Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of psychological projection in the second chapter of Totem and Taboo (1913). The gist is that we hold ambivalent feelings toward everyone, including ourselves. Rather than acknowledge the negative aspects of vital relationships, we “eject [them] from internal perception into the external world . . . and push [them] on to someone else.” Freud considered projection a defense mechanism, a tool for protecting ourselves from vulnerability. So, for instance, if a man of Freud’s time harbored gay impulses, which were completely unacceptable and could lead to social and legal jeopardy, he would suppress them — while quickly and loudly condemning suspected gayness in others.
As usual, Freud was on to something. And, as usual, Freud arrived at a conclusion without any empirical research. For that reason, Totem and Taboo has few champions today.
I haven’t done any empirical research into projection either, but like Freud, that hasn’t stopped me from having an opinion about it based on personal observation.
I agree with Freud that projection is a defense mechanism, but I think it’s more than that. It can be a way to externalize traits you can’t bear to acknowledge in yourself and others. But it can also be a way to cloak taboo impulses in the mantle of self-defense.
There’s no more vivid example than the delusion shared by tens of millions of Americans that elections are rigged against Republican candidates. The delusion has only grown over the last few years, despite numerous studies (including this one, this one, and this one) proving it just ain’t so.
I think there is some classic Freudian projection going on in that Republicans cannot face a negative about themselves: as they espouse a more exclusionary and authoritarian agenda, voters outside their bubble increasingly reject them. But they’re not externalizing that on Democrats. What they’re externalizing is their solution to electoral failure: rigging elections, which is anti-democratic but shockingly popular among the party faithful, as evidenced by this study from Vanderbilt’s Larry Bartels. By externalizing their own taboo desire on Democrats, Republicans free themselves to engage in actual election rigging, such as the voter suppression laws they’ve enacted in at least eighteen states this year (with more, plus blatant gerrymandering, to come) while casting themselves as aggrieved — and righteous —victims.
The meritless claims of election rigging started well before Trump, who gave them a gigantic boost, and are still going strong today. Some refugees from reality here in California have asserted that Gavin Newsom could not have won the gubernatorial recall election except through massive voter fraud. This despite registered Democrats outnumbering registered Republicans almost two-to-one, no Republican candidate winning statewide office in 15 years, and Newsom’s margin of victory (votes are still being counted) virtually the same as when he won the governorship in 2018.
I suspect that deep down many Republicans know how wrong it is to project their anti-American impulses onto their opponents. But they just can’t handle the truth. It’s so much easier to perceive themselves as patriots defending freedom than as avatars of American apartheid. And so projection has become their go-to defense mechanism.