Prophets of Deceit

Obama is a totalitarian illegal alien! He's going to execute grandma! Scott McLemee takes refuge with a classic study of political mania.

August 19, 2009

The recent surge of right-wing fantasy into American public discourse should not be surprising. Claims that Obama is a foreigner, that health-care reform means bureaucratic death squads, that “the country we once knew is being destroyed,” as anguished people at town halls have put it – only on the most superficial level are these beliefs the product of ignorance, irrationality, and intractable boneheadedness.

Let’s face reality. An African-American man without so much as an Anglo-Saxon syllable to his name is now occupying an institution called (not on purely descriptive grounds) the White House. What did you think was going to happen? In the 1760s, George Washington complained that the British had a “systematic plan” to render the Americans “as tame and abject as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.” (An interesting choice of terms, that.) This is a country in which anxiety goes deep, and all the way back. It is not an afterthought.

Mostly, of course, it stays in check. With enough stress on the system, the craziness tends to flare up, like a cold sore. The “viral” political message involved sounds, in part, something like this:

“What’s wrong? I’ll tell you what is wrong. We have robbed man of his liberty. We have imprisoned him behind the iron bars of bureaucratic persecution. We have taunted the American businessman until he is afraid to sign his name to a pay check for fear he is violating some bureaucratic rule that will call for the surrender of a bond, the appearance before a committee, the persecution before some Washington board, or even imprisonment itself.... In the framework of a democracy the great mass of decent people do not realize what is going on when their interests are betrayed. This is a day to return to the high road, to the main road that leads to the preservation of our democracy, and to the traditions of our republic.”

As it happens, this is not a transcript from Fox News, but taken from the opening pages of Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman’s book Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator, first published in 1949 by Harper and Brothers. Plus ça change....

The passage just quoted appears in “The Agitator Speaks” – an introductory segment of the book presenting an archetypal harangue by a Depression-era radio ranter or streetcorner demagogue. Father Couglin remains the most notorious of the lot -- perhaps the only one with name recognition today. But scores of them were in business during the worst of the crisis, and enough of them kept plying their trade after the war to worry the American Jewish Committee, which sponsored the study.

My first reading of Prophets of Deceit was about 20 years ago. At the time, its interest to me was for the most part historical – as an example of Frankfurt School theory being used for empirical social research. Lowenthal, a German emigre, was the main author. The focus of his other research was the sociology of literature and popular culture. Guterman, identified on the title page as a co-author, was primarily a translator. The preface expresses appreciation to a young assistant named Irving Howe for “much help in preparing the final manuscript.” That may understate his role. Some chapters are suspiciously well written.

In analyzing speeches and writings by the Depression agitators, Lowenthal showed a particular interest in how they operated as rhetoric – how the imagery, figures of speech, and recurrent themes worked together, appealing to the half-articulated desires and frustrations of the demagogue’s followers. Another of the Frankfurters, Theodore Adorno, had produced a similar if more narrowly focused monograph, The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas' Radio Addresses, published a few years ago by Stanford University Press. And Prophets of Deceit itself was the third in the AJC’s five-volume series “Studies in Prejudice.”

The insights and blindspots of this large-scale effort to analyze “the authoritarian personality” generated controversy that continues all these decades later. But I wasn’t thinking of any of that when Prophets of Deceit came back to mind not long ago.

The catalyst, rather, was my first exposure to the cable talk-show host Glenn Beck. His program, on the de facto Republican party network Fox, has been a locus for much of the pseudopopulist craziness about how the Presidency has been taken over by a totalitarian illegal alien. You will find most of the themes of this form of political thinking cataloged by Lowenthal and associates. (Sixty years ago, the ranting tended very quickly to become anti-Semitic, while now it seems the conspiracy is run by the Kenyans. This change deserves closer study.)

But the striking thing about Beck’s program was not its ideological message but something else: its mode of performance, which was so close to that described in Prophets of Deceit that I had to track down a copy to make sure my memory was not playing tricks. The book was reissued a few years ago in an edition of Lowenthal’s collected writings published by Transaction.

In case you have not seen him in action, Beck “weeps for his country.” Quite literally so: the display of waterworks is the most readily parodied aspect of his performance. He confesses to being terrified for the future, and quakes accordingly. He acts out aggressive scenarios, such as one in which he pretended to be Obama throwing gasoline on an Average American and threatening to set him on fire.

Prophets of Deceit describes Beck’s act perfectly, six decades avant la lettre: “something between a tragic recital and a clownish pantomime.”

The performance is intended, not to provide information or even to persuade, but rather to create a space in which rational discussion can be bypassed entirely. The demagogue, whether of old or new vintage, “does not confront his audience from the outside; he seems rather like someone arising from its midst to express its innermost thoughts. He works, so to speak, from inside the audience, stirring up what lies dormant there.... It is difficult to pin him down to anything and he gives the impression that he is deliberately playacting.... Moving in the twilight zone between the respectable and the forbidden, he is ready to use any device, from jokes to doubletalk to wild extravagances.”

Instead of argument about the relative merits of this or that policy or action, this mode fosters beliefs that are “always facile, simple, and final, like daydreams.” The point is not to analyze or to convince members of the public but to offer “permission to indulge in anticipatory fantasies in which they violently discharge those emotions against alleged enemies.”

A lot has changed since Prophets of Deceit appeared, but not everything. Rereading it now leaves the definite sense that we’ve been here before.


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