The most powerful image of collective madness that I have ever seen is Andreas Paul Weber’s The Rumor, produced in Nazi Germany in 1942. Weber’s image may be as good a picture that we have of why Trump should be impeached for leading the January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection. But the fact is that we are currently witnessing an upsurge of collective madness that is not limited to the political manifestations of rumor in Trump and Trumpism. I would suggest that this madness is expressing itself in several arenas of contemporary life and is fueled by forces far more powerful than Trump himself or his followers. The pandemic, the economic collapse and white nationalism are all fueling this madness, but at a deeper level of the collective psyche, even the collective unconscious, I believe that extinction anxiety is a primary contributor.
Extinction anxiety is far more than the death anxiety that every individual experiences in one form or another. It is the anxiety that stalks the very existence of life itself on the planet — all forms of life, including human. Most of us don’t have a conscious recognition of this anxiety and many groups believe that the extinction they fear is only for the existence of their own group, whether white, black, brown or Asian.
For some groups the madness they express is actually a result of their denial of extreme danger to all living things that would come with the destruction of our planet.
Marjorie Taylor Green, the new US Representative from Georgia, is the current example of a one-person marching band leading a vile parade of lie-littered citizens who could just as easily be those being drawn out of their windows in Weber’s The Rumor to join in her pied piper of collective madness. Indeed, Greene herself can be imagined as the snaking creature whose very being, with its multiple eyes and ears, is the expression of the collective madness. Her strident and self-righteous cry of danger and imaginary threat symbolized by the legendary Jewish investor George Soros masks the denial of the very real threat of the pandemic and a culture of lies — her own. But her voice is not that of an individual; it is the voice of collective madness.
Collective madness plays itself out in the denial of the pandemic of the virus, mass shootings at schools and climate change. No need to wear a mask or take any protective measures because the threats of Covid-19, unlimited guns, and climate change are denied as “false flag” events that are the creation of the liberal media and the “deep state.”
At its core, I would suggest that these collective madnesses are based on the basic denial of the threat to existence itself. There are other manifestations of extinction anxiety that are not so destructive because they have a partial awareness of the precarious vulnerability of life on the planet.
People are driven to quite mad behavior when they perceive that their very existence is threatened, even in consciously chosen activities such as extreme sports like highlining; its death defying nature is literally walking the tightrope between life and annihilation.
And finally, I would suggest that our most recent collective madness of the Reddit/Gamestock frenzy toys with the magical belief that money can rescue us from the threats of the precariousness of existence. I was struck by the following statement:
Lana Swartz sees the cynicism surrounding long-term investment advice on WallStreetBets as an understandable reaction for a young generation that has witnessed two economic crises, the chaos of the Trump years, ever-growing inequality and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change.
‘We’re living in a time of absolutely unprecedented uncertainty,’ she said. ‘There really is no reason for anyone in their twenties to imagine that their 401(k) is going to pay off in 50, 60 years the way it did for their parents. And I’m not saying they shouldn’t believe it. I’m just saying they have good reason not to.’
For this younger generation living on the cusp of a world in great peril, it becomes a badge of honor to have risked everything, and winning or losing is less important than having played the game.
People toy with the disastrous loss of their lives or money or health when they are in denial and/or courting such loss in response to a sense of impending doom from all sides. Extinction anxiety is a potent contributor to the collective madness that assaults us in many different forms, not just political madness.