Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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.

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