Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Prophets of Deceit – Löwenthal and Guterman on the Rightwing Agitator

I don’t know why Blogger didn’t post the items in my series in the order in which I published them, but here’s the complete series: 

1. “The Rightwing Agitator: Discontent and its Causes” 

2. “The Rightwing Agitator: The Opponent” 

3. “The Rightwing Agitator: The Movement” 

4. “The Rightwing Agitator: The Leader Himself” 

5. “The Rightwing Agitator: Reactionary Snake Oil”

The Rightwing Agitator: The Opponent

As with his portrayal of the causes of his followers’ discontent, the agitator’s image of their opponents differs fundamentally from how political opponents are presented by the politician, reformer, or revolutionary. The opponent, for the agitator, is an enemy - an eternal, irreconcilable, alien force:

The enemy is conceived of not as a group that stands in the way of achieving a certain objective, but as a super-oppressor, a quasi-biological archdevil of absolute evil and destructiveness. He is irreconcilable, an alien body in society which has no useful productive function. Not even in theory is he amenable to persuasion. There is no bridge which the enemy can cross for repentance. He is there - forever, evil for the sake of evil. (38)

The US agitator’s array of enemies has remained remarkably consistent over the decades: immigrants, Communists, foreigners, racial and ethnic minorities, refugees, international organizations. (It’s somewhat amusing that Trump invokes all of the traditional rightwing bogeymen of the past century.) 

Leftwing movements are a perennial target of the agitator, and

he makes no effort to distinguish between various kinds of radical movements, revolutionary or reformist, extreme or mild; he does not differentiate between the different tactics used by these radical movements. All are lumped together into an undifferentiated revolutionary threat. This threat is not located in any specific movement or event or possible development; it is simply reduced to the danger of immediate revolutionary violence. (39)
Anything perceived as foreign or international, particularly immigrants and refugees, provokes the agitator’s ire:
In the agitator’s portrait of the enemy, foreignness is a prominent trait. The plutocrat or banker is “international”; the administration is dominated by “international monopolies.” Since foreign encirclement would hardly seem a plausible danger to America, the agitator warns against the dangers of foreign entanglements. And he finds a replica of the Nazi motif of living space in the immigrant population. He denounces plans to let new immigrants enter this country… (48-9)
Foreigners1 are portrayed as alien, “bear[ing] a characteristic racial stamp” (50), threatening, unclean, criminal, violent, perverted, disease-ridden, opposed to and irreconcilable with “traditional” Americanism. The “most fearsome version of the foreigner,” singled out for the agitator’s most extreme rhetoric, is the refugee (50). In his rhetoric,
the alien is…connected with the disturbing aspects of contemporary life, while the nostalgic image of the “good old days” suggests a pristine and uncontaminated era of security. (49)
Because he is endowed with immutable characteristics, the foreigner is essentially unassimilable. Aliens are not only responsible for “atheism, mental and moral decay, vulgarity, communism, imperialism . . . intolerance, snobbery, treason, treachery, dishonesty,” but they bring with them asocial characteristics which no amount of exposure to clean American air can purge… (49)
As the vector and embodiment of the general threat facing the agitator and his followers, the foreigner is a totalized force, “transformed from a specific dangerous but tangible power into an uncanny, irreconcilable extra- or sub-human being” (50). The agitator’s rhetoric is extreme when speaking of this menace, often invoking biological threats. “It is no accident that metaphors of stench and slime are prominently represented among the agitator’s hygienic metaphors,” Löwenthal and Guterman note (citing as one typical example references to the “cesspools of Europe”) (104).2 These warnings take on quasi-religious notions of purity and filth:
In the agitator's view of the world, the atmosphere is permeated with foulness. When the audience reacts to his portrait of this world in terms of its socially conditioned response and prejudices, the image of the dirty and evil-smelling enemy solicits reactions that range from moral indignation to outright fury against those who create such an atmosphere. (104)
“But it is when evoking insects or bacteria,” they suggest, “that he is most eloquent” (55):
The micro-organism seems to combine all the vicious enemy qualities in the highest degree. It is ubiquitous, close, deadly, insidious, it invites the idea of extermination, and, most important, it is invisible to the naked eye - the agitator expert is required to detect its presence… (55)

These biological metaphors add to the sense of urgency: “The terrifying implications of a threat of epidemic are so vivid that the mere accumulation of appropriate terms may suffice to produce the desired associations…” (56).3 

Through the use of grotesque imagery and lies, the agitator stokes his audience’s fear and paranoia:

The persistence with which the agitator builds his fantasy image of the enemy stems from a paranoiac conception of his relationship to the world. In any event, the agitator is the least restrained of all figures in public political life. Without inhibition or even the suggestion that he is in any way exaggerating, he can assert that “I read a pamphlet not long ago that said that 67 per cent of the House of Representatives were Jewish. I read a pamphlet that said it and it guaranteed the truth of it, put out by a publisher here in New York. And the Senate is somewhat the same, only a little less, about 59 per cent.” (63)
As we’ve seen illustrated recently by Trump’s responses to the LGBT and Black Lives Matter movements, the agitator portrays efforts to resist oppression as weapons used to silence him and curtail his freedom of speech:
Opposition to anti-Semitism is depicted as a method for escaping all criticism and for attacking innocent gentiles: “‘Anti-Semitism’ is…a label used by Jewish scoundrels to protect themselves against just as well as unjust criticism. No other race claims any such general immunity from criticism. The label frightens many persons with weak spines. (71)

The enemy is always the aggressor. The agitator bears no hostility to individual Jews, he claims, but merely seeks to resist their purported efforts to “impose” their “lifestyle” on others. 

All of this serves to inflame the audience’s fear and hatred:

By portraying the enemy as a criminal, a degenerate, a low animal, a bug, the agitator stirs deep layers of hatred and frustration in his listeners; their itch to violence becomes unbearable, and their hatred of this unspeakable enemy overflows. He steps into the muddy pool of the malaise in order to channelize it into a stream of hate. (52)

A key element here is that the enemy, as presented by the agitator, isn’t simply inferior but monstrous, threatening, actively working to harm him and his people. It’s this aspect that incites and psychologically justifies violence against those deemed enemies: the “transformation of the enemy from a dangerous persecutor into the persecuted quarry is the essence of the enemy theme in agitation” (61). 

The agitator frequently intimates that his enemies are murderers: “Such remarks are not isolated: the agitator exploits the conspiracy device to suggest to his audience that accidents and natural events are diabolic plots of the enemy” (53), which operates with impunity. These allegedly suspicious deaths, the agitator insinuates, “reveal the enemy’s determination to achieve his ends by any means whatsoever” (53). (One example the authors offer is conspiratorial claims about the supposedly “mysterious” death of General Patton, which “some people,” the rightwing agitator of the era suggested, suspected of having been political murder.) 

By means of these conspiracy theories, the agitator normalizes political violence and vigilante “justice”:

The agitator’s harping on the enemy’s terrorism might suggest to the audience that political murder is a natural expedient. They get away with murder - but this works both ways: the potential victim of today can become the executioner of tomorrow. (53)
The enemy is offered as legitimate quarry. Since he commits such criminal deeds with impunity, can the agitator’s followers feel any squeamishness about the methods to be used in retaliation? There is nothing left but for the followers to take the law into their own hands. (53-4)

1 (excluding, of course, the “good” ones from the “right” countries)  

2 This has been illustrated most recently in Donald Trump’s private and public references to foreign “shitholes” and to cities he connects to black people and Democrats as filthy, crime-ridden, drug-infested disaster zones. 

3 The irony here is presumably not lost.

The Rightwing Agitator: Discontent and its Causes

If we strip the agitator's message of its mystical grandiloquence and rhetoric, and present it in a rationally formulated version, we are in a position to understand the role and the basis of appeal of agitation. Such a translation lays bare the objective social consequences of agitation and the potential relationship between leader and follower. It does not in itself destroy the appeal of agitation for the followers or give a blueprint for opposing the agitator politically. But it does at the very least expose the true social and psychological content of agitation - the essential prerequisite for its prophylaxis. (141)

When Leo Löwenthal and Norbert Guterman published Prophets of Deceit: The Techniques of the American Agitator in 1949, fascist dreams of world domination lay in ruins and the idea that fascistic agitators posed a real threat in the US must have seemed wildly implausible. The authors recognized that rightwing agitators were in a weak and marginal position in the postwar years, but argued that a change of conditions – an economic crisis, for example – could create an opportunity for their rise in the future. They suggested in the book’s final pages that the American model of fascism, with its generic forms of nationalism and vague appeals to “simple Americans,” lacking the specific historical and rhetorical baggage of Nazism, was potentially more adaptable than the original European version and more capable of being taken up around the world. So while a fascist takeover of power in the US wasn’t an immediate danger in these years, it was important to understand the themes and practices of the US-variety agitator both in order to deal with their dangerous impact even on the margins of US society and to be prepared for a moment in which circumstances changed and their prospects improved.1 

In discussing the effectiveness of the rightwing agitator, as Max Horkheimer explains in his introduction, the authors focus much less on the individual psychological characteristics of the agitator or his followers than on the “psychological content and significance” of the agitator’s approach to his audience – on the themes and methods of rightwing agitation (xi).2 

The weaknesses the agitator exploits to manipulate the public, they contend, have to be understood within the social context: 

Though the demagogue plays upon psychological predispositions with psychological weapons, the predispositions themselves and the aims at which he is striving are socially created. (xi)

While they wanted to examine the psychological effects of the changes associated broadly with modernity, they focused specifically on the effects of capitalism. In this context, the so-called populism of rightwing authoritarian movements past and present is in effect a reactionary scam. The goal of this sort of agitation, Horkheimer points out, “has always been the same, to lead the masses toward goals that run counter to their basic interests.” (xi) 

So how do they operate? One of the most striking aspects of the speeches and writings of the mid-twentieth-century agitators Löwenthal and Guterman analyze is the consistency of themes and methods. Even the stranger, quirkier aspects tend to be shared features. Even more incredible, they could be describing Donald Trump or the current wave of rightwing agitators around the world. The book is eerily relevant but it isn’t prescient; they’re not predicting the characteristics of future agitators, but describing present ones. That their descriptions could apply to Trump on almost every count reflects the continuity and monotony of rightwing agitation in the US. Trump doesn’t represent an original specimen but merely a recent iteration of the type. The success or failure of any given agitator owes more to broader social transformations than to any personal genius or brilliant schemes on their part.3 

What’s distinctive about rightwing agitators? Throughout the short book, Löwenthal and Guterman contrast the rightwing agitator’s approach and his4 audience with those of other political leaders: the reformer, the politician, and the revolutionary. While the agitator’s themes and methods might at times appear superficially to resemble theirs, they’re in fact fundamentally different. 

The key themes of any politician or movement leader, the authors argue, are, first, the sources of social discontent; second, the identity of the movement’s opponents; third, the nature of the movement and its cadres; and fourth, the qualities of the leader. They lay out the contrast in all four areas: 

Unlike the usual advocate of social change, the agitator, while exploiting a state of discontent, does not try to define the nature of…discontent by means of rational concepts. Rather does he increase his audience’s disorientation by destroying all rational guideposts and by proposing that they instead adopt seemingly spontaneous modes of behavior. The opponent he singles out has no discernibly rational features. His movement is diffuse and vague, and he does not appeal to any well defined social group. He lays claim to leadership not because he understands the situation better than others but because he has suffered more than they have. The general purpose of his activity, be it conscious or not, is to modify the spontaneous attitudes of his listeners so that they become passively receptive to his personal influence. (6)

 For the normal advocate of social change, potential audiences are approached relatively respectfully, through reason and education. Of course, modern leaders and political movements make use of emotional rhetoric and images, manipulative messages, emotional appeals, and so on. But this is considered secondary to and in some tension with their fundamental project. At the very least, it isn’t the core of their public platform. In contrast, the agitator’s appeals are fundamentally irrational, emotional, and meant to bypass substantive political thought. These irrational elements constitute the substance of the agitator’s message – there’s nothing else. 


So it’s important to keep in mind the real substantive differences between the agitator’s appeals and those of regular political leaders, including the most radical. It’s not that rightwing agitators are extreme, though they are; it’s that there’s a qualitative difference between what they do and what other political advocates do. 

The agitator’s statements aren’t founded in reason or evidence, intended to educate, inform, or persuade people. He has antennae for seeking out grievance and discontent, but - as in all things - his presentation of the nature and causes of discontent is irrational. The authors suggest that the agitator mines contemporary discontent resulting from widespread “[d]istrust, dependence, exclusion, anxiety, and disillusionment” in modern capitalist society (14). He seeks to “exaggerate and intensify the irrational elements” (8) of the pervasive malaise: 

The agitator gravitates toward malaise like a fly to dung. He does not blink its existence as so many liberals do... On the contrary, he grovels in it, he relishes it, he distorts and deepens and exaggerates the malaise to the point where it becomes almost a paranoiac relationship to the external world. For once the agitator’s audience has been driven to this paranoiac point, it is ripe for his ministrations. (17-18)5

Rather than “following the classical method of articulating causes of discontent in universal and verifiable terms and then proposing definite methods to remove them” (16), the agitator exploits malaise and grievance, appealing “primarily to irrational or subconscious elements at the expense of the rational and analytical” (10): 

Unlike the reformer or revolutionary the agitator makes no effort to trace social dissatisfaction to a clearly definable cause. The whole idea of objective cause tends to recede into the background, leaving only on one end the subjective feeling of dissatisfaction and on the other the personal enemy held responsible for it. As a result, his reference to an objective situation seems less the basis of a complaint than a vehicle for a complaint rooted in other, less visible causes. (7)6
The causes of distress and unhappiness, according to the agitator, aren’t unjust social structures, processes, or policies that can be understood and addressed. They’re personalized. The agitator will always substitute “a personal enemy for an objective condition” (15). He “lays responsibility on an unvarying set of enemies, whose evil character or sheer malice is at the bottom of social maladjustment” (7) and “always suggests that what is necessary is the elimination of people rather than a change in political structure” (7): 

Instead of building an objective correlate of his audience’s dissatisfaction, the agitator tends to present it through a fantastic and extraordinary image, which is an enlargement of the audience’s own projections. The agitator’s solutions may seem incongruous and morally shocking, but they are always facile, simple, and final, like daydreams. Instead of the specific effort the reformer and revolutionary demand, the agitator seems to require only the willingness to relinquish inhibitions. …The agitator gives them permission to indulge in anticipatory fantasies in which they violently discharge those emotions against alleged enemies. (9)
Current events serve as mere fodder for the agitator. He opportunistically seizes on issues – unemployment, welfare programs, foreign aid – and uses them as a means to heighten emotions, particularly fears, and a vehicle to attack purported enemies. As the authors note: 

In contradistinction to all other programs of social change, the explicit content of agitational material is in the last analysis incidental - it is like the manifest content of dreams. The primary function of the agitator’s words is to release reactions of gratification or frustration whose total effect is to make the audience subservient to his personal leadership. (9)

No complaint, no resentment is too small for the agitator’s attention. What he generalizes is not an intellectual perception; what he produces is not the intellectual awareness of the predicament, but an aggravation of the emotion itself. (9)

One sub-chapter lists the rightwing agitator’s “Catalogue of Grievances,” divided into the following categories: economic grievances (foreign aid, refugees, bankers, New Deal reforms); political grievances (international commitments, “internationalists,” fears of a world court or world government, fears of domestic radicals, Communism, bureaucrats); and cultural grievances (media “are in the hands of the enemies of the nation”) (12). 

The agitator relentlessly exacerbates his audience’s fear and anxiety. He encourages a permanent sense of victimhood and cynicism, in which “the audience’s vague, inarticulate distrust becomes fixated as the stereotype of perpetual dupery” (20). 

A consistent aspect of rightwing agitation is conspiracy theorizing. The authors acknowledge that there are valid bases for seeking to understand the machinations of powerful forces in modern capitalism: 

Often enough such suspicions are not devoid of objective justification in a world where the individual’s sphere of action is increasingly restricted by anonymous social forces. Our daily existence actually is influenced by tremendous developments whose causes are difficult to grasp. Hence many people are anxious to learn what is happening behind the scenes. (24)

But, again, there’s a qualitative difference in how the agitator talks about the ways people’s lives are shaped by powerful forces: 

When the agitator tells his listeners that they are “pushed” or “kicked” around and are victimized by bankers and bureaucrats, he exploits feelings that they already have. Such stereotypes as “Wall Street machinations,” “monopolist conspiracies,” or “international spies” are present, however, not as well-defined ideas, but as tentative suspicions about the meaning of complex phenomena. As inadequate reflections of reality, they might serve as starting points for analysis of the economic and political situations. (24)
The agitator proceeds in exactly the opposite way. He refers to popular stereotypes only to encourage the vague resentments they reflect. He uses them not as springboards for analysis but rather as “analyses” themselves - the world is complicated because there are groups whose purpose it is to make it complicated. On a social scale he stirs his audience to reactions similar to those of paranoia on an individual scale, and his primary means of doing this is by indefinitely extending the concept of conspiracy. (24-5)

The conspirators don’t have understandable human motivations, but rather are compelled to do evil by an evil nature: 

Those afflicted by the malaise ascribe social evil not to an unjust or obsolete form of society or to a poor organization of an adequate society, but rather to activities of individuals or groups motivated by innate impulses. For the agitator these impulses are biological in nature, they function beyond and above history: Jews, for instance, are evil - a “fact” which the agitator simply takes for granted as an inherent condition that requires no explanation or development. (16)

The authors describe how the agitator, in contrast to the revolutionary or reformer, primes his audience’s suspicions and emotions in order to canalize them toward destructive ends: 

[B]y dealing, as it were, with the audience’s notions at their face value, by exaggerating to the point of the fantastic its suspicions that it is the toy of anonymous forces, and by pointing to mysterious individuals rather than analyzing social forces, the agitator in effect cheats his audience of its curiosity. Instead of diagnosing an illness, he explains it as the result of an evil spirit’s viciousness. For the conspirators are not pictured as motivated by any rational purpose, but rather by a gratuitous will to destruction… (26)

The notion of the conspiracy is gradually expanded: 

Any organization the agitator conceives as hostile to his aims, he includes in the conspiracy. He speaks of it as seeking “to destroy . . . the American way of life,” and calls on “all Christians to stand together” because a conspiracy is afoot “to ruin the Church.” (25) 

…Not only does this inflation of the notion of conspiracy serve as a diversion from attempts to investigate social processes, but it also blurs the identity of the groups designated as conspirators. The very stereotypes that once referred more or less definitely to social oligarchies, now refer to gigantic but undefined secret international plots. (25)

The struggle against these plots is presented in apocalyptic, existential terms. The “victory” of the Enemy is always predicted to result in absolute tyranny or annihilation: 

The possibility of total disaster is invoked by many advocates of social change as a contrast to their solutions. The reformer or revolutionary helps his [sic] audience visualize this possibility as a definite obstacle to be removed (capitalist society or anti-union employers or nationalism); although he [sic] evokes visions of catastrophe and, to some extent, exploits existing fears, he [sic] summons the audience to work towards an achievable utopia rather than to flee from imminent danger. (33)

For the agitator, in contrast, the alternative to the terrifying dystopia he paints for his audience remains shapeless and ill-suited to effective action: 

In agitation…the positive alternative to the threat of disaster is either totally lacking or suggested only in the vaguest form as a return to “the good old days.” The agitator presents the threatening chaos as unavoidable and inexorable. By elaborating present dangers…he may seem bent on making his audience realize the urgency of the situation. In fact he achieves the opposite by associating these dangers with trivial ideas or grotesque fantasies. Just as through the theme of disaffection he cheats his audience out of intellectual curiosity, so does he cheat it out of fear as a possible stimulus to organized social thought and action. (33-4)

So fear, the emotion the agitator does so much to stoke and bring to the surface, is disarmed. “The fear of specific dangers,” Löwenthal and Guterman argue, “…is drowned in gloating visions of universal chaos” (35); “fear is no longer used as a psychological signal pointing to the existence of specific dangers; like the Conspiracy it becomes ubiquitous and eternal.” (35) 

1 The rise of McCarthyism in the 1950s showed the damage rightwing agitators, particularly when abetted by the FBI or other government agencies, could do in a relatively short period even if they didn’t reach the very highest levels of government. See Ellen Schrecker’s 1998 Many Are the Crimes, especially Chapter 10: “‘A Good Deal of Trauma’: The Impact of McCarthyism.” 

2 The book contains a significant amount of Freudian claptrap that I haven’t included here. It’s not helpful in understanding the phenomenon, but it doesn’t interfere with the book’s many insights and so is easy enough to exclude from this summary. 

3 The themes and methods described by Löwenthal and Guterman have been deployed not just by Trump but by Fox News, and Tucker Carlson in particular, as well as media outlets and networks even further to the right; Rush Limbaugh and other rightwing radio hosts; and a number of other rightwing conspiracists, gurus, and grifters. These can all be fruitfully analyzed within this framework. 

4 While the authors do include some quotes from women in this mold, the overwhelming majority of rightwing agitators in their time and ours have been men. Additionally, many of the themes of rightwing agitation are male supremacist. So even though Löwenthal and Guterman follow the sexist convention in using male pronouns throughout the book, I won’t object to their use in the case of the rightwing agitator. The emergence of women who are Trumpist agitators – Marjorie Greene and Lauren Boebert, for example - in recent months is an interesting phenomenon of its own, though. 

5 Here as elsewhere Löwenthal and Guterman identify specific points on which rightwing agitators are able to prey on people psychologically and emotionally because liberals, focused on policy solutions and appeals to reason, fail to address the “moral uncertainties and emotional frustrations” (91), the “feelings of despair, isolation, and distrust” (119), that attend people’s lives under capitalism. 

6 This analysis responds to some of the failures to understand Trumpism. The media’s persistent resort to the trope of Trump’s followers suffering disproportionately from “economic anxiety,” so persistent and so belied by the evidence that it’s been the subject of years of mockery, is understood by Löwenthal and Guterman not in one-dimensional class terms but in terms of the pervasive depression and anxiety stemming from the conditions of modern capitalism. Importantly, they suggest that “Those groups in our society that are at present most susceptible to agitation seem to experience this malaise with particular acuteness - perhaps precisely because they do not confront social coercion in its more direct forms” (15). People are often perplexed by the fact that Trump’s disproportionately straight, white, male, Christian followers, who have the most power in US society, seem endlessly aggrieved and angry, which has led to honest but fundamentally misguided efforts to identify the concrete injuries giving rise to this intense emotion. The authors were men and immigrants to the US and not attuned enough to the status anxiety that can lead people who feel entitled to relative power and privilege to feel aggrieved by equality, inclusion, and democratic participation (tellingly, they point to the decline of traditional social structures as a source of distress without recognizing for whom in particular this can cause anxiety and for whom it potentially brings the exhilaration of freedom). But they recognized that the grievances of rightwing agitators and their followers couldn’t be traced causally to specific experiences of marginalization or persecution.

The Rightwing Agitator: Reactionary Snake Oil

So the agitator’s followers think they’re in on the game, but, like so many targets of a con, they’re victims even while they’re co-conspirators. He transforms them into the very marks he berates them for being.

I’d like to return to Max Horkheimer’s characterization of the basic function of rightwing agitation from the first post of this series: “The goal of this sort of agitation has always been the same, to lead the masses toward goals that run counter to their basic interests” (xi; emphasis added). Even as Löwenthal and Guterman develop their detailed portrait of rightwing agitation, they don’t lose sight of “the objective social consequences of agitation” (141). 

The rightwing agitator is radically distinct from other political leaders – reformers, revolutionaries, politicians – but not in the sense of promoting a radical new vision for society or organizing radical political action to create meaningful change. He uses his skills of misdirection to prop up the status quo

Everything he says and does diverts his followers from constructive paths that potentially serve to address their problems. He misidentifies the cause of their anger and discontent – which he fuels - by pointing them at a nebulous Enemy, a formless and implacable set of sinister conspirators and terrifying alien forces that must be subdued and destroyed. 

He responds to their alienation and insecurity with a sense of permanent victimhood and an empty identity, subverting appeals to real solidarity, and a vague promise of violent dominion over others, sabotaging constructive collective action. And in any case, he proposes no substantive political goals or methods to achieve them. He encourages his followers to turn their energies toward him, to listen to and defend and cheer him. He offers them the meager promise of serving as the shock troops of the powerful and the temporary thrill of exercising spontaneous violence against the Enemy. He leaves them always more frightened, helpless, and dependent. 

He addicts his followers to politics as narcissistic entertainment and emotional release. In his words and his insincere and often clownish bearing, he answers his followers’ desire for purpose with the gleeful subversion of all claims to truth or universal values. He makes them complicit in their own disempowerment. 

As Löwenthal and Guterman put it:

The basic implication of his appeals is that submission to social coercion is to be more ready and unquestioning. Hence the basic implications of the themes - the charismatic glorification of the leader, the extinction of civil liberties, the police state, the unleashing of terror against helpless minority groups. For all his emphasis on and expression of discontent, the agitator functions objectively to perpetuate the conditions which give rise to that discontent. (139-40)

The Rightwing Agitator: The Leader Himself

The self-portrait of the agitator may seem a little ridiculous. …Yet contemporary history teaches us that this apparently ridiculous braggart cannot be merely laughed away. (134)
Although the agitator intimates that he is intellectually and morally superior to his audience, he rests his claim to leadership primarily on the suggestion of his innate predestination. He does resort to such traditional American symbols of leadership as the indefatigable businessman and the rugged frontiersman, but these are overshadowed by the image he constructs of himself as a suffering martyr who, as a reward for his sacrifices, deserves special privileges and unlimited ascendancy over his followers. The agitator is not chosen by his followers but presents himself as their pre-chosen leader - pre-chosen by himself on the basis of a mysterious inner call, and pre-chosen as well by the enemy as a favorite target of persecution. One of the plain folk, he is yet far above them; reassuringly close, he is yet infinitely aloof. (118)

The fourth and final trope in the rightwing agitator’s toolkit is his self-presentation. The first key aspect here is that the movement is fundamentally about him – his personality, his accomplishments, his suffering, his demands, his enemies. It’s an enormously personalized, cultish political form in the midst of a democratic society. His self-presentation often conforms to existing types, but the agitator claims a personal specialness and, relatedly, a particular experience of persecution and martyrdom. He frequently alludes to his own courage, stamina, occult knowledge, and divine favor. 

The second key element is the extent to which the agitator acts as a showman, and how his unserious and flashily insincere manner forms a central part of his message: the subversion of truth and values and, in essence, the denial of a meaningful realm of political action. 

The agitator’s speeches are highly personal, often shockingly and uncomfortably so:

While spokesmen [sic] for liberal and radical causes refrain, for a variety of reasons, from thrusting their own personalities into the foreground of their public appeals, the agitator does not hesitate to advertise himself. …He does not seem to be inhibited by considerations of good taste from openly displaying his private life and his opinions about himself. (118)

The authors offer this classic description: “Blending protestations of his weakness with intimations of his strength, he whines and boasts at the same time” (119). 

Seen from the outside, his displays appear ridiculous and the positive response to them baffling.


But Löwenthal and Guterman offer an insightful analysis of the possible vicarious appeal of the agitator’s narcissistic performances:

This directness of self-expression is particularly suitable for one who aspires to be the spokesman for those suffering from social malaise. The agitator seems to realize almost intuitively that objective argumentation and impersonal discourse would only intensify the feelings of despair, isolation, and distrust from which his listeners suffer and from which they long to escape. Such a gleeful display of his personality serves as an ersatz assertion of individuality. Part of the secret of his charisma as a leader is that he presents the image of a self-sufficient personality to his followers. If they are deprived of such a blessing, then at least they can enjoy it at second remove in their leader. (119)

(The irony, of course, is that the agitator isn’t a unique personality at all but rather an example of a type. Furthermore, his self-presentation draws on established cultural tropes. In Trump’s case, the main references - the ‘80s wheeler-dealer and the “self-made man” – are dated and transparently false. And his desperate striving for attention and validation reveals a personality that isn’t remotely self-sufficient but dependent and needy.) 

The agitator promotes his brazenness as courageous truth-speaking, but here, too, what he offers is merely performative aggression:

For all his suggestions that he has a divine responsibility the agitator does not pretend to bring any startlingly new revelation. He does not claim to make his audience aware of a reality that they see only partially; he does not claim to raise the level of their consciousness. All he does is to “say what you all want to say and haven’t got the guts to say it.” What “others think . . . privately,” the agitator says “publicly.” (124)
A central part of the agitator’s claim to leadership is his allegations of martyrdom. He’s the perennial target of the Enemy’s attacks, taking the slings and arrows for his followers (who are naturally expected to come to his defense). One of his favorite topics is how his enemies, motivated by a primal hostility, conspire in the shadows to harass and destroy him:
One reason why the agitator has difficulty in specifying the persecutions to which he is subjected is that his enemies work in secret.… He is beset by vague dangers that are difficult to pin down… (127)
However insubstantial the evidence he can summon for his martyrdom, the agitator, it must be admitted, works it for all it is worth. He continually suggests that he has embarked on a dangerous career and that he is actually risking his life. The threat never abates… (127)

The authors offer an entertaining description of one agitator’s talking about unspecified and unevidenced death threats for years on end while facing no real attempts on his life.1 

To the extent that his claims to persecution aren’t entirely fabricated, they’re hyperbolic descriptions of the social reaction to his own words and deeds: “when the agitator gets down to bedrock, it becomes clear that what he most resents is public criticism, which he describes as ‘smearing’ and ‘intimidation’” (127). Any actions actually taken against him he presents as unjustified, even when they arise as the clear consequences of his actions. Agitators often face legal trouble for political crimes, such as violent and anti-democratic plots. They’re also frequently involved in ordinary criminal frauds and scams, which is unsurprising given the overlapping skills of the agitator and the grifter. As the authors describe:

There are many indications that, at its present stage at least, American agitation is a racket as well as a political movement. To what extent the agitator actually depends on his followers’ financial contributions it is difficult to say with any degree of certainty. In any event he does not account for the use of the money he collects. It seems probable that at least some agitators have been heavily subsidized by anonymous wealthy donors, while it is known that some of the smaller fry make a living by selling their literature. (129)2

Ceaselessly beset by illegitimate and unfair persecution, the agitator remains indomitable. He alludes to divine protection and to his own superhuman powers. He keeps returning to the fight - “his powers of exertion are tremendous” (130). 

As Löwenthal and Guterman make clear, in keeping with the agitator’s role as a reactionary propagandist, his

self-portrait of miraculous survival has a solid reality basis; he really does enjoy a high degree of impunity. He is safe and sound, magically immune, secretly protected - and this despite his verbal violence and scurrilous denunciations of the powers that be or of some of the powers that be. (131)
The agitator also makes claims to special “inside knowledge” unavailable to the average person:
Not only is [he] physically powerful and something of a terrorist to boot, but he also has access to secret and highly important information, the source of which he is most careful not to reveal. He quotes mysterious “sources” that enabled him “to correctly diagnose 3 years ago that the 1940 presidential election would not be bonafide . . .” …By miraculous but unspecified means he manages to penetrate into the heart of the enemy fortress where his sharp ears hear the confidences that “Zionists in America whispered within secret circles . . .”

On other occasions the agitator can offer only promises of revelations to come: “I shall try to keep you posted concerning the diabolical conspiracy.” Or his information is too horrible to disclose: “I personally have had some experiences in the last year that would make your blood run cold, if I could tell you what they were.” Or he is bound by professional secrecy… (132)

This brings us to the larger question about the agitator’s self-presentation: what approach to truth and values does he embody? Again, it’s worthwhile to contrast the agitator with more traditional political leaders. As the authors describe, “His doctrine…consists in drawing the ultimate consequences of a totally amoral opportunism” (30-1). His words and actions project and legitimize the most profound cynicism. He conveys an utter lack of seriousness, an indifference to truth, and a rejection of universal values. 

The agitator, as an entertainer, promotes cynicism not only through the content of his words but the form of his speeches:

The themes are presented with a frivolous air. The agitator’s statements are often ambiguous and unserious. It is difficult to pin him down to anything and he gives the impression that he is deliberately playacting. He seems to be trying to leave himself a margin of uncertainty, a possibility of retreat in case any of his improvisations fall flat. He does not commit himself for he is willing, temporarily at least, to juggle his notions and test his powers. Moving in a twilight zone between the respectable and the forbidden, he is ready to use any device, from jokes to doubletalk to wild extravagances. (5)3
His performance entails a “general desecration of the idea of truth as such” (30). When he does speak of values, he does it in such a way as to undermine any notion of shared ideals:
He speaks as a champion of democracy and Christianity and protests that he is “merely defending the Bill of Rights.” He invokes the “Christian doctrine of human liberty” and extols “American individualism” and “free enterprise.” He is the guardian of “the Bible, the Christian Faith, American institutions and the Constitution…” (29)
It is hardly likely that the audience is fooled into taking the Agitator for a sincere champion of democracy. It is much more likely that the agitator who utilizes democratic stereotypes is quite aware that his words ring hollow: he does not intend to be taken literally. (29-30)
To further muddy the waters, he hurls the accusation of fascism against those who have come to symbolize opposition to fascism. (30)
He drains the weight from these concepts, denying them real meaning or effect. His unserious claims to defending democracy and fighting fascism encourage his audience to regard these as equivalent and to assume a cynical attitude. Even if his claims to be a defender of Christianity are taken by the audience as more genuine, the manner in which he discusses Christianity presents it not as a set of universal values but as a side in a culture war:
He stresses the particularistic connotations of religion by suggesting that Christianity is an exclusive creed, a kind of tribal fetish, endowed with primitive attributes of clannishness and violence. (32)
In the presence of demonic powers, the foremost feature of Christianity is “a militant routing of evil in high places by humble followers of Christ.” The church thus becomes a tabloid version of ecclesia militans.” (32)4

The agitator “explicitly rejects the ideal of universality” (32). It becomes obvious from his approach that claims to truth and morality are purely instrumental: “The distinction between truth and lies is…inconsequential; both are neutral means to be used according to their helpfulness to his cause” (30). He talks about values and institutions in the same unserious, subversive way he refers to truth, “the effect of which is to dismiss ideals as mere bunk, hogwash, lies” (31). 

The authors use as an example the way he talks about the rule of law. Law is basically a scam, and his enemies persist in defying it with impunity; so naturally the agitator is justified in using the law for his own ends: “Going beyond the revelation that law can be a cloak for brute force, the agitator shows…that brute force need hardly be clothed at all, for instead of being discarded as a sham, legality is now exploited as a blatant gesture of defiance” (31).5 

After undermining existing truths and values, he offers nothing to replace them:

Nowhere does he explicitly indicate, even in the most rudimentary fashion, any adherence to universal standards or criteria that could take the place of discarded ideals and form the nucleus of a new moral, philosophical, religious, and political outlook. (92)
He generally “tries to convince his audience that ideals and values are merely misleading advertising slogans, used to defraud the dupes” (33). The agitator’s post-modern rhetoric is a sort of game playing, with the end of subverting not merely existing truths and ideals but the very idea of universal truths and ideals. The agitator’s playful tone and verbal games dismiss and mock realities of oppression and demands for justice and human rights. He’ll disavow his hatemongering, veiling his message with his disingenuous manner and tone. He “has the time of his life in discussing anti-Semitism” (71), for example. His
repudiations of anti-Semitism, or even direct assertions of pro-Semitic feelings – “I am a friend of the Jews” - are variations of the rhetorical figure of apophasis (mention of something while denying intention to mention it). (68)
His audience, crucially, is in on the joke:
The form, sometimes the mere tone, of such statements belies its presumed content. The audience always knows. For the agitator manages to insert an anti-Semitic insinuation in the very midst of his disclaimer. (68)
enter[s] into a conspiracy with his followers in which he speaks to them in the anti-Semitic in-group language: he summons his followers not to reveal the esoteric knowledge he has imparted to them, thus strengthening the bonds between him and them. (77-8)

They know his disavowals are disingenuous and false, and delight in the fear and anxiety his speeches provoke among the enemy. They snicker at his denials of his ill-intent, drawing on innocent-sounding snippets of text from his speeches or writings, fully aware of what he meant to convey. They know he isn’t seeking to appeal to their reason, that his rallies serve a very different purpose, and they don’t see his verbal performance – boasting, complaining, unserious, ambiguous, hyperbolic, absurd, mendacious, self-contradictory, inverting concepts, conflating the trivial and the important – as a deficit. The destructive atmosphere of callous cynicism he creates through his words and manner has drawn them in.  

1 When the agitator alleges bullying, he is of course projecting his and his followers’ aggression onto their opponents. He’s also, once again, softening the ground for his followers to act aggressively toward his so-called persecutors. 

 2 The constant harangues for donations are politically beneficial as well:

When the agitator appeals to his followers for money, he strengthens their devotion to the cause by leading them to make financial sacrifices. In agitation such psychological factors are probably of greater importance than in other movements. For it must be remembered that in agitation the follower has no precise idea what his cause is, that the whole background of the agitator’s appeal is one of destruction and violence, with a meager minimum of positive stimuli. What remains then is the agitator himself - his inflated personality and his pressing needs. (129)

3 It’s worth noting that in many cases this unserious presentation also serves as a means of concealing ignorance and incompetence. 

4 We see this today in the way Donald Trump talks not only about Christians but about Jewish people. Despite the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and violence to which his movement has given rise, he insists that he’s the utmost defender of Jewish people due to his support of the corrupt, rightwing Israeli government. 

5 “Behind such statements,” they suggest, “is the outlook which led the Nazi regime to ‘fine’ the German Jews $400,000,000 when a Polish Jew killed a German embassy clerk in Paris.” (31)

The Rightwing Agitator: The Movement

Of all agitational themes, those which might be described as programmatic are the least well-developed. (90)
Now we come to the third theme: how does the agitator characterize and shape the movement itself? This section seems the most relevant to recent events, to helping us understand the motivations of the January insurrectionists. “As a would-be leader of a popular movement,” Löwenthal and Guterman explain,
the agitator cannot content himself with articulations of malaise and denunciations of the enemy; he must offer some kind of statements about his goals and the means by which he proposes to reach them.

The “positive” statements of any advocate of social change may be discussed under four heads:

1. Descriptions of the values and ideals that are to replace the rejected values and ideals.

2. Formulations of goals which contain some assurance that the factors leading to present frustrations will be eliminated and that a situation will be created in which frustrated needs will be fully gratified.

3. Descriptions of the methods of realizing these goals - a practical program of action.

4. References to the character of the movement’s adherent as contrasted with the character of the enemy. The adherent is not merely one who is exempt from the enemy's vices; he also has positive virtues. (A prohibitionist, for instance, is not merely a teetotaler, but also a man who, precisely because he does not succumb to the vice of drink, is an upright citizen, a faithful husband, a thrifty, far-sighted, self-controlled individual.) (90; emphasis added)

In the movements of all traditional advocates of social change one can find incipient versions of their hopes for the future. The movement embodies the advocate’s goal in embryo, the new world within the shell of the old. The harmonious and friendly relations that flourish or are supposed to flourish among the adherents anticipate the society they are trying to build.

Agitation is distinguished by a remarkable lack of such positive symbols. (106)

Once again we see the contrast with movements led by reformists, revolutionaries, and politicians. The agitator has no real positive, constructive vision for his movement. The identity of his followers is hollow – built precariously on negation, defined by what’s rejected and excluded. The movement’s goal isn’t a positive vision of social harmony or well-being but the emotional release provided by domination, persecution, and violence directed at the hated enemy. The movement isn’t led to organized political action but to spontaneous acting-out. The agitator’s followers are construed not as active citizens but as obedient mercenaries, always standing by for the agitator’s call to violence. 

Interestingly, the authors point to a common weakness of liberal or reformist policies and projects:

The agitator seems to steer clear of the area of material needs on which liberal and democratic movements concentrate; his main concern is a sphere of frustration that is usually ignored in traditional politics. The programs that concentrate on material needs seem to overlook that area of moral uncertainties and emotional frustrations that are the immediate manifestations of malaise. It may therefore be conjectured that his followers find the agitator’s statements attractive not because he occasionally promises to “maintain the American standards of living” or to provide a job for everyone, but because he intimates that he will give them the emotional satisfactions that are denied them in the contemporary social and economic set-up. He offers attitudes, not bread. (91-2; emphasis added)
But of course attitudes, however momentarily satisfying, aren’t fulfilling answers to the real causes of suffering. What the agitator offers is more akin to a drug than a political program. He
fails to touch upon the roots of emotional frustration in our society. He does not present his followers with a prospect of joy or happiness, but rather encourages a verbal discharge of emotion. …Rather than a movement expressing universal aims, the agitator’s movement proposes itself as a kind of protection agency which will ward off the enemy. (92)
The agitator, portraying a world in which “the essence of human life is violent conflict” (93), cultivates extreme cynicism about values and ideals:
[H]is picture of the world and of the problem of man’s [sic] conduct in that world are tremendously simplified. Instead of a variety of more or less complex situations that are judged in terms of a set of differentiated ideas, the agitator proposes to view the world as split between two irreconcilable camps. There is no possibility of working out a solution acceptable to all, or even a solution in which everyone will find a satisfying place for himself. The adversary can never be won to the agitator’s cause…; the only way to deal with the enemy is to exterminate him. The agitator assimilates opposing human groups to hostile biological species, and ultimately, in his view, the march of history relapses into the processes of nature. (92-3)
In such a world people are neither guided nor inhibited by moral standards. …It is an Either-Or world - survive, by no matter what means, or perish, with no matter what good intentions. Either or - for or against - this fundamental dichotomy is basic to the agitator’s world outlook. (93)
Inherent in this whole attitude is the agitator’s tendency to shift the emphasis of discussion from a defense of ethical values to biological self-defense. This shift involves a far-reaching change in the structure of human belief. (95)

In this Manichean framework, the identity of the movement’s followers is empty, negative, parasitic: “The poverty of the characteristics attributed to the follower is in striking contrast with the richness of characteristics assigned to the enemy” (107-8). They’re defined entirely by what they’re allegedly not, by what they oppose. Their identity is characterized by a “sneering anti-intellectualism” (109), rejecting rational, academic, and scientific traditions. Their nationalism “means first of all negation of its opposite - internationalism” (96). Their Christian identity similarly lacks positive content: “The Christian is defined in negative terms: he is the non-Jew” (108). 

In general,

In the characterization “real Americans” the abstract adjective “real” barely conceals the negative meaning of “non-nonreal.” What the agitator implies is that his adherents are all those who do not fall under any of the categories of the enemy. His élite or in-group is essentially negative; it depends for definition on those in the out-group. It is what the “other” is not, a pure residue. The very levelling of class differentiations and cultural distinctions involved in this image makes impossible any kind of specific or positive identification of his followers. (108)
Because it’s built on a negation, the flimsiest of foundations, this collective identity is inherently fragile:
The agitator makes no genuine appeal to solidarity. Even when he addresses himself to the vast majority of “American Americans” he suggests that what unites them is the common danger they face... By making their precarious situation their major sign of identification, he retains his manipulative power over them. Under the guise of granting his followers identity the agitator denies it to them. He says in effect: If you belong to the common people you need not ask for something else because it is quite enough to be considered one of the common people rather than an enemy of the people. Anything else might expose you. For both he and his audience feel that the cement of our social structure is not love, solidarity, or friendship, but the drive to survive; and in his appeal to his followers, as well as in his portrait of their characters, there is no room for solidarity. There is only fear. (108-9)

(What the authors didn’t sufficiently appreciate was that the identities of the US agitator’s followers – overwhelmingly white, male, and Christian – have taken this form for generations. In this systemically unequal society, this isn’t recognized as a parasitic identity. They aren’t simply “common people,” but white Christian men. This selfhood is sad and brittle and lacking in real content, but the fear of losing the material status and privilege it confers is fundamental to the history of the country, as anti-racist and feminist authors have been pointing out for decades. Their analysis of the parasitic nature of the identity the agitator promotes is highly worthwhile, but insufficiently grounded in the long history of supremacism in the US.) 

The followers’ identity and status are passively acquired, and independent of any actions on their part. The movement isn’t a space where people develop personally or socially; their search for identity and purpose is always externalized. The agitator

invites his listeners, not to change themselves spiritually or socially, but simply to place all blame, all sin, on the external enemy. He asks them, not to become more conscious of the causes of their difficulties, but simply to give vent to their feelings. (112)
For the agitator’s followers, the lack of a project of a good society is compensated for by a promise of privilege and power (which is always understood as power over others):
If the agitator refrains from outlining a detailed program for abundant living, he is at least vocal in assuring his listeners that whatever is available will fall into the right hands. For - and here we find another possible element of gratification in his arid appeals to preserve what exists - his listeners are promised to play a privileged role in the nation as he conceives it. (98)
The privilege here offered to the endogamic élite includes the essential promise to implement their rights as Americans by a vague permission (made more thrilling because it is accompanied by an apparent denial – “no we do not mean a pogrom”) to participate in the coercive functions of society. (99)
The agitator intimates to his audience that the thing that matters is not so much possession of goods as social control; once you are “in” you are likely to get a share of what can be had. Such a promise of a share in actual social control may serve as a very powerful antidote to the pervasive and frustrating sense of exclusion from which his audience suffers. The agitator, unlike all traditional advocates of social change, does not promise a good society, he does not tell his followers that there will be delicious fruits to be had once power is attained. All he tells them is that power in itself is worthwhile. (114)
This power is
not the traditional “gravy” promised by politicians, but power conceived of as the right directly to exercise violence... And here again the agitator is perhaps less unrealistic than might appear offhand. By permitting his followers to indulge in acts of violence against the enemy group, the agitator offers them the prospect of serving as semi-privileged agents of a social domination actually exercised by others. But the followers nonetheless do share in the reality of power, since power ultimately is grounded on force and they are to be the dispensers of brute force. True, the followers are to get only the dregs of power, the dirty part of the game - but this they will get. And hence their feeling that “it’s the right of Christian Americans to be the master in the United States of America,” has some psychological justification. Though they have only the prospect of becoming watchdogs of order in the service of other, more powerful groups, the watchdogs do exert a kind of subsidiary power over the helpless enemy. (114)

The methods the agitator suggests are invariably violent. The images he uses “condition the audience to accept violence as ‘natural’ and respectable” and to see the world as a place where “murder and death are invariable parts of the landscape” (115). In stark terms, what the agitator offers his followers is the “promise of sadistic gratification” (114), but always through vague and irregular means: his “calls to direct action are at least as vague as his definitions of his goal” (99). 

The agitator, whose ultimate interest is in preserving rather than challenging the existing order, doesn’t explicitly encourage action against state forces. In fact,

throughout his remarks there runs a strong current of respect for institutionalized force. It is not accidental that the agitator who attacks the executive, legislative, and even judiciary branches of the government with indiscriminate virulence…will invariably identify himself with the forces of law and order, especially the police, and occasionally discover quite imaginative arguments to persuade them to take his side… (99-100)

Indeed, the agitator “becomes quite lyrical when he speaks of armed forces” (100), and his followers’ violence “is justified by the agitator in legal terms by being implicitly compared to a police action” (115). Generally, “[t]he spontaneous rebelliousness the agitator wants to set in motion is to remain unstructured and unorganized; it is to be confined to an immediate emotional reaction” (100). 

So, as discussed earlier, the agitator’s followers are provided nothing in the way of a positive self-definition:

Attracted by the promise of a new spiritual home, the audience actually gets the tautological assurance that Americans are Americans, and Christians Christians. The simple American is a member of an élite by virtue of birth but in the last analysis, he can only be defined in negatives: he is a Christian because he is not a Jew; he is an American because he is not a foreigner; he is a simple fellow because he is not an intellectual. The only positive means the agitator has of identifying the Simple American is as a follower. The adherent who turned to the agitator in the vague hope of finding identity and status ends as more than ever an anonymous member of a characterless mass - a lonely cipher in an army of regimented ciphers. (111; emphasis added)
In the agitator’s view, his followers aren’t equals, constituents, or co-participants in building a better world. He doesn’t appeal to them as active citizens or voters. Indeed, “the masses remain essentially passive” and manipulable (101). Since there’s no organized political project or positive goal, and since he doesn’t trust them to organize or lead themselves, their primary role is to listen to and applaud his narcissistic monologues and to prepare themselves for action against the Enemy. They’re to be kept in a constant state of grievance, outrage, and readiness to strike out against their supposed enemies (who are always his supposed enemies). The state of mind he cultivates in his followers is of unceasing, well, agitation:
Responding constantly, they are kept in a perpetual state of mobilization and are not given an opportunity to collect their thoughts. What takes place is not an awakening but rather a kind of hypnotic trance which is perpetuated by constant admonitions to alertness. (112-3)
Just as the enemy never rests – “certain Jewish organizations are working day and night to open America’s borders to five million Jewish refugees” - so the Simple Americans are asked to be on guard constantly and indefatigably. The audience is driven to submit to the agitator’s incessant harangues until it is ready to accept everything he says in order to gain a moment’s rest. (113)
All that remains is the immediate condition of constantly renewed excitement and terror; the followers are allowed no rest, they must constantly ward off enemy attacks which never occur, they are called to the most heroic and self-sacrificing acts of violence that never take place. (117)

Despite this endless state of martial arousal, the agitator doesn’t offer his followers anything really to do independently. Everything in the interactions between the agitator and his followers situates them as inferior and dependent. They’re expected to listen, not participate or debate (132). To applaud, not to challenge. “Throughout his utterances,” Löwenthal and Guterman note, “there can be found many unflattering references to potential followers.” (21) 

The agitator’s attitude is often transparently contemptuous. The authors describe a common feature of his approach – reminding his followers that they’re perpetual marks of smarter and more devious forces:

In agitation, this humiliation is permanent. In establishing the inferiority of his prospective followers, the agitator claims superior knowledge, which, he implies, he has obtained by virtue of his special position and abilities. The audience is inferior not because it is temporarily “unenlightened” but because it is composed of “dupes” and “suckers.” (21)
His audiences
are exposed to constant sinister manipulations. They are cheated all along the line, in rationing, in war, through the press and the movies. (21)
Naturally, his constant reminders of his followers’ incapacity to defend themselves against sinister manipulations work to make them more dependent on him:
By calling his followers suckers and telling them they must follow him if they are no longer to be cheated, the agitator promises that he will take care of them and “think” for them. Those who chafe under an authority they distrust and whose motives they cannot understand, are now to be subjected to the promptings of an agitator who will sanction their spontaneous resentments and seem to gratify their deepest wishes. (22)
He aggravates and exploits their alienation and distrust. It’s frequent (and in the case of Donald Trump fairly well evidenced) that these harangues reflect the agitator’s own psychological dispositions. But these techniques, shared by rightwing agitators across decades, also have a lot in common with the methods of sociopaths, abusers, and con artists:
Because in the eyes of the audience the whole world has become suspicious and estranged, it yearns for facile certainties and is ready to put its fate in the hands of someone who confirms it in its helplessness. “It is high time for Americans to get wise,” says the agitator. Yet those who have got wise to all the tricks are just the ones who are deceived by the most primitive ruse. The investment swindler knows that his easiest victims are to be found among those who have learned to distrust respectable banking establishments. Even while he tells his listeners that they are a group of fools, the agitator lays claim to their confidence - for how could someone who warns and insults them possibly want to cheat them? His bad manners become a guaranty of his sincerity. They can trust him, for he does not flatter them, and since they are unable by themselves to “pierce the sham of propaganda” their only possible course of action is to join his movement. “Better find out whom you can trust - now.” (23)
While the agitator thus frees the audience from its burdensome obligation of understanding its plight, he gives it a feeling that it is at last facing the true facts of existence. Yes, they are suckers; but now they know it. (23)
The role of the follower is to provide the constant attention and acclaim (and money!) demanded by the agitator. The qualities for which he does praise his followers - their passionate loyalty and their ferocity on his behalf - are those showing them as their most subservient. His interactions with his followers consist of rituals enacting these obedient virtues, designed to perform “a basic function of modern agitation: rehearsal” (115):
It is in this atmosphere, in which even the followers are threatened with manhandling if they step out of line, that the agitator tests out a future device: the totalitarian plebiscite. “Do you authorize me to send a telegram to Senator Reynolds . . . put up your hands . . . All right, that is number one.” He feeds them cues: “I bid for the American vote under that flag. Give that a hand.” Such presentiments of the plebiscite are in themselves trivial enough, but they serve to emphasize the agitator’s role as the sole legitimate voice to which everyone must listen in silence except when told to speak up in unison. (132)