Dr. Anna Ornstein is a Supervising Analyst at BPSI. Her remarks below originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2017 issue of the BPSI Bulletin, which can be read here.


Psychoanalytic Theories and Political Realities

In the years immediately following the Second World War, a group of European immigrants–philosophers, social scientists, and psychoanalysts–known as members of the Frankfurt School, experienced feelings of déjà vu in relation to some aspects of the political developments in the United States. On the basis of interviews with American racists and individuals expressing antidemocratic and paranoid sentiments, Theodor Adorno assembled a volume titled The Authoritarian Personality in 1950. In this publication, they constructed a psychological profile of a potentially fascistic personality1 and predicted a situation in the United States in which a large number of people would be susceptible to psychological manipulation by such a person, a potential leader. However, their dire predictions did not materialize at that time. The McCarthy danger came and went, not without its victims, as did the Nixon era; free speech was restored, and liberal democracy appeared to triumph. But today, we see a resurgence of interest in the thinking of Adorno, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, and other psychoanalysts and social scientists of that era. In December 2016, one month after the presidential election, the New Yorker published an article titled “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming.” Adorno, in particular, was extraordinarily visionary in his predictions. He believed that the greatest danger to American democracy was the mass-culture apparatus: films, radio, and television. Already in the 1940s, he saw American life as a kind of reality show—and indeed, in 2016, a reality show star was elected president of the United States.

Though not a psychoanalyst, Adorno used psychoanalytic theory to understand the emotional forces that had overtaken various societies at various times in history. His paper “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” (The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, 1982) was originally published in 1948 and has been republished in several American scientific journals since then. The paper was also the subject of a roundtable discussion at the New School for Social Research in the fall of 2017. Using two of Freud’s seminal papers concerned with groups and the nature of civilization, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1922) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Adorno concluded that though Freud did not concern himself with social changes, he clearly foresaw the rise and nature of fascist mass movements in purely psychological terms. Freud based this prediction, Adorno believed, on his recognition of the individual’s weakness and tendency “to yield unquestioningly to powerful outside, collective agencies” (Adorno, p. 120). Fromm (1941) made a similar observation when he wrote that modern societies take refuge from insecurities created by technology by turning to totalitarian regimes like Nazism.

Adorno gave us a chilling description of the relationship between fascist propaganda and the character of the leader, which, in his opinion, Freud derived from the portrait of “the primal father of the horde.” (Freud, 1921, p. 124) Freud’s construction of the leader imagery, Adorno wrote, fits “the picture of Hitler no less than idealizations into which the American demagogues try to style themselves. In order to allow narcissistic identification, the leader has to appear himself as absolutely narcissistic…. Even the fascist leader’s startling inferiority, his resemblance to ham actors and asocial psychopaths, is thus anticipated in Freud’s theory…. One of the basic devices of personalized fascist propaganda is the concept of the ‘great little man,’ a person who suggests both omnipotence and the idea that he is just one of the folks, a plain, red-blooded American, untainted by material or spiritual wealth. The leader image and his appeal to a segment of American society, gratifies the followers twofold wish: to submit to authority and to be the authority himself” (p. 126-127). As if this description didn’t hit the nail on the head for the current American leader, Adorno’s further comments completed the fascist’s psychological profile. He wrote: “The tendency to tread on those below, which manifests itself so disastrously in the persecution of weak and helpless minorities, is as outspoken as the hatred against those outside” (p.128).

Though critical of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Fromm also used Freud’s theory to explain fascism and communism; his description of a “social character” was a direct transposition of Freud’s theory of character formation into the social sphere. Freud’s libido theory offered Fromm an explanation of the energy (“sex energy”) that groups use to achieve their aims. He believed that the “social unconscious” explained the irrational elements in political groups: “ ‘The forces by which man is motivated’ that the way a person acts, feels, and thinks is to a large extent determined by the specificity of his character and is not merely the result of rational responses to realistic situations” (Fromm, 1962, p. 73).

Fromm was critical of practicing psychoanalysts when he observed that very few psychoanalysts had any serious political, philosophical, or religious interests beyond those customary in the urban middle class. He wrote that the adherents of psychoanalysis were people who, for one reason or another, were not interested in serious political and religious problems. Instead of challenging society, they conformed to it; psychoanalysts represented the urban middle class and, with very few exceptions, did not produce any social criticism.

Heinz Kohut, a refugee of the Second World War, used his own theory, psychoanalytic self psychology, to explain political movements and their impact on individual mental life. I found his theory particularly helpful in my understanding of the psychology of perpetrators—his explanation of group formation, his insights into psychological phenomena such as courage and the need for revenge that becomes manifest at times of war and terrorism. Outstanding among his psychoanalytic concepts, I found particularly helpful the concept of the self object that undoes the separation between the external and the internal and the concepts of values and ideals. Because of its relevance to individually held moral values, here I will only focus on the concept of ideals.

In “Forms and Transformations of Narcissism,” Kohut (1966) described ideals as a psychic structure in which the original infantile “narcissism has passed through a cherished object before its reinternalization, and thus, the narcissistic investment itself had been raised to a new developmental level of idealization, (and) accounts for the unique emotional importance of our standards, values, and ideals [italics mine]” (Kohut,1966, p. 249). “Our ideals are our internal leaders; we love them and are longing to reach them” (p. 251). It is the idealized position that ideals have in mental life that explains why both socially beneficial and socially destructive behaviors are pursued with the same high-level passion and commitment. In this position, ideals function like ‘beacons in the sky’ that guide us in the pursuit of our goals. Because ideals are the products of the transformation of narcissism from its infantile to its more mature forms, reaching our ideals fills us with pride; they are the foundation of our self-esteem. On the other hand, failing to reach or approximate our ideals creates shame, a persistent sense of inadequacy.

In some individuals, the values of a charismatic and idealized leader may totally subvert their own individual values and sense of morality. I find this a satisfactory explanation of why the planners and executors of the Holocaust did not experience guilt; rather, they felt pride that they were able to live up to their ideals and make Europe judenfrei.

Once ideals become shared by large numbers of people through steady propaganda, they give groups cohesion and the ability to act on behalf of a charismatic leader. This theoretical reasoning explains why suicide bombers and resistance fighters share the same psychological makeup. Both ideologically motivated groups are ready to brave death rather than betray their ideals; both groups have their ideals in an idealized, exalted position in the psyche, and the fulfillment of those ideals makes them heroes for some and terrorists for others.

In the United States, interest in the relationship between psychoanalysis and political events ebbs and flows, depending on whether the country finds itself threatened by external forces and/or unexpected political upheavals—the Vietnam and Iraq wars, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. In response to the latter, in a roundtable discussion with Neil Altman, Jessica Benjamin, Ted Jacobs, and Paul Wachtel with moderator Amanda Hirsch Geffner (Altman et al, 2004) noted that politics had infused “our lives, our patients’ lives and our in-session lives with our patients. Emotions (fear, sadness, excitement) about things beyond the immediate, familial-social sphere are running high, finding resonance with—and magnifying—many of our more personal concerns in the process” (Ibid, p. 6). However, the interest in the political soon became split off unless either the analyst or the patient was personally involved in these events. More recently, social issues—primarily racial ones—have become more frequent topics at psychoanalytic meetings.

The way that an analyst’s daily practice may be affected by the political is best exemplified by our colleagues in countries where war or terrorism is an everyday event, like Israel. But there, too, as Iddan (2014) reported, analysts still manage to disavow the meaning of the way their lives are affected by these threatening events. I believe that we are all using disavowal as a default position in order to remain functional, a position that becomes reinforced when living under repressive regimes.

Into the Darkness: How Did Enlightenment and Democracy Die in Germany?

Since our interest is in the threat that the current government poses to American democracy, in the following section I will contrast and compare Germany in the 1930s with current political events in the United States.

Political issues that first appear at a distance historically and/or geographically may come closer and become more personal with time. I have found this to be true in my conversations with teachers and students when, as a Holocaust survivor, I visit public and private schools to share my personal experiences to enrich the students’ learning. Among the many questions the students raise, one almost always comes up: “Dr. Ornstein, could it happen here, what happened to you?”

In the past, I did not hesitate with my response. Yes, I would say, there continues to be discrimination and prejudice, and American racial laws remained active long after the Civil War; the Constitution did not protect all citizens equally. However, I reminded the children that we are a multiethnic, multireligious country, and that we have a document, the Constitution, that safeguards the democratic principles under which this country was established and has been governed; no one party or person could become so powerful as to oppress individuals or discriminate against or persecute people on the basis of ethnicity and/or religion.

But after the 2016 election, when I was asked this question, I could not be so quick with my reassuring answer. Now, I had to think: What do I know about the gradual disappearance of democracies around the world? Having grown up in a feudal system in prewar Hungary, I lived under two autocratic and repressive regimes (the Third Reich and, briefly, Communist Hungary), after which, here, in America, I was at times incredulous that one could say what one was thinking without fear of arrest.

In spite of the dire predictions of the European intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s, when one compares the situations of the United States now and Germany in the 1930s, the differences are far greater than the similarities. The two countries differ in all important aspects; they differ in their histories and in their political and social circumstances. Still, the question remains whether or not, under the current administration, our system of  government—specifically, the checks and balances that are built into the American democracy—could resist such events as occurred in Germany.

What happened in Germany between the two world wars was a “perfect storm.” Losing the First World War, Germany was handed a peace deal with extremely stringent terms: The new government had to pay large sums of reparation money, Germany and its allies lost a great deal of territory, and they were ordered to demilitarize—all profoundly humiliating demands. The perfect storm was made complete by increasing unemployment, the 1929 collapse of Europe’s economy, and the worldwide depression. Even when considering that the economic situation in the United States’ Rust Belt carries a great deal of responsibility for the outcome of the 2016 election, economically this is a far cry from the conditions that existed in Germany and all of Europe after the First World War. The short-lived democracy of the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) was no match for the increasing popularity of the Nazi Party’s ultra-nationalist movement: Germany was ready, economically and emotionally, to embrace a megalomaniac who promised to rebuild Germany’s superiority in the world. All Hitler needed was to find a scapegoat, a group of people who could be made responsible for the military debacle in the First World War and the following economic collapse around the world. The Jews were the perfect target: While less than 1 percent of the German population, they were a visible minority, holding important positions at universities, excelling in the sciences, literature, and finance.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, America led the world in race-based legislation. In fact, the Nazis used American racial laws to boost their own. But when American racial laws are put into the context of the larger, more dominant American history, it’s clear that this was not the direction that the country took in the 20th century. After defeating Nazi Germany, the government embraced a more liberal and progressive tone, and the advocates for white supremacy went into the shadows. The 20th century witnessed a strong civil rights movement; gays and lesbians achieved legitimacy as the country returned to the principles on which it was founded, the principles of human equality. Up until recently, until January 2017, the federal government had been opposing and actively fighting endemic racism and discrimination based on ethnicity and religion. With many obstacles in the way, and with a great deal of effort, progress had been made to integrate public schools, to insure voting rights and human rights. Liberal democracy appeared to have a bright future in the second half of the 20th century: In 1989, the Soviet Union, which had spread terror in Eastern Europe, fell apart, and democracies began to establish relatively stable governments. Beyond Europe, apartheid fell in South Africa; even peace in the Middle East looked like a possibility with the Oslo Accords.

But where are we today? The European Union that was to secure lasting peace in Europe has begun to wobble because its mainstay, Germany, is struggling to keep its right wing in check. And here in America, we are concerned about whether or not we will be able to hold on to the two most fundamental aspects of our democracy: a free press and an independent judicial system. The current anti-immigration edicts have strong racial underpinnings: Racism is still a potent presence in social and political life in America. The manner in which the current anti-immigration trend is fueled by deeply entrenched racist attitudes is not different from the way Hitler used centuries-old anti-Semitism to ensure the passage of anti-Jewish legislation. Scapegoating in a relatively well-functioning democracy is particularly dangerous. In this country, the scapegoats are not Jews but Muslims and immigrants.

Once discrimination becomes federally sanctioned (whether openly, as in Germany, or through innuendos by people in authority as in the United States), passions are ignited and violence can readily erupt at public gatherings. Whether politically motivated or because of personal vendetta, the easy availability of guns in this political atmosphere ought to be a grave concern to all. James Gilligan, one of the most respected authorities on violence, considers the president to be extremely dangerous. His view is based on Trump’s own public pronouncements in which he makes “numerous threats of violence, incitements to violence, and boasts of violence that he acknowledges having committed” (Gilligan, 2017, p. 172–73).

As with Hitler, after the first shock of a Trump presidency, many tried to dismiss him as an ineffectual puppet, until he proved his ability to hold on to a loyal political base and to seduce his party into going along with many of his undemocratic and destructive ideas. We have to take note of and be concerned about the fact that the normalization and gradual acceptance of antidemocratic behavior has been under way in the first year and a half of this administration. I am thinking of the undoing of regulations that would protect the environment, the undoing of regulations that would protect consumers in banking, and, most recently, the replacing of local newscasts with a centrally controlled news outlet, Sinclair.

While I believe that what happened in Europe during the Second World War and the 12 years of tyranny in Nazi Germany could never happen in this country, this does not mean that we have nothing to worry about. There are good reasons why many people are making the comparison between Germany in the 1930s and the current state of affairs in the United States. Germany’s slide into a popular embrace of authoritarianism that ended in tyranny offers a frame for understanding how liberal democracies can be totally destroyed in a relatively short period of time. In this country, minimizing, accepting, and dismissing false utterances and provocative behavior by people in authority could be the first steps leading to the destruction of moral values—and with them a democratic way of life —that most Americans hold dear.

The Relationship Between the Individual and His/Her Political and Social Surround

There are considerable differences between the various social and political circumstances under which people live. Because of the differences in individual psychology and the wide variations in the social and political situations that emerge at various times in various countries, we cannot make generalizations as to how potentially traumatic historical, political, and social events may affect a particular individual.

The impact on an individual’s mind of the political and the social depends on many factors. It may be affected by the speed at which a political and/or social change occurs: How much time does one have for the development of defenses, psychological protection against the expected potentially traumatic event? When political changes occur slowly, in an incremental way, they are particularly dangerous. This may be one of the reasons that a group of psychiatrists warned that because the current president of the United States “operates within the broad contours and interactions of the presidency, there is a tendency to view what he does as part of our democratic process—that is, the politically and even ethically normal. In this way, a dangerous president becomes normalized and malignant normality comes to dominate our governing” (Lee, 2017, p. xvii–xviii).

A further question arises: Does the political and social environment affect mental life to the same degree as do other aspects of our emotional surround? I believe that the degree to which political and social issues affect individual mental life depends on how closely these issues impinge on one’s daily existence. I may be briefly upset on reading that LGBTQ people are persecuted in Russia and definitely have a profound reaction to reading about genocide anywhere in the world. However, in relation to both of these issues, my mind will soon turn to matters that concern me and my family more directly.

But how, indeed, does the political become an aspect of mental life? With the introduction of post-Freudian psychoanalytic theories, we recognize that there is a complex and powerful intertwining of history, society, and the psyche. In other words, ethnicity, religion, race, and culture, in all their varied dimensions, are important aspects of one’s conscious and unconscious mental life; they are essential shapers of one’s identity. Hirsch Geffner put it well: “To a certain extent, we inherit our political dispositions, we are born into them…. They adhere inseparably to the strands of our earliest memories, and are intersubjectively and interpersonally constructed as part of our most basic organizing principles. They are deeply rooted (almost feeling “hard-wired”); obdurate, although not totally impervious to the forces of change” (p. 66).

However, it would be a mistake to think that what children inherit affects the next generation without alteration and modification. For example, the children of racist parents may become the most vocal advocates for racial equality. What appears to be important is that these emotionally deeply anchored attitudes can have both beneficial and disastrous impacts on an adult’s political and social orientation. The most striking examples of this occur in the areas in America where the population regularly votes against its own best interests. As a sociologist, Arlie Hochschild (2016) spent five years in the archconservative Louisiana bayou country to understand this puzzling phenomenon. She found her answer in what she called the “deep story” of this region’s hardworking, illness- and poverty-ridden population: “A deep story is a feel-as-if-story—it’s a story feelings tell in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel,” (p. 135) Hochschild explained, asserting, “I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have deep stories.” (p. 135)

Once “deep stories” become solidified, it’s the racial, religious, and cultural inheritance of individuals’ identity that seems to determine how they interact with and relate to their ever-changing political and social environment. The tragedy here is that, for many, the influence of the “deep story” on their voting preferences totally negates the reality of their everyday lives. In the case of the Louisiana voters, what gets split off from consciousness is how the oil industry, which they support, affects their health, their economic status, and their children’s future.

Where Is Hope?

In our current political climate, I am placing my hope in the protest marches, in acts of “civil disobedience,” and in federal judges not yet replaced by the current administration. But my greatest hope is in our young people; it is their clear vision of the direction that this country has to take that could save our democracy from the jaded, amoral behavior of many of our political leaders.

The question is whether or not this “resistance” is sufficient to counterbalance the collaboration of Congress with the destructive efforts of the executive branch of government. The danger, I believe, is the gradual and steady “caving in” of the elected officials who, fearful of losing their positions, appear to follow the leader regardless of how destructive his policies may be to our democracy.

1 A fascist is a follower of a political philosophy characterized by authoritarian views, a belief in a strong central government, and no tolerance for opposing views and opinions.



Adorno, T. (1950) The Authoritarian Personality Harper, NY.

Adorno, T (1982) “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Continuum, NY.

Altman, N., Benjamin, J., Jacobs, T. and Wachtel, P. (2004). Is Politics the Last Taboo in Psychoanalysis? Psychoanalytic Perspectives, 2(1):5-36.

Freud, S.(1922) Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XVIII (1920-1922). Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and Other Works. 65-144.

Freud, S. (1930) Civilization and its Discontents SE Vol. XXI (1927-1931) The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and Its Discontents and Other Works, 57-146.

Fromm, Erich (1941) Escape From Freedom. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc.

Fromm, E. (1962) Beyond the Chains of Illusion. Simon and Schuster, NY.

Gilligan, J. (2017) The Issue is Dangerousness, not mental illness. (eds.) Lee, B. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, St. Martins Press, NY.

Hirsch Geffner, A. (2004) Political Identity: A Personal Postscript. Psychoanalytic Perspectives, 2(1) 65-73.

Hochschild, A.R. (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning in the American Heartland. The New Press, NY.

Iddam, E. (2014) When the External Conflict Quietly Invades the Intimacy of the Therapeutic Dyad: Reflections on Conducting Therapy Within the Context of Political Upheaval. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 34(7): 723-730.

Kohut, H. (1966) Forms and Transformations of Narcissism. JAPA, 14:243-272.

Lee, B. (2017) The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. St. Martins Press, NY.


Anna Ornstein, M.D., is a Supervising Analyst and faculty member at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society & Institute (BPSI) and is a Professor Emerita of Child Psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati, a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute, and a Lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard University. Dr. Ornstein has written extensively on psychoanalytic theory and clinical practice and is the author of My Mother’s Eyes:Holocaust Memoirs of a Young Girl. She was named the 2018 Kravitz Award winner in recognition of a lifetime of dedication to teaching about the Holocaust.

Anna Ornstein can be contacted by email here.



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