How Demagogy Works: Reflections on Aggression in Politically Fraught Times

by Cordelia Schmidt-Hellerau, PhD


Most recent statistics show a considerable increase in violence in the U.S. (and other western countries) raising the question of how to understand this disconcerting development. The author presents her psychoanalytic conception of aggression as an intensification of the preservative and the sexual drives, and shows how political propaganda and demagogy effectively manipulate the cultural climate by speaking to and stirring primitive fears related to these primal drives and their structural modifications. Three false claims are attributed to groups of ostracized “others”: 1) they threaten the individual’s and society’s self-preservation and survival; 2) they pervert the sexual order; and 3) they destroy the social values and morale. The three-pronged assault on the social fabric and reality perception leads to group regressions, thereby enhancing the readiness for aggression and destruction in a supposedly defensive reaction to the drummed up fake danger.

Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 40:4, 234-242, 2020.

Link to Online Publication [fulltext is posted online by the publisher or can be requested from the library].

About the Author

Cordelia Schmidt-Hellerau, PhD, studied literature, philosophy and psychology in Heidelberg and Zürich, where she worked as a university professor for clinical psychology. She is a training and supervising analyst at the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society and at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Her areas of expertise are metapsychology, in particular drive theory, its clinical application, and applied psychoanalysis of creative processes. She is the author of Life Drive & Death Drive, Libido & Lethe (2001), Driven to Survive: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis (2018), Rousseaus Traum: Roman (2019), and Memory’s Eyes: A New York Oedipus Novel (2020), and 40 articles, published in many languages, and the editor of a Freud Reader and two collections of short stories. Currently she is the Chair of the IPA in Culture Committee. She works in private practice in Chestnut Hill.

Previous Posts:

Judy Yanof, MD (2020). A Separation: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 73:1, 172-181.

Elsa Ronningstam et al. (2020). Psychotherapeutic Treatment of Depressive Symptoms in Patients with Narcissistic Disturbances: A Review. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy50, 21–28.

John C. Foehl (2020). Lived Depth: A Phenomenology of Psychoanalytic Process and Identity. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 40(2), 131-146.

Cordelia Schmidt-Hellerau, PhD (2019).Body and Mind: Two Sides of One Coin. The Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review, 42(1-2), 93-102.

Robin Gomolin, PsyaD (2019). The Intergenerational Transmission of Holocaust trauma: A psychoanalytic theory revisited. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 88(3), 461–500.

Anna Ornstein, MD (2020). Mourning. In The Handbook of Psychoanalytic Holocaust Studies: International Perspectives, edited Ira Brenner. Routledge, 2019, p. 74-80.

Randall H. Paulsen, MD (2019). Scientific Theory on the Couch: A Response to Scott C. Taylor. American Imago, 76(3), 405-411.

Bernard Edelstein, MD (2019). Introduction: Stumbling on our Past, Reflections on James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook”. American Imago, 76(3): 295-300.

Don Lipsitt, MD (2020). Is Today’s 21st Century Burnout 19th Century’s Neurasthenia? The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 207(9): 773-777, September 2019.

Elsa Ronningstam, PhD (2020). Internal Processing in Patients with Pathological Narcissism or Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Implications for Alliance Building and Therapeutic Strategies. Journal of Personality Disorders, 34 (Suppl): 80-103.

Dan Jacobs (2019). Three’s a Crowd: Stella’s Pregnancy and the Arrival of an “Other” in A Streetcar Named Desire. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies. 16:3, 174– 180.

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