Reflections on the Socio-Historical and Social Psychological Preconditions of Right-Wing Populist and Authoritarian Movements in Europe and the U.S.

John Abromeit
Associate Professor of History
SUNY Buffalo State


            In what follows I would like to place the recent success of Donald Trump within a longer historical trajectory of fascism and right-wing populism in Europe and the U.S.1 After I provide a brief historical overview of the social and social psychological factors involved in the rise of fascism, I will discuss the decline and reemergence of right-wing populism in Europe and the U.S. from the end of World War II to the present.

            First, I’d like to discuss the historical and social-psychological conditions that emerged in the nineteenth century, which set the stage for the rise of fascism in Europe. The nineteenth century in Europe was characterized by increasingly assertive liberal, democratic, and socialist movements, which were all opposed to traditional, authoritarian conservatism. These popular movements from below created a crisis among traditional conservatives. One clear expression of this crisis can be found in the French writer, Gustav Le Bon’s, influential study, The Crowd, which was published in 1895. Le Bon presents his study as a modern-day version of Machiavelli’s The Prince, written specifically for conservative elites who are trying to maintain their power in the new age of mass democracy. Le Bon’s recommendation to these elites was mass deception. He realizes that conservative elites can no longer afford to be openly anti-democratic; they must play the game of democracy, by learning to manipulate and mobilize the masses in a way that insures an outcome favorable to their own interests. Writing just a few years after the astonishing popular political success of General Boulanger in France, Le Bon emphasized the importance of a strong leader who could use specific psychological and rhetorical techniques to cow the masses into submission and support of conservative politics.

            Ten years later, the idiosyncratic French socialist theorist, Georges Sorel, came to similar conclusions about mobilizing the masses in his Reflections on Violence. Like Le Bon, Sorel believed that politics was an essentially irrational affair, and that whoever best understands “the feelings that move the masses [to] form into groups” would win control of society.2 Both Le Bon and Sorel were convinced that the rational political debate celebrated by liberal-democrats and reform socialists, was no match for the irrational power of myth to consolidate political power. Although Sorel spent most of his career on the left, it’s not a coincidence that he flirted with the new right-wing populist and proto-fascist groups that were emerging in France in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair. Nor is it a coincidence that Mussolini was an avid reader and admirer of both Le Bon and Sorel. One could argue that Mussolini’s fascism represented a combination of Le Bon’s idea of elite manipulation with Sorel’s idea of populist mobilization. For fascism’s success relied on precisely these two elements: namely, a genuine, spontaneous, grass-roots mobilization, but also the willingness of powerful, entrenched conservative elites to co-operate with right-wing populist movements from below.

            In Germany one finds a clear articulation of the crisis of traditional, authoritarian conservatism in the work of Carl Schmitt in the 1920s. Like Le Bon, Schmitt realizes that conservatives must learn to play the democratic game, if they want to retain power; like Mussolini, Schmitt was an admirer of Sorel, who realized that the myth of nationalism, with its roots in 19th-century liberal and democratic political movements, had more popular appeal than the newer socialist ideal of internationalism.3 Schmitt’s return to Hobbes and Rousseau, in order to develop a bottom-up theory of absolute sovereignty, expressed the powerful “conservative revolutionary” forces slumbering in German society in the 1920s, which would soon emerge triumphant out of the ruins of the Weimar Republic. The uneasy alliance between Hitler, who had succeeded in harnessing the spontaneous, right-wing populist movement in Germany in the 1920s, and Paul von Hindenburg, who represented entrenched, anti-democratic conservative elites in the military and big industry, opened the door for the Nazi consolidation of power in the mid-1930s.4

            In terms of the social-psychological conditions that made fascism possible, I would like to point to the path-breaking work of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in the 1930s and, in particular, to the writings during this time of Max Horkheimer and Erich Fromm.5 Horkheimer and Fromm both pointed to the emergence of new character structures and new class divisions in modern capitalism, which supplied the necessary conditions for the rise of fascism. Horkheimer examined the conflict in modern political theory between the liberal emphasis on self-interest and the republican emphasis on virtue or moral duty. He argued that the former theory expressed the emerging hegemony of the bourgeoisie, whereas the latter expressed the sacrifices that would be imposed upon the lower classes as they were integrated into the new capitalist order. As long as these sacrifices were awarded by concrete social gains—as was the case in the French Revolution— republican virtue was defensible. But the sacrifices demanded of the lower classes lost this justification when it became apparent—especially after the July Revolution in 1830—that the promise of liberty, equality, and fraternity would not be realized by the bourgeoisie, which had abandoned its erstwhile allies from the lower classes in their common struggle against the aristocracy, and had itself become a new particularist power. Furthermore, the ongoing imposition of the ascetic, self-disciplined bourgeois character structure upon the lower classes, which was accelerated by the industrial revolution, led to increased levels of repression and sacrifice, and along with it, increasing resentment among the lower classes. New forms of social cohesion and new forms of compensation for these sacrifices had to be found. Drawing on Freud’s early drive theory, Horkheimer and Fromm emphasized the plasticity of libidinal drives and the ability of imaginary forms of compensation—such as membership in an imagined community or the imaginary love of a powerful leader—to partially satisfy repressed drives. In this context, Horkheimer and Fromm also emphasized the transformation of nationalism in nineteenth-century Europe, from a liberal-democratic justification of rebellion against the ancien régime, to a chauvinistic justification of Social Darwinism and imperialism. They also highlighted the links between chauvinistic nationalism and compensatory sadism. With its Manichean “friend-enemy” logic, chauvinistic nationalism sets the stage for violent attacks on demonized members of the out-group. In this context, such attacks provide compensatory satisfaction of repressed libidinal drives, but also provide narcissistic gratification by affirming the perpetrator’s membership in the imagined virtuous community and the approval of the powerful leader.

            Many of Horkheimer and his colleagues’ studies of the historical and social-psychological origins of fascism in Europe were carried out during their exile in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s important to recognize that they did not believe that the U.S. was immune to the powerful authoritarian tendencies in Europe that they had observed and analyzed. In fact, the Institute carried out two large-scale empirical studies of such tendencies in the U.S. in the 1940s. The first was a little-known study of anti-Semitism among American workers, which was never published.6 The second was the much better known Studies in Prejudice, which was published in five volumes in 1949 and 1950, including the famous study that was co-authored by Theodor Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality. Both of these large-scale empirical studies were motivated by the question: “could it happen here?” Could an authoritarian movement similar to European fascism succeed in the U.S.? As Horkheimer makes clear in his introduction to the Studies in Prejudice, the members of the Institute did not think that the historical and social conditions in the U.S. in the immediate post-war period were conducive to the emergence of such a movement, mainly because fascism in Europe had so recently been defeated and discredited. Nonetheless, this conviction did not stop them from carrying out these studies. Horkheimer and his colleagues were convinced that the powerful social and social-psychological tendencies, which had led to fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, existed in all modern capitalist societies and continued to exist even after the defeat of fascism. They were convinced that, if social conditions changed, these tendencies could reemerge. As Adorno would put it in 1959, “I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy to be potentially more menacing than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy.”7

            In conclusion, I would like to suggest that social conditions have changed in the past four decades in ways that have enabled the reemergence of powerful authoritarian and right-wing populist tendencies. During the two decades after the Institute published the Studies in Prejudice, Europe and the United States experienced an unprecedented economic boom, which historians now refer to as “the Golden Age.”8 The remarkable prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s was accompanied by the growth of an effective social state and strong trade unions that redistributed wealth and insured the security of most (if not all) citizens and, in so doing, minimized the anxiety and resentment that had fueled the rise of authoritarian movements in the past. A broad Keynesian consensus existed—even among conservatives like Eisenhower and Adenauer—which led to a significant redistribution of wealth downward, which has been documented in detail by Thomas Piketty and others.9 The economic downturn in the 1970s and the transition to neo-liberalism in the 1980s and 1990s reversed these trends. In the 1980s, Reagan, Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and even the socialist Francois Mitterand in France adopted business friendly policies and sought—more or less vigorously—to put into practice the new neo-liberal economic consensus. These tendencies were only reinforced with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led neo-liberal ideologues to triumphantly proclaim “the end of history,” that is, the “proof” that there is no alternative to capitalism. In the 1990s, American Democrats, the British Labor Party, and continental Social Democrats also jumped on the neo-liberal bandwagon. Reformed and unreformed European communist parties, which had remained popular in Italy and France in the post-war period, also entered into a period of terminal decline during this time.

            The main point I would like to make here is that this transition to neo-liberalism also coincided with the emergence—as the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde puts it—of a whole new family of right-wing populist parties in Europe.10 For example, the rise of the Front Nationale in France corresponds more or less directly with the decline of the Communist Party and the shift of the Socialist Party in France to the new neo-liberal center. Several sociological studies have demonstrated that many FN voters have migrated from the Communist Party.11 Other right-wing populist parties in Europe, such as the Freedom Party in Austria, have also risen to prominence based on popular criticisms of neo-liberal globalization and of the mainstream social democratic and conservative parties that have pursued such policies.

            What is most striking about Donald Trump, in my view, is the way he has set himself apart from the other candidates in the Republican primary by breaking with their neo-liberal economic policies. He promises to put an end to trade deals, such as NAFTA, which have cost thousands of workers their jobs; he promises to defend and expand social security; he promises to rebuild America’s infrastructure; and, just a few days ago, he said he would transform the Republican Party into a workers’ party. Trump combines these pseudo-socialist policy proposals with all the techniques of the American proto-fascist agitator that Horkheimer and his colleagues studied in the 1930s and 1940s. The other contributors to this forum will discuss these techniques, so I won’t elaborate upon them here.12 The final point I would like to make, however, is that a large portion of blame for the growing prominence of right-wing populism in Europe and the U.S. needs to be placed at the feet of democratic, labor, and social democratic parties that continue to cling to failed neo-liberal economic policies. If these parties do not reach out to the people who should be their constituents, if they fail to articulate a critique of capitalism, and to develop robust policies to counteract the damage that neo-liberalism has already done, it should come as no surprise that their constituents will be easy prey for right-wing populists who mendaciously promise to address their problems.


1 For a lengthier treatment of this topic, which contains a more detailed discussion of the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump, see John Abromeit, “Critical Theory and the Persistence of Right-Wing Populism,” Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture, vol. 15, no. 2 (Fall, 2016).
2 Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, ed. and trans. Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 40.
3 See, for example, Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, trans. Ellen Kennedy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985) 65-76.
4 For one fairly recent scholarly account of the cooperation of traditional conservative elites with the right-wing populist National Socialist movement as the crucial precondition for the success of fascism in Germany, see Eric Weitz, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007) 331-60. For a closer examination of the populist dimensions of National Socialism, see Peter Fritzsche, Germans into Nazis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
5 For a more detailed discussion of Horkheimer and Fromm’s writings in the 1930s on the socio-historical and social psychological factors involved in the rise of fascism, see John Abromeit, Max Horkheimer and the Foundations of the Frankfurt School (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011) 201-26, 248-300.
6 The most thorough discussion of the Institute’s unpublished study of anti-Semitism among American workers is Mark P. Worrell, Dialectic of Solidarity: Labor, Antisemitism and the Frankfurt School (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008).
7 Theodor Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) 90.
8 See, for example, Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Vintage, 1994) 257-86.
9 Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014) 271-303.
10 Cas Mudde, “Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe Today,” in Transformations of Populism in Europe and the Americas: History and Recent Tendencies, eds. John Abromeit, Bridget María Chesterton, York Norman and Gary Marotta (London: Bloomsbury, 2016) 295-307.
11 See, for example, Pascal Perrineau, “The Conditions for the Re-emergence of an Extreme Right Wing in France: the National Front, 1984-98,” in The Development of the Radical Right in France: From Boulanger to Le Pen, ed. and trans. Edward Arnold (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000) 253-70.
12 See the essay cited in the first footnote above, for my own discussion of Trump’s right-wing populist and authoritarian techniques.