Donald Trump and the Fear of Freedom
A Unique Perspective on Trump's Persistent Popularity (Vol. 4; Issue 5)
The media observes Trump’s seemingly unstoppable popularity from a variety of angles. Journalists, pundits, and scholars attribute it to white supremacy, panic over border security, hopes he will hold to conservative values, personal charisma, identification with his alleged persecution, e.g., being indicted on 91 criminal charges, and other factors. I explore a less common perspective—the way we human beings fear our individual freedom.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1941/1969, 1942/2001), an Enlightenment political philosopher, believed people, not God, created governments. In his era, it was literally a revolutionary conviction. Individuals form governments, which, in turn, create social contracts. We persons living in the developed world agree to it with little thought. We unconsciously follow its dictates: We dutifully stop at red lights, attend school through high school, and pay taxes.
Rousseau was one of the first public intellectuals to herald the idea of human rights. He considered liberty as foundational to the experience of being human. For him, the type of inequality characteristic of his era, and representing an immense international problem in our time, demonstrates poorly functioning governments. Rousseau’s essays contributed, in many ways, to the upheavals of the French Revolution. Rousseau thought we become conditioned, tamed if you will, by the excesses of government. All human beings are free, Rousseau thought, and they should remain free and equal in the state.
Nonetheless, Rousseau famously writes:
Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains.
It is the taming, the discomfort with decision-making, that causes the imprisonment. Our freedom can become a psychological trap.
Within psychoanalysis, Erich Fromm (1941/1969, 1942/2001) stands out as most eloquently expanding upon our unwitting incarceration. In his book, Fear of Freedom, he proposes that we enjoy the security of the social contract, but we pay a price in terms of conformity. These unconscious social constraints prevent people from self-realization, from becoming all they can be—to cite the words of the Greek poet Pindar.
Fromm specifically critiques fascism and authoritarianism in the book, noting the human propensity to surrender to such governmental systems. Fascism is characterized by extreme nationalism, government by a dictator, and the use of military force in within-state affairs. Fascism, and the authoritarianism which necessarily accompanies it, offers relief for many. Dictators offer simple solutions to complex problems. The normal messiness of democratic processes are replaced by policies developed and enforced by an authoritarian leader.
In a speech delivered by Winston Churchill on November 11, 1947, he famously proclaimed that:
No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried.
Consider how well recent statements by Donald Trump map onto both fascism and authoritarianism. Trump’s heralding of America First, including his promise to cozy up to Putin and stop providing aid for Ukraine, unequivocally illustrates nationalism in extremis. In a December 2023 interview on Fox News, Sean Hannity asked Trump directly if he would behave like a dictator. He replied:
Except for day one… I want to close the border, and I want to drill, drill, drill.
Hannity, an arch-conservative himself, seemed taken aback by the reply. He repeated the question:
You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?
No, no, no, other than day one. We’re closing the border, and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.
Trump’s answer hardly reassures, and his answer betrays an obvious tendency towards authoritarianism. Why would he stop after his first day in office? And, his promise to drill ignores the widely accepted knowledge of a pending climate catastrophe.
Regarding his use of the military, a November 2023 article in the Associated Press featured an interview with Joseph Nunn, a national security expert with the Brennan Center for Justice. He reported that the Insurrection Act, a law passed early in America’s history, can be instantly adopted by any president. Few have used it. Nunn claims, “there’s not much really in the law to stay the president’s hand” should a president mobilize the military for domestic use. Trump repeatedly pledges to employ the US Army to close the border with Mexico. He’s even suggested he would use them to hunt narco traffickers across the border—basically invading another sovereign state. He also promises to initiate mass deportations of immigrants and to re-institute travel bans on certain Muslim-majority countries.
In his earlier book, Escape from Freedom, Fromm observed the rise of Nazism in real time, looking for explanations for why persons can find authoritarianism relieving. He believed modernization elicits personal insecurities, which, in turn, invite persons to seek refuge in totalitarian movements. Further, Fromm believes individual freedoms can cause fear, anxiety, and alienation. Many people seek relief by relinquishing them. The type of obsessive adherence to a to-do list—a persistent, personal struggle of mine—illustrates just one of the ways we find it discomforting.
Many express the wish to practice meditation, for example, but they insist they lack the time for such calming, inner work. Is it really time? Most likely they fear the unknown, the freedom to see what comes up should they follow any number of meditation practices. These unite around a central focus on calming of the mind, and its health effects are unequivocally positive (Goleman and Davidson, 2018). Nonetheless, they require practitioners to essentially do nothing. Often, meditation instructors preach, “don’t just do something, sit there,”—a command running counter to the conditioning of Western minds.
Consistent with this newsletter’s focus on the unconscious, the existential requirement to choose often elicits anxiety in persons. Democracy carries its own terrific sins—influence from lobbyists representing huge multi-national corporations, corruption, or frank stupidity or psychopathy. Think George Santos, the sixth House member in US History to ever be removed from office. In a rare example of bipartisanship, even his fellow Republicans considered him a liar and a “fraud,” “an embarrassment and a disgrace,” and a “crook.”
All that being noted, embracing personal freedom is certainly a marker of individual maturity. Readers will, of course, choose their elected representatives for themselves. Hopefully, however, the insights from leaders ranging from Pindar to Churchill to Fromm educate us on ways, either subtle or overt, we might surrender personal freedom. And, once surrendered, freedom proves extremely difficult to regain.
The March 1932 presidential elections in Germany resulted in Adolf Hitler, a representative of the Nazi Party, earning a seven-year term as President. Within one year, his cabinet had appointed him Chancellor, a role quickly morphing into dictatorship. He ruled ruthlessly until Germany was conquered by allied forces on May 8, 1945. Alas, even much-flawed democratic processes can lead to totalitarian governments. We citizens are ideally warned off by individuals promising to behave in an authoritarian manner, particularly if they are capable of enduring the anxiety-ridden nature of personal freedom and of understanding the many subtle ways they might relinquish it.
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Fromm, E. (2001). The Fear of Freedom. New York: Routledge. (Original work published in 1942).
Fromm, E. (1969). Escape from Freedom. New York: Holt. (Original work published in 1941).
Goleman, A. and Davidson, R.J. (2018). Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. New York: Avery.
Rousseau, J-J. (2003). Du Contract Social [On The Social Contract]. Trans. G.D.H. Cole. New York: Dover. (Original work published in 1762).