Why contempt feeds Trump

But if Erich Fromm and his followers grasped this point, Lasch explained, they missed out on its psychological nature. They could not see how authoritarianism was growing even though the supposedly authoritarian structure of the patriarchal family was collapsing. For that, wagered Lasch, you needed a social theorist of therapy—like Philip Rieff, who referred to what Lasch called “the decline of conscience and the spread of cynicism” as “the democratization of contempt.”

Ah. Now we’re on to something. For Rieff—writing in the Year of Fear and Loathing itself, 1972—the triumph of therapeutic culture was not announced by an avalanche of warm and fuzzy self-esteem experiences, but by the rise to dominance of “a new voice, an anarchic comical voice pitched to encourage popular contempt[.]” He saw Trump coming an epoch away. Whether superficially “authoritarian” or “anti-authoritarian,” Rieff added, the “release of transgressive behavior” was “a teaching of universal contempt” with an “old name”—nihilism. “Right or Left,” our nihilist contempt-leaders were “followers of the basest instinct, for sheer possibility.”

But if Rieff is at all correct about this, we gravely err to make a scapegoat of Trump himself. A “culture organized by contempt and rancor, rather than reverence and justice, must view inhibition, the delay of gratification, all those disciplines by which self and society can be held in mutual check, as the main enemy.”