When Politicians Start Scapegoating Minorities, They Are on the Road to Authoritarianism
They search for 'unity through divisiveness'
One of the most alarming ghosts [from our past] is [this] one: the trend to form winning political coalitions by framing all the problems of society as the result of the perverse actions of a minority, thus injecting divisiveness into political discourse as a means of unifying the majority against the minority. In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler explained (years before he came to power) how to take political advantage of divisive circumstances to legitimize destructiveness and impose tyranny:
The art of leadership, as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary and taking care that nothing will split up that attention into sections. The more the militant energies of the people are directed towards one objective the more will new recruits join the movement, attracted by the magnetism of its unified action, and thus the striking power will be all the more enhanced. The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to the one category; for weak and wavering natures among a leader’s following may easily begin to be dubious about the justice of their own cause if they have to face different enemies. … Such uniformity intensifies their belief in the justice of their own cause and strengthens their feeling of hostility towards the opponent.
This is exactly what Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao did to assume power. They identified an enemy, a minority in society, blamed all problems on them, and elicited hatred against them to form a political majority. Then they let loose the hatred of the majority against the minority and used the blood of the latter as a cementing social bond.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, while Hitler was trying to blame the Jews and communists for all problems, the communists were blaming the bourgeoisie and Nazis. A similar range of finger-pointing exists today — some blame immigrants, others white males, and still others the Jews for our social problems or our inability to solve them. What happened in Germany, the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere was that a single party eventually took power and proceeded to convert, through propaganda, its enemies into the enemies of the entire population. And we are foolish if we think the same can’t happen here, today, if the social order collapses and people turn to a strong leader to reinstall order.
A process like this is difficult to stop. When people become convinced that a minority is guilty of destroying their lives, they fill themselves with hatred and demand action to stop and punish them. A leader trying to stop a raging mob loses credibility and is easily deemed a traitor. That is why the current climate of hatred is so dangerous. Hatred can turn populism into destructiveness.
This competition of hatreds is the perfect environment for chaos, which in turn conditions people to accept tyranny for the sake of a strong social order. This is what legitimized destructiveness in the twentieth century. It is what may legitimize destructiveness in our own time if we don’t stop this sinister competition. Ironically, the more groups that hate each other, the higher the probability that one of them will win the competition because the generalized use of hatred legitimizes it and increases the possibility of chaos — and in a society in chaos, the possibility of grabbing power increases exponentially for anyone who decides to do it. The more hatred that is injected into our societies in the twenty-first century, the closer we are getting to the slippery slope into destruction.
Of course, leaders play a crucial role in unifying people around a destructive idea. But such leaders emerge in response to a demand from the people. Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister of armaments during most of World War II, described [in his memoir, Inside the Third Reich,] the dynamics of hatred that filled Hitler’s rallies:
Certainly the masses roared to the beat set by Hitler’s and Goebbels’ baton; yet, they were not the true conductors. The mob determined the theme. … This was no ardent nationalism. Rather, for a few short hours the personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. And Hitler and Goebbels threw them the victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews they gave expression and direction at fierce, primal passions.
That is, people are mistaken when they think that mad rulers imposed their madness on otherwise sensible societies. Mad societies looked for mad rulers to fulfill their own madness. Destructiveness became legitimate because people asked for it — not against themselves but against the people they perceived as their enemies.
It is easy to see how destructive leaders used the hatreds of a divisive society to impose their totalitarian rule. But this combination of leaders and disgruntled masses is driven primarily by the mood of masses. A leader like Hitler could not succeed in a liberal society. However, a divisive society will find its Hitler or its Lenin, who will lead it into tyranny. This is what is so worrying today, as US society splits rabidly on almost any political or social issue.
So this ghost may be described as a predisposition of the population to believe that there is someone to blame for all the disruptions brought about by an intrinsically impersonal process of change [like the Industrial Revolution or the Connectivity Revolution]. […] It is difficult to discuss this ghost, however, without discussing at the same time the apparition of [another] ghost: the authoritarian leaders who appear at the right place and at the right time to provide what the population is demanding.
Authoritarian Populist Leaders
The toxic combination of these ghosts has radically changed the political scenarios of liberal democracies. During the second half of the twentieth century, the archetype of a good politician was someone willing and able to compromise and create consensus. People trusted the system and the politicians operating it. In less than twenty years, the archetype of the good politician has today become someone willing and able to break the system by refusing to compromise — someone ready to destroy their political enemies. To do this, the new politicians must be inherently authoritarian, must carry the force of the resentments and hatred that move their followers, and must be able to focus these feelings on a designated villain. Given their controlling character, they do not easily fit in liberal democratic frameworks. This resentful authoritarian leader is [another] ghost [from our past].
Western culture has been here before. The heated environment of the 1920s and 1930s gave birth to brazenly authoritarian political leaders who thrived on the hatred they whipped up against a chosen minority. The process started a competition to blame, to find a scapegoat, as Nazi-fascists and communists fought for the support of the European population.
Today, we have a similar competition. Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign with a brutal attack on Mexicans, a target he eventually expanded to include all Latinos, and then all immigrants. On the other side of the political spectrum, there has been a sustained attack by some leftist extremists on conservatives (and, by extension, white males), who, in accordance with some comprehensive doctrines, are responsible for slavery, the cultural enslavement of the rest of the country, sexism, and authoritarianism. Alarmingly, anti-Semitism has also come back with unexpected vigor, although the white nationalists driving this hatred tend to deny that they have anything against Jews.
While these new authoritarians have chosen different targets, they have also focused on two common enemies: what they call politicians, and the liberal democratic system, which they claim the politicians have rigged. Along with their competition, these two institutions are the enemies that they believe they must destroy before they reach their common, but mutually incompatible, objective: grabbing total power.
It is remarkable how many politicians around the world attack other politicians for being politicians, accusing them of being despicable while excluding themselves from their set. And it is a worldwide phenomenon. In the United States, Donald Trump accused his rivals of corruption and promised to “drain the swamp.” Politicians in France, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and other countries have used the same strategy in their attempts to capture and maintain power. This strategy is identical to that used by populist politicians in the 1920s and 1930s. Milton Mayer, an American University of Chicago academic who lived in Germany in the late 1940s, just a few years after the fall of Nazism, interviewed in depth a small group of German citizens in an attempt to understand the reasons for Hitler’s popularity. One of the interviewees [in Mayer’s book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45,] explained his popularity in this way:
National socialism was a revulsion by my friends against parliamentary politics, parliamentary debate, parliamentary government. … It was the final fruit of the common man’s repudiation of “the rascals.” They wanted [Germany] purified of the politicians, of all the politicians. They wanted a representative leader in place of unrepresentative representatives. And Hitler, the pure man, the antipolitician, was the man, untainted by “politics,” which was only a cloak for corruption.
Replace Hitler’s name with the name of any of the politicians who play the antipolitician game these days and the message sounds familiar. As in the 1930s, it is easy to see the implication of these antipolitician messages — that politicians have corrupted the liberal democratic system, and to fix the system, it is necessary to replace it with an authoritarian regime. Thus, in practice, populists are demolishing the institutional framework that has protected society against corruption. As happened in the 1920s and 1930s, these populists have been extremely successful in attracting votes. Afraid of what they see, voters demand a strong, authoritarian leader to take care of them. The authoritarian leaders prey on the population’s fears. Their ultimate product is security, which they project with their self-assurance, their aggressiveness, and their authoritarianism. Such security, however, goes up in smoke once the essential liberties are surrendered to them. […]
On the Brink
Of course, none of the current populists has reached the level of destructiveness of the old tyrants. But this was true in the 1920s as well. The populist leaders of the early twentieth century chose their victims early. Hitler never hid his hatred for the Jews, but initially, when he was not in power, he only attacked them verbally. Many people thought his anti-Semitism was a political pose that would not affect his policies if he assumed power. Many Europeans and Americans actually admired Hitler and Mussolini, thinking that their aggressive verbosity was just a device to defeat communism, and nothing else. But, of course, Hitler’s attacks on the Jews became nightmarishly real, as the Nazis destroyed Jewish homes and businesses, forced them into exile, escalated violence against them, and finally killed them in the death camps. Nazi leaders turned from apparently harmless populists into the terrible monsters they became in the persecution of the minority they had chosen to destroy.
But these leaders in fact never changed. Those today who abuse minorities do not intend to inflict actual violence, but the damage is done; such abuse dehumanizes the members of the minority, which in turn makes it easier for the majorities to commit crimes against them, or at least to see as normal their degradation — as has happened in the separation of Latino families asking for asylum and with enclosing children in cages and the other terrible conditions in which they are kept. Sadly, if people see others treated like animals, they start to think of them as “other.”
Writing about the terrible bloodshed of the French Revolution, Simon Schama has said:
Historians are also much given to distinguishing between “verbal” violence and the real thing. … But the history [of the Revolution] suggests in fact a direct connection between all that orchestrated or spontaneous screaming for blood and its copious shedding. It contributed greatly to the complete dehumanization of those who became victims. … Humiliation and abuse, then, were not just Jacobin fun and games; they were the prologues to killing.
It is alarming that framing groups as criminals seems to be working; it was one of the main campaign themes of Trump’s successful 2016 run for the presidency. Left-wing extremism is increasing, and Jews and other religious minorities are being hit with real violence. This ghost is real.
The return of these ghosts is part of a response to the strains of a technological transformation, not evidence of a failure of liberal democracy or capitalism. The fact that the similarities are all related to the period that preceded the worst tragedies of the twentieth century is an ominous warning that a period of extraordinary divisiveness like ours, some of it resulting from the natural effects of a technological transformation and some of it from the incitement of populist leaders, may evolve into devastating episodes. With growing doubts about liberal democracy, this would leave us exposed to unthinkable destructiveness.
Discarding liberal democracy in the belief that doing so will solve these problems would be a tragedy. The only solution to our structural problems […] is to increase the flexibility of our society, and liberal democracy is the most flexible of all social orders.
In Defense of Liberal Democracy
Copyright © 2021 by Manuel Hinds
Used with permission by Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc.
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