From infancy onward we continually accumulate memory traces from all our experiences. We integrate them into a reservoir of perceptions and representations of ourselves and figures important to us (objects). This reservoir represents a sort of narcissistic network which lets us recognize an image or affect, an environment or a feeling. We can then locate the familiar, the strange, and the threatening. A person identified as familiar and friendly may elicit hope and trust in known representations of security. Any strange image may provoke resistance, uncertainty, or anxiety. The urge for existential security and for reassuring sameness accelerates the need to reconstruct the familiar childhood representations.
This innate need to preserve the familiar Self is linked to healthy narcissism, functioning as an emotional immune system. It works by preserving the familiar within the self and resisting and rejecting strangeness.
In this context we can explain people’s craving for a leader who is familiar. Although it seems archaic, we want someone who we may follow with eyes closed. Someone who knows what is good or bad for us, and who will lead with a sense of power.
The child hidden in each adult seeks from the beginning of childhood to find in parental authority the ideals of peace, perfection, power and ability. An authoritarian image that repeatedly reassures the child that a threat is taken care of, arousing feelings of safety, security and basic trust. Therefore, even adults wish to revive their familiar image of parents as their ideal leaders. This narcissistic task is meant to regulate the delicate balance between the preservation of the familiar self and the preservation of the familiar object – parental images – and their interaction with it.
Hence, when we are in the process of choosing a leader, our associations can link the leader to a subjective inner familiar representation. This leader, through his body language and his way of speaking assertively or even aggressively towards enemies, might arouse in his supporters a sense of well-being, security, mastery and power and thus seduce them to vote for him.
We know well the resistance to giving up known and familiar people and experiences, for hopeful alternatives that may be risky. When a similar chain of representations erupts between individuals and their leader, there is a sort of “media” which joins people together as a group around a charismatic central figure. They commit themselves to undertake common rules, to abide by the rules of the society. The commitment to common rules brings individuals a unique affinity characterized by power and trust. Thus the dimensions of threat are reduced; representations of existential security and even omnipotence emerge, combined with the perception of perfect power. The unwavering trust in the ability of the leader to bring about potent gratification is so powerful, that the preservation of the Self is bound to become unbalanced, making them deny the threat and ignore reality testing.
Leadership based on idealization and on a split between good and evil can impair a person’s control of his own aggression, and reinforce his suspicion in strangers-enemies. In such circumstances, the group is led to trust the leader who directs their aggression toward any otherness to his ideas. As a result, their aggression threatens to explode with demonic rage at any stranger and enemy (and this may emerge as racism). Such a leader might bring hope and trust that danger will be eliminated. That the safety of the object/”parental image” will be recovered.
Two types of leaders
We mainly have two kinds of leaders:
Firstly, there are those who recruit people to work with them to balance all the opposites forces (love and aggression) by negotiations for peace, or “to perform the work and undergo the renunciation (of aggression) on which the existence of civilization depends” (as Freud claimed in his famous paper on “Civilization and its discontents” (1927, S.E. 21:51-145)).
The second type is one who seduces people to follow his aggression against otherness, (which reminds me of the short film The Wave). It is also clear that under stressful circumstances, regression is so intense that it strengthens the temptation to surrender to a type of leader that represents charismatic aggression against all those who appear to threaten our very existence. These two types of leadership might further the understanding of some extreme sociopolitical phenomena prevalent right now.
Will we have enough integrity to stand firm against the sweeping temptation to trust charismatic figures who seduce their supporters to destroy all otherness? Will we instead choose someone who reinforces our collective strength, as well as negotiating and conciliating with strangers and enemies? Will we have enough integrity to stand firm against any inner demons threatening to burst out? Will we have the freedom of choice, enough criticism and clear vision of the reality in which we live in order to choose the leaders that will advance our well-being both inside our own countries and in relation to other nations?
That remains to be seen.