Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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.

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