Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Moving against people: Donald Trump as a case study of Karen Horney’s aggressive neurotic type

There’s an urgent need right now to understand how the authoritarian mind works and how people can come to be driven by the authoritarian impulse, and I’ve been working for several months on a series of posts about authoritarian psychology and the specific case of Trumpism.

I’ll soon post a series about Erich Fromm’s work on the subject, which finds the roots of the authoritarian character in large-scale social changes, and particularly in the insecurity created by the rise of modern capitalism. Fromm and Karen Horney, who were colleagues and even romantic partners for a time, were both trained in Freudian psychoanalysis in the early twentieth century. Both developed original theories that retained some basic Freudian insights while rejecting others.1

Fromm, trained as a social scientist, focused on how epochal political, religious, and religious transformations led to changes in human psychology. Horney, trained as a medical practitioner, retained the Freudian focus on the effects of the child’s immediate environment on psychological development. While she never quite succeeded in merging her work about neuroses into a larger sociological theory, her 1945 work Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis and others offered important observations about how neuroses originating in childhood interacted with a consumerist, capitalist, patriarchal society. Fromm and Horney have different emphases, but their perspectives on authoritarianism are compatible and complementary.

I’ve referred to Horney’s ideas here on a few occasions: when discussing misogynistic spree killer Elliot Rodger, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, the book and film Revolutionary Road, and – probably most relevant right now – Joseph Stalin. A bit of background: Horney rejected arguments that people are born with a good or an evil nature or one in which these two opposing forces struggle for dominance. She believed that humans, like other living beings, have a natural tendency to develop in a healthy way.2 This healthy development requires conditions and environments that foster it.

Of course, so many environments in which children grow up interfere with their healthy growth. Horney roots neurotic development in what she calls “basic anxiety,”
meaning by this the feeling a child has of being isolated and helpless in a potentially hostile world. A wide range of adverse factors in the environment can produce this insecurity in a child: direct or indirect domination, indifference, erratic behavior, lack of respect for the child’s individual needs, lack of real guidance, disparaging attitudes, too much admiration or the absence of it, lack of reliable warmth, having to take sides in parental disagreements, too much or too little responsibility, overprotection, isolation from other children, injustice, discrimination, unkept promises, hostile atmosphere, and so on and so on. (41)
The basic anxiety that results from these problems in a child’s environment sets the stage for the development of neuroses. Children come to see the world as a fundamentally hostile place, against which they have to defend themselves. In response, they will, Horney argued, move against, towards, or away from the world and the people around them. These defensive mechanisms correspond to the three general neurotic types she analyzed: the aggressive, compliant, and detached types.3

What causes any given person to go down one of these three paths, she thought, depended on the nature of the environmental conditions, the possibilities open to them, and a variety of chance and idiosyncratic and individual factors. As neuroses, they share the same fundamental features: each type is characterized by an imagined “idealized self” (set against a despised actual self), self-alienation, a distorted understanding of reality, a set of neurotic claims, a neurotic moral vision, neurotic pride, neurotic ambition and a “search for glory,” a drive toward vindictive triumph, a set of neurotic inner dictates or “shoulds” accompanied by neurotic guilt, and serious problems in relationships and work. What differs in each type is the particular content of the idealized self, inner dictates, imagined triumph, etc.

Horney provides the most comprehensive description and analysis of the three neurotic types in Neurosis and Human Growth (1950), but the portrait she draws of the aggressive type in Our Inner Conflicts seems most immediately relevant and is also developed with reference to how its characteristics are received in US culture. I’m going to present a handful of quotations from this work that I believe are useful in understanding the psychology of Trump and some of his followers and the actions and reactions we can expect from them. (I purposefully don’t refer to policies or political ideology. Trump is driven overwhelmingly by his aggressive-authoritarian character – this, and not any political framework, dictates how he approaches politics and political relationships.)

The Need for External Affirmation

Many articles about Trump arrive at or begin from the erroneous conclusion that he’s a classic narcissist or egomaniac who holds a high opinion of himself and doesn’t care what others think of him. This common misunderstanding is surprising given all of the evidence to the contrary – Trump’s insecurity and neediness are transparent; at times their rawness is painful to witness.4 A key to understanding the aggressive neurotic type is seeing through the bragging and bombast to the basic anxiety and the profound lack of basic self-esteem below. As Horney describes:
[The aggressive type] needs to excel, to achieve success, prestige, or recognition in any form. Strivings in this direction are partly oriented toward power, inasmuch as success and prestige lend power in a competitive society. But they also make for a subjective feeling of strength through outside affirmation, outside acclaim, and the fact of supremacy. Here as in the compliant type the center of gravity lies outside the person himself; only the kind of affirmation wanted by others differs. Factually the one is as futile as the other. When people wonder why success has failed to make them any less insecure, they only show their psychological ignorance, but the fact that they do so indicates the extent to which success and prestige are commonly regarded as yardsticks. (65; emphasis added)
Here Horney recognizes the connection between the widespread misperceptions about people of this type and the culture of capitalism. The competitiveness and desire for wealth fostered by our culture lead to the deceptive normalization of neurotic compulsion. The aggressive type is propelled to seek out fame, power, and success - and can never get enough - not because of a simple excess of greed, but because the social recognition that accompanies them is their only source and gauge of self-worth.

The Moral Code of the Aggressive Type

The aggressive type views ethics, “human nature,” and relationships in a very particular way. They see other people in purely instrumental terms. Horney explains that
a strong need to exploit others, to outsmart them, to make them of use to himself, is part of the picture. Any situation or relationship is looked at from the standpoint of ‘What can I get out of it?’ – whether it has to do with money, prestige, contacts, or ideas. The person himself is consciously or unconsciously convinced that everyone acts this way, and so what counts is to do it more efficiently than the rest. (65)
As this suggests, the aggressive type’s instrumental view of relationships has to be understood in the context of their view of human nature. Their idealized self is characterized by (what they perceive as) toughness, hardness, dominance, selfishness, and a lack of sentimentality. They’re drawn to people they think embody these qualities – in Trump’s case, Roy Cohn, Erdoğan, Putin, Duterte, Arpaio, generals who commit war crimes, corporate heads who steal natural resources, “tough guys” in general… They’re similarly attracted to philosophies and ideologies that appear to confirm the naturalness and even justness of their neurotic inclinations, such as eugenics, Social Darwinism, fascism, and authoritarianism generally.

In turn, they’re contemptuous of (what they perceive as) weakness, softness, sentimentality, or selflessness. Their unpleasant treatment of people, from feigned respect and friendship to contemptuous callousness, rudeness, and even viciousness, is rooted in their entire view of human relations. The aggressive type
sees no reason to be considerate of others. ‘Why should I care - let others take care of themselves’. In terms of the old ethical problem of two persons on a raft only one of whom could survive, he would say that of course he’d try to save his own skin – not to would be stupid and hypocritical. He hates to admit fear of any kind and will find drastic ways of bringing it under control. (65-6)
Exploiting Virtue and Conciliation

Horney insightfully notes that “Actually, [the aggressive neurotic type’s] feelings on the score of ‘softness’ in others are mixed. He despises it in them, it is true, but he welcomes it as well, because it leaves him all the freer to pursue his own goals” (69). In fact, the aggressive type always stands ready to capitalize on kind or considerate gestures and use them to advantage. Those dealing with this type should never expect reciprocity for fairness or decency or even basic politeness. Indeed, amazingly, Trump has explicitly acknowledged that he exploits people’s desire to be (or at least to be seen as) unbiased, fair, and tolerant. “Working the refs,” as he freely admits,5 he accuses others of bias, unfairness, cheating, intolerance, aggression, or obstruction, and then waits to exploit their efforts to prove otherwise.

All conciliatory acts will be treated with the same deep contempt and exploited for gain. Compromises with aggressive types are also doomed to fail, as they’re seen as evidence of weakness in a battle of wills; it’s a fundamental mistake to believe that aggressive types like Trump can work toward shared public goals – the only stakes in their battles with the world are personal victory and defeat. (In Trump’s case, furthermore, his word can’t be trusted.) And of course none of their own seemingly compromising, kind, or fair actions are genuine. All are calculated to produce a desired effect in the ongoing contest – disarming opponents, breaking up alliances, impressing onlookers.

Of central importance here is that an aggressive type like Trump sees himself in constant battle against an unremittingly hostile world and believes this is the human condition:
His set of values is built around the philosophy of the jungle. Might makes right. Away with humaneness and mercy. Homo homini lupus. Here we have values not very different from those with which the Nazis have made us so familiar. (68-9)6
It’s vitally important to recognize that Trump’s frequently appalling behavior doesn’t reflect a lack of values or a failure to live up to shared values. The characteristics Trump prizes are his positive values - this is the moral code of the aggressive type. Many aggressive people conceal or disguise their Hobbesian moral code in the recognition that it’s socially unacceptable in their culture, but Trump does not. He openly boasts about it, recommending it in public speeches, interviews, and books.

We see this in countless statements and reactions from Trump himself. He doesn’t want to be caught gaming the system if he fears legal or financial consequences, for example, but when he doesn’t foresee such consequences he’ll boast that it makes him “smart.” His value system becomes visible through his projection as well. His claim that Obama designed the ACA to implode shortly after he left office is absurdly false, but most telling is that Trump sees in Obama’s (projected) deviousness an admirable quality. Analyses of Trump as a would-be autocrat are undeniably true and important, but to the extent that they’re intended to make him see the error of his ways will have the opposite effect – Trump wants to be regarded as a strongman, and receives as compliments what are intended as criticisms.

It’s often claimed that Trump has the upper hand because it’s impossible to shame him. Not so. We just need to understand the sources of shame within his neurotic moral code. Specifically, he feels shame at being seen – or perceiving himself - as the opposite of his idealized self: as soft, weak, passive, impressionable, tender, emotional, manipulable, stupid, failing, unpopular, dominated, beaten. (The shame at feeling impressionable and manipulable is highly ironic in that it makes him all the more impressionable and manipulable. Members of his staff routinely describe to reporters the simple means by which they exploit his tendencies. Similarly, all anyone had to do when he lied about firing James Comey on the basis of Rod Rosenstein’s recommendation was to take the lie – which in his neurotic assessment made him look weak and passive – at face value. Trump was then compelled to insist to Lester Holt in a televised interview that he had already made the decision himself and that the Rosenstein memo was mere window dressing.)

Neurotic “Realism”

Trump believes the social and political world is a realm of thinly disguised warfare, and that the only appropriately prized qualities are those he espouses. This is what realism means to the aggressive type:
His feeling about himself is that he is strong, honest, and realistic, all of which is true if you look at things his way. According to his premises his estimate of himself is strictly logical, since to him ruthlessness is strength, lack of consideration for others, honesty, and a callous pursuit of one’s ends, realism. (68)
This view of social and political life, this neurotic “realism,” has already come, horrifyingly, to shape US foreign policy and its public rhetoric. An oped by National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and chief economic advisor Gary Cohn following Trump’s first foreign tour presents US foreign relations from the viewpoint of his psychology. “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook,” they assert,
that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.
This twisted vision is presented as the only clear-eyed, realistic understanding of how the world works - what politics is, its elemental nature. Moreover, it isn’t simply to be recognized but to be enthusiastically embraced as the cornerstone of US foreign policy.7

This paragraph encapsulates Trump’s rhetoric throughout the campaign and indeed going back decades. This view of the world is not a clear-eyed, empirically-based realism which recognizes the complexity of human political motivations but an expression of Trump’s psychology – his childhood experience of the world as a hostile place and his neurotic strategy of moving against people to in order to defend himself. That this distortion can be stated in the language of international politics and given the name of “realism” doesn’t make it any more realistic in actual fact.

Three aspects of Trump’s worldview – its consistency, its partiality, and its paranoia - help us to appreciate that his is not genuine political realism but neurotic “realism.” First, there’s a consistency to Trump’s views that spans wildly different circumstances and administrations – in his mind, the US and US presidents are always losing, always being outsmarted, always being disrespected, taken advantage of, laughed at. Of course, most recently he’s focused on Obama’s alleged weakness and how any agreements he negotiated were supposedly disastrous for the US, but he’s said similar things about every US president. The lack of grounding in specific arguments about concrete approaches or agreements is due to the fact that this is merely the political projection of Trump’s distorted neurotic reaction to the world.8

Second, and related to the first, Trump has a long history of extreme partiality in his choice not only of evidence but of associates, who in turn reinforce the bias of his worldview. People often suggest that Trump’s views reflect the influence of people like Roy Cohn. But in fact Trump was an adult when he became acquainted with Cohn, and actively sought out Cohn’s friendship and mentorship. He’s psychologically drawn to thugs, mobsters, con artists, autocrats, dirty tricksters, media manipulators, corporate raiders, war criminals, “vicious, horrible, miserable human beings” who “don’t sleep at night” – people who reflect back to him the “truth” of his distorted vision and confirm its realism.9

Finally, the irrational, neurotic nature of Trump’s so-called “realism” is evident in its marked element of paranoia. In his speech announcing the abandonment of the Paris Accord, for example – which also notably included ad-libbed comments about how the world would no longer be laughing at the US – he insinuated that the agreement, like so many others, was essentially a multinational conspiracy to take advantage of the US. This belief is so unconnected to reality as to shatter any claims of clear-eyed realism.

But in the mind of the aggressive type, the truth of this worldview is confirmed by success in its practical application:
His attitude on the score of his honesty comes partly from a shrewd debunking of current hypocrisies. Enthusiasm for a cause, philanthropic sentiments, and the like he sees as sheer pretense, and it is not hard for him to expose gestures of social consciousness or Christian virtue for what they often are. (68)
It is consistent with his attitude of having to fight against a malevolent world that he should develop a keen sense of realism – of its kind. He will never be so ‘naïve’ as to overlook in others any manifestation of ambition, greed, ignorance, or anything else that might obstruct his own goals. Since in a competitive civilization attributes like these are much more common than real decency, he feels justified in regarding himself as only realistic. Actually, of course, he is just as one-sided as the compliant type. (67)
In Trump’s view, his cynicism’s effectiveness proves its accuracy. While we’ve long had evidence of the Republican Party’s cravenness, Trump has exposed its depth and successfully mined it. He’s shown that, with few exceptions, Republicans and rightwing organizations will go to virtually any lengths to obtain and retain power and prosecute their class war. The rot at the heart of white evangelicalism in the US and the absolute hollowness of its moral claims have similarly been shamefully revealed.

What could be better evidence of the correctness of Trump’s ethics of ruthlessness and cynicism than his winning not only the votes of a substantial part of the US population (the rubes, marks, and losers, as he sees them) but the support of a “family values” political party and a large number of religious leaders? But of course this is, as Horney makes clear, a biased, one-sided interpretation. In order to sustain this claim, Trump has to ignore all of those he hasn’t been able to exploit, or alternatively rationalize their actions.

The Weakness of Neurotic Cynicism

Trump’s irrationally jaded outlook prevents him from understanding human motivations that don’t comport with his neurotic framework. Activists and protesters must be paid, criminals, or jealous and embittered losers. Sally Yates and Eric Schneiderman are partisan Democrats who always had it in for him. James Comey and John Brennan want power and attention. Career government officials are “Obama holdovers” who want to sabotage Trump and advance Obama’s agenda. Intelligence agencies are a “deep state” that wants to rule supreme. Federal judges have a liberal axe to grind. Investigative journalists want fame and money. Whistleblowers in the administration are out for personal advantage….

The point isn’t that everyone who poses an obstacle to Trump acts out of only the purest and noblest of motives, but that the aggressive type is simply incapable of understanding human motives that differ from their own. Because of this, Trump will continually try to reframe genuinely virtuous, principled, or professional behavior in terms he can grasp. (He’s helped in this when the media and political commentators construe the vast majority of interactions in which he’s hostile to a person or organization as “feuds,” giving him ammunition to portray his targets’ actions in his terms - they’re only investigating, opposing, or criticizing him out of personal hostility and a desire to beat or destroy him.)

But outside of dictatorships, the inability to understand and need to distort people’s motivations in this way has serious practical consequences. The aggressive type is bound to run into problems when he’s facing people who won’t be bullied, bribed, or cajoled, who are driven by genuine selflessness, professionalism, or patriotism or a mission to get at the truth or inform the public; when Trump attempts to deal with people on the basis of his assumptions, he tends to make things far worse for himself. In addition to the fact that his efforts often fail to achieve their ends, they also tend to arouse the suspicions of more decent people. In turn, those he’s trying to manipulate, having come to appreciate that he and his crew aren’t, in James Comey’s (reported) words, honorable people, will alter their behavior accordingly – becoming hyperaware of his manipulation in other contexts, documenting their interactions and telling colleagues, etc. If they’re professional investigators or journalists, naturally this will work to his detriment.

Aggressive Inhibitions and Failed Appeals

Finally, Horney points out that the nature of our culture tends to blind us to the significant inhibitions of the aggressive type. “The aggressive type looks like an exquisitely uninhibited person,” she suggests.
He can assert his wishes, he can give orders, express anger, defend himself. But actually he has no fewer inhibitions than the compliant type. It is not greatly to the credit of our civilization that his particular inhibitions do not, offhand, strike us as such. They lie in the emotional area and concern his capacity for friendship, love, affection, sympathetic understanding, disinterested enjoyment. (68)
These extreme emotional inhibitions mean that appeals to liberal values, empathy, generosity, etc. – even framed as “American” values or in the national interest - will have no effect. (Indeed, Trump discovered at the time he bombed the runway in Syria that humanitarian rhetoric can be effective with the many people who don’t want to recognize that anyone, much less someone in a position of great power, can be so incapable of sympathy or human emotion. Since then he’s cynically seasoned his overwhelmingly authoritarian language and cruel legislation and executive actions with references to his “having a heart” and wanting bills to be less “mean.”10)

Trump’s success says a great deal about the state of our culture, and of the Republican Party in particular. But Horney makes clear that, while our culture often tragically tends to misinterpret aggressive neurotic behavior, especially in men, as strength, like all authoritarian tendencies it’s based in fundamental psychological weakness. Unable to overcome the basic anxiety developed in childhood, the aggressive type relies on fragile and pathetic neurotic “solutions.”

Trump desperately needs others’ attention, approval, and affirmation, to the point that he has to surround himself with fawning sycophants and a protective shell of delusions. His insecurity runs so deep that no amount of success can ever overcome it. His neurotic pride is the basis of his real self-loathing. Maintaining his neurotic “realist” worldview requires the constant distortion of reality, and his self-image is so brittle that it leaves him always on the defensive, projecting his self-hatred onto others. Unable to handle criticism, he needs to attack and silence critics. Feeling threatened from every direction, he’s constantly on guard for signs that he’s not perceived as his neurotic pride demands, which would bring his self-loathing once again to the surface. Utterly dependent on external validation, he’s easy prey for anyone – or any adept intelligence service - who knows how to manipulate him.

He lacks the capacity for love, empathy, and positive human relationships, which despite his neurotic cynicism he’s envious of. He’s also incapable of understanding honorable or unselfish motives, which creates endless practical, legal, and political difficulties. When our culture so frequently misinterprets the actions of the aggressive type as evidence of strength, egotism, and mastery, recognizing the weakness, insecurity, and haplessness behind them is central to resisting and combating them.


1 Both wrote worthwhile critical works about Freud: Fromm’s Greatness and Limitation of Freud’s Thought and Horney’s New Ways in Psychoanalysis.

2 This view was I think at the heart of Horney’s therapeutic and general optimism – when she spoke of the actualization of the “real self,” she didn’t mean that such a self existed, fully formed, inside of each person, simply needing to be released; she meant that all humans have a basic need for and natural tendency toward healthy development.

3 Horney discussed these as ideal types – a person was an aggressive type, for example, to the extent that they were characterized by the features of this particular neurosis. Also, she didn’t think of these types or neuroses in general as diagnostic classifications, for which it could be said that one person meets the definition of “a neurotic” as opposed to a psychologically healthy person.

4 This can be seen in the childlike way he speaks about Putin and other world leaders; his cringeworthy speech at the Al Smith dinner; his relationship with the media – both the absurdly unrealistic hope that media coverage after the election would be wholly positive and that everyone would now “bow down” to him and the vicious response when this didn’t happen; his creation of a fake persona to present a sympathetic image of himself to the media; his extreme response to Neera Tanden’s mildly critical comments about Hillary Clinton in the hacked emails; his demands that his staff obsequiously praise him in private and in public and lie to him about his popularity and prestige, as demonstrated most disturbingly in a recent cabinet meeting; and countless other episodes. Trump’s obsession with his Electoral College victory (including false claims about it) and the deceptive maps that show the counties he won are evidence not of narcissistic self-regard but of a vast need for concrete visual and numerical proof of admiration. Most revealing of Trump’s profound psychological dependence on public affirmation is his response to the pictures and video of his sparsely attended inauguration; his rage, his attempt to deny and destroy the evidence, and his continuing inability to accept the reality that the election didn’t guarantee him social acceptance show that his need for outside approval is so great that he has to enclose himself in a protective cocoon of delusions rather than face even the slightest blow to his idealized self-image. World leaders have of course recognized this bottomless need for affirmation and praise and used it to their advantage.

5 As with so many of Trump’s statements, it’s difficult to know whether this admission is an error rooted in stupidity or the result of appreciating how many of his followers share his psychological profile and respond favorably to this sort of manipulation and exploitation of virtue.

6 As I’ve said in the past, I reject as both false and harmful metaphors in which human selfishness and cruelty are presented as qualities of nonhuman animals and “uncivilized” humans.

7 Many people have recognized the extent to which this approach represents a break from the tradition of US foreign-policy rhetoric. Some naively or hypocritically hold to this traditional rhetoric as reflecting the reality of US actions. Others, particularly on the Left, point out that this rhetoric has for more than a century largely served to thinly conceal a project of capitalist expansion and the imperialist drive for natural resources, pipelines, bases, and power. I’ve made this argument for years. I don’t believe the appropriate response to the Trumpian approach is to naively or hypocritically cling to liberal pieties while turning a blind eye to real, aggressive policies or to dismiss the Trump doctrine as simply “removing the mask” from US imperialism and thus somehow making it better. Nazi imperialism built on British and French imperialism, but it would have been the height of stupidity and shortsightedness to welcome its arrival as a positive development in that it exposed the reality of democratic and humanitarian imperialism. No, the only positive response is to continue to fight to defend and advance real democracy, equality, freedom, and justice globally – immediately against their greatest threats (Trump, Putin, Erdoğan, and the like) and more broadly against anyone who would use these values as cover for predatory policies.

8 Some have noted that the timing of Trump’s remarks about Reagan’s “weak” posture toward the Soviet Union suspiciously followed his 1987 trip there, and similar comments – which are so out of step with the traditional views of the US Right - came on the heels of his hosting the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. I believe that it’s possible, and maybe even probable, that the notions Trump has advanced about the USSR/Russia and his recommendations for US policy have to some extent been seeded by agents of these regimes who rightly view Trump as a “useful idiot.” But the reality is that he wouldn’t have been such a reliable tool for them had they not found fertile soil for their propaganda in his neurotic psychology.

9 In the Netflix feature Get Me Roger Stone, the sleazy political operative explains his longtime friendship with Trump in these terms – Trump “understands” that this is how the real world works.

10 Some commentators have even gone so far as to express concern that he would act on the basis of raw emotion and humanitarian concern and that his purported humanitarian instincts that are out of step with the Republican Party, both ludicrous readings given the facts.

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