For those still trying understand the political rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, consider an insight from Eric Fromm’s 1941 book, Escape from Freedom that a sense of powerlessness created a willingness among ordinary people to surrender personal responsibility in order to regain a sense of control over their lives. Published when totalitarian ideologies were enveloping Europe and Asia, the book offers a psychological study into the malaise of the modern era.
“The first mechanism of escape from freedom,” Fromm wrote, “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 of oneself in order to acquire the strength which the individual self is lacking.” Welcome to the Sanders and Trump presidential campaigns. Their success thus far suggests that Fromm’s thesis is painfully relevant to our political moment.
On the far left we have Sanders, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” who promises an expansion of Medicare, universal child care and pre-K, free college tuition, paid sick leave, and family leave benefits for all workers—and that’s just for starters. The cost would be in the trillions of dollars. As Sanders confessed to reporters in Iowa: “I think there are a lot people, when they hear the word ‘socialist,’ get very nervous.”
The history of socialist schemes, in fact, should make any rational person extremely nervous. Wherever it has been tried, socialism has dissolved the meaning of democratic self-government. Socialist regimes transform citizens—the lifeblood of civil society—into wards of the state. A government intrusive enough to provide for every social need guarantees the decline of personal responsibility and individual freedom. Just ask the East Europeans who lived through the Cold War.
On the far right we have Trump, the supposed defender of American capitalism, who nonetheless has built his real-estate and casino empires by engaging in crony capitalism and trampling the private property rights of anyone who gets in his way. Trump promises to solve America’s illegal immigration crisis by building a massive wall and getting Mexico to pay for it. He will keep America safe from terrorist attack by temporarily banning any Muslim from entering the country. He will end the U.S. trade deficit with China by making businesses do his bidding. “We’re going to bring back the American dream,” he promises. “After all, wealth funds our freedom.”
Here are simple and reassuring answers to immensely complex problems. Yet the Trump agenda amounts to a new version of protectionism, nativism, and isolationism. All of these policies have been tried before—and have failed to produce prosperity or to safeguard liberty.
An angry and disillusioned electorate is propelling the Sanders and Trump campaigns, just as anger and disillusionment produced demagogues in the aftermath of World War I. It was no accident that fascism began in Italy, a society that seemed to be in tatters—economically, socially, and spiritually. The Great War left the Italians politically divided and mistrustful. The parliamentary government was corrupt and ineffective, the monarchy unpopular.
Enter Benito Mussolini, who after seizing power in 1922, became the first European leader to dispense with multi-party democracy. “The century of democracy is over,” he proclaimed. Mussolini vowed to close the gap between rich and poor, restore Italian greatness, and replace democratic weakness with totalitarian strength. “The Fascist State…has limited useless or harmful liberties and has preserved those that are essential,” he wrote. “It cannot be the individual who decides in this matter, but only the State.”
Whether from the political left or political right, Mussolini’s ghost seems to be haunting the American electorate. Demagogues cannot thrive without disillusionment, and disillusionment has become the watchword for our troubled times. Our escape from freedom is well underway.