By Michael Hoexter, Ph.D.
While describing the machinations of the Democratic Party Establishment creates an repellent vision of political scheming and ethical compromise, today’s Republican Party is a few qualitative steps more repellent, more reactionary, and at the same time simpler to describe. To compare and create a realistic vision of the current American political landscape, one has to be able to conceive of both “bad” and “worse”, i.e. degrees of moral compromise and turpitude in political (and social-economic) life.
With the re-mobilization of the anti-New Deal, anti-civil rights, anti-Communist Far Right following its crushing electoral defeat in the 1964 Republican Presidential Election (the aftermath of the Goldwater campaign) and the emergence of the New Right in the 1970’s, the Republican Party has been over a period of decades fully transformed into a party of open reactionaries and racists, determined to defend a couple centuries of sometimes ill-gotten gains and privilege of wealthy white European-origin people on the North American continent, with a massive propaganda campaign and gun-enabled domestic terrorism.
The initial impetus for the growth of the New Right was as a reaction to the social and political changes that we associate with the social and cultural movements, most importantly the civil rights movement, and legislative changes of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. While the base of the current right-wing was initial divided politically between Dixiecrat Democrats and business and money-oriented Republicans, largely racist, reactionary forces shifted their political allegiance in 1980’s and 1990’s almost completely over to the Republican Party, eventually sidelining the more staid Republican Establishment, including what were called “moderate” or even “liberal” Republicans. Now, led by Trump, the Republican Party is evolving into a somewhat disorganized neo-fascist white supremacist party, tending in terms of tactics to rely on stochastic terrorism to immobilize opposition, intent on grabbing all the political power it can, often in violation of the Constitution. Despite its tendency towards sociopathic, every-man-for-himself disorganization and stochastic methods of fighting for political, quasi-military goals, it unfortunately has to date been far more goal-oriented and well-organized than its Democratic opposition.
The GOP and its affiliated think-tanks, donor networks, and supporting media sources via a range of long-term strategies are driving towards a form of top-down hegemony over American society that may usurp much of American democracy for the benefit of plutocrats and large corporations, ostensibly in the name of a left-behind, older middle- and working-class suburban/rural, land-locked and Sunbelt white minority. Funded and sometimes led by deep-pocketed patrons, the right-wing has taken over large parts of legal academia and the judiciary, with no counter-hegemonic left forces of any description offering much resistance. The complete adoption of a neoliberal, market-oriented, individualistic, and meritocratic vision on the side of the Democrats and a refusal to embrace a solidaristic approach to politics and as a fundamental worldview has led Democrats to meekly accept the Republicans’ viewpoint on many issues of law and of economics.
The Democratic Party, as described in the first portion of this essay, has a diffuse, disorganized ideology and is, with its current leadership, seemingly slated or slates itself as a subsidiary or perennial loser Party to the Republicans, even as the Republicans seem to sink lower and lower in both general moral terms and in what they could, in terms of policy, offer the broad middle of American society. The Democratic Party elite actively undermines the formation of ideological coherence and unity in its own Party, smothering its electoral chances and policy initiatives internally. Both parties with a few exceptional policymakers mostly on the Democratic side and perhaps one or two on the Republican side, are complicit in the slide of American institutions towards oligarchy and fascism, though the GOP has been leading the charge.
Core Right-Wing/Republican Ideologies
There are at least four main ideological streams that have formed the Republican Party’s current ideology, which to varying degrees are either the passionate core beliefs or, in some individuals, feigned Trojan-Horse beliefs of a sociopathic, Machiavellian leadership. Trump is clearly the (current) exemplar of the sociopathy in political leadership: a life-long grifter, extreme narcissist, and bully who manipulates existing Republican belief systems for his own and his patrons’ benefit without much in the way of fixed beliefs in the intellectual content of those ideologies. Showing both signs of current senile dementia and lifelong intellectual limitedness, Trump nevertheless currently leads the Party via acting out and sometimes pandering to these ideological streams:
- Christian Evangelical Fundamentalism/Dominionism/Social Conservativism – This is probably the main binding ideology of a core cadre of the Republican Party and one of the most frightening. A large group of US evangelicals have become a loose-knit millenarian cult with dangerous beliefs about spurring “end times” scenarios via a blundering, pro-Israeli-militarist US foreign policy in the Middle East. Some evangelicals believe in preparing for the Second Coming and the Rapture, thereby derealizing the world, while others are “dominionists” that believe that they must take over the US government and turn it into a theocratic regime (these are two contradictory theologies) contrary to the US Constitution and republican order, that mandates separation of church and state. The strongest and largest base of the current Republican Party are white evangelical voters, though some of the evangelical base may eventually defect from the fanatical leadership, due in part to the real domestic devastations of climate change. Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo, among others, appear to be ensconced in evangelical thinking. The Trump Administration also has a strong alliance with a number of “prosperity gospel” preachers, who operate their churches like scam self-enrichment operations for themselves, with almost no connection in content to the historical teachings associated with the ancient Israelite preacher, Jesus Christ.
- Libertarianism/Market Fundamentalism/Small Government “Conservatism” – Attracting the more secular, business-oriented Republicans and right-wingers, libertarian/market-fetishizing beliefs have been promoted and sustained by wide circles of mainstream, sometimes politically liberal, academics and pundits, many of whom are funded by centimillionaire and billionaire donors. The dominant neoliberal ideology, shared by the current center-left and right wing, is of a piece with this strain of Republican ideology and is the bridgehead by which the secular center right and nominal neoliberal “left” do the bidding of the donor class. The high-flown abstract ideas propounded by some of the supposedly clever or deep-thinking intellectuals in this stream of discourse can be often boiled down to propertarianism, or defense of private property, and individual and corporate acquisitiveness to the point of hoarding the property and monetary gains of historical positions of privilege or lucky windfalls. The primary policy focus of this stream are tax cuts for the rich and corporations and pro-corporate anti-regulatory actions, reframed more recently, in the words of Steve Bannon as “Deconstruction of the Administrative State”.
- White Supremacism/Neo-Confederate Ideology/Racism/Xenophobia – The Republican Party now represents a core group of resentful white people from either the post-Confederate South or other parts of the country that want to re-establish or reinforce racial hierarchies and expel, continue to lord it over, segregate or commit genocide upon different “Others” including new immigrants. Some of the more extreme and passionate among these groups are now essentially neo-Nazis and some of these neo-Nazis in the form of deranged fanatics have turned to terrorism with the sanction of pro-gun elites and firearm manufacturers.
- Authoritarianism/Sadism/”Law of the Jungle”/Gun-Fetishism/Militarism – Not distinct from the above tendencies, Republicans have a belief in “law and order” where this means not consistent adherence to legal codes and due process but the imposition of “law of the jungle” by brute force or intimidation in which Republicans and their already privileged constitutency maintain privileges and privileged access to valuable property. There is a belief in the military as a “disciplining” instance upon new recruits, via exertion of brute force or threat of force against foreign enemies or against domestic unrest in situations of civil breakdown. Deep in this ideological stream is the (sadistic/masochistic) idea that inflicted and inflicting pain always have a salutary effect and furthermore can be enjoyed as a spectacle. Bullies, as has been the case with Trump, and other public sadists thus become heroes to authoritarians. An underlying belief system to authoritarianism is as follows:
- Nietzchean Belief In Übermenschen (super-people) – Underlying the authoritarian mind is an unconscious or semi-conscious belief in super-people, the idea that there is a class of people that are saviors or redeemers by reason of having enormous powers beyond typical human beings. Authoritarian followers endow the often-sociopathic leaders of their cults with these powers, explaining in part the multiple blindnesses of the followers for Trump’s legion of personal flaws and lack of values that contradict the values of some of his base.
- Gun-Enabled “Superpowers” – Trump (and before Trump other figures) is, in fantasy, also endowed by the authoritarian followers with these superpowers, sometimes shown in Photoshopped iconography as having an extraordinarily muscular physique or carrying weapons. In the United States, this fantasy is sometimes enacted in reality with often deadly consequences as being heavily armed with semi-automatic or automatic weapons, which, in this death-focused cosmology, is a more “democratic” way to become a “super-person”. This form of belief structure is not exclusive to the far right wing but it is more widespread there. The belief in Übermenschen “justifies” in the mind of authoritarians the human and environmental destruction and wastage that are encouraged by the right-wing; the imagined or real destruction (via running amok with guns) might be viewed as, in adult infantile thinking, “evidence” of the power and superiority of the super-people and those who worship them/follow them.
Passionate belief in any one of or a combination of these four sets of right-wing ideologies becomes the motivational core for activists and political leaders on the Right. Alternatively, and this is an important distinction, sociopathic individuals aspiring to leadership use others’ passionate beliefs in these to advance their own interests in wealth and power. In the latter category, the social psychologist Robert Altemeyer, has found that right-wing leaders tend towards sociopathy, so therefore do not often believe in the ideals of the movement but manipulate others who believe in them while they themselves simulate personal belief in their appearances and staged events. The internal tendencies towards corruption and perversions of their professed morality by right-wing leaders continue to support Altemeyer’s thesis that they are generally sociopaths or near-sociopaths, intent on grifting as well as seeking political power. Machiavellianism and sociopathy are related to each other, in that the former can be a controlled and coldly manipulative subgroup of the latter. The odd attachment of right-wing followers to their sociopathic and often-duplicitous leaders may lie in the followers’ needs to construct out of social reality and misperceive their leaders as Übermenschen a need apparently driven by perhaps their propensity to use their leaders as anxiety-relieving fetish objects in their internal psychologies. The lying, law-breaking leaders assert to their (timid, conventional) followers that they are “larger than life” by breaking laws and disregarding annoying social rules about truth-telling.
The word “Machiavellian” might as well have been formulated to describe both the operatives of the New Right that emerged in the 1970’s and increasingly for the entire leadership of the current Republican Party. Machiavellianism is a term from social, clinical and political psychology that describes a cold, calculating mindset that pursues narrow individual self-interest, often in violation of moral precepts. What unites the current somewhat diverse group of individual Machiavellians is an overwhelming sense of entitlement to power without regard for legal and institutional structures, seeing those structures as merely tools to, on occasion, use to accumulate more power for the already wealthy and powerful. A preponderance of Machiavellian people and political actions is antithetical to the continued functioning of democratic republicanism, as all important decisions are made and actions are taken outside the realm of public scrutiny and possible public control and moves are made in public view that push more and more important decisions into private control, usually of the wealthy and private corporations. These Machiavellians see themselves, as Corey Robin describes reactionary political thinkers since the French Revolution, as protectors of and advocates for a “better sort of people” who are entitled to regain past privileges lost, often via bloody conflict and suppression of the ‘lower orders’.
The modern Republican pursuit of political power by all and often innovative means available can be traced at least back to Richard Viguerie’s use of direct mail in the 1960’s and 1970’s to mobilize and fundraise off as a starting kernel the group of reactionaries that donated to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign. Charles Koch has been a key mastermind in engineering the evolution of the Republican Party into a ruthless far-right anti-regulatory, climate-denying party. Newt Gingrich is another key Machiavellian in the evolution of the Republican Party, contributing almost single-handedly to the destruction of bipartisan comity and consensus building.
What marks Viguerie, Koch, Gingrich and other activists is a commitment to an extreme anti-Communism and right-wing ideology, including to Christian evangelical ideas while at the same time being open to experiment with new technologies of communication, more open than their Democratic opponents, to further mobilize donors and voters as well as to demobilize by any means necessary perceived enemies or obstacles to their path to power.
Before Viguerie, born-multimillionaire, now fossil-fuel-multi-billionaire Charles Koch had already started a longer-term campaign to transform American political economy and educational system in order to make it a weapon to fight liberal reformers of the New Deal and the Great Society eras and thereafter. Koch drew inspiration from older reactionaries from a melange of pro-fascist, anti-New Deal operatives that gravitated to the Republican Party and rightward during the 1930’s. Koch’s father, Fred Koch, a virulent anti-Communist (after profiting handsomely off Stalin’s oil industry) and an early key backer of the paranoid anti-Communist John Birch Society, was also a strong political influence on the younger Koch. Charles Koch was also an early Birch Society member. Charles Koch founded among other institutions, the Cato Institute, a key libertarian thinktank that is still viewed by some as non-partisan.
Charles Koch was and is both a patron and canny mastermind of meta-political strategy, understanding as did the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, a fighter and intellectual for a very-much-opposed cause, that durable political power can be best achieved by achieving what Gramsci called “hegemony”, the creation of a widely-diffused cultural-political “common sense” within which political actors will more easily slide into positions of influence and power, and therefore more easily defeat opponents. Gramsci also made the critical distinction between a “war of position” and a “war of movement”, the former being more of what Koch has specialized in. Rather than baldly state his political program and ideology and organize around it, Koch used his eventual multi-billionaire fossil fuel wealth to create frameworks of academic and political discourse (a “war of position”) where politicians could refer to his extreme and unrealistic “libertarian” ideology as fact rather than as a contentious philosophical, political and ethical proposition. Koch’s hegemony-seeking approach was reinforced by his now recently-deceased brother David’s decisive defeat as a Libertarian Party Presidential candidate in 1980. Koch was thus confirmed in his belief (and his already existing patronage of intellectual work of right-wing economists like Friedrich Hayek and James Buchanan) that his ideology would need to be introduced in stages to the public through a longer-term strategy of patronage and positioning. Framed in this essay in Gramscian terms, Koch had formed a hegemonic (though anti-scientific) framework of belief, from which to infect a diversity of younger or unknowing minds.
Through the next three decades, Koch quietly built an intellectual and political machine that until the arrival of Trumpists, had developed an almost complete hegemony over the agenda of the Republican Party as regards fiscal and regulatory policy, with further reach outside the Republican Party into the now-bipartisan neoliberal ideology.
Koch, a fossil fuel multi-billionaire, one of the world’s richest men, has also been a major funder of climate denial/confusion, seeing his own pecuniary interests as somehow a firm basis for rejecting climate science, as supported by the fanciful neoliberal/libertarian economic pseudo-science he has helped engineer. Like most climate deniers, Koch perceives his own non-scientific economic philosophical views to be more important and fundamental than natural science data indicating a warming and destabilized climate due to carbon emissions. Koch has recently made sounds that he is reconsidering his climate denial but only after having done massive damage to the world’s ability to respond effectively to the climate challenge. Via a wide network of funding sources and political action groups, Koch has been able to exert massive influence over who gets elected in Republican-controlled areas of the country as well as exerting influence over “purple” areas and donating to (center-right, corruptible) Democrats as well .
While Koch is (or has been, if he in old age is experiencing some second thoughts) a malignant, highly destructive mastermind and works mostly behind the scenes, he and others have recruited an army of Machiavellian Republican politicians who have few scruples in pursuing power by biasing the political game in their favor. Gerrymandering and voter suppression are considered to be “commonsensical” and “legitimate” tools by these GOP operatives in pursuit of the twin goals of winning power and weakening their opposition, the Democratic Party.
The public sphere and media are so compromised by a neoliberal morality (that the pursuit of individual self-interest has priority over group, national or universal human self-interest) and advertiser dollars, that these efforts to bias the political game in favor of one party tend to be treated as “natural” and even laudable, rather than criminal vote-stealing and undermining of American democracy. The bias in media treatments is to not “rock the boat” or even stand back in awe, as the Republican Party steamrolls common morality and democratic norms. Neoliberalism has been until very recently completely hegemonic, a bedrock of the “common sense” of our age. Those few reporters or opposition politicians standing up for common morality, or trying to expose scandals based on violation of laws and rule breaking, go against the hidden Nietzschean current in the background assumptions of neoliberalism and, as mentioned above, in the authoritarian mind, that the wealthy and powerful are Übermenschen and are above the law.
Largely independent of Koch, another highly influential Machiavellian in the GOP is Newt Gingrich, who pioneered many of the hardball tactics that Republican legislators now use to stall the Democrats, pre-emptively attack, and counter-attack against a Democratic opposition that has little taste or apparently interest in aggressive tactics. Gingrich helped create a GOP that wasn’t afraid to be nasty, while the Democrats have continued to pine for the old days of comity among political elites and bipartisan courtesies. In tune with the neoliberal era that was founded on individual self-interest, Gingrich instilled narrow self-interest as a norm within Republican politics, driving out eventually the moderate wing of the Republican Party.
Gingrich’s tenure in the House and influence over younger generations of right-wing legislators has been one of the primary influences, along with masses of donor money over the current political configuration in the US Capitol building and in other political arenas: Republicans ruthlessly pursue their self-interests while Democrats style themselves, to a largely indifferent public, as the defenders of political comity between parties and of now bygone legislative norms. The Democrats nine times out of ten end up bowing to the Republicans, filled with “passionate intensity” in pursuit of their and their donors’s money-greed and power-greed.
Mitch McConnell openly parades a Machiavellian approach to politics, stymying Barack Obama’s efforts to appoint a Supreme Court judge and advertising to the public his categorical opposition to doing anything to help pass legislation that does not meet his own and the right-wing GOP’s narrow interests. While McConnell is prone to hide his manipulativeness behind a few pieties, his obvious glee in exerting power for very narrow and short-sighted self-interest and donor-class-interests speak to his motivations and lack of compunction in abandoning duty to broad national interests in favor of the interests of the rich and donors.
A more recently-emerged set of Machiavellians are the “alt-right” leaders and activists who are in essence neo-fascists for a media-soaked age. Figures before them like Gingrich have so normalized narrow self-interest and defiance of conventional morality (for instance, reciprocity) that the alt-right has made almost no effort to hide their self-interested manipulation of information and of others to gain political power. Steve Bannon is probably the most famous and still an influential alt-right figure, who talks openly of a neo-fascist world order that fights the encroachment of Islamic and other non-white European cultural-political groups. Bannon seems to be both convinced of his own beliefs and mission while at the same time willing to engage in almost any tactics to achieve power and political ends. Bannon’s political fall from grace, at least as regards the Trump Administration, seems to have come from him taking his ideology too seriously in an Administration that is mostly empty of deep commitment to any one set of beliefs, other than using varying admixtures of the four streams of Republican ideology as tools to gain power and money.
Rampant Sociopathy and a Gangster Society
As Altemeyer found, right-wing leaders tend to have strong sociopathic tendencies. Sociopathy or as it is called in the psychiatric profession’s diagnostic manual, Antisocial Personality Disorder, is a severe character disorder where a person has little or no empathy with others, lies without compunction, and often acts aggressively towards others in pursuit of their own narrow self-interest. Typical sociopaths are somewhat impulsive but there is a subset that is cool and manipulative, characteristics that are captured by the concept of Machiavellianism. These sociopaths who are also cool and manipulative are sometimes called psychopaths, a subset of sociopaths that have no conscience or remorse (non-psychopathic sociopaths have a weak conscience that doesn’t stop their often-impulsive law-breaking behavior).
Some psychologists attempt to describe evil in people via the “dark tetrad” which is the intersection of sociopathy, sadism, Machiavellianism, and pathological narcissism, sometimes called together shorthand as “malignant narcissism”. A disordered narcissism is at the core of all of these phenomena, in that to pursue any of the four legs of the tetrad assumes an overvaluation of the self, a lack of empathy with others, a low or purely instrumental value placed on the idea of a common humanity and no internalized conception of a common public interest.
Some sociopaths are street criminals, while some are con-men and -women from wide variety of social backgrounds who manipulate others via verbal and other tactics to get what they want. It can be argued that capitalism, especially loosely regulated capitalism, tends to reward sociopaths, especially from privileged or elite backgrounds, who can be found in many boardrooms and trading floors of stock exchanges, succeeding often by “making out for themselves,” bullying weaker or less fortunate others, and incidentally benefiting the gang-like corporations that are sometimes built around their self-seeking and victimization of the vulnerable. There are sociopaths at all levels of society but working class and poor sociopaths are often the ones who make up a substantial portion of prisoners in jails around the country. Privileged and wealthy sociopaths most often avoid punishment if they have committed punishable crimes.
While sociopathy is a diagnosis for individuals and describes an individual difference that is thought to exist in all societies, an emergent property of groups of sociopaths together is gangsterism, most recently historically dramatized by Mafia culture or the culture of street gangs. Gangsters, of course, are organized groups of human predators that prey on the society at large; they form criminal syndicates of varying sizes and complexities. Elaborate internal bonding rituals may be formed which emphasize a hierarchy of gangsters and loyalty to the criminal group above all else, defining themselves against “straight” society as a whole, as well as against established morality and law. The gangster group forms its own morality that is obeyed internally until broken by sometimes bloody or cruel acts vis-à-vis other members of the gang; the “bonds” formed between sociopaths are always fragile as self-interest and impulse can easily take over. Gangsters’ and sociopaths’ tendency towards authoritarian leadership structures is enacted, often on a symbolic but sometimes on a real level, in terms of bloody example-making of those who have dared to challenge leaders b . Coating that display of force and power are professions of “love”, sometimes felt as profoundly as these gangmembers can muster, tinged of course with fear.
There is much fascination in the “straight” world with gangster culture, which has become a staple of film and television drama, due in part to the pyrotechnics and action-orientation of their form of relationships with each other, as well as a general interest that culture-consumers have in cathartic release of their own aggressive impulses by vicarious viewing of aggressive acts in film/on video. Despite the dramatic attractions of depicting gangster culture in the arts, it is no laughing or entertaining matter when gangsterism is widespread as a reality in society or, even worse, gangsters take over parts of or the entire state apparatus.
While not caused by the ascension of Trump, who is both a symptom and now a malignant cause, the Trump-led Republican Party is becoming an openly gangster party and is in the process of transforming the U.S. federal government of which it runs two-and-a-half of the three branches, a deformed, ultra-corrupt gangster-led institution. Trump has made rhetorical and policy-oriented calls upon the gangster-like elements within the law-enforcement and military Establishments to reinforce their penchant for brutality and lawlessness, that were once mostly confined to imperialist war-making and subversion abroad. The emergent fascistic gangster-state, unfortunately, also holds the power of life and death over billions of people via its nuclear weapons stockpile and its encouragement of the mining of fossil fuels and other resources and the emitting more of the already massive amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases our society emits.
Differing Political Views of Sociopathy, Social Evil
Politics between the gangster right-wing and the weak Democratic opposition can also be couched in terms of their differing theories about where sociopathy and social “badness” comes from and what can be done about it. The right-wing selectively perceives and projects the idea of sociopathy and social ills onto the working class and poor, onto their political opponents (perceived liberals, socialists, Communists) as well as onto different-looking or culturally distinct “others”, i.e. supposed “outsiders” or Untermenschen (“under-people”) to their cultural worldview. They entertain dark fantasies about insidious inside/outside forces “infections” in the biologized body politic, often represented by groups like the Jews, gay people, Muslims or Sinti-Roma (“gypsies”). The right-wing tends towards a biologistic view of society, falling easily into a language of “blood” and biological pests and microbes as metaphors. There are deep paranoid tendencies on the right-wing, which lead to obsessions with “pollution” of society by different others, as well as hidden powerful forces and conspiracies, often of these inside/outside groups. Their political opponents are also the subject of paranoid projections of fears about infection and internal subversion, with the right-wing very quick to project onto their political opponents exactly their own criminal and corrupt activity, including subversion of the institutions of the republican or democratic state for their own pecuniary and power-oriented wishes. The metaphor of infection reinforces their sense of pure victimhood and partly self-chosen loss of personal agency, that includes an exoneration for any misdeeds and violent impulses they themselves harbor: they are simply “victims” of an “infection”, they are being “forced” to do evil.
One focus of right-wing-leaning news and politicians like Donald Trump is upon stories of poor people victimizing each other or victimizing or discomfiting wealthier or more comfortable people; the only solution that is suggested by this focus is stricter policing or expulsion/imprisonment of some of the “lower orders”.
The (real) Left on the other hand sees sociopathic behavior as emanating from socially-constructed systems run by privileged elites who may also be individual evil doers in their own rights. The emphasis on the Left is mostly on socially systemic ills as the cause of individual wrong-doing, though key powerful and wealthy actors may also be seen as villains, but villains mostly because of the systems of exploitation and oppression that they run.
The right-wing in its populist-fascist versions, also can focus on wealthy/powerful villains that may collude with the lower orders and are given often weird extraordinary powers or become the objects of wild projections of a perverse nature. The Clintons and Obama have been subjected to these often perverse projections by right-wing media sources, politicians, and political operatives. Sometimes those wealthy people who are supposedly behind the liberal-left are identified as Jewish or occasionally from another “outsider” group, leading to the tendency of right-wing populism towards anti-Semitism, even though the current Republican far right uses its support for the apartheid state of Israel and the minority of Jewish Republicans as a fig leaf to hide its tendency towards anti-Semitism. The difference between the fascist right-wing’s view of malignant elites and the left-wing’s is that the latter attribute the evil of elites to their running of evil systems that exploit others and ensnare society in a vicious cycle, not to inherent biologistic or personal characteristics, as does the fascist right wing.
The centrist pseudo-“left” represented now by the Democratic Establishment and affiliated media organizations tends to claim that both the Left’s view of systemic evil and the Right’s view of sociopathy are the same, reserving for themselves the idea that they are neutral and reliable guardians of the status quo and of political liberalism (i.e. the tradition of John Locke).
Lying, Propaganda and a Gaslit Nation
One of the features of sociopathy, of both con artists and those who tend towards street criminality, is pathological lying, i.e. the use of language as simply another tool to “get what I want now” without regard for the veracity of statements made. The personal capacity and propensity to lie effortlessly and endlessly plays into the the proto-fascist and fully-fascist right wing’s affinity for propaganda as a political tool, as the habitual use of propaganda can easily become an organized “group” form of lying to achieve political power.
A national and now global public sphere dominated by propaganda and counter-propaganda undermines the project of the Enlightenment and of political democracy which is one of the most praised but most endangered products of the now approximately five- or six-century-old Enlightenment. The construction of a public discourse based on lies goes even deeper and threatens the core of having a human society at all , that is itself based on the use of language and the trust that speakers generally mean what they say. Without reliable public information, peoples and leaders of government cannot make informed decisions about their future. As it turns out from a study of history and the various efforts to undermine public understanding, reliable public information in the last couple centuries has been a combined product of private collection of news and public information gathering by governments constrained by laws and by forms of democratic popular sovereignty. With the emergence of new information media, such as social media on the global Internet and mobile phone networks, propaganda purveyors that seek to concentrate political and economic power in new ways have gotten a head-start over more democratic forces in utilizing the new media of communication, as well as “gaming” the interaction of new and old media sources.
The concept of propaganda has its origins, after the invention of the printing press in the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, both of which used propaganda to proselytize their forms of Christian faith and fight each other both ideologically and on the battlefield, with lethal consequences. Its modern usage, however, has tended to focused on its uses by political movements and governments and in particular by totalitarian governments of the Right or the Left. While the US government has made extensive use of propaganda, especially in war-time, in the US there is a tendency to think of Communist Russia as a place where propaganda was the norm of communication by the government to the people and the world. Certainly under Communism, no private or community-based networks of information gathering and sharing were allowed, leading to vast distortions in how governments represented themselves to the people and to themselves. Fascist governments and military juntas have similarly used censorship to police journalism. Attributing propaganda mostly to the Left, to Communism as a system of government, or to post-Soviet Russia, is a way of “othering” propaganda that shields both the right wing and the United States government and private news oligopolies from fair and equal scrutiny.
In the 1920’s and 30’s, The proto-fascist and fascist right wing adopted propaganda and, in many ways, perfected it for use as a means to achieve political power for reactionary and militaristic ends, and as a supposed bulwark for the capitalist class and its allies against Communists also using propaganda and some rather minor insurrectionary means to achieve what they hoped would be a socialist or Communist revolution. Hitler, a frustrated artist, employed his imagination to construct with his propaganda ministries a mythical (militaristic/terrifying) world which he transmitted via painstakingly produced spectacle (such as the Nuremberg rallies) and propaganda efforts. In a capitalist society, fascist movements sometimes attract the interest of wealthy backers who fund or devote some of their resources to supporting fascist movements, especially when they feel that liberal elites have failed to protect or advance their interests sufficiently, in times of social breakup, economic crisis or transition. Hitler’s promise to the German aristocratic and capitalist elites was that he was the one political leader who could protect them from Communism, even as he was viewed as “vulgar” and mentally unbalanced by many in the German aristocracy.
Beyond its use by fascists and Communists, propaganda is used by governments and by political factions and, in the form of advertising and PR, by private corporations and wealthy individuals, to shape public opinion and public economic or political behavior in favor of wealthy or powerful interests. Societies at all levels of organization run on a constant flow of discourse, of signifiers generated by institutions and disseminated via various public and private media; propaganda is the instrumentalization of that (mostly one-way) flow of signs (written, visual, aural) for very specific goals prioritized as primary by the powerful or wealthy.
Propaganda means that the signifiers (the physical part of signs) sent out have no reliable relationship to the signifieds (the real world of things, events and abstract concepts); a means to establish a firm relationship between signifier and signified based on reality is intentionally severed or distracted from by the senders of propaganda. Propaganda has a parasitic relationship on what people already believe signifiers to mean (based on past experience) and uses it to persuade or trick them to believe in something (a signified) that is newly invented for some targeted political or commercial purpose. Not all propaganda is dishonest: one can self-consciously and transparently say that one is trying to persuade others, but this opens one up to discussions of “why” one is acting to persuade. Those with nefarious purposes do not what to discuss why they are trying to persuade others. Those who are using it honestly will say “yes, this is propaganda, an effort to persuade”. Clever usually more honest advertising, for instance, sometimes self-consciously plays on the fact that the message itself is an effort to persuade and is open about its propagandistic nature.
Hitler’s “Big Lie” strategy, used by Trump as well, builds directly on this feature of (non-transparent) propaganda: it is a trial balloon by a sociopathic leadership that the population and elite institutions like the media are ready to be fooled by the fascist leadership and be molded into a compliant followership. Propaganda is enabled by the ownership of means of dissemination, the ability to rent mass means of dissemination (advertising), the exploitation of privileged positions conferred by the owners of the means of dissemination (think of the free publicity garnered by Trump from a compliant media prior to his election), or, in the case of Internet/mobile phone-based social media, a privileged position in the hierarchy of peer-to-peer senders of signs.
Government regulations of both its own transmissions of signs and that of private senders (such as the Fairness Doctrine), when enforced, can limit the number of one-sided or largely fictional persuasive messages, i.e. propaganda, that can flood public discourse. However, the loosening of regulations can open the door, as it has with the pro-corporate 1987 elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in the United States, to profligate and open use of means of mass communication for the purposes of pro-corporate and government propaganda. When large sectors of the population get most of their information from propaganda-laced sources, they can no longer make informed decisions about either, on a relatively mundane level, product purchases or, as serious as, life and death political or existential decisions.
The core of the current climate of propaganda-based public communication has its origins mostly in unregulated large media corporations in the private sector colluding with right-wing political factions as well as, in turn, the media corporations co-shaping those factions to suit the wishes of billionaire owners of media conglomerates. With the loosening of regulations on media news content, media-Machiavellians like Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch formed, for instance, Fox News, a propaganda channel masquerading as a news source. Bringing content and an orientation previously confined to right-wing talk radio to the cable networks, Fox News was able to coat right-wing propaganda in a veil of news content and infotainment that were edited and tailored to support the right-wing ideology of Rupert Murdoch. More than radio talk, television provides images of real events, edited and tailored to fit narratives, which becomes more persuasive to the receiving public than simply the transmission of language via radio.
This is not to say that supposedly centrist or center-left media sources remained free of propaganda but have instead allowed their reputation as reliable news sources be increasingly compromised by both government bureaucracies and also political factions. Government sources and the militarist, neoconservative propagandists of permanent war close to the U.S. war machine have used the media for targeted propaganda efforts that have had dire consequences for democracy and for global peace and stability. The run-up to the Iraq War was aided by centrist media such as the New York Times endorsing, via for instance the reporting of Judith Miller, the false Bush Administration case for war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That the New York Times accepts advertising from defense contractors, as well as wants to maintain chummy “access” to government officials, probably has influenced their editorial attitude towards war and peace, in favor of war-making.
Beyond the Miller falsification or uncritical broadcast of government lying, centrist Establishment media exerts most often its propagandistic functions however in more subtle ways by creating zones of high status and zones of taboo in public discourse and reporting. The centrist Establishment media, led in the United States currently by the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN attempts to massage public discourse into an image and a political attitude that is comfortable for its wealthy owners and advertisers, while providing enough truthful reporting to inform and entertain their generally comfortable, educated middle- and upper-income readers/viewers.
However the structure of the mainstream media’s carefully curated public sphere is starting to wheeze and groan under the signs that systemic threats and systemic challenges are starting to create discomfort for the comfortable owners, editors, advertisers, and readers/viewers of those media. Ever vaster income inequality and the threat of climate catastrophe are exposing severe deficits in reporting and the opinion-shaping function of the media is switching into high gear to neutralize the threats. As an example of this there is now an escalating propagandistic campaign in the centrist media to downgrade and sideline Bernie Sanders as a potential contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, using various subtle and not so subtle means. An even more concerted effort was executed in Great Britain to sideline Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party he led, by a massive disinformation campaign in which the venerable Guardian and BBC were also willing participants; Labour’s recent major loss can in part be laid at the feet of elite editors, media owners and journalists, who propagandized non-stop against Corbyn.
The centrist, Establishment media is most adept at “soft” propaganda, or as described above, massaging the flow of information to more subtly support an Establishment, pro-corporate-advertiser message and side-lining/stigmatizing critical facts and views as “taboo” and not “respectable”. On the other hand, the Establishment media in the US has been in thrall to a “both sides” false balance format that has hid the radicalization of the Republican Party and the US far right wing from view. Thus what might have been viewed as “beyond the pale” has been rehabilitated as “respectable” by the centrist media Establishment, for instance giving Trump’s neofascism and mental derangement a “pass” because of at first his celebrity and then undue respect for the office of the Presidency. So the current Establishment media been been doing unpaid public relations for Trump and the GOP, despite some critical reportage in some pieces. Heather Digby Parton has recently traced this tendency back to the 1960’s when the media covered protests against the Vietnam War while under-covering the support for the War among those who were not engaged in colorful protests. Since then the Establishment, New York and Washington-based media has been hypersensitive to the Right wing’s “working the refs”, i.e. howls of protest, to claim that their voices represent the American majority.
The fascist right-wing however is several degrees more committed than the centrist Establishment media to propaganda and enshrouding society in a fog of lies, lies that favor their ascension to power and, for many of them, amassing wealth for them and the elites they protect and that fund them. While Establishment media and the centrist Dems use targeted propaganda efforts to reinforce zones of taboo and of privileged discourse, they have not generally engaged, except for in a few (very troubling) areas of foreign policy (such as in the Middle East and Latin America), in promoting a generalized sense of total submission to arbitrary authority. These observations don’t mean they are good or praiseworthy for being “not-fascists”. Ignoring the rise of domestic US fascism, some Left critics of US foreign policy have generally seemed to argue that “nothing could be worse” than the neocon imperialist system and tendency to engage in deadly and mostly pointless wars, fueled by a compliant or jingoistic media. In my view these critics of US foreign policy are narrowly correct on many of these issues but lack perspective on what domestic fascism is more and more looking like: a likely complete collapse of civil society and room to criticize, let alone change, any government policy, including foreign policy. US imperialism has been very bad but there is also the potential for worse, which we may be now approaching.
Trump, a lifelong sociopath, is also a pathological liar, having uttered more than 15,000 lies or false statements during his almost three years in office. While some of Trump’s false statements are due to his lack of conventional intelligence and a lack of studiousness about facts, they are mostly intentional lies to deceive the public, with Trump’s lack of knowledge simply a byproduct of his intention to gaslight others. “Gaslighting” is a slang word derived from a 1938 play and 1944 movie, in which a man deceives a woman to think she is going crazy by literally turning down the gaslights (old-fashioned lighting) in their home and tries to convince her she is imagining things. The male character in the movie is a con man trying to rob the female protagonist and “gaslighting” has come to be applied as a term for a technique in real-world scams. In the era of Trump, the concept has been revived, as it appears that Trump and the media sources upon which he relies create a flickering, uncertain view of reality, in which it is easier to deceive the public and also political opponents.
Trump and the right-wing of the GOP have been enabled to gaslight critical sectors of the nation using an array of right-wing media sources that have no problem in putting out false reports that favor the right. Rather than being the chief Machiavellian manipulator, Trump is apparently an instrument of Fox News, for instance, making up policy based on his Fox News-viewing habits, so it is not clear whether the owners of the media conglomerate or politicians and the donors they obedient to, are the central Machiavellian actors.
Trump’s extreme narcissism, which appears to be based on an extreme sensitivity to personal slight, plays a role in the use of gaslighting and deceiving others and apparently also sometimes himself. Trump’s narcissistic sensitivity is so extreme that he creates an alternative reality by talking and continually agitating as if the world is reflecting only his own grandiose sense of himself and his vision of reality that reinforces that sense of grandiose importance. Trump appears to be a megalomaniac, the extreme of narcissism. Trump seems to feel entitled to only positive media-reports about himself and his policies, criticizing even Fox News when they report unflattering news about him or about his policies. The Establishment media has also been cowed both by Trump and by the Republican Party, that, as mentioned above, knows how to “work the refs” to get more favorable or less unfavorable coverage.
The supposedly centrist and “critical of Trump” mainstream media has not responded well to Trump’s sense of entitlement to flattering coverage. The New York Times, among other media organizations, has since 2016 leaned right and hired columnists who are, if not Trumpist loyalists, at least partly agree with Trump and GOP policies. In general, the Times has tended to amplify Trump’s message despite forays into investigative journalism and critical stances that have angered Trump. The mainstream media appears to be locked into a position in which they feel obligated to do free public relations for people in power or in positions of extreme wealth; Trump and Republican has benefited from the supposedly “liberal” media’s gingerly treatment and lack of a stomach for a consistent muckraking, investigative stance vis-à-vis those in positions of political or economic power. The dependence on ad revenue and risk-averse corporate funding probably plays a role in placating rather than exposing the culture of falsehood on the Right.
The Trump Administration and GOP Congressional leadership have also targeted the data- and truth-reporting functions of the US federal government, seeking to distort or suppress reports on topics such as climate change that threaten their and their donors financial interests. Of course, the Environmental Protection Agency, long a bugbear of right-wing anti-regulators, is being decimated under the Trump Administration’s policies of hostile neglect and budget cuts. The Administration is attempting to gut, in addition, the science and analysis functions of the US Department of Agriculture by moving it to Kansas City, thereby losing two-thirds of a specialized scientific staff to attrition, unwillingness to uproot their families. Even such relatively neutral data-collection and reporting agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are being attacked by Trump and his loyalists. Trump’s hostility to science extends to nuclear physics as well, critical for successful nuclear arms negotiations. The stabilizing functions of government reporting of data and relatively unbiased analysis are being systematically cut out of public discourse as well as simply being destroyed, as simultaneously private media corporations are create a flickering, uncertain view of social and political reality. While not exactly the organized Nazi or Communist propaganda of the mid-20th Century, the perception of the public of reality is being manipulated by powerful political and corporate actors for private benefit, often serving the ultra-wealthy donor class or the political ambitions of the Machiavellians of the right-wing. The wavering view of reality creates opportunities for attacks by predatory actors to manipulate the public further and continue to outmaneuver an uncertain, intimidated opposition in a context and medium that is their preference: discourse and discursive rules (for determining truth or relevance) unmoored from fact and reality.
Goals of Right-wing Machiavellians Today
There is no single mastermind of the increasingly radical right Republican Party. A few years ago, it appeared that Charles Koch was largely in command but the lack of charisma of Koch-vetted and Koch-educated right-wing operatives meant that their use of propaganda via social media and conventional media was impaired. Trump brought a kind of brutal charismatic appeal to the fearful, bigoted Republican base and was and is an intuitively good user of various media to communicate with that base. Trump has a persona of being “the man on the street” that is more appealing and entertaining to crowds than the typically stiff fanatic right-wing politician from the South, West or Midwest.
But Trump, though he has some strong intuitive people-manipulating skills, lacks the intelligence and calculating ability to be a political mastermind. Recognizing semi-consciously that he is not capable of grand strategy, Trump is more than happy, as long as he receives a constant stream of adulation and money, to be a political front-man for an international class of billionaires and oligarchs with whom Trump wishes to do business privately as well as, corruptly, politically. Some of these oligarchs are foreign, including from Saudi Arabia and Russia, though many are domestic. Though he at times feigns having a moral purpose and center, Trump is fundamentally an amoral man that by virtue of having political power along with the GOP does fundamentally anti-moral actions.
The overarching common goals then of the collection of Machiavellians manipulating the Republican Party and public opinion then are to continue to build a kleptocratic oligarchy with or without the semblance of democracy and the democratic institutions that have, in part, governed the United States for past almost quarter millennium. Some of these Machiavellians are fairly short-sighted and are simply looking to accumulate still more money and property in the shortest time possible, using the levers of the political “game” to achieve these goals. Their motivation is simple greed.
Right-wing Machiavellians, many from the donor class itself and not politicians, are willing, as in the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s, to countenance the strutting and threats of (more and continued) violence inspired by a crude authoritarian leader, as a bulwark against radical reforms or even revolution that would reduce their power and wealth. The neoliberal era has so spoiled these activist members of the billionaire class, both US nationals and international, that they are happy to dispense with the liberal democracies in which they and their adult children have been educated and built their business empires or portfolios. Most in the billionaire class want to remain apolitical and are accepting of whatever political-economic system that allows them to continue their business, investing as well as looting as before, with democracy and liberal values viewed currently as dispensable or assumed to be permanent in neglect, despite signs they are in acute danger.