January 26, 2022 | Reading Time: 8 minutes

The Republican death drive: Refusing to sacrifice anything means sacrificing everything

Why are they killing themselves? Let's turn to Sigmund Freud.

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More Americans are dying from the covid in states run by Republicans than in states run by Democrats. In terms of cold political calculation, Democratic governors are striving to save supporters from death. Yet Republican governors seem content hurling supporters toward it.

Why would they do that? When the former president refused to help “blue states” battle the new coronavirus, it was disgraceful and sadistic. Yet it was understandable (again in cold political terms). You’d think the Republicans would want to help their base. But thinking that would mean you’re thinking like a liberal. Republicans don’t do that.

How do sadist policies work with masochistic outcomes to not undermine the GOP project but instead deepen the commitment of Republican supporters to the cause of restoring America to greatness?

When Republican leaders hurt their own – for instance, by fining business owners for asking customers to mask up, thus spreading the plague more widely – they are not undermining themselves. They are in fact fueling an already established story about “real Americans” being the “real victims” while the real victims perpetuate political evil.

How do sadist policies work with masochistic outcomes to not undermine the GOP project but instead deepen the commitment of Republican supporters to the cause of restoring America to greatness?

For an answer, I turned to Casey Ryan Kelly. He’s a professor of rhetoric and public culture at the University of Nebraska -Lincoln. His latest book is called Apocalypse Man: The Death Drive and the Rhetoric of White Masculine Victimhood. In it, Professor Kelly applies Sigmund Freud’s concept of “the death drive” to understanding not only the former president’s incendiary rhetoric but also GOP incoherence.

How do you square that circle? I asked.

Casey Ryan Kelly: For nearly 40 years, conservatives have forged their political identity on the assumption that they have been exiled from politics and marginalized by changes in the culture. 

The problem is you have to square this idea with the fact that conservatives have made huge political gains that have ostensibly resulted in minority rule. 

So they have to reconcile this contradiction. There is so much legitimacy in being able to claim one is a victim that conservatives are often manufacturing their own marginalization with trivial “culture war” issues: “critical race theory,” confederate monuments, Antifa and Black Lives Matter and so on. 

This is an intoxicating elixir, because conservatives become attached and invested in their identity as marginalized (for instance, they believe fervently that “reverse discrimination” is a bigger issue that racial discrimination against minorities). 

My argument is that they compulsively restage an encounter with their own subjugation, endlessly repeating grievances and enjoying doing so.  

The case studies in my book articulate how conservatives become attached to victimhood, because it enables them to disavow their privileges and overwhelming dominance of politics.

John Stoehr: So even as they fear humiliation, they seek it out?

Yes, the trick is to engineer situations that appear to be discriminatory or unfair but without actually conceding any real substantive power. 

Take free speech on college campuses. 

The plan is to invite a very controversial conservative speaker who sparks liberal protest. The speaker is disinvited or the speaker withdraws out of fear of “riots.” Then the conservative news media run story after story about how oppressive campus culture is for conservatives. 

There is very little at stake for conservatives but liberals come off as looking intolerant. Either they accept intolerant speakers (like Milo Yiannapolis or Richard Spencer) or look like agents of intolerance. 

The minor humiliation conservatives suffer from being disinvited pales in comparison to the cultural power they attain by looking like they are victims of discrimination. 

They can then assert that white conservatives deserve to fairly engage in identity politics but from a position of material strength. It’s a win-win. 

Donald Trump is a great case study in this. 

His speeches at rallies are an incessant list of grievances, mainly concerning how his loyal supporters have been humiliated and the world is laughing at them. It’s almost masochistic. Then he offers to fight on their behalf to overcome their humiliation. They willingly concede and trust in his power. 

It seems the Republicans achieve a win-win-win by eliciting sympathy, or the appearance of sympathy, from people who are invested in their image of being neutral. Think of the “anti-woke” discourse that’s been in vogue.


They get to look like they are the rational political center and anyone on the left who brings up evidence of historic and structural oppression is met with the demeaning label of “woke” or “triggered.” The left looks out of control, overly emotional and irrational. 

“It represents a refusal to leave things in the past, and we develop an unhealthy and compulsive relationship. We cannot move past the event. The past begins to own us and actively shape our actions in the present. It’s a fixation or habit we cannot kick.” 

The timing is right. Social justice made tremendous gains after the murder of George Floyd, which occurred under a transparently racist administration. Now that Trump is gone, “respectable white people,” as I call them, and the press corps are more than happy to pile on to a white backlash that has been cascading since Biden’s inauguration.

Conservatives are skilled at turning the tables on “social justice.” 

There is a great book by Alyson Cole called the The Cult of True Victimhood: From the War on Welfare to the War on Terror (2006) in which she examines how the victim’s rights movement is a perfect case study in how to portray the victims of discrimination in the criminal justice system as phony victims and the victims of crime as the true innocent victims of society. 

While that is about a very specific case of the criminal justice system, you can see the concept of “true victimhood” playing out to nullify and delegitimize police protests and Black Lives Matter. 

Let’s turn to Freud. Can you break down how his concept applies? First, what’s the death drive?

Freud found that World War I soldiers continually re-experienced their battlefield trauma as something that was not in the past but something happening to them in the present. 

He found that patients would continually return to this trauma but without adequately mourning it. As a result, they carried their trauma with them everywhere and it became assimilated into their identity. 

He called this condition “melancholia.” 

This signaled to Freud (as he writes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle) that all people compulsively repeat past experiences, and in doing so attempt to bind (or domesticate) the unpleasure of trauma, absence and loss. 

He noted that his grandson used to throw a toy tethered to a string and say “fort” (gone) and retrieve the toy saying “da” (there). He argued that the child was domesticating the displeasure of his mother’s absence, restaging his desire for her but in a scenario in which he controlled the absence and presence of the toy. His idea of “compulsive repetition” is that all people domesticate the displeasure of loss by revisiting past traumas. 

The “death drive” for him was not a desire to return back to inorganic matter (death), but rather a compulsion to repeat a moment in the past when a person imagined themselves being whole, complete and without psychic tension. 

Culturally speaking, the death drive manifests itself in public discourse that invokes a nostalgic scene of our prior selves before we were fractured by trauma (i.e., “Make America Great Again”). 

The irony is that we were never whole, complete and without psychic tension. We only imagine ourselves in that way to manage loss but without adequately mourning the past as the past. 

So, in lay terms, we revisit traumatic moments to recover a version of ourselves that we believe to be coherent, stable and unified. The return is compulsive because we can never recover something we never had, so we do it perpetually.

That’s what Trump does best, repeating himself. Is the rhetoric feeding the psychology or the psychology feeding the rhetoric? 

I would say both. 

Trump intones the same message repetitively: the world used to be better (sometime, anytime, in the past). Your birthright entitlements were stripped from you: your history, your culture, your wealth were taken away by radical leftist Democrats. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to when we didn’t have to contend with so many mysterious and nefarious social forces (the 1950s or perhaps even earlier when people knew their place)?

The repetition of this message invites his supporters to imagine themselves as victims of loss and trauma, and to long for a return to something better (even though the past was not any better. It had its problems, too). 

This taps into a psychical process that we are all familiar with. Longing for better bygone days is the death drive deflected into the culture. The death drive re-stages an encounter with a fantasy of ourselves when we were great. 

More Americans continue to die of the covid in GOP-run states than otherwise. In a sense, the death drive is literally driving Republicans toward death. Freud didn’t have that in mind, obviously.

I am fascinated by the notion that one must risk infection to demonstrate conservative credentials. It is literalizing the death drive: prove your loyalty by avoiding any care or concern for your own health and safety. I’ve seen people call getting covid “owning the libs.” Conservative governors are literally killing off their voting base. 

“This taps into a psychical process that we are all familiar with. Longing for better bygone days is the death drive deflected into the culture. The death drive re-stages an encounter with a fantasy of ourselves when we were great.” 

They are driven to endanger their lives in order to keep faith with an imagined past that they are compelled to return to in order to maximize their feelings of dislocation and humiliation in the present. I’m getting dizzy.

It’s a wild ride to go through the logic. I guess the way it becomes consistent is if we understand the psychological need it serves. 

Nothing is ultimately more humiliating than conceding that you are not a fully autonomous person who owes something to others. The death drive plus radical individualism creates toxic politics.  

I don’t mean to throw a curveball at you but … I’ve been reading an interview from 1989 between journalist Bill Moyers and ethicist Michael Josephson. This is what Josephson says:

The value of being ethical isn’t simply that every day you get every single thing you want but, in the long haul, you feel better about it and you’ve created a better society, because the cumulative impact of you or I being selfish is a terribly selfish society where we don’t know what to expect from people anymore. 

If we translate the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” into “do unto others as you think they will do unto you,” or “do unto others as they have done unto you,” which are variations and excuses, we have an awful society.

I thought of this when you mentioned “radical individualism.” 

Wow, that comment ages pretty well. Once we disown that we have any debt or obligation to others, society becomes untenable. 

I saw this a lot in how doomsday preppers intensified the logic of individualism to such a degree that quite literally anything that embodies collective duties is an affront to their humanity. 

As a result, they’d rather short sell the social contract and build bunkers and treat their neighbors as threats to their way of life. 

Elsewhere, Josephson says a “yuppie version of success” — by which he means “greed is good” — is going to force you to make sacrifices. What he meant was sacrificing your ideals or your soul. 

But in the current context, it’s even more profound. The death drive creates conditions in which the smallest sacrifice — wearing a mask — is seen as an intolerable affront to your liberty. In refusing to sacrifice anything, they end up sacrificing everything.

It seems to turn into a suicide pact. In conceding nothing to other people’s needs and safety, you actually doom yourself and nothing is really gained, except for the satisfaction of knowing you were right (even as you are put onto a ventilator). 

Let’s loop back to your book. Can you enlarge the idea of melancholia? 

Melancholia is a kind of nostalgic longing (at its root, nostalgia means an “ache for home”). But what distinguishes melancholia from nostalgia is that the past is not seen as the past but as something experienced in the present. 

In mourning a loss, we typically reconcile that the past is the past and that it can never be retrieved. Even if it could be retrieved, it would do us no good. Mourning revisits the past in order to establish a healthy relationship with loss. 

Melancholia represents a refusal to leave things in the past.

We develop an unhealthy and compulsive relationship. We cannot move past the event. The past begins to own us and actively shape our actions in the present.

It’s a fixation or habit we cannot kick. 

The post-Civil War “Lost Cause” myth fits that, doesn’t it?


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Rochelle Ford on January 27, 2022 at 11:42 am

    Thought provoking and articulates well something that black Americans have witnessed, endured, and feared across centuries as this is the justification for anti-black violence (lynching, race massacres, etc. assassinations).
    I teach about ethical theory. The description of radical individualism is a useful way to demonstrate why egoism is an incoherent ethical theory (and of course to explain how to critically shut down all talk of Ayn Rand and identify the irony and absurdity of American objectivism)

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