The “Mass Man” and the Specter of Fascism

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The specter of fascism is spreading across the country.  Standing in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on September 1st, Pres. Joe Biden delivered a speech focusing “on the Continued Battle for the Soul of the Nation.”  In it, he declared:

Donald Trump and the MAGA [i.e., Make America Great Again] Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic. …
They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country.

They look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on January 6th — brutally attacking law enforcement — not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger to the throat of our democracy, but they look at them as patriots.

And they see their MAGA failure to stop a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election as preparation for the 2022 and 2024 elections.

Is this the specter of fascism?

Two recent books by academics share Biden’s concern and raise serious warnings as the growing tendency toward fascism – Yale’s Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (Random House, 2018) and Lehigh’s Anthony DiMaggio’s Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happened Here (Routledge, 2021).

In addition, numerous articles in leading publications have drawn attention to the rise of fascist elements spreading through the country.  These include pieces in Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, The Guardian and The Atlantic to identify but four.

Each in its own way shares DiMaggio’s concern about the rightwing, white nationalist elements that seem to be forging a fascist movement. “To be clear, I am not arguing that the United States is a fully consolidated fascist country—equivalent in its political institutions to what existed in Germany and Italy between 1922 and 1945,” he writes.  He adds:

Rather, the concern is with the threat of a rising fascistic movement to the stability of the republic, which is to say that undercurrents, or elements of fascistic politics in America have steadily grown more extreme in recent decades, particularly in recent years under Trump’s presidency.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, the January 6th attack on the U.S. Congress, the increasingly reactionary Republican party and the growing number of “politically” motivated mass killings, there is concern about the emergence of a successful neo-fascist political party not unlike Victor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary or Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.

At such a moment, it can be useful at look back to 20th century fascism, particularly in Germany, through the analyses of two classic analyses, Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933) and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951).  Both are impressive works, one written before World War II, the other after amidst a new Cold War.

Zvi Lothane, MD, writing in the International Forum of Psychoanalysis, notes that the works of Reich and Arendt are complementary.  After linking Reich’s work to Sigmund Freud and early psychoanalysis, he makes the critical comparison. “Freud’s [and, thus, Reich’s] analysis addressed the passions in the leader-led relationship, the emotional character of the masses and the messiahs, Arendt — the ideological and socio-political prejudices in that relationship.”  He then insists, “The complete picture of that relationship must include both the emotional and the ideational aspects.”

The complementarity of Freud/Reich per “passions” and Arendt’s “prejudices” begins to provide an analysis of a very complex social-political and highly personal phenomenon, fascism.  One of the areas of analysis that both were deeply concerned with involved what Reich identified as “little man” and Arendt called the “mass man.”

Arendt distinguishes the mass man as follows:

The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.

Coming from the class-ridden society of the nation-state, whose cracks had been cemented with nationalistic sentiment, it is only natural that these masses, in the first helplessness of their new experience, have tended toward an especially violent nationalism, to which mass leaders have yielded against their own instincts and purposes for purely demagogic reasons.

Looking deeper, Arendt adds:

They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself.

What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. …

What the masses refuse to recognize is the fortuitousness that pervades reality. They are predisposed to all ideologies because they explain facts as mere examples of laws and eliminate coincidences by inventing an all embracing omnipotence which is supposed to be at the root of every accident.

Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency.

For Reich, the little man has a different resonance.

Since fascism, whenever and wherever it makes its appearance, is a movement borne by masses of people, it betrays all the characteristics and contradictions present in the character structure of the mass indi­vidual. It is not, as is commonly believed, a purely reactionary move­ment—it represents an amalgam between rebellious emotions and reactionary social ideas.

Roy T. Tsao, in a revealing study, “The Three Phases of Arendt’s Theory of Totalitarianism,” points out, “Arendt distinguishes three formally successive ‘stages’ of totalitarianism – ‘the “pre-power’ state, the consolidation and exercise of state power, and finally ‘total domination’ …. “

He then adds, “What interests her about the movement’s ‘pre-power’ stage is not how, or even whether, a totalitarian movement is able to seize state power in one country or another, but rather how such a movement recruits adherents and sustains their loyalty, whatever its absolute strength or eventual success.”

It is this recruiting of today’s “mass man” or “little man” that should most disturb us.


Many white Americans, especially men who are MAGA supporters, believe they are being “replaced” by women, African Americans, Jews and the growing number – and diversity – of immigrates who’ve settled in the U.S. over the last quarter century.  This belief is known as the “Great Replacement” and has increasingly become an accepted theory, a fact of life, among supporters of former president Trump and other white conservatives.

Robert Pape and his associates at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) note in the revealing study, “Understanding American Domestic Terrorism,” that the belief in the Great Replacement was “a key driver” of the “committed insurrectionists” who stormed the Capitol on January 6th.  He found that “63 percent of the 21 million adamant insurrectionists in the country believe in the ‘Great Replacement.’”  In June 2022, Vice reports that in a recent poll two-thirds (68%) of Republicans surveyed believed in the “great replacement” theory.

Fox TV host Tucker Carlson ranted on-air about replacement months before the January 6thattack.  “In political terms,” he said, “this policy is called ‘the great replacement,’ the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from far-away countries.” “They [i.e., liberal Democrats] brag about it all the time,” he added, “but if you dare to say it’s happening they will scream at you with maximum hysteria.”  The New York Times identified more than 400 episodes of Carlson’s show in which he promoted the Great Replacement.

Carlson’s sentiments are shared by others.  In October 2018, Fox News host Laura Ingraham argued, “your views on immigration will have zero impact and zero influence on a House dominated by Democrats who want to replace you, the American voters, with newly amnestied citizens and an ever increasing number of chain migrants.”  In addition, numerous Republican politicians have invoked the concept, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Most troubling, white nationalists who participated in the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville (VA) shouted the slogans “You Will Not Replace Us” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us.”


“My whole life I have been preparing for a future that currently doesn’t exist. The job of my dreams will likely be automated. Hispanics will take control of the local and state government of my beloved Texas, changing policy to better suit their needs.”

These are the words of resentment posted by 21-year-old Patrick Crusius on the website shortly before he walked into a Walmart store in El Paso, TX, on August 3, 2019, and murdered 23 people and wounded almost two dozen others.  Prior to the shootings, Crusius allegedly cruised the store and returned armed with a WASR-10, a semi-automatic version of a Romanian military AK-47 weapon, looking “to kill as many Mexicans as he could.”  It was reported that weeks before the shooting, his mother called the Allen Police Department because she was concerned about her son owning an “AK”-type firearm and his lack of experience handling such a firearm.  Nothing was done.

“My death is likely inevitable,” Crusius lamented. “If I’m not killed by the police, then I’ll probably be gunned down by one of the invaders. Capture in this case if far worse than dying during the shooting because I’ll get the death penalty anyway. Worse still is that I would live knowing that my family despises me. This is why I’m not going to surrender even if I run out of ammo.”   His was taken alive.

Defense lawyers for Crusius claimed in a court filing that he “has been diagnosed with severe, lifelong neurological and mental disabilities.”  In addition, he was treated with antipsychotic medication following his arrest.

There is another interpretation of Crusius murderous actions, one that sees it expressing the most extreme form of a belief system known as the “Great Replacement.”  This is the notion that white Christian men, are being “replaced” by women, African Americans, Jews and the growing number – and diversity – of immigrates who’ve settled in the U.S. over the last quarter century.  It infuses what is known as the “politics of resentment.”

Lawrence Rosenthal, the founder of UC Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies and author of Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism, suggests that this form of right-wing extremism “is a protean force whose prime mover is the resentment felt toward perceived cultural elites, and whose abiding feature is its ideological flexibility, which now takes the form of xenophobic nationalism.”

In the manifesto posted on 8chan shortly before the attack, Crusius stated: “… in general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto.”  He claimed that he was “simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”


The politics of resentment fuels the rightwing.  UC Berkeley’s Edward Lempinen warns, “The fierceness of the new identity movement is more about status lost than property lost. It is a loss so profoundly felt that it has generated a fierceness powerful enough to transform U.S. politics — and much of world politics — into a new era.”

Berkeley’s Rosenthal warns: “In the USA, resentment of political correctness stands on two pillars: loathing for multiculturalism and for feminism.”  And he argues: “Resentment is anger directed at those perceived as above oneself or one’s class. The inverse of resentment is contempt. Contempt is anger directed at those people or classes seen as below one’s class.”

White privilege once mattered.  Marc Edelman, a professor at CUNY and author of Hollowed out Heartland, USA: How capital sacrificed communities and paved the way for authoritarian populism, notes: “White privilege had many dimensions — decent wages in largely industrial employment, defined-benefits pensions, seemingly permanent employment — but these began to unravel in the neoliberal 1980s and imploded during the Great Recession of 2008.” He adds: “Their erosion and loss fueled not only a ‘politics of resentment’ grounded in a specifically ‘rural [white] consciousness,’ but also an ‘aggrieved’ or ‘fragile masculinity’ and a sense of ‘aggrieved entitlement.’”

Today, resentment fuels rightwing resent and defines the mass man.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out