Category Archives: Demagoguery & Extremism

Trump’s Fascism is Trumpism

From the early stages of his campaign and right into the Oval Office, Donald Trump has spoken harshly about the institutions and principles that make up the foundations of open government. In the process, he has systematically degraded political discourse in the United States, shown an astounding disregard for facts, libeled his predecessors, threatened to “lock up” political rivals, referred to mainstream journalists as “the enemy of the American people,” spread falsehoods about the integrity of the U.S. electoral process, touted mindlessly nationalistic economic and trade policies, vilified immigrants and the countries from which they come, and nurtured a paranoid bigotry toward the followers of one of the world’s foremost religions. (Albright 2018, 5)

(….) He is president because he convinced enough voters in the right states that he was a teller of blunt truths, a masterful negotiator, an effective champion of American interests. That he is none of those things should put us on edge, but there is a larger cause for unease. Trump is the first anti-democratic president in modern U.S. history. On too many days, beginning in the early hours, he flaunts his disdain for democratic institutions, the ideals of equality and social justice, civil discourse, civic virtues, and America itself. If transplanted to a country with fewer democratic safeguards, he would audition for a dictator, because that is where his instincts lead. (Albright 2018, 246)

Spreading Group Hatred

The psychic health of a society can be measured by the extent to which its policies and laws exclude and constrain prejudices. One sign of social stability is the degree to which a community and the individuals who compose it are willing to acknowledge the humanity and learn from the cultures of other people. Many cultures have resorted to discrimination and prejudice despite their self-destructive consequences. Dehumanizing representations of minorities disseminated through social discourse [e.g., social media] are integral to the formation of movements bent on harming outgroups. (Tsesis 2002, 99)

The victims of hate speech are at greater risk form groupwide threats than from personal attacks. Counterspeech is less effective against a group with deeply held beliefs, which feels the power of its numbers and the passions of its hateful convictions, than against an individual expressing only his or her biased ideas. Labels reify prejudices through stories that exaggerate and falsify outgroup traits and extol the presumed advantages of excluding minorities from ingroup privileges. The broad dark strokes that are then applied to scapegoats make for an auspiciously hostile environment filled with slights and vilifications. Aggressive names schematize the world into groups of good guys and bad guys…. Destructive messages are the main vehicles for spreading ideology. Hate speech is an essential means for popularizing hate groups. (Tsesis 2002, 1010)

Hate Speech qua Free Speech

Freedom of speech is critical to the growth and maturation of societies and is a much vaunted benefit of living in the United States. However, that freedom has not always led to the collective improvement of all citizens. History is littered with examples of harmful social movements, in various countries and cultures, employing violent racist rhetoric. Such hate-filled ideologies lie at the heart of human tragedies such as the Holocaust, U.S. slavery in the antebellum South, nineteenth-century Indian removal, and present-day slavery in Mauritantia. (Tsesis 2002: 1)

Donald Trump’s Racist Rhetoric

Propaganda [link] is essential for eliciting widespread cultural acceptance of exclusionary and supremacist ideologies. When hate speech is systematically developed, it sometimes becomes socially acceptable, first, to discriminate and, later, to oppress identifiable groups of people. Racialist rhetoric has been effectively harnessed to formulate and spread racism on national and even international scales…. Bigots have rationalized all these biases through threads of thought that are subtly woven into the fabric of everyday language [i.e., dog whistles]. (Tsesis 2002: 1)

Speech plays a pivotal role in communicating ideas—both progressive and regressive. Over time, the semantics of a language will mirror the historical development of a people. The context of phrases and the subtle nuances of demonstrative messages can contain the kernels of a cultural worldview. Traditionally accepted perspectives permeate the unconscious and form an often unquestioned social “reality.” Prejudices that reflect collective outlooks gradually find their way into laws. (Tsesis 2002: 1)

GOP/Trump’s Dog Whistles

People intent on maintaining power [such as demagogues like Trump] manipulate stereotypes that echo their followers’ preconceptions. Orators [and demagogues] and authors strategically exploit imbedded cultural meanings not just to create grammatically sentences, but also to persuade their audience. They use repeatedly uttered, dogmatic imagery to influence attitudes toward particular groups of people. Large audiences more readily recognize tenets when they draw on deeply held beliefs. (Tsesis 2002: 2)

Hate speech and the prejudice it fosters deny individuals [like the] fundamental rights like autonomy and tranquility…. “Misethnicity” [i.e., the institutionalized hatred of ethnic groups, something Trump has facilitated] …. is sometimes preferable to “racism” and “ethnocentrism.” “Racism” is the diminished respect and unequal treatment of people based on their biological particularities. “Ethnocentrism” is the sense of superiority of one’s own ethnic group. “Misethnicity” is more specific in recognizing that ethnic prejudice is a groupwide hatred. (Tsesis 2002: 2)

They were innocent … which to this day Trump denies …

Misethnicity is deeply nestled within conventional practices [such as Donald Trump’s full-page ad in the Daily News on May 1, 1989 calling for the death penalty for five innocent black teenagers]. By drawing attention to the centrality of language in perpetuating discrimination, we may be able to dislodge some deep-rooted racist thoughts and behaviors. Charismatic leaders can harness subtle and explicit misethnic statements to instigate active or complicit participation in hate crimes. Expressions such as these create an atmosphere of combustible intolerance: “Most Indians are drunks, but he’s a hard worker”; “He may be a Jew, but he’s not greedy”; “I’m usually careful around blacks, but he can be trusted.” These statements reflect the same animosity as their more flagrant counterparts; “Indians are drunks,” “Jews are greedy,” and “blacks are dangerous.” Studying the linguistic development of Misethnicity and its relation to socially destructive conduct is critical to realizing, anticipating, and thwarting its potentially catastrophic consequences. (Tsesis 2002: 2)

(….) Historical analysis is crucial because it exposes the association between hate propaganda and discriminatory action. Oppressors justify inequities by making their targets out to be less than human, unworthy of fair treatment or even of mercy ordinarily shown to animals…. Negative stereotypes and ideological schemas, designed to rationalize power in the hands of dominant groups, precede crimes against humanity such as genocide. Many lives may be ruined before the views of those who rebuff popular prejudices trickle into the community conscience. Even societies striving for equality, steeped in natural rights theory, and vigilant against intolerant majorities are not wholly immune from becoming havens for supremacists promulgating aggressive ideologies. (Tsesis 2002: 2-3)

Pondering the effectiveness of anti-Semitic and racist messages brings into stark relief the dangers that purveyors of hate pose to representative democracies. Scrutinizing the foundations of genocidal hatred in Germany and of dehumanizing and devaluing dogma in the United States yields abundant information about how, particularly in times of social and economic unrest, hate speech builds upon established ideologies. By understanding the progression from hatred to destruction, we can know better how to prevent Misethnicity from being exploited by provocative rhetoricians intent on generating dangerous social movements. Studying how unjust political movements, such as the National Socialist party or the Confederate Nullificationists [or Donald Trump’s “America First” rallies in which he incites the “angry mob” with such rhetoric like the free press and democratic party are the enemies of the people, or his attacks on the justice system and separations of power, etc.], manipulated cultural stereotypes is instructive in avoiding future calamities. (Tsesis 2002: 3)

American Taliban: It Is Happening Here

What was emerging from this and similar meetings was a political force — the so-called Religious Right — that injected into the Republican Party a new emphasis on the promotion of religious morality (an area of concern which most early Goldwater activists thought belonged in the private, not public, and not political, arena). The focus of this new religion-centered “conservatism” was not on liberty and limited government but on what Russell Kirk had called the “transcendent moral order.”

By 1989, the Moral Majority, the late Jerry Falwell’s organization which had emphasized religious values across sectarian lines and often shared a common purpose with many conservatives and orthodox Jews, had all but disappeared. In his place rose the Christian Coalition, led by Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed. The Religious Right had become the overtly Christian Right. (Edwards 2008: 40-41)

(….) Through aggressive grassroots activism the movement’s members and supporters won elections, took over party organizations, and dominated party conventions. Later, when George W. Bush’s political advisor Karl Rove would speak of “the Republican base,” this was who he had in mind. (Edwards 2008: 41)

The Christian Right was hardly the Republican base (the party’s voters were often much more moderate in their views than were Robertson and his followers), but because Robertson’s forces tended to dominate conventions and primaries in which voter turnout is often low, they exerted influence far beyond their numbers. In the process, they transformed the republican Party and indeed the conservative movement itself into an arm of religion, precisely the outcome the First Amendment of the Constitution was designed to prevent. There were instrumental in galvanizing the conservative opposition to death with dignity laws in Oregon, private medical decisions in Florida, and scientific advances in the nation’s medical laboratories. (Edwards 2008: 41)

A wall was erected between church and the state … as an extension of the founder’s experience with religious persecution in Europe. Placing religion in a position to dictate, or heavily influence, national policy had led to sanctions, torture, murder, and war. European battlefields were littered with the corpses of men sent to war on behalf of one religious sect or another. In a nation founded on Lockean principles of individual rights, there would be no place given to sectarian terror. (Edwards 2008: 64)

The wall between religion and statecraft serves an additional purpose. The enemy of civility (a necessary ingredient in the governance of a diverse society) is certitude. And nothing breeds certitude more than religious belief. Religion is often a positive force in the lives of individuals, but when the true believer feels compelled to impose upon the whole of the society the truths that have enriched his or her life, the threads that bind us as a nation begin to fray. (Edwards 2008: 123)

(….) Conservatism’s central philosophy has long been based on the regard for the individual rather than the collective. Yet today many are willing to support the imposition of the personal beliefs of some, be they a majority or a minority, on others, who do not subscribe to those beliefs. The title of Sinclair Lewis’s novel about a politician who rose to power on a wave of religious fervor was ironic: It Can’t Happen Here. Its message was: yes, it can. (Edwards 2008: 124)

Because the Constitution’s central premise is liberty — it is a document designed for a free people–it was created to prevent both the concentration of power in a few hands … and the ability of the majority to impose its will on the minority… The rule of law, not the rule of the masses or rulers, defines American constitutional government. But that is a lesson conservatives have forgotten. (Edwards 2008: 128-129)

The Constitution is for all Americans — Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and nonbeliever alike. We are free to practice or not as we deem fit. Religion is a personal thing; government is what we hold in common, and that distinction lies at the heart of American conservatism [opposed to extremist fundamentalism as exhibited above]. Community is not the same thing as government. The U.S. government is a secular institution, and its policy decisions should not be required to conform to religious doctrine. (Edwards, Mickey. Reclaiming Conservatism. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008; pp. 40-166) 

Now is the time to remember that our great religious traditions, notably Christianity, once upon a time could not even conceive of reducing religious engagement with public life to a narrow list of hot-button issues. They were too concerned with the whole person and the whole of society to limit their reach to a handful of questions. Now is the time to heed the call to social justice and social inclusion embedded deeply in in the scriptures. (E. J. Dionne Jr., Forward, in Lew Daly (2009) God’s Economy: Faith Based Initiatives & the Caring State. University of Chicago Press)

We Were Warned

America’s Founders and Abraham Lincoln warned us of the danger of elevating a demagogue such as Donald Trump to the highest office in the land and the virulent nature of the “angry mob” of sycophants easily manipulated by such demagogues making up the political base of such right-wing populism as we are witnessing today at the heart of the GOP:

In an 1838 address to the members of the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln warned that since American democracy could never be overthrown by a foreign invader, the only enemy to be feared was one within: undisciplined passion. Pointing to several recent examples of frontier lynchings, Lincoln deplored “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of the Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.” (….) Lincoln warned the young men of his home town that during the generations to come ambitious demagogues would seek to prey upon the passions of the people, unless these were kept under stern control. “Passion has helped us” in rallying the people to the cause of the Revolution, Lincoln acknowledged, “but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy.” He cautioned: “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.” Only by the control of passion could American democracy keep from degenerating into anarchy or demagogy. When Lincoln declared that America would stand or fall by “the capability of a people to govern themselves,” he meant this in both a political and a psychological sense.

Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (pp. 142-143). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Hay were the authors of The Federalist Papers:

No document relating to the Constitution of the United States has received more attention than The Federalist Papers. The papers were written in 1787–88 for the purpose of persuading the people of the state of New York to elect a convention that would ratify the proposed Constitution of the United States…. The authors of The Federalist—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—were practical men, writing under intense pressures, with a strong sense of the campaign strategy they were pursuing. They submerged their individual differences in the collective persona of Publius, who for our purposes may be treated as a single author (Howe 2009, 78-79)…. What Publius fears is that “a torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose,” frustrating all attempts at rational discourse. He himself will engage in rational argument, without impugning the motives of individuals…. However he may feel provoked, Publius will take his stance with Prospero in The Tempest:

“Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part.” (Howe 2009, 85)

“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason,” and the more numerous the assembly, “the greater is known to be the ascendancy of passion over reason.” Once dominated by passion, an assembly became a “mob.” (Howe 2009, 86) (….) Publius complained that the Anti-federalists’ rhetoric suggested “an intention to mislead the people by alarming their passions, rather than to convince them by arguments addressed to their understandings.” (….) Publius’s line of argument was not unprecedented: the seventeenth-century English classical republican theorist James Harrington had argued that government should be designed to maintain the supremacy of reason over passion, and had blamed passion for the degeneration of monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, or democracy into anarchy….. The Federalist quoted Jefferson with approval: “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” (….) The demagogue is a sinister figure in The Federalist. He lurks ready to exploit the passions and create a faction. He is the natural enemy of the statesman, who has virtue and the common interest at heart. The Constitution, Publius argues, will provide a context within which the statesman can defeat the demagogue. Fittingly, he both begins and ends his series of letters with warnings against demagogues.

Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (pp. 90-95). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

This very generation is witnessing with the rise of Trumpism an insidious form of right-wing populist extremism and “faction” that seeks to gratify “private passion by public means.” This is the exact kind of “faction” (i.e., the elevation of personal bias and opinion into absolutist totalitarian rhetoric) our Founders feared; the collective expression of “some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Factions stem from passions writ large inflamed by ambitious demagogues, as we witnessed during Trump’s many campaign rallies were he regularly incites violence, boasting he could murder someone in the street and the “angry mob” would still vote for him. Hamilton warned that in this form, passions become more dangerous than ever: “a spirit of faction” can lead men “into improprieties and excesses for which they blush in a private capacity.” (Howe 2009, 95)

Donald Trump’s demagoguery directed at his ignorant base is aimed at inciting their passions and is bent upon ripping apart the social fabric of our society and tearing down our democratic institutions. The GOP has mainstreamed extremism, and by so doing has signaled the death of any semblance of classical principled conservatism. In the words of the 18th Century Irish statesman Edmund Burke, “All drapery of life is to be rudely torn off… Their liberty is not liberal. Their [anti-science] is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.” By elevating license over liberty, zealotry and extremism over moderation and reason, the GOP has set America on a course Lincoln warned us would happen when we lost our ability to reasonably govern our own passions and prejudices. Trumpism is an existential threat to the very existence of America’s Constitutional form of government and balanced separation of powers. Time is swiftly running out and if we don’t augment our political discourse with a heavy dose of wisdom we will plunge ourselves over the cliff into another “dark ages” of the interregnum of wisdom bearing witness to the inexorable consequences of confusing license for liberty.

American Demagogue

America has seen her share of demagogues before. But never before has an aspiring demagogue made it to the highest office in the land. The two-party system has effectively, up until now, refused to turn its future over to a demagogue. But with the GOP’s endorsement of Donald Trump this history of keeping dangerous demagogues out of the highest office in the land was overturned with the rise of Trump to the United States presidency. All demagogues share common characteristics. A demagogue eschews reason and facts, making appeals primarily to people’s irrational instincts, prejudices, and fears—frequently scapegoating religious and/or ethnic minorities as the cause of their follower’s economic and/or social problems. Demagogues promise all things to all people without hope or intent on making good on such pledges. Demagogues use “exhibitionism” and circus like “Barnumism” poisoned with violent rhetoric to whip up their followers into an “angry mob,” frequently inciting violent behavior.  Demagogues pose as a professional “man of the people,” and popularize and even encourage anti-intellectualism and distrust of educated men and women as citizens and public servants. Demagogues are the enemies of the free press and free educational systems. In the past demagogues have failed in America because they were unable to reach a level of national appeal that transcended isolated “localism,” but this has changed with the rise of Trump; none before approached nation-wide appeal and potentialities of a Mussolini, a Hitler, or a Stalin. But today America is witnessing the rise of a demagogue into the highest office in the land with a nation-wide appeal. Indeed, we may be witnessing today a proto-fascism that could well bring into a reality a culture of fascist intolerance that is anti-democratic and hostile to American ideals of democracy:

A Kulturkamp may well take place in which rival totalitarianisms clash, violently perhaps, to mobilize consent and enforce political order. Under less dire circumstances, after all, as it was predicted a decade ago, “Christian doctrine, made an adjunct to right-wing and capitalist policies, could provide the necessary self-imposed order that a fascist movement in America would require to maintain control over the country.” And more recently, “a state religion, compulsory in character, authoritarian in tone, ‘traditional’ in outlook,” has been seriously foreseen. “America would be ‘socialized’ not in the name of Marx but of Jesus, not in the name of communism but of Christian republicanism.”

None of these possibilities is inevitable, of course, or even likely. But one thing at any rate seems certain. Whatever shape the creationist cosmos may take at the hands of Protestant fundamentalists, it will break free from its flourishing subculture and hold sway over people and nations only when it is commended in its integrity: not as a mere science among sciences, but as the one religious answer, among uniquely religious answers, to the unfathomable mystery of existence.

Marty, Martin E. and Appleby R. Scott. et. al. Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1993; 2 pp. 62-64. The Fundamentalism Project.