Nazism, Chaos, and Order

By Neil Altman

It took me a long time to recognize the psychological significance of national identity. I remember staring at the title of Vamik Volkan’s Killing in the Name of Identity and, while recognizing the phenomenon of identity, wondering why it was such a big deal, so big as to prompt murder. At the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I remember thinking, with wonder, that a few miles at the border between Alberta or Saskatchewan and North Dakota or Montana would make the difference between fierce support of, or indifference to, or skepticism about, the invasion. The election of Donald Trump has brought home to

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Electoral College Map 2016

me the significance of national identity, and not only because his election was concrete evidence of nationalism, or rather white nationalism, in the United States. As my illusions about the virtue of the United States, about which I had been intellectually skeptical for many years, melted away, I experienced a depression that showed me how much my own sense of goodness depended on my identification with an imaginary national group inspired by virtuous values.

This realization facilitated my understanding of Andrew Samuels’ (2015) discussion of Nazism. According to Samuels, at the core of Nazi ideology is the notion of the nation, a defined people inextricably tied to a particular land and a particular national character. Jews constituted a threat to the way the Nazis organized the world because they were seen as not having a homeland. Instead, they, along with international communism and international capitalism, were seen as an insidious force undermining the national identity of each country in which they lived. In Samuels’ words the Jews were seen as a “strange so-called nation without a land” (2015, p. 156), thus to be eliminated in the service of the purity of the Aryan nation.1 With these points in mind, one can better understand the importance of Israel, the Jewish “national homeland,” to Jews in the wake of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Israel is not only land meant to be safe for Jews, but also is the means by which Jews can claim a place as a nation at all, like other nations. 2

In 2016, Donald Trump rode to power in the United States on a wave of nationalism, linked to anti-elitist populism. Instead of Jews or international capitalism, globalization and Islam are portrayed as the forces undermining “American” national identity3. Under the Trump administration, some troubling new elements have now been added to the brew of nationalism and hatred identified by Samuels as core elements of Nazi ideology.

Trump’s way of speaking is a kind of performance marked by bluster and braggadocio. He intimidates like a schoolyard bully. He takes no responsibility for what he says, its truth or lack of same, its effect on his audience. He does a kind of negative containing; instead of being a leader who tries to help people cope with and channel constructively their anxiety and rage, he incites, he stokes the flames, evoking uncontained fantasies and acts of violence, especially the latent rage of the displaced and disenfranchised white working class. Anthony Scaramucci believed that, riding on Trump’s coat-tails, his own narcissism and arrogance could have free reign. Scaramucci appeared to model himself after the crude, bullying, volatile Trump, who stirred up and exploited the resentment, hatred, and contempt felt for Muslims and “illegal” immigrants and the elites that brought on such plagues to enrich themselves. But even though he had millions of dollars to fuel the particular omnipotence that U.S. capitalism makes possible, he was not President; he overstepped and was put back in his place by John Kelly.

Immediately after being appointed communications director, Scaramucci attacked Reince Priebus, Trump’s Chief of Staff, in vulgar, demeaning, and pathologizing terms. Priebus was soon dismissed. He had been brought on to the Trump team as the former head of the Republican National Committee, representing the old-school Republican establishment that Trump courted to secure a major party nomination. Scaramucci having served his purpose to get rid of the Republican establishment in the form of Priebus, the country was ready to accept and welcome the military order, discipline, and hierarchy represented by Kelly.

In the wake of Scaramucci’s vulgar and arrogant attack on Priebus, Scaramucci’s abrupt dismissal, coupled with the elevation to power of John Kelly, might have seemed a stabilizing turn from chaos to order. For me, a moment of relief as Scaramucci was so abruptly humbled, quickly faded into the frightening sense that Scaramucci and Kelly represented two sides of the same coin. How was this so?

At first glance, it might have seemed that the order and hierarchy imposed by Kelly were at odds with the vitriol spewed by Scaramucci, unrelated to any authorized job description. On further reflection, however, it began to appear that Scaramucci’s loose canon and Kelly’s more tightly controlled military canon balls may, as the metaphor suggests, be linked at a deeper level. Leo Bersani’s (2001) introduction to the Penguin Freud’s volume entitled “Civilization and its Discontents”, comes to mind in this connection. Bersani pointed out that civilization’s repression of sexuality and other impulses generates the very aggression that it then tries to control via the superego, which generates further aggression, in a destructive spiral. This analysis tends to undermine the opposition of id and superego in Freud’s structural theory. The energy of the superego with which it opposes and represses id impulses can only be derived from the libidinal/destructive energies of the id itself. Civilization, via the superego, thus advances the aims of the id by appropriating id energy in the service of repression of the id.

Likewise, the libidinal/destructive energy mobilized by Trump, leavened by arrogance and omnipotence, found one outlet in Scaramucci’s vulgar outbursts against the establishment, and another in the repressive regime instituted by Kelly. This latter regime, coupled with white nationalistic anti-globalization leanings brings us perilously close to the Nazi configuration identified by Samuels, along with the orderly, militaristic element so prominent under the Nazis in Germany.

As I write in the aftermath of the violence of Charlottesville, it is apparent that Trump is testing the waters for the degree to which his fanning of neo-Nazi flames will be tolerated in the contemporary United States. A charismatic and demagogic leader, a violent and hate-filled minority, a complacent and cowed majority in denial: all this has been shown many times throughout history to be a recipe for catastrophe.

References

Bersani, L. (2001) Introduction to Civilization and its Discontents Adam Phillips (ed.) Penguin International.

Samuels, A. (2015) A New Therapy for Politics. London: Karnac.

[1] Ironically, the Nazis took the idea of an “Aryan” people, with its symbol, the swastika (a Sanskrit word meaning “well being”), from India.

[2] Zionists may have identified with the Nazi aggressor in so concluding that there needed to be a Jewish homeland in order for the Jews to be entitled to exist. This identification with the victim in a doer-done to framework so that non-Jewish Palestinians could be deprived of their homeland.

It could be replied that what is in question for Zionists is not the Jewish entitlement to exist but rather possession of the resources necessary to defend their existence precisely because Jews do have a right to exist. However, if one added to this last sentence “like any other people” the entitlement to displace other people would come into question. If one does not add these last words, then Jews move toward the historic European feeling of entitlement to displace others (e.g. Jews, but also many others) that eventuate in Nazi ideology and untold number of wars.

[3] Actually an international term, encompassing all the Americas, but appropriated by a single nation, the “United” States, including red and blue and the would-be former nation, the Confederacy.

  1. Ironically, the Nazis took the idea of an “Aryan” people, with its symbol, the swastika (a Sanskrit word meaning “well being”), from India.
  2. Zionists may have identified with the Nazi aggressor in so concluding that there needed to be a Jewish homeland in order for the Jews to be entitled to exist. This identification with the victim in a doer-done to framework so that non-Jewish Palestinians could be deprived of their homeland. It could be replied that what is in question for Zionists is not the Jewish entitlement to exist but rather possession of the resources necessary to defend their existence precisely because Jews do have a right to exist. However, if one added to this last sentence “like any other people” the entitlement to displace other people would come into question. If one does not add these last words, then Jews move toward .
  3. Actually an international term, encompassing all the Americas, but appropriated by a single nation, the “United” States, including red and blue and the would-be former nation, the Confederacy.

3 comments

  1. Another in a long line of incisive cultural critiques by Neil Altman. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis.

  2. “Zionists may have identified with the Nazi aggressor in so concluding that there needed to be a Jewish homeland in order for the Jews to be entitled to exist”. This comment and the following elaboration is strange to the point of being bizarre. Zionism as a national movement existed long before Nazis did and was precisely a response to the centuries-long experience of being at the not-so-tender mercies of “host” countries and nations. To explain a yearning for autonomy and self-determination, not to mention safety, as identification with the aggressor instead of simple common sense is precisely the type of pseudo-psychological explanation that allows some to dismiss psychoanalysis as a serious discipline. Does it really require such a (condemning) explanation to understand how victims of oppression may choose to seek security and self-reliance?

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