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The Worldwide Populist Tide and Our Collective Shadow

By Nadine Kreisberger

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. Viktor Orban in Hungary. Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland. Vladimir Putin in Russia. Narendra Modi in India. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Donald Trump in the United States. 

What do they have in common? They are all democratically elected men riding on waves of populism and discontent with the existing political system, and they all display marked authoritarian tendencies. We can add to the list those not elected but dragging their countries toward increased authoritarianism, such as Xi Jinping in China or General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Egypt. 

They are modern incarnations of a particular and timeless type of ruler: the father figure, the strongman ensuring safety, efficacy, and pride to those he rules. He has existed in countless societies for thousands of years. But today, we are seeing a new wave of populist leadership around the world. 

The precise causes vary, of course, from one country to the next. But if we plunge into the deeper roots, we see commonalities. Decades of psychological research have shown how anything suppressed and repressed by our conscious, rational selves does not disappear. It simply gets stored in our unconscious, in the dark corners of our personality called “the shadow” in Jungian psychology. With the right trigger, it can surface—often in destructive ways. This process, widely acknowledged and studied at the individual level, also applies at the level of nations. In its extreme form, it leads to revolutions like France in 1789 or Russia in 1917. In more conventional manifestations, it carries a leader who embodies those repressed forces to power. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung famously explained Hitler’s rise to power by analyzing the drives lodged in the German collective unconscious. We can see the same process at play today in many countries with several elements forming their “shadow.” 

For thousands of years, humans have fulfilled their need for safety and nourishment through belonging and identification with a particular tribe — with a clear sense of what is “us” and what is “them.” Yet, in the age of globalization, with blurry borders and international trade, in the digital age with its ethos of “humanity as a global village,” and in the age of a lurking global terror threat, an existential angst has been accumulating in many people’s “shadow.” 

This is true in Europe with its open borders, its issues with immigration and terrorism, and the blurring of power between individual nations and Brussels. The sentiment has been used masterfully by the Hungarian and Polish leaders, or by Brexit supporters in the U.K. In the U.S., Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border represented a clear archetypal answer to this need for safety and for a clear separation between “us” and “them.” The same applies to his juxtaposition of the people against the elites, or his reliance on nativist themes. Pride in one’s identity is also a relentless and successful motto in Putin’s Russia, in Modi’s India, in Xi’s China, and in Erdoğan’s Turkey. Meanwhile, in Poland, Kaczynski sees the integration to Europe and the promotion of humanistic values post-1989 as wrong—his rhetoric portrays the country’s identity as dangerously blurred and diluted. He thus intends to bring back Poland’s conservative, patriarchal, nationalistic, and Catholic roots. 

The fear of the “other” and of behaviors considered feminine can translate into racism, homophobia, and the objectification and abuse of women. Those fears were exacerbated over the past few years with the passage of laws allowing same-sex marriage in many countries, women’s empowerment, and a constant terror threat. In the U.S., a large number of Americans have been feeling they are “losing their country”—namely one where white, middle and upper-class, heterosexual, native-born men reign supreme. The extent of those fears and frustrations often remained unexpressed, hidden in the shadow , yet deeply and intensely felt. Trump echoed these ideas in his campaign by projecting the fear of the other on Mexicans and immigrants, as well as by embodying the fear of the feminine through his demeaning approach to women and pride in committing sexual harassment.

In Russia, official rhetoric incorporating homophobia and racism is wildly popular. In Poland, Euroskepticism, homophobia, xenophobia, and an exacerbated fear of Russia and Germany have been at the core of Kaczynski’s ideology. In Turkey, countless laws threaten women’s empowerment while the fear of the other is channeled onto Kurds, Americans, Gülenists, and others. In Viktor Orban’s Hungary, immigrants, George Soros, and Jews are some of the targets used to project collective fears and resentment. Nuance, tolerance, or moderation—all “feminine” traits—are seen as signs of weakness and decadence. Look at Putin and his physical prowess, Trump and his conquests of women, or Duterte and his pride in having killed “deviant rotten men” with his own hands. 

Years of accumulated frustration with rotten political systems, as well as a perceived sense of uncertainty and a lack of order, all characterize current populist waves. Putin became president after a chaotic and corrupt decade under Boris Yeltsin with a clear mandate to re-establish law and order and give the country a new sense of direction. Rodrigo Duterte is projecting the need to “cleanse the system” of drug users, proudly stating he would not mind killing 3 million of them if need be. In the U.S., the need for radical change has been accumulating for years—the lies that led to the Iraq war were left unpunished, the culprits of the 2008 financial debacle were mostly left untouched, the dizzying number of lobbyists in Congress, and the stalemate in Washington have all contributed to this sentiment. Trump played masterfully on those frustrations, presenting himself as the independent outsider who knows the system from inside, and can thus cleanse it to the core.

As all those unconscious forces accumulate in the collective “shadow” of nations, they can get projected on a father figure, a strongman portraying himself as a savior with a clear and simple answer to all ills. This has happened countless times throughout history and we can see it at play again today. In each case, a man manages to embody, channel, leverage, and exacerbate the forces lodged in his country’s “shadow.” This positioning carries him to power, potentially maintaining him there for years. 

In the U.S., we see many people projecting their need for safety, cleansing, and certainty onto Trump, the archetypal compensation for Barack Obama—a moderate leader rooted in his intellect rather than in his guts, striving for balance and tolerance, celebrating unity, and embodying multiculturalism rather than tribal identity. They then were projected onto a man embodying self-confident, fear-based, authoritarian, instinctive, and tribal leadership. In Russia, Putin came to heal the narcissistic wound of a country which used to be an empire, lost it all, and felt humiliated, robbed of its riches. Erdoğan, Orban, Modi, Xi, and Kaczynski all use a similar blueprint as strongmen with an iron will and fist, bent on restoring their countries’ strength and glory. 

When such a leader gets elected two things can happen: widespread destruction or radical transformation. The way the former happens is obvious, but what about the latter? With a Donald Trump in the White House, for instance, the American psyche’s shadow forces are finally in the open for everyone to see. Nobody can deny them: the continuing potency of racism, sexism and homophobia; the cry for a cleaner political system; or the need for a clearer identity and tribal belonging. As those sentiments come to the surface, they can interact with other forces, and thus can be transformed. As countless citizens fear Trump’s actions as president, they become activated, tapping into their own skills and opportunities to prevent or counteract any damage. 

The reality of each country and how to deal with their respective shadows vary, of course. But one rule is valid for all: Relegating to the collective shadow the forces and instincts revealed by an authoritarian leader is unwise, dangerous, and destructive. Integrating, processing, and transforming them is an arduous and complex process, but one with the highest rewards of growth, fulfillment, and wholeness — for both individuals and nations. 

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Nadine Kreisberger is a French therapist and writer mixing her experiences in business, politics, psychology, journalism, and shamanism in her counseling and media projects. After living in Paris, New York, Mongolia, and India she is now based in California. More at neidaninc.com.

[Photo courtesy of the Kremlin]

 

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