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Patterns and Dynamics: How Demagoguery Works

Patterns and Dynamics: How Demagoguery Works

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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It was a shot heard round the world. E Jean Carroll, the writer, won a colossal $83.3 million verdict against Trump, for defamation. That staggering sum sends a clear message, about the lines of decency and truth in civil society. And yet it has a deeper meaning, too.

Perhaps the great unasked question in American political economy today is this. Why did Trump’s resurgence happen? Think about it. It’s rare enough for a Presidential contender to aspire to non-consecutive terms. But one with nearly a hundred felony counts against him, with the history of an attempted coup, a track record of abuse of power—thats genuinely unprecedented. It should have been the case, in a healthier polity, that a Trump should have faded away.

He didn’t. Instead, the precise opposite happened. Trump returned, and exerts almost absolute power over his political side. Why is that? To ask that question is to glean a truer understanding of demagoguery, how it comes to be, what fuels it, and it’s in that context, too, that the titanic defamation verdict should be understood.

Demagoguery is based on the perception of omnipotence. Here is the all-powerful Father. He Alone Can Save Me. From what? From impurity, from chaos, from decay, from everything falling apart. What is the cause of all those woes? The all-powerful Father says that it’s the impure of blood, those who aren’t “really” one of us.

In other words, demagoguery’s founded on a kind of infantile narcissistic bond. Between a traumatized group, or flock, regressed to a child-like state, looking to an all-powerful Father for salvation. That’s why the bond is nearly unbreakable. It’s not a bond based on logic, or reason, and not even, really on “emotion,” in the adult sense, but something far more primal, basic, elemental—the need of desperate, frightened child for parent.

When you understand that, and I think only when you begin to understand, can you really make sense of demagoguery—and in particular, of Trump’s resurgence. Trump’s base didn’t just “never give up on him”—rather, something even stranger took place. More on that side of politics today believe “the election was stolen,” for instance, than they did shortly after it. The myth of omnipotence, and the bond between wounded child and all-powerful Father, in other words, has only grown.

This sort of observation explains why Trump’s resurgence came to be. And it isn’t really idle speculation on my part—this is a branch of psychology known as “Terror Management Theory.” The “terror” in this case isn’t terrorism—rather, it’s a deep psychological sense of fear, uncertainty, and dread that people feel. When they feel that way, they turn to strongmen and authoritarians, to, as the the theory goes, “manage” their terror. For them. They seek security and stability and safety—the opposites of instability, insecurity, and harm—in the arms of demagogues, who exploit and prey on these feelings. Even fuel these feelings, amplifying real threats into imaginary ones, creating outsize monsters, persecution complexes, feeding existing senses of victimhood.

Though Terror Management Theory offers perhaps the most elegant, concise, and powerful explanation of demagoguery there is, sadly, media rarely, barely ever covers it. So the question of Trump’s resurgence goes unasked—and stays unanswered. And a deeper understanding of just what demagoguery is, and how it comes to be, remains elusive to mass consciousness.

What are the “terrors” in this particular case? There are quite a few of them, but they can be summed up in a sentence: American life is scary. It’s not just the guns, it’s also the money. More than that, American life is brutal, a sort of dog-eat-dog contest for survival, and if you fall by the wayside, the stakes are existential. For those below the median, the precarity is intense, and the feelings of dread, fear, and sense of harm is unmanageable, it appears—and so they turn to demagogues to cope. That trend predated Trump, in fact, if you remember figures like, say, Bill O’Reilly, or Newt Gingrich. The demagogue offers the flock a coping mechanism for intense feelings of terror they can’t contain by themselves—usually, redirecting it all onto innocent scapegoats.

And in that context, the rallies are really rituals, bonding together flock and demagogue in incredibly powerful ways—offering salvation from terror. Hence, the sort of weird glow in them, mania of not quite happiness but glee that pervades them, all with a sort of malicious, sadistic twist. There, the demagogue is openly, literally managing the terror of the flock for them, molding and shaping it into the unbreakable bond that supports his rise, coming to life in the ritual as the strongman, the authoritarian, who Alone Can Save Us.

Now. I’ve taken you through the theory in detail for a reason. Because the theory also teaches us how to undo demagoguery. Or at least it offers a hint of a suggestion. If demagoguery’s based on the myth of an omnipotent, all-powerful Father, then the way to undo it is to pierce the veil of omnipotence.

If you can do that, the theory implies, eventually, the flock will begin to see that the demagogue is just a…human being. Not an all-powerful Father, with supernatural abilities, to rise above human constraints, like the law, institutions, truth, reality, duty. And in turn, crucially, perhaps they themselves begin to see themselves as fragile, limited adults, with agency—not just powerless children in need of salvation and protection.

And it’s in that sense that this verdict begins to matter. How do you pierce a veil of omnipotence? A $100 million verdict is a pretty good start. A first step, anyways. It’s true, of course, that it’ll fuel a backlash—see how Trump already lashed out, furiously. Precisely because the veil of omnipotent is being pierced, and of course, while he might not understand the theory, like any demagogue, he can sense it. And knows that if it goes on, his power might begin to slip away, because it’s based on a magic trick of omnipotence.

The verdict—if you ask me—takes on a new meaning in just this context. It forces the flock to begin to question the omnipotence of the all-powerful Father. It raises uncomfortable questions, like: if he can’t protect himself, can he even protect me? Even if these questions are deflected, and remain in the unconscious, still, they begin to chip away at the infantile narcissistic bond, creating feelings of discomfort and hesitancy where before there just used to be mania, glee, and sadism.

It’ll take more—much more—to really begin to break the bond. Make no mistake, I’m not saying that a first step is a last one. Nor am I saying that steps like this won’t cause a circling the wagons sort of defensive effect among the flock, rushing to protect the now wounded Father. Of course they will—but that in itself must provoke, eventually, the realization that Father is human after all. Who else can be wounded? And if we are protecting Father, are we now powerless children—or are we, perhaps, adults?

Demagoguery is undone like this. Reducing the demagogue to his basic humanity. Portraying him as a flawed, weak, limited, mortal human being, like the rest of us, capable of making mistakes, committing errors, not just a magical being whose fury and rage can unravel the moral universe, and remake it anew, for the master race for another thousand years. And in America’s case, a deeper understanding of demagoguery must prevail, at last, and soon, if democracy is to survive.

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