In 2020, some of the world’s largest economies are led by men who have adopted the speech patterns of the ‘Agitator’. These men use the emotional states of the population to further their own, and their allies, political and economic ends. They are ideological. They use ideas and imagery to cover the fact that they are serving their interests.
Some of these men have a nuclear arsenal. One is the Commander in Chief of a military machine, the size and destructive power of which the world has never seen. The United States is perhaps a waning power, but it still is the dominant force in the world. Trump is, therefore, a very dangerous ‘American Agitator’. Others, such as Putin and Xi, are less well known to us living in the West. We do not have access to their speeches in their native languages nor are their expressions and sayings tweeted daily. Our media do not report in any detail what these other men say. Therefore we can only really focus on those men the media push in front of our faces daily.
In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson uses sub-Churchillian tones and rhetoric to gain and maintain his hold on the public imagination. He does so in part due to his upbringing in a culture of British Exceptualism, of Empire, of ‘Greatness’. I suggest he suffers from ‘post-colonial melancholia’, a condition exacerbated by his education in Eton and Oxbridge. His speeches are rarely considered, analytical or rooted in fact. He thrives on optimism, bluster and imperial metaphor.
Both Trump and Johnson manifest characteristics that are not new. The public and researchers have seen their techniques before.
We do not serve democracy well if citizens are not alert to their bluster, or if we accept at face value their ideology. We ought to realise that these Agitators are playing us. Our emotions, particularly in critical periods of history, such as a global pandemic or of climate change, are being used against us.
If we do not learn from history, perhaps we are doomed to repeat it, as both tragedy and farce.
Studies in Prejudice.
In May 1944, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in the United States invited scholars to a two-day conference on religious and racial prejudice. Following that, the AJC established a Department of Scientific Research to explore the phenomenon of prejudice and to suggest new areas of research. Max Horkheimer and Sam Flowerman headed the investigation.
As a result, five volumes constituting the ‘Studies in Prejudice’ were produced.
The research team asked questions such as:
1. What is there in the psychology of the individual that renders him prejudiced?
‘The Authoritarian Personality‘ by Adorno et al. suggested a close correlation between several deep-rooted personality traits and overt prejudice. The study produced an instrument to measure these traits – the ‘F’ scale. This study remains the best-known volume of work of this series Today.
‘The Dynamics of Prejudice‘ by Bettelheim and Janowicz examined the connection between personality traits and prejudice among war veterans. They studied the impact of war experience as an added factor in the development of prejudice.
‘Anti Semitism and Emotional Disorder‘ by Ackerman and Jahoda, studied case histories of those who received intensive psychotherapy and again illuminated the correlation established in the ‘Authoritarian Personality’.
2. Secondly, the other factor in prejudice is the social situation itself.
In ‘Rehearsal for Destruction‘, Massing examined the social roots of antisemitism in Nazi Germany.
Lowenstein and Guterman in ‘Prophets of Deceit‘ studied the role of ‘The Agitator’. His techniques of persuasion, the mechanics of mediation, that turn inchoate feeling into specific beliefs and action. ‘The Agitator’ takes the individual psyche, the pre-existing prejudices and tendencies, and mediates them into overt doctrines and ultimately into overt action. The Agitator is the mediator between the world and the inner life of social actors. This idea can be applied to 2020, nearly 70 years after this volume was published.
Horkheimer and Flowerman wrote in the preface to the first five volumes of Studies in Prejudice:
“It may strike the reader that we have placed undue stress upon the personal and the psychological rather than upon the social aspect of prejudice. This is not due to a personal preference for psychological analysis nor to a failure to see that the cause of irrational hostility is in the last instance to be found in social frustration and injustice.”
One aim of the research was to examine and change the social circumstances:
“Once we understand, for example, how the war experience may, in some cases have strengthened personality traits predisposed to group hatred, the educational remedies may follow logically. Similarly, to expose the psychological tricks in the arsenal of the Agitator may help to immunise his prospective victims against them.”
Today, exposing the psychological tricks may not be enough. Potlical shysters and Agitators have dashed Horkheimer and Flowerman’s hopes.
In 2020 a current example of a very powerful ‘The Agitator’ is, of course, Donald Trump. For the UK we may point to Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson and raise the question about the degree to which they also fulfil this role. We can note that Trump, Farage and Johnson do not always use overtly racist terminology, although Farage comes close at times. In passing, we may recall Trump calling Mexicans’ drug dealers’ and ‘rapists’. We remember Johnson’s use of ‘piccanniny’ ‘watermelon smiles’ and ‘letterboxes’. The absence of ‘the jew’ as a target for vilification does not necessarily negate these earlier studies, based as they were in the context of the ongoing holocaust when the AJC commissioned the conference in 1944.
Following these five volumes on individual psychology, the research focused on the group, the community and the institutions—the understanding of an individual’s psychological internal dynamic needs contextualising within group dynamics. We need to consider how individual action takes place within social antecedents. We need to think about how group pressures and social roles can impact the choices of action. Today, we can examine social antecedents to action. We can focus on the experiences of those for whom globalisation, financial capitalism, and neoliberalism have been harmful to their life chances. These include the Trump voter, the working-class Brexit voter, the Middle England Johnson supporter or the Farage Acolyte. We can examine their demographics – often white, older, male – and intersect those with certain personality types or psychological formulations in an attempt to understand this phenomenon of prejudice and fear.
Of particular importance, of course, is the role of the media in stoking fear, prejudice and hatred often, in the UK case, for political ends. The Right-Wing press media in particular used antisemitism charges against a socialist leader – Corbyn – in part because it was a straightforward method of character assassination. It followed upon years of anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment and stories by those very same outlets.
That is another story.
The Prophets of Deceit then is the focus of this discussion. A reading of which helps to illuminate and call out the likes of Trump for what he is – a bloviating, right-wing populist agitator. Trump uses misdirection and fear to play on the personality traits and emotional states of millions of Americans. He fraudulently places himself as the champion of the people. He promised to “Make America Great Again”. In reality, all he wants to do is “Make Trump Great Again”.
The President of Deceit.
In 2017 Trump gave his inaugural speech. In it, he repeated the themes of his campaign. It contains many of the ideas identified by Lowenthal and Gutenberg back in the 1940s.
Trump started with:
“Together we will determine the course of America, and the World, for many, many years to come”.
In adding the ‘World’ to America in this sentence taps into and reinforces many American’s belief in ‘exceptionalism‘ and of course ‘manifest destiny‘ which this time is applied not just to the American West but to the whole world. Many speeches declare the United States to be the greatest country in the world, now and in history. It assumes of course that America’s and The World’s course can be determined by ‘great men’. Perhaps it can. The environment may have a final ‘say’ on that.
Two minutes into the speech, Trump was joined on the steps by a show of military personnel on either side. I have previously suggested that the triumvirate of Monarchy, Military and Ministry in the UK are the three core aspects of right-wing ideology. In the United States. Monarchy is replaced by’ Merica as the symbol of the nation: ‘Merica, Military and Ministry (God Bless America). It is no accident that the military is clearly on show. It symbolises America’s Might and its barely veiled threat of violent force in pursuit of influence around the world.
“We are transferring power from Washington DC and giving it back to you, the people” (Cheered). This about identifying an enemy. The following section was tapping into discontent, anxiety and disillusionment without and, this is crucial, talking about the structures of power, wealth and social relations of capitalism that created them. Instead a foreign and domestic enemy is blamed. It also aligned himself with the ‘the people’ as their champion.
“The people did not flourish…the jobs left and the factories closed…struggling families all across our land…this moment is your moment….it belongs to you…the people became the rulers of this nation…the forgotten men and women…a movement the likes of which the world had never seen before…a nation exists to serve its citizens…a different reality exists…trapped in poverty, rusted out factories…crime, gangs, drugs…this American carnage stops right here and right now…one nation…one heart, one home one destiny”.
Then he talked about the US defending foreign borders. He criticised countries for refusing to protect their borders, while the federal government was spending trillions overseas as America decays. He spoke of “Jobs going abroad…sad depletion of our military”.
“…workers left behind….wealth of the middle class redistributed around the world…”
“…from this day forward….Only America First…American workers and families, protecting our borders…other countries are destroying our jobs…protection….”
“I will never let you down.”
“…bring back our jobs, our borders, our wealth.”
He promised infrastructure projects, “…off welfare and back to work…buy American and hire American…”
“We don’t seek to impose our lifestyle…but we will shine…unite the civilised world, eradicate radical Islam from the face of the Earth….loyalty to each other, patriotism…”
“America is unstoppable…protected by the military and law enforcement…and by God”.
“…whether we are black or white we are patriots…we salute the flag…breath of life by the almighty creator…you will never be ignored again…”
“Make America wealthy, strong, proud, safe, great again.”
“God Bless America”.
Key themes in his speech:
- Aloof Politicians
- Workers Left behind
- Return to America
- American Greatness, Exceptualism and its Destiny.
- America First
- Patriotism and Nationalism
- God, Military.
His speech identified the problem: Politicians in Washington (elites) not caring about American workers, allowing funds and jobs to go abroad (globalisation). He offered himself up as the champion of the working class. There was an emphasis on God, loyalty and patriotism and pushed the buttons of the moral intuitions of conservatives: Loyalty, Sanctity and Authority.
So if he is an ‘Agitator’ his inaugural speech illustrates it. This language and phrasing are how Trump and others like him connect to the inner lives of his followers. To fully understand this process, we need to examine the latent contentof his speech.
“…often relies upon unconscious mechanisms to build instruments for manipulating his audience”. Agitation is a surface manifestation of deeper social and psychological currents.
Globalisation has affected the United States, taking away once well-paid manufacturing jobs. Geopolitical power is shifting eastwards to SE Asia and China. Americans have engaged in a war on terror that has embroiled its military in foreign wars in which there is no foreseeable endgame. Wages have stagnated while wealth has accumulated to the top 0.01%. Inequality has risen, and on a range of indices identified in the book The Spirit Level, the United States does worse than many other developed nations. Climate change is posing an existential threat to the American dream built on oil and meat. White male culture feels under threat from a shifting demographic and the challenges posed by feminism, the LGBTQ communities and from both indigenous native Americans and the black and ethnic minority groups. Millions of Americans are without health care.
These undercurrents provide fertile soil for the seeds planted by an Agitator.
Lowenthal and Guterman, in their book, outlined the main themes of Agitation as follows:
The identification of a social malaise.
Describing a hostile world.
Identifying a Ruthless Enemy – the foreigner, reds, corrupt government.
Describing The Helpless Enemy.
Focusing on The Enemy as Jew (Today it is Islam/China).
Creating a home for the homeless. Draining the swamp.
Identifying the Follower – Simple Americans as the watchdogs.
Painting a Self Portrait of the Agitator as a martyr and the ‘great little man’.
What the Listener heard – including a rehearsal for violence.
We can see much of the above in today’s America. The ‘Enemy as Jew’ has been replaced by the Enemy as Islam and increasingly The Enemy as China, clearly seen when Trump identified China as the culprit in the Covid 19 pandemic.
Many Americans are indeed feeling insecure, precarious and lost. Their education system does not prepare them with concepts, theories and ideas which would enable them to link their personal experiences with broader social changes. Nor does it prepare them for the actions of men like Donald Trump. Instead ‘The Agitator’ comes along and provides them with easy answers. He identifies an enemy and makes a promise to right their wrongs.
The Agitator relies on fear, anxiety and disillusionment, and helps stoke prejudice.
He voices prejudice and makes it ‘valid’.
People will be disappointed. There will be damage. There is damage.