The Allure of the American Messiah

Article

The temptation to see a charismatic figure as a “savior” undermines individual autonomy and threatens democracy.

politics

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COMMENTARY

Are Americans drawn to charismatic demagogues who promise salvation in one form or another? An interesting letter from Peter Gerler in the New York Times spurred some reflection on this question. Gerler alluded to the “messianic thinking” among American voters of both major political parties. He characterized this as “…the self-sabotaging and common human belief that someone else has the answers—the antithesis of self-rule.” He ended his letter ominously, arguing that, “We go without thinking, into the dark, and into endless battle.”1

Messianic movements, of course, are not limited to the US, or to recent history. Jewish history recounts the rise—and ignominious fall—of several “false messiahs,” including Sabbatai Zvi [Shabbetai Zevi] (1662-1676) “…the most notorious self-proclaimed messiah in modern Jewish history.”2 Some have speculated that Zevi suffered from bipolar disorder, and that he experienced his manic phases “…as moments of “illumination” and his times of depression as periods of “fall,” when God’s face was hidden from him.”3 That is almost impossible to determine, from the distance of over 3 centuries. What does seem clear is that European Jews—having suffered murderous pogroms by the Cossacks in 1648-49—were emotionally vulnerable to empty promises of messianic redemption.3

Is American culture also vulnerable to messianic movements and religiously-focused appeals by demagogues? I would argue, as Gerler does, that the answer is yes, and that such appeals can emerge from the extremes of both the political left and right. Furthermore, much of the messianic rhetoric in our current political climate bristles with conspiracy theories and false medical claims,4 such as the notion that antidepressant use causes violent crime, including mass shootings (they do not5); and that vaccines cause autism (again, they do not6).

The figure of Huey P. Long (1893-1935)—known as “The Kingfish”—provides a useful example of both demagoguery and messianic appeal in American politics. Long served as the 40th governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and as a United States senator from 1932, until his assassination in 1935. He is generally described as a “left wing populist.”7 His putative character traits might sound quite familiar in our own time, as University of Alabama scholar Tori K. Jessen explains8:

“It was not enough for Long to simply win an argument or debate, or pass a law against opposition. He desired to humiliate his adversaries, often destroying their personal businesses, raising their taxes, or exacting revenge on their families by firing them from government jobs. Furthermore, Long did not attempt to hide his quest for power, often boasting of what he was able to do in the name of government. This language often led to accusations of fascism or totalitarianism, neither of which Long strove to suppress… By 1934-1935 Long had earned himself a reputation as a troublemaker, wiling to resort to outrageous methods to achieve success or acquire attention, and had openly challenged President Franklin Roosevelt on multiple occasions.”

Furthermore, Jessen’s thesis argues that Long’s success and appeal were closely bound up in the religious sentiments he both invoked and evoked. Indeed8:

“Not only did Huey P. Long use religious language profusely through his later political career but he was also not opposed to allowing others to attach religious images, motifs, and tropes to himself… peers such as Gerald L. K. Smith, as well as the general public who supported him, connected a very specific “messiah” image to Long‘s work that was cemented in his early death, often portrayed as a martyrdom, by assassination. These religious associations came by way of likening Long to religious figures, such as Joshua, Moses, and even Jesus, and by associating him with the righteous cause of God. In the face of immense political opposition, due in large part to Long’s own political bullying, he was defended by his followers as being unjustly persecuted, with many using the term “crucified.”

The Psychology of Messianism

If, as I am suggesting, there is a strong streak of “messianism” in American politics, how might we understand this psychologically? I think we find a partial answer in the concept of the “true believer”—a term first made famous by the longshoreman-philosopher, Eric Hoffer, in his 1951 book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.9 Hoffer wrote his book in reaction to the rise of fascism, Nazism, and communism. He conceived “true believers” as people who were “intensely discontented yet not destitute”; and who craved “…a new life—a rebirth—or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause.”

Hoffer also recognized the strong xenophobic strain among true believers, noting that, “…Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.” Furthermore, “the ideal devil is a foreigner…[and] a domestic enemy must be given a foreign ancestry.”9

But perhaps Peter Gerler was even closer to the mark, citing the “common human belief that someone else has the answers—the antithesis of self-rule.” Put another way, the psychology of messianic true believers involves a kind of transfer of power—from oneself to a powerful and charismatic “other,” or to the mass movement that person represents. The tendency to do this may reflect a “fear of freedom”—the title of Eric Fromm’s classic book.10 One of the means of escaping personal freedom is to adhere to some authority figure or mass movement, as Hoffer doubtless would have agreed. For Fromm10:

“The first mechanism of escape from freedom…is the tendency to give up the independence of one’s own individual self, and to fuse one’s self with somebody or something outside oneself in order to acquire the strength which the individual self is lacking.”

Autonomy versus Community

As psychiatrists, we generally aim to foster individual autonomy, but we are always mindful of the need for “community.” The balance between these 2 forces—autonomy versus community—is also an important issue in medical ethics. In certain areas of medical practice, the balance may have swung too far in the direction of autonomy, overwhelming the values of the community. As my colleague, Cynthia M.A. Geppert, MD, PhD, MA, MPH, MSBE, DPS, MSJ, and I have stated11:

“…we reject the notion that a single, highly individualistic concept of autonomy has undisputed primacy in medical ethics, to the exclusion of other equally important ethical virtues and human values.”

On the other hand, the forces of authoritarianism and messianism that have imbued American society for many years—and which persist to this day—are very troubling. Handing over one’s “self” to a powerful and charismatic figure may represent a clear and present danger to both the individual and society.

Dr Pies is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics and Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University; Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine; and Editor in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times (2007-2010). Dr Pies is the author of Psychiatry at the Crossroads and other works that can be found on Amazon.

References

1. Gerler P. Treating politicians as Messiahs. The New York Times. July 9, 2023. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/09/opinion/letters/supreme-court-reputation.html

2. Shulevitz J. Savior? Monster? A messianic leader rallies his followers. The New York Times. February 2, 2022. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/02/books/review/the-books-of-jacob-olga-tokarczuk.html

3. Plen M. Who was Shabbetai Zevi? My Jewish Learning. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shabbetai-zevi/

4. Dorn S. RFK Jr.’s family denounces claim that Jews, Chinese are immune to Covid: here are all the other conspiracies he promotes. Forbes. June 6, 2023. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://www.forbes.com/sites/saradorn/2023/06/06/rfk-jr-makes-unfounded-claims-about-mass-shootings-covid-19-here-are-all-the-conspiracies-he-promotes/?sh=2b109ec3acca

5. Knoll JL, Pies RW. The SSRI-violence link: myth or menace? Medscape. August 20, 2020. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/935846

6. Autism and vaccines. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. December 1, 2021. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism.html

7. Huey Long. Wikipedia. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huey_Long

8. Jessen TK. The pentateuch and brass-bound gall: Huey P. Long and religious rhetoric. May 11, 2014. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://baylor-ir.tdl.org/handle/2104/9075

9. Hoffer E. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Harper & Row Publishers; 1951.

10. Fromm E. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge Classics; 2001.

11. Geppert CMA, Pies RW. Autonomy alone does not validate physician assisted suicide. Psychiatric Times. March 7, 2023. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/autonomy-alone-does-not-validate-physician-assisted-suicide

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