Narcissism and gullibility
In the wake of Charlottesville, concern about true believers
Before the election of Donald Trump I warned voters of the perils of narcissism among political leaders. I concluded with the following sentence: “Sadly, gullible individuals are especially vulnerable to the extraordinary claims and charm of a charismatic narcissist. Be careful out there.” The events surrounding the Charlottesville tragedy suggest the need for follow-up warnings about gullible individuals, drawn from history and social psychology.
The German political scene during the decades following World War I offers an extreme example of the problems that can emerge in a society when malignant narcissism encounters authoritarian gullibility. Initially a tiny minority of German citizens were attracted to a charismatic leader who promised to restore Germany’s greatness. Some Christian ministers encouraged their congregations to support Adolf Hitler. As the Nazi party gained power, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran minister, was distressed to observe that his majority Christian nation was either too complacent or gullible enough to offer enthusiastic support for the monstrous evil that developed. As Hitler came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer began his efforts to confront his anti-Semitic Christian colleagues. He organized underground seminaries and became involved in the German resistance movement against Hitler and the Third Reich. He was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 and executed in 1945.
During his 10 years working with other religious leaders and the German resistance, Bonhoeffer tried to understand the thinking of German citizens who supported Hitler. While in prison he wrote about the rise of Nazism in terms of what he called a “sociological-psychological law.” Every strong upsurge of political or religious power infects a large part of humankind with gullibility and stupidity. The power of the leader is dependent on the gullibility of the followers. According to Bonhoeffer, the overwhelming impact of rising power can deprive persons of their inner independence. They are willing to give up their autonomy in order to become part of a new authoritarian order.
Do Bonhoeffer’s observations of German citizens during the Nazi era have relevance for our current political circumstances in America? Long before the Charlottesville tragedy, David Brooks, a moderate Republican columnist, explored that question in his column in the New York Times (Feb. 14, 2017). While he suggested that it would be difficult to imagine America turning into “full fascism,” he did offer the possibility that authoritarianism could be a threat under the Trump administration. Charlottesville confirms that possible threat.
The validity of Bonhoeffer’s sociological-psychological law received confirmation in a study of cult behavior in the United States. The classic social psychological treatise, “When Prophecy Fails,” by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schacter, published in 1956, offered a detailed analysis of what happened to a cult leader and her followers when her prophecies did not come true. True believers stubbornly maintained their erroneous beliefs even when faced with unequivocal, undeniable evidence and direct experience. In fact many followers became even more zealous in their support of the leader. While the study focused on religious beliefs and behavior within a small doomsday cult, the findings may also help us understand the existence of political beliefs and behavior that may seem irrational or even dangerous.
In conversations with gullible German citizens, Bonhoeffer realized that he was not dealing with real persons, but with slogans and catchwords that had taken possession of them. “Having thus become a mindless tool, the gullible person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 1953).
According to David Brooks, “If we are in a Bonhoeffer moment, then aggressive nonviolent action makes sense: marching in the streets, blocking traffic, disrupting town halls, vehement rhetoric to mobilize mass opposition.” Brooks, however, goes on to say that he does not believe that we are at a “Bonhoeffer moment” and that the Trump administration will not sustain itself for a full term. He believes that “Republicans will eventually peel away.”
I hope he is right. I hope that moderate Republicans will have the courage to confront the challenge of an out-of-control Trump administration. In the meantime, I hope progressives, liberals, Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans will continue to work to avoid the potential “danger of diabolical misuse” by an authoritarian regime.
Ronald F. Ettinger received a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Purdue University in 1969 and was awarded a postdoctoral research fellowship in Social Psychology at York University (Toronto) in 1970. He was awarded the rank of Professor Emeritus when he retired from University of Illinois Springfield in 2001.