What are the Tools of Fear?
A collection of pages on PublicEye.org
by Chip Berlet
The tools of fear are a connected constellation of frames, narratives, and processes used by demagogues to mobilize resentment and undermine the democratic process
The basic dynamics remain the same no matter the ideological leanings of the demonizers or the identity of their targets. Meanwhile, our ability to resolve disputes through civic debate and compromise is hobbled. It is the combination of demagogic demonization and widespread scapegoating that is so dangerous. In such circumstances, angry allegations can quickly turn into apocalyptic aggression and violence targeting scapegoated groups.
In the United States the tools of fear tap into a long tradition social and political movements swept up in apocalyptic expectation. Right-wing pundits demonize scapegoated groups and individuals in our society, implying that it is urgent to stop them from wrecking the nation. Some angry people in the audience already believe conspiracy theories in which the same scapegoats are portrayed as subversive, destructive, or evil. Add in aggressive apocalyptic ideas that suggest time is running out and quick action mandatory and you have a perfect storm of mobilized resentment threatening to rain bigotry and violence across the United States.
Modern conspiracism in the united States is rooted in bigotry, especially antisemitism and racism. Conspiracy theories encourage demonization and scapegoating of blameless persons and groups—distracting society and would-be agents of change away from the real causes of social and economic injustice. It’s practiced by demagogues on the Right and on the Left—and both inside and outside the corridors of power.
What Richard Hofstadter famously described as the “paranoid style” in American political rhetoric can quickly move far beyond the conscious intent of those who practice it. People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes act on those irrational beliefs, and this has concrete consequences in the real world.
Dualism is a metaframe, through which people see the world divided into the forces of good and evil. Manichaeism gave dualism a boost into Christianity.
Richard Hofstadter noted that the “fundamentalist mind…is essentially Manichean.” Anthony and Robbins coined the term “exemplary dualism” to describe a hyperbolic form of dualism in which “contemporary sociopolitical or socioreligious forces are transmogrified into absolute contrast categories embodying moral, eschatological, and cosmic polarities upon which hinge the millennial destiny of humankind.”
They find this in “totalist” religious and ideological movements “with highly dualistic worldviews” and “an absolutist apocalyptic outlook” where members cast a “projection of negativity and rejected elements of self onto ideologically designated scapegoats.”
Demonization is a process through which people target individuals or groups as the embodiment of evil. This involves a sequence of denigration, dehumanization, and demonization, which results in generating hatred of the objectified target. One way to do this is to claim that the demonized scapegoat is plotting against the public good. This often involves demagogic appeals. With demagoguery, followers must see the movement leader as charismatic, or the performance is easily interpreted as buffoonery. Demagoguery has been used historically not only by populists to denounce corrupt elites, but also by government officials to justify political repression—in both instances based on fears of conspiracies by real and imaginary subversive elements.
Scapegoating is a process by which a person or group of people are wrongfully stereotyped as sharing negative traits and are singled out for blame for causing societal problems, while the primary source of the problem (if it is real rather than imaginary) is overlooked or absolved of blame. It is easier to get people to scapegoat if the target is demonized.
Apocalyptic Aggression: The merger of conspiracism with apocalypticism often generates aggressive forms of dualism. Apocalyptic Aggression occurs when demonized scapegoats are targeted as enemies of the “common good,” a dynamic that can lead to discrimination and attacks.
Conspiracism is a narrative form of scapegoating that portrays an enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good. Conspiracism assigns tiny cabals of evildoers a superhuman power to control events, frames social conflict as part of a transcendent struggle between Good and Evil, and makes leaps of logic, such as guilt by association, in analyzing evidence.
Conspiracists often employ common fallacies of logic in analyzing factual evidence to assert connections, causality, and intent that are frequently unlikely or nonexistent. As a distinct narrative form of scapegoating, conspiracism uses demonization to justify constructing the scapegoats as wholly evil while reconstructing the scapegoater as a hero.
See Also: Demagogues
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