“Demonization” and Paranoid Projections

If you are dehumanized, I am dehumanized.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

How to explain, psychologically, such a bizarre group-fantasy as QAnon–which is believed in by countless millions of Americans? We are witnessing a massive regression to a pre-logical, paranoid delusional system about a secret cabal of evil, devil-worshipping, pedophilic, cannibalistic Democrats. (The scathing irony is that leading Democrats, in complicity with President Bush, were implicated in the very real crimes, of immense consequences, of making war against Iraq.) But, as to QAnon, one is shocked to realize how similar such mass delusions are to the 17th century witch-hunts, wherein eccentric women were accused of secretly “consorting with the Devil”–and thereby tortured and hanged.

In a shameful affront to the advance of human reason, millions of American fundamentalists even to this day believe in “the Devil” (and consequently, in the existence of “devil-worshippers”). The growing dominionist Christian movement, quite prevalent in the ranks of the military (as well as among Trumpites), counterpoints its all-Christian, white-nationalist worldview with the demonization of immigrants, Muslims, and lurking “terrorists.” One is sickeningly reminded of Texas-born zealot Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL sharpshooter who bragged about killing at least 150 Iraqi Muslim “savages” (many of whom were children). His actions were later glorified in the loathsome yet immensely popular film American Sniper (2015).

Such religions of black/white ethical absolutism, of two battling principles of Good and Evil, have emerged in varying forms over millennia. Around the 7th century B.C.E., the Iranian Zoroastrians conceived of two opposing gods, one of Light (creative, good) and one of Darkness (destructive, evil). Much later, influenced by Gnosticism, the Iranian prophet Mani (3rd century C.E.) taught a more extreme, and widely popular, creed of rigidly moralistic dualism, which for a time threatened the emerging predominance of Christianity in the eastern Roman empire.

The phrase Manichean dualism is thus still used today–mostly by scholars focused on the history of religion and politics–because mass movements continue to emerge with its characteristic features. Often the product of age-old grievances, inter-ethnic enmities often feature the de-humanization of the perceived “enemy,” which can merely b the prelude to a paranoid projection of sub-human, diabolical qualities–as in the case of the genocide of the Rwandan Tutsi (“cockroaches”) by the Hutu in 1994.

Although a thorough historical analysis of the origins of such mass-delusionary episodes is needed in each case, this article will restrict itself to the psychological mechanisms at work. Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss theorized that the human mind itself dichotomized reality (“night” vs. “day,” “good” vs. “evil,” “nature” vs. “culture”). But his theories, fashionable in the 1960s, have since been extensively challenged and criticized.

A deeper analysis brings us to psychoanalytically-based ego psychology. Heinz Hartmann, Wilhelm Reich, and Anna Freud wrote extensively of the “defense mechanisms” the ego employs to protect itself from both perceived unconscious and external threats to its secure identity.1 Repression, denial, displacement, rationalization–these are among those recognized by many today, as therapy reveals their past traumas and/or present-day, unbearable realities. In terms of the age-old human tendencies of xenophobia and dehumanizing the supposed “enemy,” splitting-and-projection are deemed especially “primitive” defense-mechanisms.2

For millennia, of course, opportunistic rulers have deliberately fomented mass hysteria about supposed threatening enemies, vilifying them as relentlessly cruel and menacing–and thereby producing a fear-induced, massive regression to an infantile loyalty to a father-protector. Pre-emptive warfare, with massive atrocities inflicted on entire populations, is then justified. Bush’s illegal war-making on the people of Iraq, initially overwhelmingly popular, was cynically fortified by quasi-religious pronouncements about a “crusade”: Christian fascism served up as a militantly nationalist “civil religion.”

As fear is amplified in mass psychology, the mind, overwhelmed by anxiety, regresses to a child-like mental state, wherein a protective leader-father is sought and purification from evil, both within-and-without, becomes imperative. The result, which according to psychoanalyst Melanie Klein is rooted in infancy (“good mother/bad mother”), is splitting: “We are all-Good, they are all Evil.” The vices and less-than-admirable qualities of one’s own group are then projected onto the other (an expedient “enemy”). Unreasoning fear, suspicion and paranoia go hand in hand. In fact, an “enemy,” even if mostly a product of delusional paranoia, may still serve as a convenient “poison-container” for one’s own group’s cruelties and malefactions. Thus, mass murderer Chris Kyle, in denial of his own sadistic savagery, could label all his innocent victims, not as human beings like himself, but as subhuman “savages.”

  1. Anna Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. International Universities Press, 1936. []
  2. Vamik Volkan, M.D. Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism. Basic Books, 1998. []
Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.