at these rallies, don't we?" Many of his followers express relief at "hearing someone who talks straight", unlike the careful, "doctored- sounding" speech of some seasoned establishment politicians. However, the sense of relief and fun push into increasingly dangerous territory ("Really, enough of this political correctness! I am going to say it like it is!") into something more ugly. ("These protestors would never have been allowed to do this back in the day. They would have been beaten up so badly they would never have dared to protest again!") Such utterances, along with Trump's suggestions that he will pay the legal bills of anyone who roughs up a protester, are blatant appeals to an undercurrent of sadism that can co-exist with, but is quite different from anger regarding accumulated social inequalities or injustices.
Rene Kaes, a psychoanalyst who is an expert in irrational organizational behavior, observes that groups must learn to accept that members share different as well as overlapping ideals, goals and history. To accept difference means realizing that all group members are people with their own individual motivations and life stories. Once this basic realization is shared, it becomes more difficult to project group members' fantasies onto others. When it is not, groups become increasingly irrational, seeking unrealistic uniformity. When Trump labels people as "protesters", "Mexicans", and "Muslims", he encourages dangerous projective fantasies onto dehumanized 'others.'
Trump's recent requests that his followers raise their right arms to salute him constitute a further invitation to irrational crowd behavior. In a perversion of our political pact as a democratic nation, Trump's followers are being asked to pledge allegiance to a magical leader who promises to fulfill their frustrated fantasies. This leader will make us "strong", will stand up to those whom he classifies as our enemies. By encouraging followers to identify with his prowess, his gutsiness, his financial and political daring, they are made to feel more powerful.
In this appeal to fantasy, Trump draws on several psychological sources, some universal and others specific to his followers' particular life experience. He rebuffs the hard-won efforts of women, African Americans, Latinos and gays to gain rights and recognition when he speaks, with a wink and a nod, about those who "weaken us". Among these, according to Trump, are women with their "bleeding "menstrual flows, African- Americans who whine about needing protection from excessive scrutiny and prejudicial treatment by police, and economic slackers who are seeking what has been rightfully earned by others. The insults are intended to provide former members of the middle class, who have felt left behind by diminishing American household incomes over the last 15 years, with a target for their rage. This approach feeds aggressive fantasies about "these other people" who have reportedly received preferential treatment that lead to ordinary Americans suffering unfair economic losses.
Trump also appeals to mythical "memories" that stir up very specific emotions. "No one would have gotten away with protests like this...". Such reminders of a purer or unsullied past are common among leaders who appeal to to universal longings for simpler times, but also to those voters who nurture anger related to specific historic traumas . Stirring associations to the Confederacy - a time when stalwart rebel ancestors nobly repelled Yankee (federalist) invaders seeking to dictate an alien way of life - stokes a mythic nostalgia among some Southern voters for a time when "everyone knew his place" in society. This kind of nostalgia has been described by psychoanalyst -diplomat Vamik Volkan in his study of nations that have, in generations or even centuries past, undergone devastating defeats in war. Collective memories of injury, humiliation, and rage are passed down for generations. Such "chosen traumas", as Volkan calls them, are easily accessed by descendants when they are evoked by current, often unrelated traumas that revive similar feelings of humiliation and loss.
Rather than focusing on practical solutions to pressing current problems within our nation, Donald Trump seems content to stoke intense emotions and regressive fantasies among his followers. In this way, Trump offers a perverse form of leadership, one that encourages a child-like flight from reality rather than inspiring shared aspirations for the practical solutions that our democratic republic desperately needs.