Cults, Lies and Sadopopulism

8 mins read
Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Creative Commons:

Mindy asked me these questions about Trump’s Town Hall yesterday: 

Her questions assume that the GOP wants the same form of government we want. Her questions assume that the truth matters to the GOP.

They don’t, and it doesn’t. Sociologist Max Weber explains why.

In his essay, Politics as Vocation, he describes three sources of authority:

  • Traditional (monarchy)
  • Charismatic leader (fascism) Today we’d say “cult leader” or “demagogue.”
  • Rule of law (democracy)

Rule of law requires a shared truth or ‘factuality.’ Fascism or demagoguery is based on myth, and can only exist if it destroys factuality. So fascism (leadership cult) is always trying to destroy truth. 

Here’s the part that is hard for people to grasp: The GOP doesn’t want a democracy. They want fascism. They’re trying to destroy truth. That, of course, explains Fox, Trump, and the GOP. They are actively trying to undermine factuality. 

They’re not goofing when they lie.

“But wait!” people say. “Fascism is un-American!” That depends on how you look at our history.

Yes, the founders set up a democracy based on rule of law. Yes, Hamilton warned against demagogues. But in the system they created, relatively few white men held all the power. So you see, we have both in our national DNA.

As democracy has expanded to include minority communities, a lot of people don’t like it. They want to go back to the way things were. That’s literally what MAGA means. Go backward. To go back, they have to dismantle much of the federal government.

Trump promises to do that.

Moreover, democracy is grinding work. A lot of people don’t like it. Checks and balances and division of power mean that change happens slowly.  Democracy requires give and take and compromise. Some people hate that, especially when they are compromising with people they don’t think should be in power in the first place.

An autocrat has a lot of appeal: He can bring about swift changes. He doesn’t have to compromise.

Dismantling the federal government put in place since the New Deal (largely to create fairness and to allow democracy to expand) can either be done slowly, or with a wrecking ball. Trump is a human wrecking ball. 

I think they might be embarrassed when he can’t answer a simple question and sounds like a moron, but they won’t speak out because the alternative for them is worse. (If you missed the town hall, the transcript is here.)

I don’t think he misunderstood. He honestly doesn’t think there is a race problem. In his answer to this question, MAGA people will hear truth.

Barr said the same thing when he said yes, Blacks are treated differently in the criminal justice system, but there is no racism.

Here’s how I understand these comments: Trump and Barr believe in a hierarchy. They believe white men naturally inhabit the top and Blacks are naturally inferior. So, in their view, if Blacks don’t have it as well, that’s because of nature, not racism.

On the other hand, in their view, anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action are racist because they focus on race. They think such laws are unfair to whites, infringe “liberty,” and tampers with the natural order. Trump is aware of anti-discrimination laws because he’s gotten in trouble for breaking them. 

Trump avoided talking about making America great “again” for blacks. Essentially he answered the question by saying, “Why are Blacks complaining? Look how much better it is now.”

Yeah, I know. Facepalm. But it makes sense to people who believe nature naturally forms a hierarchy, and white men belong at the top. This is what the GOP believes, so this town hall will not change their views. 

Mindy also asked whether anyone believes Trump’s blatant lies. One of the lies Trump told in the Town Hall was that he has a health care plan to replace the ACA. It was clear he was lying.

Then, today, Press Secretary McEnany said this:

I don’t think she expects anyone to believe this lie. The lie serves a few purposes. It signals to Trump supporters what they’re supposed to say, it wears out the fact checkers, and enrages and discourages Trump critics.

She knows there is no health plan. GOP leaders, who don’t want a health plan, know there isn’t one. Trump supporters, who care about other things more, don’t care if there isn’t one. The lie is a weapon against democracy: Lies destroy, and the point is to destroy.

Sadopopulism Again

This brings us back to sadopopulism.

It’s how oligarchs and would-be oligarchs use pain to stay in power. Fairness presidents find ways to help the citizens better their lives. Hierarchy presidents can’t because they want to maintain the hierarchy.

Sadopopulist leaders follow a simple formula:

  • identify an “enemy”
  • enact policies that create pain in their own supporters
  • blame the pain on the “enemies”
  • present themselves as the strongmen who can fight and defeat the enemies. They govern by creating pain and manipulating fear.

The pain-creation has two purposes. The policies enrich them. (Like tax cuts for the rich, letting people die of a virus while pumping money to their own corporations, and dealing in hydrocarbons.) The policies create pain, which they manipulate by fanning fear.

This comes from thinking that they are higher in the hierarchy. They believe that policies that help people and are designed to create fairness (like universal health care and andi-discrimination laws) benefit the undeserving people below them, which means they’ll rise up and challenge their superior place.Trump tells his supporters that they are tough and self-reliant and don’t need “welfare” because they’re superior to the needy and weak people who do. They love him because he tells them they’re the top of the hierarchy.

And they think they are. 

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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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