Populism is defined as a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. On paper, it sounds perfect; why shouldn’t politicians appeal to “ordinary” people?
However, once you get beyond the dictionary definition, populist leaders use lies, fear, and racism to gain power. Join us as Dr. Karyne Messina explains why populism is dangerous and why it appears to be undergoing a global resurgence.
Dr. Karyne Messina is a psychologist, psychoanalyst, and author. She is also on the medical staff of Suburban Hospital—Johns Hopkins Medicine. Her books include Misogyny, Projective Identification and Mentalization: Psychoanalytic, Social and Institutional Manifestations (Routledge, 2019); Aftermath: Healing from the Trump Presidency (IPI Press, 2020); and Resurgence of Global Populism: A Psychoanalytic Study of Projective Identification, Blame-Shifting and the Corruption of Democracy (Routledge, August 2022). A fourth book will be available in the spring 2023.She is currently co-editing a book with Richard Wood, PhD, about Putin, Ukraine, and current threats to democracy from psychoanalytic and political perspectives.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome, everyone. I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling into the show today we have Dr. Karen Messina. Dr. Messina is a psychologist, author and is on the medical staff of Suburban Hospital, Johns Hopkins Medicine. Her new book, “Resurgence of Global Populism: A Psychoanalytic Study of Projective Identification, Blame Shifting and the Corruption of Democracy” is out now. Dr. Messina, welcome to the show.
Dr. Karyne Messina: Thank you very much for having me. I’m delighted to be here and to speak with you.
Gabe Howard: I want to confess, Doctor Messina, that before I read your book, I really didn’t understand all of the ramifications of populism. Because even the definition, which I want to read really quick for our listeners, quote, A political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. Unquote. Just frankly, it doesn’t sound all that terrible. I mean, shouldn’t our leaders appeal to, quote/unquote ordinary people? What are the characteristics of populism, or of a populist leader that makes this so bad?
Dr. Karyne Messina: Yeah, that’s a great question. Because, yes, if you read the definition or the definition you just read, yeah, I could see how one could interpret it the way you did. The problem is there’s a lot of disagreement on the word itself. But I call this five clues that can lead you to the right answer about your question. Okay. Does the person in question lie at the drop of a hat with no regard for the truth? Populist leaders do that. Does he or she pass on false information? Does this person make up fake news? In other words, if a red car hit a black bus on Thursday, they have no regard for that. If it suits them, they might say yellow car hit a wall on Tuesday. Fake news is the name of the game. Another thing is, does the person hate immigrants? They don’t like immigrants. If you just think about some know populists, I’ll say Viktor Orban in Hungary. He is very anti-Semitic and he also is very anti-Muslim. He thinks people in Hungary should be Hungarians. He thinks they should be white Hungarians, which those two things go together because of the way he’s orchestrating things. The last one of the five is, is the person a racist? And pretty much again to a tee, they are racist. Is that a kind of give you a very quick answer to why it might not be so good?
Gabe Howard: In your book, you talk a lot about the corruption of democracy. Those are very extreme words, and it’s scary to think that our democracy could become corrupted. That something that we hold so dear could be in harm’s way. And when I read that, I felt like it was an overblown statement. Almost a scare tactic. Why did you use that particular phrasing?
Dr. Karyne Messina: Because I really. I’m afraid for the American people. For myself. For the people I know. Or for the people I don’t know who are Americans for people all over the world. Because American democracy has been so important as something to achieve by so many people. And I am afraid that with the populist leade rs who are in this country, I think that we’re going to lose our freedom or I think it’s highly likely that that could happen. And I think it’s very it’s very sad. When I think of our democracy being destroyed or damaged so badly that it’s not recognizable. It’s scary to me. We’re going to lose our democracy. I can understand why you had the reaction that you did. I know that some people might think, nah, America’s been around for a couple of hundred years, nothing could happen. But I think it could happen. I think it could be a wake up call because it’s jarring in and of itself. If you just think about what’s happening with abortion rights, what’s happening to immigrants and people. I don’t know if they’ve forgotten, but remember we talked about the children who were put in cages. Outrageous. But there’s so many things that are happening, more bad news and more and more bad news that things like children in cages and that just goes by the wayside. So many negative things are happening that threatens our freedom and threatens what America stands for. Threatens immigrants. Everybody was not an immigrant directly, but they have relatives who were. And yet it’s as if that’s wiped out from their memories all together. So I think that all ties in together. For me, it’s not a fear tactic, but just to get people to realize what’s at stake. And if you need to get scared before you realize this, then maybe that’s what has to happen.
Gabe Howard: There’s a line in the description of your book that caught my eye. Quote, Narcissistic charismatic leaders use projection to color complex situations black and white, and tap into our unconscious desires to do the same, unquote. Now, we’ve all heard that when it comes to personal relationships, family members, conflicts with your friends or spouse, that there are three sides to any disagreement. There is your side, their side and the truth.
Dr. Karyne Messina: Right.
Gabe Howard: So when we are dealing with the people in our lives, we understand that it is almost never I’m 100% right and you’re 100% wrong. The reality is always somewhere in between. Things are never black and white. However, when it comes to politics and complex social issues, things that impact the whole nation and millions of people, it seems to always devolve well into these two mutually exclusive sides. And those sides are the one you’re for and the one you’re against. The one that is completely right and the one that is absolutely wrong and that’s it. Those are the only two options. There’s no nuance, there’s no discussion. There’s definitely no understanding or compromise. I honestly thought this was just part of the human condition, that this was just the way that large groups of people understand and handle complex issues. But it seems like your contention is that this just isn’t an inevitable misunderstanding. It sounds like you’re saying that we’re being led here. That this black and white thinking is deliberately laid out for us, and it’s a byproduct of our chosen leadership and our political figures.
Dr. Karyne Messina: Well, absolutely. It is a byproduct of that. These people have an agenda and they kind of lead the people who follow them down the primrose path until they get what they want. And then there’s all kinds of promises and they say that they’re going to do all kinds of things. And usually it’s infused with a lot of emotion by this person who’s usually a charismatic person and who gets people riled up, we’ll say at rallies. Of all charged against the other side, because as you said, there’s one side or there’s the other side. There is no middle ground. A word that’s used a lot in conjunction with populism, it’s the elite. It’s us against the elite. The elite are out to get us and to get you. And I’m the one who’s going to save you is what a populist leader might say. So they’re all ready to save the day. That is, until they get into power. And then the agenda shifts.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with author and researcher Dr. Karyne Messina. In your book, you talk about blame-shifting, which you define as a self-defense mechanism or distraction technique, often used by narcissists and populists that attributes a negative aspects of oneself onto someone else. And you say that this is often done unconsciously, but let’s use a recent American example of former President Trump. How is it possible that he does any of these things unconsciously? For example, let’s look at the Mar-a-Lago raid. It’s well documented that the Department of Justice and other government agencies contacted him just numerous times about these classified documents, and they were just like, hey, we believe you accidentally have these. Will you give them back? And he said, I will. I will. I’ll get around to it. And then he never did. And then, of course, when the raid happened, he shifted and he was like, Well, this isn’t my fault. I can’t believe they raided my beautiful home. This is shocking. And his contention sort of was this unexpectedly came out of nowhere as if he was just sitting in his living room one day and his home was breached versus the actual reality, which is that he had plenty of notice and plenty of opportunities to prevent an actual raid. This has to be deliberate behavior, right?
Dr. Karyne Messina: I think you’re right on the money with that one. Trump’s complicated in that I think that a lot of what he does is blame-shifting. How much is out of his awareness? I don’t really know. It’s hard to know. With this Mar-a-Lago scenario and all of the classified documents, I mean, he has to know that these things were classified and he has to know that these things weren’t supposed to be taken from the White House. But yet he took them. I mean, that has to be something that he controls, he knew about. I don’t think that was out of his awareness. I don’t think it could have been. But he he’s changed that whole scenario around. I think it’s a window into it. This isn’t his fault. This is his poor self and home and family and estate. It was raided, broken into. How terrible. What a terrible thing. When he’s the person who has taken what belongs to the American people. So, yes, he’s definitely shifting blame there big time and putting it on the FBI. They’re bad and the Justice Department, they’re bad, but he’s innocent. This ties in with another concept that I’ve discovered lately, and it’s called stochastic terrorism. What it means is somebody will say, for example, at a rally, gets the people who are attending the rally all riled up.
Dr. Karyne Messina: Then somebody goes out and shoots somebody. And in a way, this happened with Mar-a-Lago situation. So he’s the one who had the documents. They belong to the National Archives, the American people. But he put this poor me scenario out there. There was a man, I believe, who was in Cincinnati who went out. He was going to take over the FBI complex. And unfortunately, the man was shot and killed. But he got the idea because of Trump and his rabble-rousing. Well, the stochastic terrorist in this case, Trump, as an example, is the person who riled the other person up and was the precipitant, so to speak, for that person doing something. But the person who said it, the person gets off the hook. They say, oh, what are you talking about? I wasn’t even there. I had nothing to do with this at all. I can’t help what some random person does. That’s not me. It has nothing to do with me. So that’s the idea. So that’s kind of, it’s all tied in together. When you blame shifts, often there are people who listen to you, particularly if you are well known political figure, and they can go out and do something. So it’s a probability idea that came from mathematics is that you know something is likely to happen. You just can’t predict when or where.
Gabe Howard: There’s this very famous incident that happened in the 1960s with the Rolling Stones. And I’m I’m going to tell it poorly, but essentially they had a concert. Everybody got really, really excited. And because of substandard security, when a riot broke out, well, people were injured and died. And everybody agrees that the Rolling Stones and the concert organizers made a critical mistake. They did something wrong. They were irresponsible, they were negligent. And it’s their fault that people were injured and even died because this shouldn’t have happened. The Rolling Stones could have prevented this with better planning. And if they weren’t negligent in their planning and/or their behavior, we would have had a different outcome. But let’s go over to January 6th where we essentially have the same thing.
Gabe Howard: President Donald Trump got people excited from the stage. There was poor security and poor planning. The situation was not handled correctly and people were injured. Bad things happened and suddenly everybody’s like, well, that’s not President Trump’s fault. He can’t control how the crowd reacts. And I’m just like, Well, no, now wait a minute. The Rolling Stones should have known better? And everybody’s like, Well, yeah, the Rolling Stones, they rilled them up. But. But then over on January 6th, nope, nope, nope. No one’s fault. President Trump could not have seen this coming. People have to make their own decisions and we have to have personal accountability. You can’t blame the speaker for what the crowd does. And and that’s really my question. Why is society holding a rock and roll band to a higher standard of care than the president of the United States?
Dr. Karyne Messina: Well, that’s a very good question. And I like, I like the analogy between the Rolling Stones and the current situation on January 6th. I think the world has changed a lot, for one thing, the standards, our standards have shifted a lot. But I also think the two things. One is, is that a number of people have said this, Trump is like a cult leader and cult leaders do no wrong according to the way their followers perceive them. Trump can say just about anybody, and his base believes what he says. So I think that some of some of the people who are saying, listen, it wasn’t his fault. So, he gave a talk or whatever. The people who did what they did, that’s on them. He didn’t get them all riled up. Well, when in fact, we know that they did. But I think part of it is this cult thing that no matter what this man does, these people are going to follow him. As he said he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. And I believe he’s probably right about that, unfortunately. I also think the stochastic terrorism idea applies here too. He rabble rousers and gets everybody all stirred up. I mean, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, etc., and then he washes his hands of it and says, Oh, I didn’t do anything. But how did these people get all riled up? How were they so on the ready to do all this? They didn’t do that on their own. He’s saying one thing in rallies, but then denying it. And then when the other people are on trial and they’re in jail, as far as he’s concerned, he didn’t do anything. He was just giving a political talk.
Gabe Howard: But where do we go with this as a nation? I have people in my own family who say these things and make these excuses, and I just want to know how we can all get along and find that common ground. I mean, how can we make family dinners great again?
Dr. Karyne Messina: [Laughter] There’s an excellent movement. It’s called the Braver Angels. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. It was started by Bill Dougherty, and I believe it was 2016 after Trump won the first time. It’s grown a lot since 2016. But what they do is try to get red state and blue state people to talk, just to sit down in say a workshop setting. Same room. I mean, they did it online when they couldn’t do it in the same room. But to sit down and talk. To just talk for one group and listen for the other group. And then they switch roles and it’s really pretty amazing. I was dubious about this when I first heard about it, but I thought, Well, I can’t hurt to attend the meeting. So I attended an informational session. I think it was just an hour. And then they let me be an observer for a weekend. And I said, okay, well, I’ll go on Saturday, which they said, That’s fine. And so I participated on Saturday, but it was so riveting, that I also went on Sunday. And it was just amazing to me how these leaders, who were trained originally by Bill, who was a family therapist.
Dr. Karyne Messina: But they know how to in a very even, even way, a level headed way to ask people to talk about their experiences, to talk about common ground, to try to find common ground, but also to try to identify differences, just to identify them. There is a portion of the workshop where they try to see where they’re in agreement, where change could happen based on possibilities. So it’s active listening in an atmosphere of respect without being judgmental. And I was just amazed by that. So to get into that mindset, I think, is something one can try to do with relatives so people can have Thanksgiving dinners together again. The answer of oh, well, we just don’t talk about it. So many people have told me that. We can’t talk about it, so we just don’t. We put politics aside or we don’t talk about it that Thanksgiving or any other holidays. But that’s not the answer. The problems don’t go away if you don’t talk about them.
Gabe Howard: That’s what my family does. We just don’t talk about it. And it’s a great way to make family gatherings easier. But it is it is not a great way to promote understanding. And that does make me worry. I worry about the people I care about having these false beliefs that no one ever challenges. And and what about me? What if I have some sort of false belief and none of them are challenging me? You know, Dr. Messina, I love my wife. She’s the greatest person in the whole world, and I cannot say enough positive things about her. I think that’s enough to cover me in case she’s listening. But she still does things that annoy me. She still has views that I disagree with. She still makes mistakes and she still makes me angry. But she’s still my wife, who I love, the single person who I chose. And I can acknowledge that she isn’t perfect. She has flaws. But I listen to people defend the political figures, who they chose, who they voted for. And they they believe that those people are flawless, that they’re perfect, that every decision they make is correct. And everything that they’ve ever, ever done is just above reproach. How is it possible we have arrived at a point in time where we think our chosen politicians are flawless, but our spouses, they have area for improvement? How can someone think that out of everybody in their lives, their friends, their family, their loved ones, that it’s the politicians. It’s the politicians of all people. Those are the people who are perfect?
Dr. Karyne Messina: Not to overdo this, but I think that there is a lot of the idea of a cult leader. It’s really pretty amazing how some of the some of the things that happen in a cult is very much like what you’re talking about. The cult leaders never do anything bad, and yet they do outrageous things. I mean, we all know about the Jamestown scenario. How in the world do people allow not only themselves to drink the Kool-Aid? That’s question number one. But question number two through 4,000 is how could they do this to their children? But the cult leader is perfect. The cult leader said it was a good idea and therefore the cult leader is right. Maybe their spouse, their spouse, is also drinking, drinking the Kool-Aid is not so perfect. But this person who’s saying and telling them to do the most outrageous thing in the world is believed. So the cult phenomenon, I would say, has something to do with it. That may speak to or may be one way to think about how people can see the good and bad in partner, but yet, when it comes to a political leader, it’s almost like this person is a little bit beyond being just a human being.
Gabe Howard: The book really paints quite a picture of what’s happening in America and what you’re worried about. And we’ve talked a lot about what people are doing, what’s happening, and, you know, the hypocrisy and the scariness of it all. But is there anything that people can do to prevent this from happening to ward off this problem and to really, for lack of a better phrasing, get us back on track?
Dr. Karyne Messina: I think people need to get involved and they need to get involved so that there’s more community building. If you feel part of something that matters, don’t feel isolated. It matters. And getting involved can be getting involved in local politics. It can be getting more involved in your community. And if nothing’s going on in your community, community, then you can start something in your community. It’s amazing how you can see somebody in a different light if you have a barbecue, you find out the guy next door who’s never spoken to you before or you’ve never spoken to. You start talking about. The way you maybe make something on the grill and they start talking about their mother and how their grandmother did it and and other things come to mind. I mean, that’s just a silly example, but you find out that you have things in common with people in the community and then things can build from there. If everybody did something like that, if they did one thing to get connected with people in their community, I think it would make a big difference. And also, again, Braver Angels and other groups like that who want to help people sit down and talk without fighting, but just to air their differences and try to find common ground. I think that that’s a very positive way to proceed. At least it gives me hope.
Gabe Howard: Doctor Messina, thank you so much for being here. Where can folks find you and your book online?
Gabe Howard: To Dr. Messina and all of our listeners, thank you so much for being here. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of the book “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” Which is on Amazon, but you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me by heading over to my website, gabehoward.com. Where ever you download this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and can you do me a giant favor? Share the show with your friends, family, colleagues, relatives, anybody you know. Share in a support group or on social media. Word of mouth even works because sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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