Destructive Leaders Produce Destructive Followers

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Gods, parents, and leaders of all stripes share the same privileged psychological position in the minds of the people under their sway. This all starts in the primary relationship where the primary caregiver really is, for all intents and purposes, a god. The primary caregiver is the giver of life and sustenance, the wise counselor who seems to know all, the judge who provides the blueprint for acceptable and unacceptable behavior, for right and wrong. 

Of course the teenage years come around and tend to shatter those warm feelings towards mother and father, but deep down at the unconscious level for many, maybe most adults that relationship of dependence never really goes away as they search for some other source of allegiance. Anything that exists as a source of authority and offers psychological and emotional shelter fits the bill. The seemingly small price to pay is giving up free-thinking individuality.

This is all well and good, at least in practice if not in the existential ethic of growing into full personhood through trading dependence for independence, as long as the authority figures in question promote productive life attitudes and behaviors. But what happens when leaders are destructive, when they espouse cruelty and intolerance, when they promote hatred and bigotry? Unfortunately due to the inherent power of the leader-follower relationship, an attraction entrenched deeply within the psyche and nurtured from birth onwards, destructive leaders produce destructive followers. Followers take their cues from leaders, and even behaviors they know deep down to be reprehensible are ‘made good’ through the supposed moral authority of the leaders espousing them.

What we have to understand is that, at the fundamental level, we all have productive and destructive impulses inside of us. We all have gentle tendencies and violent tendencies, we all have the capacity to do great good and to do great evil. We also have to understand that for many of us bottling up those destructive impulses is a real challenge. It can feel really good to unload on people sometimes, we all know this from personal experience. It can feel really good to luxuriate in a supposed sense of superiority, really good to say and do things that hurt or humiliate those who are too weak to fight back. It can feel really good to crush our adversaries.

When a demagogue comes around who not only seems to find those destructive impulses acceptable but actually glorifies them it’s all systems go in the dependent minds of those followers who have already sacrificed their capacity for reason and critical thought on the altar of hero worship, on the altar of the psychologically potent leader-follower relationship. For these types of followers it’s a real relief to unleash all that pent up psychic energy, a real relief to suddenly find it acceptable or even ‘good’ to hate this or that vulnerable group and treat the people in that group poorly. The irony in all of this is that it’s the followers of hateful demagogues whose own psyches have become nothing if not vulnerable to the brainwashing effects of the leader-follower relationship. They’re not interested in or even capable of critically analyzing the content of the norms, values, and behaviors espoused but rather agree with them and adopt them as a matter of course.