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Key Characteristics of Right-Wing Populism
Producerist White Nationalism
One of the staples of repressive and right-wing populist ideology has been producerism, a doctrine that champions the so-called producers in society against both “unproductive” elites and subordinate groups defined as lazy or immoral.
Kazin points out that as it developed in the nineteenth century,
...the romance of producerism had a cultural blind spot; it left unchallenged strong prejudices toward not just African-Americans but also toward recent immigrants who had not learned or would not employ the language and rituals of this variant of the civic religion. . . . Even those native-born activists who reached out to immigrant laborers assumed that men of Anglo-American origins had invented political democracy, prideful work habits, and well-governed communities of the middling classes.
In the 1920s industrial philosophy of Henry Ford, and Father Coughlin’s fascist doctrine in the 1930s, producerism fused with antisemitic attacks against “parasitic” Jews. Producerism, with its baggage of prejudice, remains today the most common populist narrative on the right, and it facilitates the use of demonization and scapegoating as political tools.
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Demonization and Scapegoating
Demonization of an enemy often begins with marginalization, the ideological process in which targeted individuals or groups are placed outside the circle of wholesome mainstream society through political propaganda and age-old prejudice. This creates an us–them or good–bad dynamic of dualism, which acknowledges no complexity or nuance and forecloses meaningful civil debate or practical political compromise.
The next step is objectification or dehumanization, the process of negatively labeling a person or group of people so they become perceived more as objects than as real people. Dehumanization often is associated with the belief that a particular group of people is inferior or threatening.
The final step is demonization; the person or group is framed as totally malevolent, sinful, and evil. It is easier to rationalize stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, scapegoating and even violence against those who are dehumanized or demonized.
In The Origin of Satan, Elaine Pagels points out that today,
Many religious people who no longer believe in Satan, along with countless others who do not identify with any religious tradition, nevertheless are influenced by this cultural legacy whenever they perceive social and political conflict in terms of the forces of good contending against the forces of evil in the world.3
Scapegoating in the form of the ritualized transference and expulsion of evil is a familiar theme across centuries and cultures
We use the term scapegoating to describe the social process whereby the hostility and grievances of an angry, frustrated group are directed away from the real causes of a social problem onto a target group demonized as malevolent wrongdoers. The scapegoat bears the blame, while the scapegoaters feel a sense of righteousness and increased unity.
The social problem may be real or imaginary, the grievances legitimate or illegitimate, and members of the targeted group may be wholly innocent or partly culpable. What matters is that the scapegoats are wrongfully stereotyped as all sharing the same negative trait, or are singled out for blame while other major culprits are let off the hook.4
Scapegoating often targets socially disempowered or marginalized groups. At the same time, the scapegoat is often portrayed as powerful or privileged. In this way, scapegoating feeds on people’s anger about their own disempowerment, but diverts this anger away from the real systems of power and oppression.
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Conspiracism is a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames the enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm. Like other forms of scapegoating, conspiracism often, though not always, targets oppressed or stigmatized groups.
In many cases, conspiracism uses coded language to mask ethnic or racial bigotry, for example, attacking the Federal Reserve in ways that evoke common stereotypes about “Jewish bankers.” Far-right groups have often used such conspiracy theories as an opening wedge for more explicit hate ideology.
On a local level, Herman Sinaiko observes, “The most decent and modest communities have people in their midst who are prone to scapegoating and who see the world as run by conspiracies. A healthy community is organized in a way that controls them and suppresses their tendencies.”5
Conspiracism differs in several ways from legitimate efforts to expose secret plots.
First, the conspiracist worldview assigns tiny cabals of evildoers a superhuman power to control events; it regards such plots as the major motor of history. Conspiracism blames individualized and subjective forces for political, economic, and social problems rather than analyzing conflict in terms of systems, institutions, and structures of power.
Second, conspiracism tends to frame social conflict in terms of a transcendent struggle between Good and Evil that reflects the influence of the apocalyptic paradigm.
Third, in its efforts to trace all wrongdoing to one vast plot, conspiracism plays fast and loose with the facts. While conspiracy theorists often start with a grain of truth and “document” their claims exhaustively, they make leaps of logic in analyzing evidence, such as seeing guilt by association or treating allegations as proven fact.
According to Damian Thompson:
Richard Hofstadter was right to emphasise the startling affinities between the paranoid style and apocalyptic belief—the demonisation of opponents, the sense of time running out, and so on. But he stopped short of making a more direct connection between the two. He did not consider the possibility that the paranoia he identified actually derived from apocalyptic belief.5
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Apocalyptic Narratives and Millennial Visions
The poisoned fruit of conspiracist scapegoating is baked into the American apple pie, and its ingredients include destructive versions of apocalyptic fears and millennialist expectations. This is true whether we are studying Christian-based right-wing movements consciously influenced by biblical prophecy, or more secularized right-wing movements for which Bible-based apocalypticism and millennialism have faded into unconscious—yet still influential—metaphors.
Apocalypticism—the anticipation of a righteous struggle against evil conspiracies—has influenced social and political movements throughout U.S. history.6
Early Christian settlers saw America as a battlefield for a prophetic struggle between good and evil. Starting in the 1620s, witch hunts swept New England for a century. Many of the insurgent colonists who brought about the American Revolution invoked apocalyptic and millennial themes, as did the Antimasons and Jacksonians who denounced banks in the 1830s.
Apocalypticism infused the evangelical Protestant revival that contributed to the Ku Klux Klan’s rise in the 1920s and influenced both fascist and nonfascist rightists during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Today, apocalypticism remains a central narrative in our nation’s religious, secular, political, and cultural discourse.
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1 Canovan, Margaret. 1981. Populism, pp. 289, 293, 294; Canovan notes that there are “a great many interconnections” among her seven forms of populism, and that “many phenomena—perhaps most—belong in more than one category.” She adds that “given the contradictions” between some of the categories, “none could ever satisfy all the conditions at once.”
2 Kazin, Michael. 1995. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. See also Harrison, Trevor. (1995). Of Passionate Intensity: Right-Wing Populism and the Reform Party of Canada.
3 Pagels, Origin of Satan, p. 182.
4 See Allport, Nature of Prejudice, pp. 243–260; Girard, Scapegoat.
5 Damian Thompson, End of Time, p. 307. Hofstadter, “Paranoid Style in American Politics,” pp. 37–38.
6 The word apocalypse comes from the Greek, “apokalypsis” which means unveiling hidden information or revealing secret knowledge concerning unfolding human events. The word “revelation” is another way to translate the idea of apokalypsis. Thus, the words “apocalypse,” “revelation,” and “prophecy” are closely related. Prophets, by definition, are apocalyptic. See LaHaye, Revelation, p. 9.