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The ghost who haunts the MAGA revolt Christopher Lasch's forgotten book foresaw America's malaise

(CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)


May 29, 2024   5 mins

Over the past half-decade, few intellectuals have undergone a renaissance like Christopher Lasch — and few renaissances have been quite as startlingly heterodox. After the 2016 election, Lasch’s posthumous 1994 book Revolt of the Elites was cited as a key influence on the Right-populist strategist Steve Bannon. Shortly after that, a new edition of the author’s 1979 bestseller The Culture of Narcissism appeared with an introduction by liberal pundit E.J. Dionne that applied Lasch’s ideas to the pathologies of Bannon’s erstwhile boss, then-president Donald Trump.

Since then, writers from the Right, Left, and centre have all offered appreciative reassessments of his work, again focused mainly on The Culture of Narcissism and Revolt of the Elites. A third book, however, published 40 years ago this year, has received comparatively less attention.

The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times was framed by Lasch as a follow-up to Culture of Narcissism; his aim, in part, was to correct a widespread misapprehension that his 1979 bestseller had amounted to a secular “hellfire sermon” — as the New York Times review put it — castigating the moral failings of his contemporaries. Then-president Jimmy Carter, who invited Lasch to the White House to discuss the book, seemed to have read it this way. To Lasch’s frustration, he relayed what he took to be the book’s thesis in his famous “malaise” speech when he declared: “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.”

In the opening pages of The Minimal Self, Lasch assured his readers that, to the contrary, they would “find no indignant outcry against contemporary ‘hedonism’, self-seeking, egoism, indifference to the general good — the traits commonly associated with ‘narcissism.’” His complaint that his diagnosis of a “culture of narcissism” had been misused as “a journalistic slogan that merely restates moralistic platitudes in the jargon of psychoanalysis” holds true for many recent repurposings of his work, whether it is liberals decrying Trump as “narcissist-in-chief” or conservatives citing Revolt of the Elites while ridiculing pampered Left-wingers. What is too often absent is the dimension of Lasch’s work that avoids the satisfactions of indignation and instead invites us to understand those we find contemptible — and the deep sources of our own contempt.

Our increasing “concern with the self”, Lasch explains in The Minimal Self, “takes the form of a concern with its psychic survival”. The issue with the contemporary narcissist, in other words, isn’t that he demands too much, but too little. “Under siege,” Lasch wrote, “the self contracts to a defensive core, armed against adversity.” This “minimal or narcissistic self,” he goes on, “seeks both self-sufficiency and self-annihilation: opposite aspects of the same archaic experience of oneness with the world.” The underside of what looks like narcissistic grandiosity is an implacable “sense of inner emptiness”.

The error of the “moralistic indictment of ‘consumerism’”, Lasch argued, was the failure to see it “as part of a larger pattern of dependence, disorientation, and loss of control”. This pattern derives from the fundamental modern restructuring of social, economic, and political life into systems far too vast for anyone to comprehend, much less exert any control over. Adrift in “a world of giant bureaucracies, information overload, and complex, interlocking technological systems vulnerable to sudden breakdown”. individuals have lost “confidence in their capacity to understand and shape the world and provide for their own needs”.

“The underside of what looks like narcissistic grandiosity is an implacable ‘sense of inner emptiness’.”

Liberal commentators trying to make sense of the 2016 election weren’t wrong to find in Lasch’s analysis of narcissism, as Dionne put it, “unflattering jolts of recognition about Trump himself — the lover of praise, the seeker after friendly audiences, the creator of a world in which he is always at the centre”. But too often, they fell into the moralising Lasch strove to avoid in their treatment of the President and of his followers, whom they framed as grasping, self-absorbed white men wounded by their declining power and privilege — a theme most recently reiterated in the controversial book White Rural Rage. The issue isn’t that there’s nothing whatsoever to this description: rural whites, like other demographics, are indeed reeling from what Lasch called the “diminishing expectations” of the present era, as is evident in the rise of deaths of despair. But the moralising accusation of narcissism obscures the deeper sources of such collective pathologies, as well as the extent to which the accusers exhibit comparable symptoms.

A less selective reading of Lasch helps to account for what many pundits take to be the great enigma of the 2024 election cycle: how is it that a man assailed by trials and scandals that would have long since tanked the career of many politicians before him retains a lead in most polling? The answer is that the once-and-possibly-future “narcissist-in-chief” dramatises more vividly than any other public figure the beleaguered condition of the self under present conditions. His enduring hold on his followers, as well as his ability to broaden his appeal to demographics previously claimed by his rivals, speaks to the general retreat of more aspirational political sensibilities in favour of what Lasch called “the imagery of victimisation and paranoia, of being manipulated, invaded, colonised, and inhabited by alien forces”. Trump’s key achievement, in this regard, is simply survival — in the face of the overwhelming forces arrayed against him.

That the “survivalist” vision identified by Lasch four decades ago extends far beyond Trump and his supporters can be seen in the way his most fervent opponents appeal to it as well. Upon his election in 2016, they published endless guides to “surviving Trump”, and we can be sure this genre will be revived in the event of a second term. As an ACLU official recently told The Atlantic: “All we must do is survive four years.” And yet, because his liberal opponents are busy casting Trump in the role of would-be dictator, they often can’t see why many who share their general feeling of besieged helplessness might appreciate a figure who seems to withstand a constant onslaught by his enemies with verve and humour.

It isn’t surprising that Lasch’s sobering vision was forgotten until recently. The same year The Minimal Self appeared, Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign ran one of the most famous ads in the history of presidential contests: “Morning in America.” The ad boasted of Reagan’s record of taming inflation and lowering interest rates, declaring that “our country is prouder and stronger and better”. Reagan went on to win 49 states and, over the subsequent decade, America came out on top in the Cold War while its booming tech industry fuelled a new era of growth that consigned the dark years of “malaise” to oblivion. There was nothing minimal about America’s ambitions at the high point of unipolar hegemony: rather than a retreat into pessimistic survivalism, at least up until the financial crash of 2008, the greatest risks facing the nation were overconfidence and overreach, from the housing bubble to the Global War on Terror.

Today’s Lasch renaissance, then, reflects a return to the bleak conditions the author evoked when he described how “American technology is no longer the most advanced; the country’s industrial plant is decrepit; its city streets and transport systems are falling to pieces”. Whether they promise to “make America great again” or to “build back better”, our leaders aren’t oblivious to this predicament. But when they encounter obstacles — the Deep State, congressional gridlock, or the many other abstract systems even the most powerful of us must contend with — it is far easier to retreat into the minimalist politics of survival and promise to fend off the feared enemy for a few more years. The indefinite perpetuation of this despondent state of affairs — and not the other spectres so often conjured up by political fearmongers of all stripes — is the gravest danger we face.


Geoff Shullenberger is managing editor of Compact.

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Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
20 days ago

Insightful and illuminating. Re. this:
” … it is far easier (for leaders) to retreat into the minimalist politics of survival and promise to fend off the feared enemy for a few more years. The indefinite perpetuation of this despondent state of affairs — and not the other spectres so often conjured up by political fearmongers of all stripes — is the gravest danger we face.”
This certainly applies to fearmongering around a vote for RFK, Jr., the candidate who most embodies the possibility of positive change. Biden supporters stoke fear by saying voting for Kennedy elects Trump; Trump supporters stoke fear by saying voting for Kennedy elects Biden. Yet a vote for either Biden or Trump means exactly “perpetuation of this despondent state of affairs,” and polls consistently show the majority of voters want neither.
Perhaps no individual can substantially right America’s sinking ship, but I’d sure like to see Kennedy given the chance.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
21 days ago

Well that was depressing!

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
20 days ago

In a rather different way, Mary Harrington’s article could be read as making the very same point: we’re witnessing our political sphere retreating into survival mode; survival amidst the complexities unleashed by the internet. These complexities involve both the political and personal, hence the relevance of Lasch.

MH eviscerates the political landscape in the UK with an awareness of someone with the hinterland of both the internet generation but also a deeper and wider perspective. Is there an equivalent voice in the US? A successor to Lasch, perhaps?

philip kern
philip kern
20 days ago

The danger of UnHerd is that I’m teased with far more books than I can ever read.
This article made me wonder two things. Why has the US produced only one Trump with no obvious successor (i.e. a candidate who doesn’t have all his baggage)? And why did the US, a country I loved (much like I love London though I will likely never again live in the UK) come undone? The article suggests answers to this second question that make answers to the first more elusive.

Adam Grant
Adam Grant
20 days ago
Reply to  philip kern

If Trump’s struggle with his baggage is what makes him relatable to voters, “Trump sans baggage” isn’t a realistic goal. Non-elite voters are in a bind, as all credible politicians are elite, with commitments to elite causes. Even Bernie Sanders had clearly been co-opted by his second run. So you need an elite politician credibly in conflict with the elite power structure.

T Bone
T Bone
20 days ago
Reply to  philip kern

Trump is first and foremost a celebrity. To recreate Trump, you would need a longtime uniparty donor class celebrity with liberal leanings and a massive personality that’s willing to break rank.

It’s probably not feasible or desirable.

j watson
j watson
20 days ago

Not another Private Fraser! ‘We’re all doomed Captain Mainwaring’.
Good grief, but seeing the ‘woe is me’ comedy a better way forward.
When folks talk about how terrible things are, (for some that is true and growing inequality must be tackled) I feel this tug to go and watch the latest on the James Watt telescope and look forward to the next phases of the Artemis Moon programme in a way I haven’t since watching Apollo. For all the talk about decline we remain at the cutting edge of human discovery and endeavour with the US leading. There’s something wonderous about that and it couldn’t happen if the whole edifice was coming undone.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
20 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I’d very much agree about the wider point i think you’re trying to make; however, when looked at as a commentary on our politics, the relevance is only too obvious. That doesn’t mean we’re “doomed”, and there’s no need to (as i see it) trivialise the issue with that kind of hyperbole.

j watson
j watson
20 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Trying to buck the ‘woe is us’ brigade out of it’s nonsense isn’t that trivial I think and humour can make folks snap out of their stupor sometimes faster than otherwise might. Worth a try at least.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
20 days ago

Despondency–and the desperate reactions it sponsors–is indeed a “grave danger”. Can one of these politically astute observers, such as Schullenberger or Harrington, please venture to propose some workable, or at least possible, way put of this mess? Otherwise we end up with little more than a self-aware futility. Perhaps that’s one definition of the human condition, but it’s a very cynical one.
I personally think nearly all of us, me included, need to begin with more love, understanding, and forgiveness for the people in our households, neighborhoods, and countries. But that doesn’t seem to be growing in popularity either. I found this to be a worthwhile article but this website–in this way very much in lockstep with the Herd– has a pretty insistent overall negativity that is very dispiriting.
It hurts my little American feelings. I stand on–or stagger back toward–a defiant hope, with or without falsifiable cause. Even in a zeitgeist where rivers of information make tiny rivulets of knowledge, with the faintest trickle of wisdom.

J Bryant
J Bryant
20 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I subscribe to Unherd and Triggernometry. Both outlets provide astute insight into the source(s) and nature of our current predicament in the West; both outlets devote little space to possible solutions to our problems, especially our fractured society.
Every now and then I drop a plea into the comments section, in the probably vain hope Unherd/Triggernometry management reads the comments, for articles/discussions about possible routes to a more hopeful future for the West. Apparently my pleas fall on deaf ears.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
20 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I agree, and as a Canadian, the defiant hope you describe is something I always wished we picked up more of from you Americans.
I too like to dissect problems with things I see, but the point of that, to me, is to find solutions that could make things better.
Otherwise, why not just ignore the negatives and live blissfully unaware? What’s the point of dwelling on problems if it doesn’t lead to something positive?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
20 days ago

As a Canada-born dual citizen with extended family up North, that makes sense to me in general terms. But there is a lot of despondency and cynicism run amok down here, perhaps more than what I glimpse up there as an observer an visitor. More of a land of extremes on this side of the border, I think. Would it be somewhat fair to say that the typical Canadian attitude is more often one of “pleasant resignation”?
No Western country has cornered the market on hyper-informed fatalism or whatnot. I can be a gloom-and-doomster too, but having come out the other side of multiple severe clinical depressions I didn’t think would end (in my younger years), I’ve cut down on that.
*Thinking about what my ancestors–say those who moved from Illinois to Alberta to homestead about 1910–might think of the struggles of me or my present-day fellow North Americans really brings out the conservative or “kids these days!” side of me.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
19 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Pleasant resignation might be one way to put it, but I’d call it complacency. Plenty of people love to talk about problems and how someone should fix them, but few actually take initiative or think through workable solutions. Our housing crisis is a prime example – a massive drain on productivity, facing similar issues as other places but compounded by an almost unimaginable level of inertia.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
19 days ago

That seems like a fair term for it too. The States tend to have more energetic political and social actors, but with plenty of wasted energy. Wish I could say we Yanks offer many examples of productive engagement or practical compromise. Even agreeing to disagree–without mutual condemnation–would represent progress for most of us.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
18 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Every unhappy family (or country) is unhappy in its own way, I guess!

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
18 days ago

Well said Mr. Tolstoy Ms. Clementine.
I defiantly hope we can better recognize kinship across difference. But even two full siblings can view one another as strangers or enemies.

Brad Sealand
Brad Sealand
20 days ago

My wife and I were at the University of Rochester (US) as grad students with Lasch in the ’80s. We always believed his pessimism was a bit over the top — but now we are his biggest fans. His books read like a perfect prediction of the current American political dilemma — and remember, this was all before social media, and mostly before the Internet became omnipresent.

j watson
j watson
20 days ago
Reply to  Brad Sealand

Inevitable journey as one gets older – ‘the past was better, I’m grumpy about the present and god help us with the future’ etc. Nothing new here. 90% of us older sorts travel the same road, even though when younger we said we never would. In truth it’s neuronal replication that’s slowing

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
20 days ago
Reply to  j watson

By all accounts it seems to be the young who are deeply unhappy.

j watson
j watson
19 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

But maybe they have a good reason(s)?
Alot of grumpiness here from the regulars here you’d have to agree wouldn’t you? We don’t know the demographic but I suspect we both know we all not Gen Alpha.

Duane M
Duane M
19 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I’m not grumpy, I’m happy. And from what I see, Christopher Lasch was very observant and insightful.
And by the way, neurons don’t replicate in mammals, including humans. Except olfactory neurons, which don’t have much to do with your emotional mood.

If you are a goldfish or a salamander, your experience may be different. And you might also live longer. But I suspect you are a person like myself. Life is short; lighten up and enjoy it.

Harrydog
Harrydog
20 days ago

Maybe Trump’s policies and message are simply more appealing to the radically progressive, racist, and divisive alternatives that have been enacted over the past four years. Just make a (partial) list:
Money printing, spending and inflation and the unconstitutional student loan bailout; Overly reactionary energy policies; Illegal immigration – 10 million and rising; Gender Policy being enforced through Title 9. Now those accused of sexual harassment on campus will be denied due process as we go back to Obama era prosecution practices. Oh, and please note – you can call for the extermination of Israel(with all that that entails), but if you misgender someone, watch out!; Weaponizing the legal system to makeup for policy failures; The FBI and CIA colluding with big tech to silence difference of opinion. Pushed for then pulled back on have a Department of Misinformation (aka the Ministry of Truth); The Afghanistan debacle and now the Ukraine Quagmire; Cozying up to Iran; Constantly playing the race card; Constantly invoking the danger of the radical right when the radical left has raged largely unchecked from the Antifa/BLM riots and looting (although “mostly peaceful”) to the Pro-Hamas and anti-American foolishness on campuses.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
20 days ago

Of the making of many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Qoheleth 12:12

Armies of academics, pundits, politicos, and celebrities jostle for the chance to interpret for us in sweeping terms the ills of the world. They all want to paint on a large canvas depicting current and historical tectonic shifts with bold strokes. All compete to be the interpreter, the explainer, the oracle of our age. All is reduced to “systems”: governance, education, business, economy. Adjust or reject the system and all will be well.

Perhaps in the end we would do better to abandon this babel of contentious philosophizing in favor of all of us individually attending to what personally surrounds us that we can actually influence. If more workers worked; more students studied; more parents parented; more teachers taught, the world might actually improve. There is a kind of moral laziness and hypocrisy that too often attends rumination about altering systems. In a culture populated by too much individual laziness, dishonesty, unfaithfulness, greed, envy, and. cowardice it is unlikely that system alteration or regime change will ameliorate our woes. Maybe we have absurd leaders to choose from because we have become absurd ourselves and have not the humility to see it. Of course, there still exist those who get up every day and do their best to be decent human beings, without whom the world would stop. But are there still enough of them and for how long?

Utter
Utter
19 days ago

“”I despise the cowardly clinging to life, purely for the sake of life, that seems so deeply ingrained in the American temperament.”
I guess we know where he stands on assisted dying. He clearly had moral bravery, stating clearly, bluntly that which vanities and presumption hide; though he also seems to have been susceptible to intellectual grand narratives – steeping himself in certain isms (cultural-marxism, Freudianism, populism), using thse Redoubts to better attack other isms (liberalism, cultural narcissism etc).

Arthur King
Arthur King
19 days ago

When the self is god, Hell expands.

Utter
Utter
19 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

When people don’t realise that everything they experience/think/decide/act is ‘self’ (mind) – from notions of what a pencil is, to God, they may excuse themselves readily (exempt themselves from responsibility) in the name of God/goodness/the devil…or any other abstract they care to cite.

Duane M
Duane M
19 days ago

Christopher Lasch wrote with visionary clarity.

Why did the US come undone? I believe that is because it has always been focused on the individual, whereas the UK has retained much more social fabric (even if it is growing threadbare). Those who first came to America were a mix of exiles and adventurers. Whichever they were, they left behind the strong kinship relations that were present in their homelands.

In my lifetime I have witnessed an acceleration of individualism in America, reflected in weaker family ties, more dependence on nuclear families rather than extended families, increased marital unhappiness correlating with the increased pressure on the married pair, and increased isolation and loneliness.

And I agree with Christopher Lasch that the narcissism is as much a defensive reaction as a hedonistic urge. People are suffering greatly from emptiness, and all they can see to do about it is to treat their individual emptiness, because there is no vision here of an interconnected, interdependent society. There is no template or example for that, anywhere I look in this culture. While the decline of sociality may be happening elsewhere (or everywhere), the effects are more pronounced in America because it was so individualistic already.

The exception is when I look across the road at my Amish neighbors. Who dress alike and share beliefs and values and extended families, and work together very much. I’m not ready to join that culture, but clearly it works.

Matt B
Matt B
19 days ago

Not so sure Revolt of The Elites was forgotten. Worth reading the dust jacket of the original, replete with plaudits, including from NYT and talking heads from a wide political spectrum. Debate then perhaps wad a bit less polarised and people saw that Lasch had a few good points. How others have seized on them and used the book is something else, but neither Lasch nor Wendell Berry were MAGA per se, as some pundits now assert