|A movement pulled in two directions?|
My two previous posts mentioned that Steve Bannon’s Values Voters Summit speech used polarizing rhetoric. I promised to explain polarized rhetoric.
Polarized rhetoric pushes listeners to get out of the middle and pick a side. Although radical speakers often use polarization, it is unusual for powerful people to use it. Instead, powerful people use power to get their way, which, in turn, requires consensus-building. During his speech, Bannon identified himself with the alt-right, a loose collection of extreme right-wing groups that include the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, Richard Spencer’s neo-Nazi movement, certain militia groups, and various others. Although Bannon tried to deny it, these groups all advocate white supremacy. Bannon managed Donald Trump’s campaign during its successful closing months, and served in the White House until his presence became too controversial. Yet, Bannon’s polarized speaking style has not equipped him to lead.
As we will recall from my earlier post, Bannon used war metaphors to describe his conflict with the Republican establishment. Bannon cited Ecclesiastes: “a time of war and a time of peace.” He continued: “this is not my war. This is our war. And ya’ll didn’t start it. The Republican establishment started it.” He specifically attacked Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and Bob Corker for not sufficiently supporting President Trump’s agenda. Corker had criticized Trump’s White House as “adult day care.”
When people of good will disagree with one another, they might debate, dispute, argue, or yell at one another. They might compromise. When people are at war, however, they try to destroy one another. By declaring war against the Republican establishment, Bannon signified that he was not trying to make deals: his goal, which the cheering crowd apparently shared, was to destroy them. We now have two opposite sides, with conservatives forced to choose one or the other. This is polarization, and it is exactly the effect that radical agitators try to create.
In their excellent book, The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control, John Waite Bowers and Donovan Ochs explain that agitation occurs when people who are outside of the power centers work to get major changes that the established authorities resist. Agitation takes five steps:
Step One is “Petition of the establishment.” This is when reasoned persuasion takes place.
|Steve Bannon, WH|
If petition fails, Step Two is “Promulgation,” when the movement spreads its views. This has been going on for years in the conservative movement, notably among extreme conservatives such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Richard Spencer, and, yes, Steve Bannon. Right-wing websites like Breitbart.com, Before It’s News, or Gateway Pundit developed and spread a body of doctrine. For the most part, people of other points of view paid no attention at all to these information sources, so the growing discontent and the arguments that the agitators were making surprised them.
Step Three is “Solidification.” Here, the agitators partially disappear from public view while they further develop their doctrines and persuasive methods.
Step Four is “Polarization.” If the movement has not yet succeeded, then a major effort is made to force people to choose sides. Polarizing rhetoric does not try to get a majority. It tries to force people to choose sides, so that people who side with the radical rhetorician will be extremely committed. Name-calling, insults, and so forth are common tactics. Donald Trump’s name-calling (“Crooked Hillary” or “Little Marco”) was typical.
Step Five is “Escalation/confrontation.” This is where the radical makes unreasonable demands, tries to create disruptions, or behaves offensively. This stage's purpose is to increase polarization. Frustrated by the demands of leadership, Bannon’s speech was starting this stage by, for example, trying to expel insufficiently motivated conservatives like Corker and McConnell.
The next two stages, steps six and seven, involve increasing violence. It is, sadly, possible that we will reach that point. (Was Charlottesville a start?) Remember that the anti-Vietnam war movement often became violent.
What Bannon did not seem to grasp is that his revolution has succeeded. Donald Trump won the presidency and very conservative Republicans control Congress. Nevertheless, President Trump’s populist agenda does not seem to be worked out well enough that he can implement it. Congress is reluctant to approve radical new laws unless the president exercises far more leadership than what Mr. Trump exerts. Here we run into a basic problem that Bannon failed to understand: once you win, you need to lead. Once you are elected, you are no longer an outsider; you are now the establishment. Repeal and replace Obamacare? But replace it with what? No one seems to know! Implement tax reform to help the middle-class? But what kind of tax reform? The one-time agitators do not seem to have a plan.
While polarizing their hearts out, right-wing agitators have, in recent years, often announced that they are co-opting the ideas in radical left-wing organizer Saul Alinsky’s book Rules for Radicals. They don’t seem to have read the whole book. Alinsky explains: “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” It is not enough to win; you also need a plan for victory. President Trump should be able to get any legislation that he wants, but he needs to work with Congress to present constructive, detailed ideas. This requires much different skills from those of a polarizing persuader. I noted in my previous posts that Bannon spoke about values, but never said what his values are. This is the larger problem: Bannon and Trump knew how to win, and wisely identified legitimate discontents that troubled Republican voters, but they have no plan to solve those discontents. Radicals need to polarize to win, but they need consensus to lead.