COVID-19: The Psychology Of Totalitarianism

Earlier this year I watched a podcast that helped me make sense of the last few years. Mattias Desmet, a professor, and psychotherapist explained the theory of mass formation as it applies to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was fascinating and illuminating. His theory inspired me to investigate the history of totalitarianism and continue to follow his work.

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I recently read his newly published book, The Psychology Of Totalitarianism, with enthusiasm and appreciation. It surpassed my expectations because he placed his psychological analysis in the deep and compelling philosophical context that it deserves. He also expounded on his theory of mass formation in a thought-provoking way. I found the book encouraging and uplifting, in an otherwise challenging time, and looked forward to sharing it with others.

Peter and Ginger Breggin have another take

Then I came across “Mattias Desmet Demoralizes the Freedom Movement – Mass Hypnosis Expert or Trojan Horse” by Peter and Ginger Breggin, and my heart sank. I barely recognized the book I had just read, in their portrayal of it. I found many significant mischaracterizations of Mattias Desmet’s words and ideas, and worse yet, accusations of malevolent intent.

Eventually, the core of their disagreement became apparent, in their second and third installment. Regardless, I find it disappointing that they jumped from a disagreement to unfounded accusations.

Disagreements and different theories or points of view are part of being human. I respect the Breggins’ work in the field of psychology and psychiatric ethics and appreciate their contributions to the freedom movement. Given the severity of their accusations and the importance of the topic, I feel the need to address this publicly and openly.

Public, Universally Docile, Apathetic, and Demoralized?

in defense of mattias desmet p1 psycho-covid-totalitarianism

To start, it should be noted that while Peter Breggin is a psychiatrist, Breggins’ book, Covid-19 and the Global Predators: We are the Preyis not primarily psychological in its orientation. It focuses mainly on scientific information and the political aspects of the Covid response, particularly of those in power. Only a little is said regarding the behavior and motivations, the psychology, of the public, who largely went along with lockdown policies and vaccination.

In the Breggins’ refutation and repudiation of Mattias Desmet’s ideas, they restate and elaborate on their observations and theories regarding the public. They portray the public as universally docile, apathetic, and demoralized, saying” There was no reason to invent or apply a new concept like mass formation to explain the misery, apathy, and docility, seen in the general population … .”(1)

They further reject the validity of mass formation and emphasize the meekness of the public with “ The victims of COVID-19 totalitarianism were not and are not energized and potentially violent, (which is the model for the madness of crowds).”(2)

Based on my observations and experiences, I disagree with this vision of a universally miserable and meek public. Yes, plenty of people were fearful and cowering. However, I noticed that a significant portion of people embraced lockdown measures, and later the vaccines, with enthusiasm and fervor. They embraced lockdown measures that would clearly harm themselves and society as a whole, without questions, as if human contact, freedom, and the ability to earn a living had ceased to have any importance.

amy gustin, loco populist contributor

Public, Energized, and Emboldened

Many members of the general public appeared to be energized and emboldened, policing and scolding other people for their disagreement or noncompliance with the Covid narrative and decrees.

Though physical attacks did not seem to happen frequently, thankfully, they did happen, and a spectrum of violence was waged by ordinary people against those of us who dissented. Hateful, angry rhetoric came not only from the national media, politicians, and officials, but also from strangers, acquaintances, friends, and family.

Badgering, bullying, and demeaning remarks were widespread and common. It happened online, and also in person. Like many others, I experienced and witnessed everything from angry glares to explosive outbursts.

A NEW Form of Bigotry, Enthusiastically Embraced

Yes, a segment of the public was, and some appear to remain, energized and potentially violent. Anger, blame, and dehumanizing rhetoric persists in my community. A new form of bigotry was enthusiastically embraced, and an alarming number cling to it tenaciously.

As for Breggins’ claim that the theory of mass formation is not needed to explain the public’s behavior, I strongly disagree. This whole Covid phenomenon was, and remains, the most bizarre and baffling experience of my life.

Standing on par with the strange and harmful behavior of those issuing the decrees is the bewildering and hurtful behavior of the ordinary people in our lives. It is worse in many ways because they are the people in our communities, people we know, and often people we love and care about.

The strained and broken relationships weigh heavily on those of us who reject the Covid narrative.

When I get together with others in the freedom movement, we usually talk about this. It is a common theme of popular memes on social media. We are baffled, stunned, and hurt by the attitudes and behavior of so many people in our lives, and how they view and treat us.

I find the psychological strangeness of a sizable portion of the public, to exceed anything I’ve dealt with before. A particularly disturbing phenomenon is how often Covid true believers fail to show any intellectual curiosity or even the ability to incorporate new information or experiences when it contradicts the original Covid narrative.

The idea that the Covid vaccines stop the transmission of the virus, persists tenaciously in many people’s minds. This is despite ample evidence to the contrary and admissions from officials. It took a long time before many people I know stopped claiming the vaccines prevented infection. Some still claim that it does. What will it take till they admit that the vaccinated transmit too?

Vaxxed Transmit Covid Too! It is very odd and looks like it goes beyond denial.

As I started reading about Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, it became clear that much of the bizarre and bewildering behavior we witness today, was also a hallmark of those totalitarian movements, including the tenacious clinging to a narrative, despite new information and lived experience.

Political theorist Hannah Arendt describes “the totalitarian contempt for reality and factuality.”(3) This contempt is widespread today in the government, media, and a portion of the general public.

in defense of mattias desmet p1 psycho-covid-totalitarianism

I do wish that the Breggins had actually read Hannah Arendt, particularly her investigation of totalitarian movements, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, before callously dismissing her on a secondhand condemnation. She was a brilliant woman who experienced life in Nazi Germany before she emigrated. She closely follows the social and political unfolding in both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia with careful scholarship and insightful analysis.

She shares the behavior of both the Nazi perpetrators and the Jewish victims with candor. She explores the choices, actions, and experiences of the Jewish victims with political and psychological insight and compassion. She brings her humanity as well as her intellect to bear on the horrific and nearly incomprehensible events.

In The Psychology of Totalitarianism, Mattias Desmet further illuminates the nearly incomprehensible, by giving us convincing psychological explanations for the bewildering behavior we see in society today, especially in our peers, friends, and loved ones.

He clearly lays out the preconditions necessary for large-scale mass formation to occur, starting with widespread loneliness and including free-floating anxiety. He correctly notes “… loneliness is strongly associated with the use of social media and communication technology.” (Mattias Desmet, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022, pg.94)

Desmet describes the development of a large-scale mass formation:

“The catalyst for mass formation is a suggestion in the public sphere. If, under the aforementioned circumstances, a suggestive story is spread through the mass media that indicates an object of anxiety…and at the same time offers a strategy to deal with that object of anxiety, there is a real chance that all the free-floating anxiety will attach itself to that object and there will be broad social support for the implementation of the strategy to control that object of anxiety.”

Desmet,  pg.96

Desmet describes how society reacts to the introduced story, forming into three groups:

“There is always a group that is in the grip of mass formation and ‘believes’ the story…, a second group that does not really believe it but remains quiet and goes along with the masses (or at least, does not oppose them), and a third group that does not believe the mass-forming story and also speaks or acts out against it.”(6)

Desmet, pg.99

Desmet describes the psychological gains the process of mass formation brings to those in the first group, and how little reality plays in it.

The effect of mass formation identically resembles hypnosis, which narrows the focus:

The masses believe in the story not because it’s accurate but because it creates a new social bond.

Desmet, pg.97

“In both cases, a suggestive statement or a suggestive story…focuses attention on a very limited aspect of reality. Compare it to the circle of light emitted by a lamp, which is focused and makes everything outside of this circle disappear into darkness.”

Desmet, pg. 101

Desmet further elaborates “The hypnotic story focuses attention on a small aspect of reality to such a degree that everything outside it, including one’s own pain and to a broader extent, one’s own interests, passes unnoticed.”(pg.102)

Desmet also explains the “radical intolerance” of those in the grip of mass formation to opposing viewpoints.

Perplexing and Disturbing Behavior, Illuminated

This theory of mass formation illuminates much of the perplexing and disturbing behavior that we have seen during these last two and a half years. Behavior that has decreased in its intensity, but has not disappeared. Why did so many of the people in my community, including those who practice alternative medicine, and formerly distrusted Pharma, clamor for the experimental vaccines, in a raucous meeting with our County Supervisors?

Why did people who would not eat a GMO accepted gene therapy injections for themselves? Why people who valued free speech embraced censorship and many who decry bigotry accepted and expressed their own bigotry against the unvaccinated? Why sharing information, and even corrective life events have had a negligible effect on much of the public. Why they have been so hostile? I highly recommend reading his book, to get the full details of this process, and see for yourself how it fits the strange behavior we have witnessed. 

Take No Action, Sit On Hands they Claim he Claims

One of the extreme mischaracterizations that the Breggins make of Mattias Desmet’s work, is that they say he encourages us to take no action and that his solutions are only personal and psychological.

“Desmet wants us to sit on the couch and examine ourselves… .” They say he “demoralizes the freedom movement.”

Peter Breggin MD & Ginger Breggin, ” Mattias Desmet Demoralizes the Freedom Movement- Mass Hypnosis Expert or Trojan Horse.”

This is not true! Desmet actively encourages us to speak out:

“The first and foremost guideline for members of this third group is that they should let their voices be heard and in as sincere a way as possible so as not to let the resonance of the dominant, hypnotic voice become absolute.”

Desmet, pg. 140

Further emphasizing this message:

“Everything stands or falls with the act of speaking out. It is in the interest of all parties. The specific manner in which the act of speaking out takes place…is of less importance; everyone who, in his own way, speaks out about the truth, contributes to the cure of the ailment that is totalitarianism.”

Desmet, pg. 142-3

Desmet’s message is not demoralizing, rather it is the situation we find ourselves in. Especially the reaction of our peers and loved ones. It is demoralizing to be rejected and censored, to have your viewpoint rejected out of hand. To see information, and reality, bounce off of them – time and time again.

A lot of us are hurt and discouraged. Some have given up trying to reach people. Understanding the psychological dynamics at play is actually very helpful.

amy gustin

Desmet elaborates on the challenges and benefits:

“…dissonant voices…usually do not succeed in breaking through the hypnosis of the first group, but it does reduce the depth of the hypnosis and prevent the masses from committing atrocities. Also, the leaders prove sensitive to the dissonant voices.”(14)

Desmet, pg. 141

He also lets us know that speaking out helps galvanize those in the second group, who are not speaking out:

“In contrast to the first group, this group is responsive to the quality of rational argument. Therefore, it is important that the dissident voice analyzes and refutes the indoctrination and propaganda of the totalitarian narrative in the clearest and most substantiated way possible.”

Desmet, pg. 141

So far, I have looked at how Mattias Desmet’s theory of mass formation, relating to the Covid response, illuminates the strange behavior of our peers. He also examines the role and behavior of leaders in this light and puts forward his views on conspiracies in totalitarianism, now and previously. This, I believe, is at the root of the Breggins’ heated and total repudiation of Mattias Desmet’s ideas.

I will explore this aspect, and his insightful analysis of ideology, in part two.

Until then please let me know what you think of this article in the comment section below!