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Donald Trump as Authoritarian Populist: A Frommian Analysis
Erich Fromm’s categories can help describe Trump’s character, or 'temperament,' a word used to characterize a major flaw in Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
By Douglas Kellner
In this article, I discuss in detail how Erich Fromm’s categories can help describe Trump’s character, or “temperament,” a word used to characterize a major flaw in Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), Fromm engages in a detailed analysis of the authoritarian character as sadistic, excessively narcissistic, malignantly aggressive, vengeably destructive, and necrophilaic, personality traits arguably applicable to Trump.
I will systematically inventory key Fromm socio-psychoanalytic categories and how they can be applied to Trump to illuminate his authoritarian populism.
Trump, in Freudian terms used by Fromm, can be seen as the Id of American politics, often driven by sheer aggression, narcissism, and, rage. If someone criticizes him, they can be sure of being attacked back, often brutally. And notoriously, Trump exhibits the most gigantic and unrestrained Ego yet seen in US politics constantly trumping his wealth, his success in business, how smart he is, how women and all the people who work for him love him so much, and how his book The Art of the Deal is the greatest book ever written -— although just after saying that to a Christian evangelical audience, he back-tracked and said The Bible is the greatest book, but that his Art of the Deal is the second greatest, which for Trump is the bible of how to get rich and maybe how to win elections.
Trump, however, like classical fascist leaders, has an underdeveloped Superego, in the Freudian sense that generally refers to a voice of social morality and conscience. While Trump has what we might call a highly developed Social Ego that has fully appropriated capitalist drives for success, money, power, ambition, and domination, biographies of Trump indicate that he has had few life-long friends, discards women with abandon (he is on his third marriage), and brags of his ruthlessness in destroying competitors and enemies.
Drawing on Fromm’s Escape from Freedom and other writings, and studies of The Authoritarian Personality done by the Frankfurt School, Trump obviously fits the critical theory model of an authoritarian character and his 2016 Presidential campaign replicates in some ways the submission to the leader and the movement found in authoritarian populism. Further, Trump clearly exhibits traits of the sadist who Fromm described as “a person with an intense desire to control, hurt, humiliate, another person,” a trait that is one of the defining feature of the authoritarian personality.”
Frommian sadism was exemplified in Trump’s behavior toward other Republican Party candidates in primary debates, in his daily insults of all and sundry, and at Trump rallies in the behavior of him and his followers toward protestors. During the 2016 campaign cycle, a regular feature of a Trump rally involved Trump supporters yelling at, hitting, and even beating up protestors, while Trump shouts “get them out! Out!’” When one Trump follower sucker punched a young African American protestor in a campaign event at Fayetteville, N.C. on March 9, 2016, Trump offered to pay his legal expenses.
Despite the accelerating violence at Trump rallies during the summer of 2016, and intense pressure for Trump to renounce violence at his campaign events and reign in his rowdy followers, Trump deflected blame on protestors and continued to exhibit the joy of a sadist controlling his environment and inflicting pain on his enemies, as police and his followers continued to attack and pummel protestors at his events. When Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was charged with assault on a reporter, Trump continued to defend him, although Lewandowski was fired when the Trump campaign brought in veteran political hired gun Paul Manafort, who had served dicatators like Angolan terrorist Jonas Savimbi, the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence with notorious al Queda links, Ukrainian dictator and Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych, foreign dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Mobuto of Zaire, and many more of the Who’s Who list of toxic dictators and world-class rogues (among whom one must number Manafort). Apparently, involved in a power struggle within the Trump campaign with Manafort, Lewandowski was fired. [Manafort later also left the campaign.]
Fromm’s analysis of the narcissistic personality in The Sane Society (1955) and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness helps explain the Trump phenomenon, given that Trump is one of the most narcissistic figures to appear in recent U.S. politics. For Fromm: “Narcissism is the essence of all severe psychic pathology. For the narcissistically involved person, there is only one reality, that of his own thought, processes, feeling and needs. The world outside is not experienced or perceived objectively, i.e., as existing in its own terms, conditions and needs.”
Michael D’Antonio is his book Never Enough. Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success sees Trump as the exemplification of the “culture of narcissism” described by Christopher Lasch and notes:
Trump was offered as a journalist’s paragon of narcissism at least as far back as 1988. The academics and psychologists got involved a few years later would go on to make the diagnosis of Trump into a kind of professional sport. Trump makes an appearance in texts for the profession, including Abnormal Behavior in the 21st Century and Personality Disorders and Older Adults: Diagnosis, Assessment, and Treatment/. He also appears in books for laypeople such as The Narcissism Epidemic: Loving in the Age of Entitlement; Help! I’m in Love with a Narcissist; and When you Love a Man Who Loves himself.Trump’s extreme narcissism is evident in his obsession with putting his name on his buildings or construction sites, ranging from Trump Towers to (now failed) casinos in New Jersey to golf courses throughout the world.
Yet Trump often fails, as in his attempt in 1979 to get a New York convention center named after his father, or his failure to get a football stadium named the Trumpdome, in an unsuccessful endeavor in the mid-1980s, when Trump, first, was blocked from getting an NFL football team, and then saw the USFL football league in which he had a team collapse. Indeed, Democratic Party opposition research, as well as all voters and especially Trump supporters, should read the Trump biographies to discover the grubby details of all of Trump’s failed projects, including a string of casinos in New Jersey and at least four major bankruptcies in businesses that he ran into the ground, since Trump grounds his claims for the presidency on the alleged success of his business ventures.
Although Trump presents himself as the People’s Choice and voice of the Forgotten Man, Trump himself has been especially exploitative of his workers, and in his life style and habitus lives in a radically different world than the hoi polloi. For example, in 1985, Trump bought a 118 room mansion in Palm Beach, Florida Mar-A-Lago that he immediately opened for TV interview segments and that launched Donald’s second career as a frequent start of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Trump became an exemplar of what Thorstein Veblen described as “conspicuous consumption,” a trait he continues to cultivate to excess up to the present. Indeed, Trump has been particularly assiduous in branding the Trump name and selling himself as a celebrity and now as a presidential candidate his entire adult life.
However, perhaps the conceptual key to Trump’s authoritarian personality is related to Fromm’s analysis of “malignant aggression” developed in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973). Trump arguably embodies both spontaneous and “bound in character structure” aspects of what Fromm characterizes as malignant aggression (270ff), spontaneously lashing out at anyone who dares to criticize him, and arguably his deep-rooted extremely aggressive tendencies help characterize Trump and connect him to classic authoritarian leaders. Trump typically describes his opponents as “losers” and uses extremely hostile language in attacking all of his opponents and critics. In his TV reality show The Apprentice (2005-2015), which features a group of competitors battling for a high-level management job in one of Trump’s organizations, each segment ended with Trump triumphantly telling one of the contestants that “you’re fired!” — a telling phrase that Trump filed for a trademark in 2004, and which revealed his sadistic joy in controlling and destroying individuals.
As Henry Giroux argues, “loser” for Trump “has little to do with them losing in the more general sense of the term. On the contrary, in a culture that trades in cruelty and divorces politics from matters of ethics and social responsibility, ‘loser’ is now elevated to a pejorative insult that humiliates and justifies not only symbolic violence, but also (as Trump has made clear in many of his rallies) real acts of violence waged against his critics, such as members of the Movement for Black Lives.” “Loser” means exclusion, humiliation, and abjection, a trope prevalent in sports, business, and politics where “winners take all” and losers are condemned to the ignominy of failure, the ultimate degradation in Trump’s amoral capitalist universe.
Hence, I would argue that both Trump’s TV reality show The Apprentice and Trump’s behavior on the show and in public embody Frommian analysis of malignant aggression. Indeed, it has not been enough for Trump to defeat his Republican Party opponents in the 2016 Presidential election, but he must destroy them. He described his initial major opponent Jeb Bush as “low energy” and gloated as Jeb failed to gain support in the primaries and dropped out of the race early. Rubio is dismissed as “little Marco,” Cruz is disparaged as “Lyin’ Ted,” and as for the hapless Ben Carson, Trump tweeted: “With Ben Carson wanting to hit his mother on head with a hammer, stab a friend and [claiming that Egyptian] Pyramids [were] built for grain storage – don’t people get it?” Curiously, despite these malignant insults, the ineffable Carson endorsed Trump after he dropped out of the race, and continues to support him on TV.
Already during the primary campaign, Trump began referring to Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary,” and by the time of the Republican National Convention his audiences shouted out “lock her up” whenever Trump uses the phrase. In a Pavolovian gesture, Trump has his troops orchestrated to perform in rituals of aggression, as, for instance, when he refers to the wall he promises to build on the Mexican border, and calls to his audience, “who’s gonna pay,” the audience shouts out in a booming unison: “Mexico!”
In fact, Trump’s attitudes and behavior toward women exhibit traits of Fromm’s malignant aggression, as well as blatant sexism. The day after the initial Republican debate on August 6, 2015, Trump complained about Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, whining: “She gets out and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions. You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
As outrage over Trump’s comment spread, he took to Twitter to deny that he meant to imply Kelly was menstruating, claiming in a Tweet: “Mr. Trump made Megyn Kelly look really bad —- she was a mess with her anger and totally caught off guard. Mr. Trump said “blood was coming out of her eyes and whatever” meaning nose, but wanted to move on to more important topics. Only a deviant would think anything else.”
Trump’s appalling reference to Megyn Kelly’s blood is paralleled by his off-color comments about Hillary Clinton ranting that her use of the bathroom during a Democratic Party debate was “too disgusting” to talk about — “disgusting, really disgusting,” he repeated. He also delighted in recounting how Ms. Clinton got “schlonged” by Barack Obama when she lost to him in the 2008 Democratic primary.
Trump’s aggressive and compulsive Tweets and daily insults against his opponent exemplify the “vengeful destructiveness” described by Fromm as part of malignant aggression, which is another defining trait of the authoritarian leader. As an example of Trump’s propensities toward vengeful destructiveness, take Trump’s remarks toward Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Mexican heritage who Trump claimed had an ‘Absolute Conflict’ in being unable to rule impartially in a fraud lawsuit against Donald Trump’s now defunct real estate school, Trump University, because he was Mexican-American. Trump claimed that the Mexican-American heritage of the judge, who was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrants, was relevant because of Trump’s campaign stance against illegal immigration and his pledge to seal the southern U.S. border with Mexico. Despite the fact that the Judge was ruling on a case involving Trump University, the Donald just couldn’t help making nasty vengeful and destructive remarks against the Judge, who was a highly respected Jurist and who was widely defended by the legal community against Trump’s attack.
Further, Trump threatened the Republican Party in March 2016 with riots at its summer convention if there was any attempt to block his nomination, and in August 2016 as his poll numbers are falling and Hillary Clinton is widening her lead, Trump is claiming that the election is “rigged” and threatens that his followers may riot if he doesn’t win. Throughout the Republican primaries, Trump threatened the Republican Party with destruction if they attempted to block his candidacy in any way, just as he has consistently attacked and threatened Fox News. The specter of a Republican Party candidate attacking the party that has nominated him and its chief media propaganda apparatus, Fox News, exhibits, I believe, an out of control malignant aggression and vengeful destructiveness syndrome.
Indeed, although Trump made it through a chaotic 2016 Republican National Convention and was proclaimed their official party candidate, even after beating his maligned and deeply insulted opponents in the Republican primary contest, Trump continued his defamations in even more destructive and offensive discourse. As Maureen Dowd pointed out Jeb Bush was “’a one day kill’ as a gloating Trump put it, with the ‘low energy’ taunt. ‘Liddle Marco’ and ‘Lyin’ Ted’ bit the dust. ‘One-for-38 Kasich’ fell by the wayside.” And after John Kasich refused to intend the Republican convention crowning Trump, even though it was held in a city in which he is governor, and after Ted Cruz told delegates to vote their consciences in the election, as a dig at Donald, a bitter Trump proclaimed on numerous weekend TV interviews after the convention that he was considering raising over ten million dollar funds to assure his Republican nemeses defeat in their next election campaigns.
More astonishing, after Trump lashed out against a Muslim family that had lost its son in military service and testified to their loss and disgust at Trump’s attacks on Muslims at a much-discussed moment in the Democratic National convention, Trump attacked the family, targeting the grieving mother who had stood as a silent witness beside her husband and whose silence he attacked as evidence that Muslims didn’t let women speak in public. Trump’s attacks on the Khan family continued for days after the convention and when major Republicans distanced themselves from Trump’s rancorous and vile comments, Trump proclaimed on August 2 that he was not endorsing Republican House Leader Paul Ryan, former Presidential candidate John McCain, and others who had criticized him, thus threatening to blow apart the Republican Party – driving Party leaders to declare that they were staging an “intervention” with Trump over the weekend to try to persuade their candidate to act more “presidential” and to stop attacking Republican leaders – a gesture his base seems to love.
Demonstrating Trump’s deeply rooted and uncontrollable malignant aggression, Trump had what observers saw as the worst week of his campaign in early August as he continued to malign the Khan family, praised Vladimir Putin and called on the Russian strongman to hack Hillary Clinton’s email, refused until the last moment to endorse fellow Republicans Ryan and McCain, threw a crying baby and its mother out of one of his rallies, and continued to make crazy off-the-cuff remarks. Topping off his going over the top, on August 9, 2016 in a rally at Wilmington, North Carolina, Trump appeared to suggest that gun rights supporters might take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton is elected President and appoints Judges who favor stricter gun control measures. Repeating the lie that Clinton wanted to abolish the right to bear arms, Trump warned that: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Mr. Trump said, as the crowd began to boo. He quickly added: “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Some members of the audience visibly winced and for the next several days the news cycle was dominated by discussion that Trump had suggested that “Second Amendment” people (i.e. gun owners) might have to take the law into their own hands if Clinton was elected, raising the specter of political assassination and reminding people of the wave of political assassinations in the 1960s of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King, and assassination attempts against Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Democrats, gun control advocates, and others, accused Trump of possibly inciting violence against Hillary Clinton or liberal Justices. Bernice A. King, daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., called Mr. Trump’s words “distasteful, disturbing, dangerous,” and many other prominent Americans denounced Trumps dangerous rabble-rousing as further evidence that he was not fit to be President of the United States.
As usual, Trump and his surrogates spun Trump’s statements and attacked the media for twisting his meaning, and other Republicans like Paul Ryan dismissed it as a bad joke, but it was clear that this was further evidence that Trump was seriously unbalanced and highly dangerous. The extremely destructive behavior typical of Trump’s entire campaign leads me to suggest that Fromm’s analysis of the “necrophiliac” as an extreme form of malignant aggression also applies to Trump. Fromm illustrates the concept of the necrophilaic personality through an extensive study of Hitler as the paradigmatic of a highly destructive authoritarian personality, as he did a study of Himmler to illustrate his concept of the sadistic personality. Fromm argues that the “necrophilaic transforms all life into things, including himself and the manifestations of his human faculties of reason, seeing, hearing, tasting, loving. Sexuality become a technical skill (“the love machine”); feelings are flattened and sometimes substituted for by sentimentality; joy, the expression of intense aliveness, is replaced by ‘fun’ or excitement; and whatever love and tenderness man has is directed toward machines and gadgets.”
In Fromm’s analysis, the necrophilic personality type is fundamentally empty, needing to fill themselves with ever more acquisitions, conquests, or victories. Hence, it is no accident that the best single book on Trump by Michael D’Antonio is titled Never Enough. Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success. Trump’s need for adoration and his malignant and destructive rage at all criticism and opposition shows an extremely disordered personality who constitutes a grave danger to the United States and the world.
The necrophilic personality fills his emptiness with sadism, aggression, amassing wealth and power, and is prone to violence and self-destruction. Accounts of Trump’s business dealings and entanglements with women show an incredible recklessness. When his first two marriages were unraveling, Trump carried out well-publicized affairs and seemed to revel in all the dirty publicity, no matter how demeaning. Likewise, in the 1990s when his business empire was spectacularly unravelling, Trump continued to make risky investments, put himself in impossible debt (with the help of banks who were taken in by his myth as a business man), and conned business associates, financial institutions and the public at large as he spiraled into near bankruptcy.
Trump’s destructive aspects are almost at the heart of his run for the presidency. Revealingly, Trump’s initial “argument” for his presidency was to build a wall to keep immigrants from pouring over our southern border along with a promise to arrest all “illegal immigrants” and send them back over the border, a highly destructive (and probably impossible) action that would tear apart countless families. Trump promised to totally destroy ISIS and threatened to bring back waterboarding “and worse, much much worse!” he shouted repeatedly at his rallies and in interviews, although some Generals and military experts pointed out that Trump could not order troops or other Americans to break international law.
Hence, the peril and threats we face in a Trump presidency raises the issue of what does it mean to have an arguably sadistic, excessively narcissistic, malignantly aggressive, vengeably destructive, and necrophilic individual like Trump as president of the United States? If Trump indeed fits Fromm’s criteria of the malignantly aggressive and necrophilic personality, this should be upsetting and raise some serious questions about Trump. Fromm was obsessed for decades about the danger of nuclear war and would no doubt be extremely disturbed at the thought of the Donald having his itchy finger on nuclear weapons launching. What would a foreign and domestic policy governed by a malignant aggression syndrome look like?
Hence, Frommian categories applied to Trump help illuminate why Donald Trump is so chaotic, dangerous, and destructive, and how risky it is to even contemplate Trump being President of the United States in these dangerous times. It is also worrisome to contemplate that Trump has developed a following through his demagoguery and that authoritarian populism constitutes a clear and present danger to U.S. democracy and global peace and well-being.
 Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973.
 See Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990 . For Freud, the Id represents the irrational and aggressive components of the personality, while the Ego represents the rational self which can suffer, however, narcissistic tendencies that undercut its rationality. We shall see below how Fromm builds on Freud’s psychoanalytic categories in ways that they can be applied to demagogues like Hitler and Trump and mass movements of authoritarian populism, or neo-fascism.
 See D’Antonio, op. cit. and Gwenda Blair, The Trumps (New York: Simon and Schuster). The chapter on “Born to Compete” in Blair, op. cit., pp. 223ff. documents Trump’s competitiveness and drive for success at an early age.
 See Erich Fromm, The Sane Society. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1955, and, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973.
 Fromm, Sane Society, op cit. p. 36.
 D’Antonio, op. cit. California Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Cal) began a petition to request that mental health professionals evaluate Trump for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), insisting that he had all the symptoms. See Wayne Rojas, “Karen Bass Wants Mental Health Professionals to Evaluate Trump. Calif. Democrat suspects GOP nominee has Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” Rollcall, Aug 3, 2016 at (accessed August 2, 2016). On the traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and how Trump embodies them, see Bill Blum, “The Psychopathology of Donald Trump,” Truthdig. July 31, 2016 at http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_psychopathology_of_donald_trump_20160731/ (accessed August 2, 2016).
 Barrett, op. cit. pp. 342ff.
 See Barrett, op. cit.; D’Antonio, op. cit.; and John O’Donnell and James Rutherford, Trumped!: The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump-His Cunning Rise and Spectacular Fall. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.
 Henry A. Giroux, “Donald Trump and the Plague of Atomization in a Neoliberal Age,” Truthout, August 8, 2016.
 Gabriel Arana, “Here Are All The Ugly Remarks Trump Has Made About Megyn Kelly. As if to prove her point, the reality TV star has continued to spew sexist vitriol after the presidential debate.” The Huffington Post, August 8, 2015 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-megyn-kelly-debate-fox-news_us_55c5f6b3e4b0f73b20b989a7 (accessed August 10, 2016).
 Bill Trott and Steve Holland, “Donald Trump Drawing Fire From All Corners Of GOP,” The Huffington Post, August 8, 2015 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-drawing-fire-from-all-corners-of-gop_us_55c668dde4b0f73b20b9937e (accessed August 10, 2016).
 Josh Voorhees, Donald Trump Is Trying to Undermine the Democratic Process Itself,” Slate, August 2, 2016 at http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/08/02/trump_s_rigged_comments_are_the_most_dangerous_thing_he_s_said_yet.html (accessed August 5, 2016).
 Maureen Dowd, “Donald Trump’s Disturbia,” New York Times, July 23, 2016 at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/24/opinion/sunday/donald-trumps-disturbia.html?_r=0 (accessed July 25, 2016).
 On Trumps’ threat to form “Anti-certain candidate PACs” to defeat those Republicans who opposed him, see Phillip Rucker’s interview with Trump appended to Chris Cilizza, “Donald Trump’s Washington Post interview should make Republicans panic,” Washington Post, August 3, 2016 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/08/03/donald-trump-has-a-secret-state-strategy-that-you-cant-know-about/ (accessed August 4, 2016).
 The intervention did not take place, but Trump did endorse Ryan and McCain reading his tepid endorsement from note cards and not looking directly up into the camera, signaling that he lacked enthusiasm and was making the endorsements under duress.
 Nick Corasaniti and Maggie Haberman, “Donald Trump Suggests ‘Second Amendment People’ Could Act Against Hillary Clinton,” The New York Times, August. 9, 2016 at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/10/us/politics/donald-trump-hillary-clinton.html?_r=0 (accessed August 11, 2016).
 Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, op. cit. pp. 325ff.
 Op. cit. pp. 350ff.
 For an account of both Trump’s marriage and financial disasters, see Blair, op. cit., 385-452.
This article appeared at the Logos Journal.
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