Power, Powerlessness and the Perfect Target

Photo by kelly bell photography | CC BY 2.0

Now a year-and-a-half into the Trump presidency, it’s become a truism that the president’s support is anchored in a deep sense of social and political powerlessness felt by many Americans, especially older, white men.  An early 2016 Rand poll comparing Donald Trump and Ted Cruz supporters found that those who agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” preferred Trump — and by a whopping 86.5 percent majority.

This sense of powerlessness turned out to be a more reliable predictor of Trump support than all the other issues that dogged the 2016 campaign, including immigration, income, education, the economy and his abusive sexual exploits.  And it still does.

In 1941, the then-radical psycho-theorist, Erich Fromm, published Escape from Freedom.  In it, he warned:

The annihilation of the individual self and the attempt to overcome thereby the unbearable feeling of powerlessness are only one side of the masochistic strivings. The other side is the attempt to become part of a bigger and more powerful whole outside of oneself, to submerge and participate in it. This power can be a person, an institution, God, the nation, conscience, or a psychic compulsion.

Like Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, Fromm was then worried about the growing threat of totalitarianism.  In particular, these thinkers, among others, were concerned about how the deepening sense of…

Read more