Some thoughts on the design of power
The writer Isaac Asimov once famously wrote “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” This quote came to mind when looking at the never ending and growing stream of islam-hating rhetoric in my Facebook stream.
I have a friend on Facebook who seems to spend every free second on searching and sharing stories that prove his point that Muslims are evil, that Western leaders are weak and that the elite refuses to see “the Real Problems”. It’s the classic racist argument – although it pisses him off when I call him a racist -, used by every right-wing populist in the book. I quickly discovered that discussion is pointless. Just like discussion with Trump followers is pointless. In their world of Us against Them, things are fairly simple: they are the threat, we are under threat.
There’s a magical power surrounding this line of thought. You can’t argue with it, because in their eyes it proves exactly their suspicion that you ignore the real problems. And it seems highly infectious. Nothing seems to recruit more followers, likes and shares than anger and outrage.
Why is that? What makes this argument so compelling? To understand it, we simply need to look at history. Every populist in Western history has been using this simple tactic to gain power. If you want power, you follow some simple steps. First you design a feeling of humiliation. Trump keeps insisting America is losing today and that China, India and Russia are winning. Mussolini played this card all the time and the Nazi’s built their following on the shared idea of deep humiliation after the Versailles Treaty. The second step is to create an enemy. Nothing recruits more followers than the shared fear and hate for an enemy. So every populist puts tons of effort into vilifying them. Umberto Eco wrote a beautiful essay on this subject called ‘the creation of an enemy’. In this essay he illustrates how this process of creating an evil enemy with demonic traits, was already popular during the Middle Ages. If you want to have power, give people a story of humiliation and provide them with an enemy.
Gustave Gilbert, the American psychologist who had interviewed the top-Nazis during the Nuremberg trials in 1945, wrote in his ‘Nuremberg Diaries’ about a conversation he had with Herman Göring, the Nr 2 in the Nazi ranks. He asked Göring how leaders manage to get their people to go to war. Göring responded with this answer:
“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country”.
So when you’re dealing with people playing the Loser-card and the Enemy-card, you have to be aware of two things. At first sight there’s no particular goal in simply ‘naming the problems’ or ‘telling what people really think’. But there always is a goal. The more divided we get, the more easily we will be recruited for leaders whose ambition to power is more important than the long term well-being of their people. The more we get persuaded into the idea that we’re losers and that the enemy is evil, strong and dangerous, the easier we’ll give up our freedoms and the easier we’ll unite around the threat. In the famous book ‘The Geopolitics of Emotions’, Dominique Moisi argues that cultures of Hope, Fear and Humiliation are shaping the world. With the Asian culture as a culture of Hope and the Western World as a culture that is driven by Fear. And the Muslim World is driven by a deep sense of humiliation by the West.
So how to deal with these loser-tactics when you encounter them?
First of all: never step into their argument. To fight their frame is to accept it as valuable. It’s not. It’s a poisonous argument that leads us downhill. In the end, arguing and debating is nothing more than a war between stories and framing. Bernie Sanders argument against Trump’s racist and anti-Muslim story is a story about the real enemies of the hard working class, like Wall Street, the banks and big corporations. Bernie Sanders is as much a populist as Trump. He uses the exact same strategy of humiliation and the creation of an enemy. But he seems to use it for creating a world with less inequality, and not for setting up people against each other. Although Republicans brilliantly try to re-frame his tactics as “Class Warfare”.
Update May 12th 2016.
I just discovered this hilarious rant by John Cleese on Extremism and on the importance and the advantages of having enemies.
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