Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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)

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