Former President George W. Bush’s dreadful legacy of destruction rivals that of other modern authoritarian rulers who recklessly trampled human rights and laid waste to the lives of hundred of thousands of people. But were his injurious policies—from willfully wrecking an entire nation (Iraq) to authorizing torture to cutting children’s health care—simply the result of his benighted, right-wing ideology? Or is the ideology in itself simply politicized cruelty—crushing the recalcitrant “enemy” abroad while slashing social programs and criminalizing the poor domestically? In short, is 21st century Social Darwinism merely the manifest superstructure of an underlying, irresistible urge to dominate and/or destroy? Describing the emotional tenor of Nazism, Ron Rosenbaum has referred to “an irrational hatred that can assume the guise, the mantle, of an ideological antipathy but which is primitive in the sense of being prior to ideology—its source rather than its product.” 1
In his Escape From Freedom, the radical psychoanalyst Erich Fromm described the features of authoritarian psychology: hierarchical relations (dominance/submission), military nationalism, and the worship of brute-technical force. To the authoritarian character, Fromm wrote, “the world is composed of people with power and those without it. The very sight of a powerless person makes him want to attack, dominate, humiliate him.” The prototype for the dominant-vengeful ruler was the authoritarian father who harshly punished disobedience through physical and/or emotional abuse. The cycle perpetuated itself, as the humiliated child, displacing his rage through a potent “identification with the aggressor,” would himself eventually experience the power-thrill of dominating the weak. 2
In Bush’s case, as the psychoanalyst Justin Frank noted in his devastatingly revealing Bush on the Couch, the authoritarian-punitive parent who administered harsh disciplines was his mother. In a chapter entitled “The Smirk,” Dr. Frank offered abundant evidence for Bush’s sadism and destructiveness, from blowing up frogs as a child to rubber-stamping the execution of a record number of death-row inmates while governor of Texas. Ultimately: “The sadism that motivated the war [was] evident in Bush’s lack of a plan for postwar Iraq: the invasion was an end in itself.” 3 Given the dynamics of a dominant-punitive mother and remote, often-absent father, Bush’s sadism seems to have been complemented by compensatory displays of “protest masculinity”–such as his belligerent rhetoric, or swaggering in a flightsuit aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.
I might note as well as that, according to the diagnostic manual of American psychiatry, youthful cruelty to animals as well as substance abuse are predisposing factors to a possible adult diagnosis of sociopathy (“antisocial personality disorder”). Certainly Bush often exhibited the roguish charm of the con-artist, as he gratuitously lied or invented “facts”–and blithely broke laws, shredded treaties, ordered (illegal) torture and joked about not finding WMD under his desk. Indeed, manifestations of Bush’s lawless mentality—such as deceitfulness, impulsivity, aggressiveness, irresponsibility, reckless disregard and lack of remorse—are defining traits of sociopathy. 4 Evidently, as members of an elite profession, psychiatrists were reluctant even to consider that the individual holding the most elite position in the country was significantly sociopathic. Perhaps more insidiously, as Dr. Frank suggested, the leader Bush became a sadistic role-model, “normalizing” the unleashing of aggressive, vengeful attitudes in everyday social life.
Authoritarian social relations are hierarchical power relations, whether in patriarchal families or in the militarization of society as a whole. The compulsive need to dominate: top Bush administration figures were impatient to vindictively crush defiant former clients such as Saddam Hussein, to bend them into submission or destroy them entirely. The eagerness to “go to war,” with only the flimsiest of pretexts for doing so, inadvertently revealed the anxiously awaited delight in cruelty: the anticipated satisfactions of punishing, killing, and destroying “targets.”
It is hard to deny the enduring link in American culture between authoritarian upbringing, right-wing ideology and the cult of militarism. Identification-with-the-aggressor: insofar as “they are powerless,” demonized foreigners “offer a vast opportunity for sadistic satisfaction” for a soldier otherwise consigned to a humiliatingly low-status back home. The power to kill or dominate, total control over helpless victims: most infamously exhibited in the unmistakable enjoyment of the perpetrators at Abru Ghraib. Once ordinary people—whether in Iraq or elsewhere—were demonized as the “enemy,” there was little limit to the sadism inflicted (and tacitly accepted by Bush and his gang). Military sadism on a mass scale has also been grotesquely exhibited in such fiendish, redundantly cruel weapons of torment such as white phosphorus, napalm and cluster bombs.
In his last major work The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm offered this psycho-political insight: “The sadomasochist has also been called the ‘authoritarian character,’ translating the psychological aspect of his character structure into a political attitude. The concept finds its justification in the fact that persons whose political attitude is generally described as authoritarian (active and passive) usually exhibit (in our society) the traits of the sadomasochistic character: control of those below and submission to those above.” 5
- Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler, Random House, 1998; p. 188 [↩]
- Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Fawcett Books, 1965 , pps. 190-191. See also: Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Childrearing and the Roots of Violence, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002 [↩]
- Justin Frank, M.D., Bush on the Couch, Regan Books, 2004; p. 118 [↩]
- Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, 4th edition, 1994; pps. 98-99, 704-706 [↩]
- Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973; pps. 290-292 [↩]