Donald Trump instigated the assault last week on the U.S. Capitol. Yet he’s now on the way out of office and no longer a prime worry. More pressing is the need to understand and address the convoluted inner life of the members of his mob. Understanding is vital because traces of their villainy circulate in the psyche of us all.
The assault last week sprang out of the inner weakness of the individual assailants. This means the invasion was, in large measure, an act of reactive aggression, not legitimate aggression or authentic power. The riotous behavior constitutes “false” or “phony” aggression. The attackers, as well, are representatives of those among us who most stubbornly refuse to engage in self-reflection and self-development. Let me unpack that.
The inner weakness is obvious. The degree to which members of the mob were under Trump’s spell, were blind to his pathology, believed his lies, and carried out his corrupt wishes is evidence in itself of how passive and weak they are in the psychological sense. This weakness is a prime blockage to connecting with one’s better self.
The participants in the attack were a diverse group, and included white evangelicals, militia members, white supremacists, and everyday people. Despite this diversity, they exhibit a common psychological trait, a willingness to become aggressive and violent to deny and override—unconsciously—their underlying weakness.
Our challenge is to understand the nature of this weakness. The weakness involves the degree to which people, largely through neurosis, are emotionally entangled in fearfulness, passivity, victimhood, self-doubt, unworthiness, and helplessness. The phony or false aggression displayed at the Capitol is a direct reaction to this underlying weakness.
This weakness is an aspect of the inner conflict that plagues the human psyche. It’s what we urgently need to more fully understand to quicken the advancement of human evolution.
With this underlying weakness, one’s access to authentic power is limited, meaning that integrity, rationality, coherence, and healthy self-regulation are lacking. Weak people can, however, easily access an illusion of power, namely false or phony aggression. This self-defeating aggression is expressed as anger, violence, cynicism, blaming, stubborn refusal to be rational, fervent promotion of alternative facts, and the invention of enemies.
Let’s start by considering the mentality of the white Christian evangelicals who constituted a large faction of the attacking mob. Having religious beliefs is perfectly healthy and appropriate. But because of inner fear and other weakness, insecure individuals can misuse religion to prop up their fragile sense of self. Religious beliefs, when clung to with the fervor of dogmatic certainty, provide temporary fear-reducing benefits. Like a life-preserver, the sense of certainty buoys the fragile ego and avoids the perils of soul-searching. This ploy, however, doesn’t resolve inner fear but further represses it.
The more repressed the inner fear, the more unwittingly and anxiously people keep it hidden. In becoming fanatical or dogmatic, they protect themselves from the beliefs of others, or even from established facts, which might challenge their beliefs and release repressed inner fear.
Now they begin to process much of their cognitive functioning through dogma. They surrender their autonomy and cognitive powers in exchange for the security of conformity. Instead of “a mind of their own,” they embrace the mind of the group or an authority figure, thereby segregating themselves from those outside their cluster. Those with different beliefs become outsiders, if not enemies. In the process, one’s inner self is rejected and abandoned in order to please arbitrary authority, just as many children, in passivity and fear, abandon their inner self to accommodate authoritarian parents.
Many people struggle with inner fear, as well as emotional impressions of powerlessness and unworthiness. These negative emotions can spin off to include cynicism, bitterness, and nihilism. Belittling perceptions of oneself and negative outlooks on life in general are likely to be associated with childhood failures in educational achievement, the lingering effects of painful disharmony in one’s family of origin, and a present-time absence of motivation or purpose. Such difficult experiences leave a lingering sense of frailty and inadequacy.
The accompanying self-doubt disconnects people from both a sense of emotional wellbeing and their better self. Their sense of inner weakness becomes an emotional identification. However, they don’t consciously register this identification. If anything, they’re unconsciously compelled to deny any emotional affinity with it. As mentioned, displays of aggression, however self-damaging, serve as a way to deny one’s emotional entanglement in this passive sense of self.
White supremacists and militia members were also among the Capitol’s marauders. White supremacists are plagued by doubt about their essential value. The prospect of being assimilated into the races of humanity, or sharing status and power with people of color, fills them with the dread of losing their precious sense of white superiority, which itself is an identification used unconsciously to cope with their emotional and cognitive deep-down disconnect from their better self. Their deepest identification, to which they cling, is the feeling of not mattering. They, too, will resort to false or phony aggression (verbal or physical) as a way to deny emphatically their unconscious identification with this passive self-doubt.
Militia members are drawn to symbols of military might. Their “Don’t-tread-on-me” stance is all a coverup for the authoritarianism (the harsh rule of their superego or inner critic) that plagues their inner life and accuses them of being passive participants in the affairs of the world, if not outright losers. Being armed helps them to fantasize shooting their way out of an oppressive trap of government overreach, a trap they’ve concocted through their own unresolved inner conflict. Take away the gun and they feel stripped of power.
Together, evangelicals, supremacists, and militants crave feelings of power, importance, and aggression in order to cover up their emotional entanglement in weakness and unworthiness. (It’s one reason why, in recent decades, the Religious Right became so involved in politics.) They’re desperate for some sense of power to cope with the underlying helplessness they feel in the face of social and cultural upheaval. Troubling for them is an underlying sense of being passively overwhelmed by the turmoil. Conspiracy theories now become appealing. Believing in such theories gives them a sense of “being in the know,” possessing certainty, and being special—thereby having power.
In daily work experiences and relationships, individuals can easily feel conflicted between having power and being powerless. Being trapped in a low-paying job or having to deal with a ruthless boss can induce feelings of powerlessness. Lording it over one’s wife and kids can feel like power. When we’re inwardly weak, life is, in large measure, about being beaten down by others, beating down others, and beating down ourselves through our inner critic.
Because people lie so much to themselves (unconsciously, through psychological defenses such as blaming, denial, and projection), they become entangled in lies. Their defenses work overtime to falsify inner reality, churn out irrationality, and prop up alternative facts. Self-deception then proceeds to contaminate their perceptions of the world around them.
This mash of lies produces an emotional logic that serves largely to protect the fragile ego-ideal and to shield a person from the challenge of self-reflection. Because of this underlying weakness, mask mandates for Covid-19 are interpreted emotionally as oppressive public control. Acceptance of false claims that the 2020 U.S. election was stolen plunge people into helplessness and victimization, as does the willingness to believe they will now be at the mercy of radical socialists. Reality is screened through inner weakness.
Such weakness was evident in those who, in thrilling mindlessness on Capitol Hill, merged themselves with the attacking mob. An unconscious psychological defense or inner coverup was at play: “I’m not emotionally attached to feeling weak and powerless. I’m not inclined to identify with a weak sense of self. Look at how much I align myself with this aggressive and rebellious behavior.” In psychoanalytic terms, the thrill or macabre pleasure of giving oneself over to a mob or a cult arises from the libidinization of inner passivity.
Trump, champion of the Capitol’s marauders, is a master of the coverup and a role model for denial. He appears to have no capacity for self-reflection. He vigorously denies truth. He blames others. He is anal in his stubbornness and defiant in his posturing, all desperate ways to feel a semblance of power. Without his ego and his political power, he fears collapsing into nothingness.
His followers are not so much loyal to him as they are to his psychological weaknesses, with which they identify. Their highest loyalty is to their own denial of reality, surfacing as willful or militant ignorance and resistance to self-knowledge. Trump’s political power, combined with his instinctive abhorrence of truth, grants them permission to pursue one of their favorite psychological coverups—their spurious, belligerent claim to being true patriots.
I’m not picking solely on the Right. Some on the Left can be highly dysfunctional as well. It’s not about political affiliation. It’s about neurosis and to what degree the population is neurotic. What is the collective effect of this neurosis, and how is this blockage in our evolution to be remedied? Neurosis arises from a lack of self-knowledge, and it’s a major contributor to stupidity and mediocrity. While neurosis is not, for individuals, as debilitating as a mental-health disorder, its collective impact poses a grave danger to democracy.
Inner fear, an accessory of neurosis, thrives on one’s refusal to fulfill one’s moral obligation to grow and become more conscious. When we don’t grow in ourselves—become wiser, braver, and more astute—we increasingly become a target for our inner critic. Our inner critic assails us for our real or apparent failings and for our passivity, and we in turn blame others for our plight. This inner dynamic occurs unconsciously, yet we can make it conscious and muster the strength of our better self to neutralize the inner critic.
Everyday people are besieged by rapid cultural and demographic changes. Many media outlets have operated as commercial predators, lambasting everyday people with disinformation and divisive language, intensifying inner and outer conflict. The world is also convulsing in future shock. The stronger we are emotionally, and the smarter we are psychologically, the better we can navigate through it.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.