Leo Lowenthal & The American Agitator

by Tedd Siegel

THE AGITATOR, BY CURT QUERNER, 1931

If you walk away, walk away
I walk away, walk away, I will follow, I will follow. — U2

The occasion for this realization was the strange family resemblance between “the Kingfish” and “the Donald” that I recognized, despite their obvious dissimilarities. Long was a populist Democrat from the deep south, and advocated redistribution of wealth, while Trump is a populist, Republican scion of the one percent crowd from New York City. What could be the common playbook? Was it the shared disagreeableness? The will to dominate others always on display? The childishness and lack of self-discipline? The constant appeal to the basest of human emotions? The name-calling and attacks upon the media? Or the complete disregard for moral, social and political norms?

In the prior post, I went on to recount the main points of the Huey Long story, from 1928 to 1935, doing my best to capture as much of Long’s political style–his schtick–as I could in just a few thousand words. I use the Yiddish word “schtick” here very deliberately; it better captures what I am getting at than “common playbook” because it contains the element of showmanship. It is my contention that Long and Trump share a set of political methods, a set of tricks, a common schtick, something important that I did not capture in my prior posts (the narcissist, the populist, the authoritarian predisposition).

the primary function of the agitator’s words is to release reactions of gratification or frustration, whose total effect is to make the audience subservient to his personal leadership — “only I can fix it,” he says.

Lowenthal as Agitational Analyst

In False Prophets, Lowenthal reviews a collection of the texts and tracts of political agitators that were active on the scene in the late 1930s through the mid-1940s. From what I can tell, Huey Long was not among them, although his sometime ally Father Coughlin is represented there. In looking at these strange (and strangely effective) political manifestos, the philosophically trained Lowenthal seeks in vain for rational concepts. The agitator must be a very specific type of advocate for social change, he muses. Normally, the advocate for social change points to the cause of some discontent. He proposes to defeat social groups held responsible for perpetuating the social condition that gives rise to the discontent. He promotes a movement capable of achieving this, and he proposes himself as its leader. So far so good…there is the discontent, the opponent, the movement, the leader. Lowenthal also points out that where the social change advocate can be either reform oriented or revolutionary, the agitator doesn’t fit into either of these categories, because he doesn’t attempt to make his case in rational concepts. Instead, he works to increase the disorientation of his audience by eliminating rational guideposts, and instead proposing that they adopt various spontaneous modes of behavior, in order to induce greater receptivity to his influence.

He is not a reformer type, Lowenthal writes. His grievances are not circumscribed, and he does not address himself to a distinct group — except for those he brands as enemies, every American is a potential follower. He does not fit in the revolutionary group either, since he is not challenging the basic social structure. He always suggests the elimination of people rather than a change in the political structure. The enemy is represented as acting directly on his victims without the intermediary of a social form like capitalism, as defined in social theory. Political changes are really just a means to an end: getting rid of enemies.

For instance, Lowenthal remarks, although agitational literature contains frequent references to unemployment, one cannot find in it a discussion of the economic causes of unemployment. When unemployment is of general concern, he grumbles about that; when the government institutes public works projects to relieve unemployment, he joins those who inveigh against boondoggling. The whole issue of causes recedes into the background, because the circuit the agitator seeks is the subjective feeling of dissatisfaction on the one hand, and on the other, the enemy who is responsible for it.
Where the energies of the reformer and the revolutionary are spent attempting to lift the audience’s ideas and emotions to a higher plane, the agitator uses his energy to exaggerate and intensify the irrational elements in the original complaint. So, where the social change advocate (both reformer and revolutionary) would sublimate the audience’s emotions into plans and works, the primary function of the agitator’s words is to release reactions of gratification or frustration whose total effect is to make the audience subservient to his personal leadership — “only I can fix it,” he says.

In the end, the agitator’s solutions are at once morally shocking and also facile, having the characteristics of daydreams. They are so, because real solutions to problems require something different and something more than mere permission to indulge in anticipatory fantasies in which the audience violently discharges their emotions against alleged enemies.

Social Malaise and the Catalog of Grievances

Whenever the “agitational analyst” scans the texts of agitation hoping to discover what is the discontent that it articulates, Lowenthal writes, he is consistently disappointed. Agitation always answers a question the analyst/investigator did not ask: whenever he asks what, agitation answers as if he had asked who. If the issue is economic, the reply is that there is too much help being extended to foreign nations, and that foreigners threaten our jobs, and anyway, an international banking conspiracy is to blame, blah, blah, blah. If this issue is political, the root is that tyrannical bureaucrats threaten us with dictatorship, or that international commitments are endangering American liberties. If the issue is cultural, it’s because Hollywood is run by the Jews. And so it goes.

When stripped of the specifics, Lowenthal sees a general set of appeals that play to emotions in the agitator’s catalog of grievances. First there is distrust: complex social phenomena that people don’t understand are easily subject to suspicion — in this regard the texts and tracts are strewn with words like “hoax” and “corrupt” and “duped” and “manipulate.” Next, there is dependence: the agitator’s appeals include the offer of leadership to people who feel otherwise helpless. There is also exclusion: central to the discontent identified by the agitator is the recognition that people are not getting what they would otherwise be entitled to receive. There is anxiety: the connection point between the agitator and his audience is a situation of pervasive fear and insecurity. Finally, there is disillusionment: the agitator plays up and enhances the sense of his audience that everything is characterized by sham, fraud, deception, dishonesty, falsehood, and hypocrisy. In the world of the agitator and his followers, values and ideals are weapons of the enemy, used to cover up the manner in which sinister powers take advantage of the masses, accomplishing their purposes under the cloak of universal values and ideals of justice.

Lowenthal takes all of these “emotional complexes” and gives them a name. He calls them “social malaise.” He points out that this sort of malaise first appears in Romantic literature and art in the 19th century; but in the 20th century, they became diffused into a general consciousness (we are all Werther or Pechorin now). While the overarching phenomenon of malaise is obviously rooted in various alienating conditions of modern life, the agitator does not try to diagnose the relationship of these symptoms to the underlying social situation. Instead, he attempts to bind them to it, leading them to seek relief by means of their irrational outbursts, since the agitator needs the permanency of social malaise to continue to command the attention of his followers. As Lowenthal writes, “malaise is like a skin disease…the more you scratch, the more it itches. The agitator says to keep scratching.”

The Generalization of Dupery

With this basic set of relations established, Lowenthal considers a deeper implication of the followers’ acceptance of the agitator’s hostile world. He has told them that they are taken in by hoaxes, and that they cannot escape their bewilderment on their own (remember, only he can fix it) and they agree. By calling them suckers, and telling them that they must follow him in order to no longer be cheated, he and they acknowledge their essential inferiority (I love the uneducated!).

Let me pause and say for the record that I take no pleasure in writing about this odd seduction, this perverse solidarity. At any prior time, I would have read this and passed over it without tarrying. However, over the last years I have seen and heard things that convince me that this is quite real. As Lowenthal writes, “Yes, they are suckers, but now they know it. And what is more, they do not have to be inhibited about their intellectual inferiority; they can admit it openly…their leader encourages them to do so.”

The next major point is this: since the dupe is cheated, systematically, consistently, and perpetually, there has to be a conspiracy. Lowenthal acknowledges that the sum of these fears can be a reasonable starting point for the analysis of economic and political situations. However, what is important here is that the agitator proceeds in the opposite way. He encourages these vague resentments, Lowenthal writes, not as a springboard for analysis, but as the analysis itself. The world is complicated (hostile) because there are groups whose purpose is to make it complicated.

Consistent with this general thematic (the world is hostile and the follower is a dupe) there is more to be said about disillusionment than what was mentioned previously. It was mentioned that an important part of the social malaise is a growing sense of disillusionment with ideas, values, and institutions. The agitator plays this sense of disillusionment like a fiddle, in a very peculiar way. On the one hand, Lowenthal writes, the agitator gives the impression that, like other advocates of social change, he is against certain conditions because they violate universally accepted values. On the other hand, he often concurs with, and reinforces his audience’s suspicions about those values.

What the agitator offers, it turns out, is his intimation that he will give them “emotional satisfactions that have been denied them.”

In such a context, the agitator transforms democracy from a system that guarantees minority rights into one that elevates persecution of minorities as somehow within the rights of the majority. Attempts to limit this right then become interpreted as the minority persecuting the majority. Lowenthal goes on to say that the same thing happens with religion, where Christianity becomes “an exclusive creed, a kind of tribal fetish, endowed with primitive attributes of clannishness and violence…the church becomes a tabloid version of the ecclesia militans” — in America, to pray and to fight become one and the same.

In the world of the American agitator, however, all of this is of no real concern. It is part of the backdrop of bewilderment afflicting the dupes, reflecting the essentially ruthless setup of the world; these are merely the symptoms of one big, overwhelming, elemental phenomenon (at once superhuman and subhuman).

The Ruthless Enemy and a Home for the Homeless

To this point, we have covered three of five major moments in the agitator’s essential bag of tricks. There is calling out the malaise, which finds its basis in the hostile world; there is the generalization of dupery; and there is the agitator as leader. Yet to cover is the agitator’s overarching account of the ruthless enemy, and his promise of deliverance (what Lowenthal calls a home for the homeless).

First a few comments on “the enemy.” Per Lowenthal, in agitation, defeat of the enemy is an end in itself, because the enemy is not simply a group that stands in the way of achieving some set of objectives. The enemy is rather “a quasi-biological force, a super-oppressor” and an alien body in society that has no productive function (inherently Un-American influences). Also, the enemy is undifferentiated. The agitator makes no effort to distinguish between different types or degrees (e.g., group differences like reform minded or revolutionary, extremist or mild). Nor does he particularly register differences in tactics — as Lowenthal writes, all are lumped together into an undifferentiated threat.

Most visibly, Lowenthal writes (and this is from the 1940s), the agitator fans the traditional American distrust of bureaucracy and centralization and interprets attempts to regulate big business as the first steps in the establishment of a dictatorship. He denounces immigrants, evoking “the image of the good old days, when aliens…were not busy working among the American people.” In addition, Lowenthal writes, “the refugee is the most fearsome version of the foreigner.”

The world as constructed by the agitator is a world in which the essence of human life is violent conflict, one which is present on all levels of human existence, and which is unavoidable.

What then, we must ask again, does the agitator really have to offer his followers? Lowenthal writes that “it may be conjectured that the followers find the agitator’s statements attractive not because he occasionally promises to maintain the American standard of living, or promises to provide a job for everyone.” What the agitator offers, it turns out, is his intimation that he will give them “emotional satisfactions that have been denied them.” Given the hostile and complicated world, and the intractability of the enemy, what the agitator offers is mostly circuses, and not bread. What they are offered is official permission to publicly discharge their primitive emotions, and an invitation to hit back at those who “direct history against them.”

Beyond the bad faith release of primitive emotions (much has been written elsewhere about Nazi spectacles in this regard) there is something else too. Since every pathological symptom is traced to some foreign agent or influence, one would expect to see something definite offered in contrast to the alien threat. Instead, per Lowenthal, we get vague statements like, “I challenge Americans to recommit themselves to America.” Since every issue involves a conflict between an in group and an out group, the agitator has difficulty assigning specific content to his nationalism. As a result, he comes to rely on purity, and he interprets patriotism as a call for what Lowenthal calls “endogamic seclusion.” I had to look this one up. Endogamic means pertaining to the custom of marrying only within the limits of one’s clan or tribe.

A Hostile World, Revisited

Before moving to my concluding section, there are some additional implications of the agitator’s “hostile world picture” that Lowenthal draws out that must still be noted. In the discussion of disillusionment, it was pointed out that the agitator always insists that ideas and ideals cannot be taken at face value, because they are “mere camouflage for the enemy’s will to survive.” This will to survive, Lowenthal says, “now becomes the agitator’s implicit frame of reference.” The agitator does not see the world in terms of a variety of more or less complex situations that are to be judged according to a set of differentiated ideas. Rather, the world is split between two irreconcilable camps, which therefore have no possibility of working out a solution acceptable to all, or “even a solution in which everyone will find a place.” By assimilating opposing human groups into what amounts to hostile biological species, Lowenthal writes, “the march of history relapses into the processes of nature.”

It is here that we find the essential world view that explains the overwhelming feeling that the American agitator is so thoroughly antithetical to democratic values, and in fact corrosive to values as such. In a world where all ethical issues are reduced to choosing which camp will ensure one’s survival, people are “neither guided nor inhibited by moral standards.” The world as constructed by the agitator is a world in which the essence of human life is violent conflict, one which is present on all levels of human existence, and which is unavoidable. In shifting the emphasis from a defense of ethical values as American values, to biological self-defense in the context of biological dog eat dog, the true meaning of “America First” comes into focus.

For the agitator’s followers, having bought into his devalued world view, the absence of a cogent analysis and a detailed set of plans is not a serious concern. America First is the promise that whatever there is, whatever is available, will at least fall into the right hands (the endogamic elite of white Christian Americans).

Huey Long, Donald Trump, & the Constants of American Agitation

I am not intending to suggest that this summary treatment of Leo Lowenthal’s figure of the American agitator can be overlaid with complete precision as a tracing of either The Kingfish or the Donald. Well, perhaps not with respect to Huey Long at any rate. In truth, there is no way to know, because he was cut down before he could challenge FDR for the Democratic presidential nomination. With respect to Trump, there are a set of distasteful dynamics that are described here with great insight that I believe must be grasped by opposition forces if the spell of Trump as agitator is to be broken in the near term.

Leo Lowenthal did not think that two-bit agitators of this type had much of a chance in America. In the introduction to False Prophets, Max Horkeimer, writing in the late 1940s, acknowledges that “American hatemongers are at present at a low point in influence and prestige” and says that the agitator should be studied nonetheless, “because of his potential effectiveness.” With respect to Lowenthal himself, in the section on “the enemy” there is a line that exposes the great distance between Lowenthal’s late 1940s American and our own, despite his astonishing timeliness throughout the rest of the work. Lowenthal declares, “In the United States today, there is no long established…anti-governmental tradition that the agitator can exploit…in the United States, there is no prevalent feeling among the masses that the government is not “theirs.””

If only it were still the case.

As I was fully willing to admit in the prior Huey Long part of this post, ineffective and/or corrupt politics, where masses of people feel completely disenfranchised, must be recognized as the fertile soil in which successful agitation can take root. But it also stands to reason that, given the sustained right-wing attack on American government over the last thirty years, a two-bit agitator with a billionaire’s bank roll might have more than just a chance.

Following the 2016 presidential election, people seemed to be saying these words repetitively — “clearly, we’re living in dark times.” indarktimes.com