Demagoguery, metaphors, and policy argumentation

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A couple of folks have asked me questions about demagoguery. Guess what, I’m pretty informed about this!

The basic point about demagoguery is that it insists that we don’t have to engage in policy argumentation—we can settle all issues through deciding who is in the ingroup and who is in the outgroup. Demagoguery says we are in an ultimate war of extermination of us versus them.

Policy argumentation has two parts: need and plan. The need part of the argument should put forward plausible, well-supported, and well-defended claims regarding the need (problem or ill) being significant, inherent (it won’t go away on its own), and attributable to some cause (a narrative about causality).

The plan part of the argument should describe a specific plan (not just a set of slogans) that can be plausibly argued is feasible, will actually solve the specific problem identified in the need portion (this is where the narrative about causality is crucial), and deal with the problem of unintended consequences.

Demagoguery rejects all arguments about plan as weak-kneed unmanly dithering. It identified the need/problem as the presence of some bad group, and the obvious solution is to expel them from the community, prevent them from joining it, imprisoning them, and/or killing them.This narrative of our being in a supernaturally determined battle between good and evil has no place for thoughtful policy argumentation.

Thus, that the plan might not be feasible, or might have costs higher than the benefits, or might not be logically related to the need we’ve identified—all of those issues are irrelevant. The feasibility of a proposed plan, for instance, doesn’t really matter; any plan will work, as long as we stay right with God/Nature/History. It may even be that committing to an unlikely plan, with very little chance of success, after little or no deliberation, is the best approach to take: our refusal to worry about feasibility shows that we have extraordinary faith in the ingroup’s relation to God/History/Nature, and it is faith, not feasibility, that is most likely to invite divine assistance. In this narrative, heroes are irrational and impractical. Thus, this apocalyptic metanarrative prevents pragmatic and inclusive deliberation.

This posture of standing strong in the midst of the end of the world can be fairly complicated: demagoguery has to square the circle of inspiring fear while not looking fearful (since fearfulness is being paired with thinking and deliberating)—there are often claims of extraordinary courage in the face of a terrible situation, or a representation of one’s self as calm and reasonable while making apocalyptic predictions, and the odd insistence of the sheer rationality of hyperbolic claims (I will admit, this is one aspect of demagoguery that often makes me laugh).

Desperate times require desperate measures, and those desperate measures are usually some kind of punitive policies. Demagoguery seems to correlate closely with what George Lakoff has called “Strict Father Morality.” The government’s role is to act as a Strict Father to the country; if the country, or some part of it, has gotten out of order, it is because of lax policies, and we need to enact more punitive ones (for more on Strict Father Morality, see Lakoff, Moral Politics, especially Chapters Five and Six). Lakoff’s point is that this view of the government and public policy is reflected in metaphors associated with ingroup and outgroup.

In addition to the ones Lakoff argues are associated with Strict Father Morality, demagoguery associates metaphors of vermin, disease, taint, queerness (that is, transgressive behavior), monstrosity (that is, hybridity), disorder, lack of control (licentiousness), impurity (again, hybridity), thinking, and demonic possession with the outgroup. It associates metaphors of purity, tumescence (specifically, and masculinity, generally), order, action, decisiveness, and control with the ingroup. It associates dithering, wavering, impaired masculinity, and weakness with people considering protecting or defending the outgroup in any way, or any criticism of the ingroup.

Thus, the solution to demagoguery isn’t less democracy, but more. But it has to be more argumentation about policy, not identity.

Why I thought Trump might win

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Why did I think it was likely that Trump would win?

This will be really quick, and, if folks are interested, I’ll try expand later, but I thought a Trump win was likely (by which I meant 45/65, but then in the last week it became 50/50). Here’s why:

As I think y’all know, I periodically crawl under in the dark side of the interwebz, and I’ve been spending a lot of time lately wandering through pro-Trump FB pages and various evangelical websites. Folks in those places aren’t low information—they’re high misinformation.

What you see in an entire world of information is that Clinton:

1) personally murdered or had murdered a lot of people;
2) is prone to seizures;
3) laughed at a rape victim;
4) told the families of Benghazi victims that they should “move on and get over it;”
5) supports “abortion” up until five minutes before birth, so she thinks a woman should be able to kill a perfectly healthy fetus until the moment of birth;
6) subverted the constitution because the DNC tried to get her the nomination;
7) and a bunch of other stuff.

Just to be clear, I wouldn’t have voted for Clinton had I thought any of that was true. None of it was, of course, but they didn’t know that.

Meanwhile, the main problem with American politics on these pages–pro-Trump and more or less secular and fundagelical–are slightly different. For the pro-Trump secular pages, it’s what’s described by the Stealth Democracy folks. Commenters on those pages believe that the solutions to our problems are simple. Politicians don’t go for those simple solutions because they want to keep their jobs by making things complicated and they’re corrupted by “special interests.”

“Special interests” are any interests other than the person making that criticism. So, since I’m a normal person, and I am a ferret rancher, the government should do lots of things to promote ferret farming. I’m not a special interest; I’m American. But, my neighbor, the lynx farmer, gets things—THAT is special interests.

So, there is a profound rejection of the pluralism of our world, and a normalizing of experience.

Why, then, don’t politicians do that obviously rational thing and support ferret farming? Because they are professional politicians, who get a lot of money from lobbyists to promote special interests like lynx farming.

Here’s what those folks believe about Trump:
1) He’s an amazingly successful businessman;
2) He has incredibly good judgment (thank Celebrity Apprentice for that);
3) He isn’t beholden to anyone;
4) He isn’t smart or subtle or well-educated: he doesn’t bullshit;
5) He never lies; he engages in hyperbole, but he never deliberately manipulates anyone else;
6) He’s like them. He isn’t a member of the cultural or intellectual elite.

On the evangelical side, it’s more complicated. To be fair, they resisted him much longer than the secular GOP did.

But, still and all, they accepted all the claims about Clinton, and they have made a nasty deal with their consciences about being so oriented toward killing. The fundagelical right thoroughly supported segregation, has never complained about police brutality, never met a GOP-supported war it didn’t like, loves it some death penalty (despite what Christ said), is all in favor of indiscriminate killing because some bad people might die, and supports social services policies that kill people.

There are lots of studies out there about doing a single good thing gets unconsciously interpreted as a “get out of guilt” free card for a far larger number of douchey behaviors. For instance, people who buy organic in a grocery store are less likely to be nice to the people collecting money for a good cause just outside the door. (This explains why drivers in the Whole Foods parking lots are unmitigated shitheads.)

Fundagelical Christianity in the US has been damaged by an attachment to sloppy Calvinism in the form of prosperity gospel. Unhappily, fundagelical Christianity has come to preach that we should not treat outgroups as we insist on being treated. (Making Christ’s golden rule a non starter.) We can help them, but only if help is associated with trying to make them part of our ingroup.

Government assistance is bad, not because it’s assistance, but because it’s secular.

All assistance should be connected to conversion. (Hence, people say that slut-shaming “abortion information centers” are more appropriate than giving women birth control.)

Basically, a lot of fundagelicals believe that the government is the problem, not the solution. And they believe they should contribute a lot to their church and not to the government.

Therefore, they’re drawn to cheap stances. Wanting to prohibit abortion costs nothing.

Actually reducing the number of abortions would cost a lot and it would involve giving women autonomy over our bodies. But claiming to be opposed to abortion, while also opposing the policies that would actually reduce abortion, reduces the cognitive dissonance created by the very death-oriented policies of the fundagelical right.

It’s a “get out of guilt free” card.

Finally, fundagelical Christianity has bought into imparted justification—that a saved person is a good person, with good judgment. So, for them, all arguments are identity arguments: is this person saved. And, unhappily, that comes down to: does this person claim to support the positions I think are necessarily associated with my view of being Christian.

So, there’s an analogy to the ferret farmer. The ferret farmer sees her interests as universal, and the basis of Americanism, and the lynx farmer as a corrupt special interest. Similarly, fundagelicals see their (quite specific, and even problematic) notions about religion as “Christian” and will not admit that people who don’t share their agenda on homosexuality or abortion are Christians. They’re special interest lynx farmers.

Anyway, I started to worry when I realized that the National Enquirer effect was in place for Trump supporters.

The National Enquirer is always wrong, in that it spends all the time saying this celebrity couple is breaking up. When, as sometimes happens, the couple does break up, the audience takes that outcome as proof that it was on to something, as opposed to admitting it was wrong far more often than it was right. Paradoxically, that fundagelicals have been predicting the end of the world for over a hundred years and have always been wrong has strengthened, not weakened, many people’s beliefs that the end is nigh.

All of the “scandals” about Clinton turned out to be wrong (and far less important than Trump’s) but they got better play. The moment I thought Trump would win was when, for the third week in a short period of time (maybe four weeks?) the National Enquirer had a headline about Clinton being ill or corrupt or whatever. Wandering in Trump pages, I learned that people were operating on a kind of “no smoke without fire” premise.

In other words, Trump’s appeal was to people who are living in a world excessive (and thoroughly false) information and a denial of difference as a value. They also hate complexity. And there is an odd kind of epistemic narcissism—their beliefs are the basis of all truth. But that’s a different post.

Thrillers and Hitler

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“You’ve read the story,” he said. “I grant you it reads like a dime novelette; but there it is, staring you in the face, just the same. All at once, both in England and America, there’s some funny business going on in the oil and steel and chemical trades. The amount of money locked up in those three combines must be nearly enough to swamp the capitals of any other bunch of industries you could name. We don’t know exactly what’s happening , but we do know that the big men, the secret moguls of Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange, the birds with the fat cigars and the names in -heim and -stein, who juggle the finances of this cockeyed world, are moving on some definite plan. And then look at the goods they’re on the road with. Iron and oil and chemicals. If you know any other three interests that’d scoop a bigger pool out of a really first-class war, I’d like to hear of them.” (The Last Hero 43-44)

One of the odd characteristics of Hitler’s rhetoric, as Kenneth Burke noted in 1939, was that he appealed to a blazingly contradictory narrative about the Jews. Jews, Hitler said, were rapacious capitalists, out to screw over the working class, AND they were all Bolsheviks, out to screw over the wealthy. Burke said that Hitler’s answer was simply, “Aha, that makes them even more clever!” But, why would a narrative which obviously involves Jews operating for completely oppositional goals (rapacious capitalism and Bolshevik overthrow of capitalism) motivate people to believe that Jews are evil and dangerous—wouldn’t that argument clearly show that “Jews” are not all the same, and don’t have the same motives (and that “Jewish” and “Bolshevik” are not interchangeable)?

Why did that argument work?

In 1930, Leslie Charteris published The Last Hero, a thriller about his Robin Hood hero Simon Templar’s attempts to right the wrongs of the world. The basic premise of the book, also the premise of the next book (Knight Templar or The Avenging Saint) is that there is an international conspiracy to get major nations into war. That global conspiracy is composed of people (mostly Jews, as indicated in the passage above) in the steel, oil, and chemical industries who think they will benefit in the short term by a massive European war.

Simon Templar, The Saint, is willing to be fairly ugly in his means, including murder and torture, but because his ends are always blazingly good all of what he does is to be admired. He is up against completely evil people, who want to drag people into a war as bad as the Great War, perhaps worse. They just happen to be Jews.

This plot device, esssentially a MacGuffin in its simultaneously empty and excessive signification, comes up also in John Buchan’s 39 Steps, and almost too many other popular sources to name. The basic premise of a thriller—that there is a large plausible conspiracy against the hero—needs to be simultaneously simple, credible, and insane. And, so, that the Jews are behind it fits the bill.

They caused the Great War, and benefitted from it, and so are looking for another. This, to us, might seem an insane narrative, and it is delusional at best, but it was common, and its omnipresence contributed to the success of fascism. So, paradoxically, a belief that war was a Jewish plot imposed on naïve but well-meaning world leaders contributed to one of the most destructive wars in world history.

World War I was, in this narrative, not caused by excessive nationalism, fear-mongering rhetoric, a sense of fatalism about a European war, a passion on the part of the French to regain the Alsace-Lorraine, a passion on the part of the Germans to expand within Europe, sheer incompetence on the part of people trying to manage the diplomatic crisis created by terrorism, or a hovering opportunism on the part of nations (not Jews) to benefit from a war. There remain arguments about who caused the war (Germany’s brinksmanship, Russia’s mobilizing, Britain’s dithering, with the largest number of scholars on the side of Germany) but there isn’t really much disagreement as to what—and it was a concatenation of screwups that enabled leaders engaged in wishful thinking to engage in a war very different from the one they wanted.

Paul Fussell famously argued that the Great War forced a lot of people to accept irony and ambiguity as fact of life, to accept the war as a Great Fuck-up. But many people didn’t (and don’t) want to admit that that unnecessary war was caused by mistakes, misjudgments, and missed telegrams. That such devastation could have been unplanned and unintentional is unimaginable to some people, and for such people, a conspiracy theory, even one that posits a vast network of thoroughly evil people, is preferable to the possibility that we are subject to what almost amounts to random chance.

It was nearly impossible to believe that the war had been fought for good reasons, or that the war had been conducted intelligently, or that it had even really been necessary. There were various responses available: that war is unnecessary, that the methods of negotiations among countries are flawed, that people fuck up, that the world is open to horribly random events. All of those narratives obstruct any attempt to think of political issues as absolutely clear choices between right and wrong. A vast conspiracy turns it back into a clear story of good and bad people.

A vast conspiracy is also rather nice for an author, especially of thrillers. The author doesn’t have to keep coming up with villains, and that the conspiracy is vast, evil, and cunning can be used as duct tape to put together plot points that might otherwise require more explication than the author wants to give, or the readers want to drag through.

And that’s an important point about thrillers: they are supposed to be thrilling, with car chases, basements slowly filling with gas, treks across moors, speedboats, fights, and snappy dialogues. So the conspiracy—whatever it is—has to made plausible in as few words as possible, and that means relying on beliefs readers already have about what conspiracies possibly and plausibly exist. The notion of a Jewish conspiracy goes far back into the Middle Ages, and authors like Buchan and Charteris simply changed the details of the narrative.

There was, in other words, a kind of easy anti-Semitism in interwar literature, easy both in the sense that it was easy to use and easy to believe. Most of the conspiracies are, if you think about them at all, profoundly implausible—makers of steel, oil, and chemicals didn’t actually want another world war, as war had as many risks for them as potential gains (they might want remilitarizing, or some skirmishes, but not a “first-class war”) and, of course, the conspirators are supposed to be brilliant, but engage in silly and pointless actions (such as elaborate ways of killing the hero). They act against their own interest because all they want is to be evil. They are precisely the sort of conspirators who would screw over the wealthy on behalf of the poor and the poor on behalf of the rich, at the same time. Just because.

I don’t know if authors like Charteris and Buchan were personally anti-Semitic; Charteris famously loathed fascism, but Buchan openly admired Mussolini. But none of that matters. It wouldn’t matter if they were hostile to fascism and even hostile to anti-Semitism, if they used Jews as the villains simply because it was easy. What matters is that they did, and it was easy. Easy anti-Semitism made their plot problems easier, and all those plots that reinforced the notion of a convoluted and internally contradictory conspiracy made Hitler’s own conspiracy theory more plausible. There’s no reason to imagine that authors of thrillers were trying to help fascism—they were trying to write books—but they did.