The real battleground of 2024 is emotion
A conversation with historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat about why the authoritarian right is so deft at playing to feeling -- and why pro-democracy leaders must catch up
Aspiring autocrats have one thing going for them: they understand the politics of passion; they know how to make people feel. As the journalist Roger Cohen said in an interview with The Ink last year, “The appeal of nationalism, of scapegoating, and of identifying an enemy is very powerful. It creates a tribal form of allegiance and it gets the blood up.”
One of the unresolved questions of the era is whether pro-democracy leaders and movements can, in their own way, “get the blood up.” Can those who defend the rule of law and pluralism and economic justice and human rights not only articulate those ideas but also appeal to the more basic human needs to belong, to have anxieties soothed, to have fears answered, to feel hope, or just to feel something at the end of bleak and tedious days?
One of the strange dynamics of the Trump era is that, as the right has become, more and more, a movement of passion more than reason, of emotional appeal more than policy solutions, the political left has, as if to be symmetrical, drifted the other way.
Today’s electoral left is highly cerebral. It is suspicious of the politics of passion. It doesn’t do emotional appeals. It doesn’t have much of a role for music, for the body, for in-person communing in public spaces, for catchy slogans, for arresting visuals. The more Trump becomes a carnival barker, the more it seems leaders on the left embrace coming across like the inoffensive heads of state one sees in many European capitals — people who are working very hard not to be interesting, who seem to associate life force in politics with danger. Today’s left seeks to appeal to human beings through a small sliver of all the ways in which human beings take in the world.
If this were an age defined by big policy questions and little else, that would be one thing. But it is an age defined by Big Feelings. By anxiety and fear and future dread and a great confusion among millions of people about who they will be on the far side of head-spinning change. By the emotional crises of men unsettled by a future of gender equality, and of white people unsettled by a future of racial equality, and of young people who know deep down that their parents love them but wonder why they have left them a burning, doomed planet. By the dour vibes of people who know that, on paper, the economy is good, but who cannot shake the feeling that the American dream is a lie. All around us, people are lost, not sure how to make sense of their place in a world of upheaval. In an era such as this, leaving the politics of emotion, of passion, to aspiring autocrats is a dangerous abdication.
Which is why I wanted to talk to Ruth Ben-Ghiat this week. A professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, and the author of the Lucid newsletter and of the book Strongmen, Ben-Ghiat is an expert on how autocrats build power, why people come to support (and feel for!) them, and how societies have resisted and emerged from authoritarian rule. We talked about why it’s been difficult to get Americans to come together to defend democracy, why pro-democracy leaders are so suspicious of the politics of passion, and what history tells us about defeating autocratic forces.
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How do you account for the lack of a pro-democracy movement in the United States, given the very real stakes that people seem to agree on?
Perhaps it shouldn't be this way, but it comes from lack of experience facing a national, state, and local authoritarian threat of this magnitude. Of course we’ve had plenty of experience in our country fighting repression, and I've been a bit puzzled why the lessons of the civil rights movement are not being featured more.
But I think that the idea of a pro-democracy movement — the way that foreign countries conceive of it — is a little bit alien at the national level in America.
Obviously, there are a bunch of sub-movements that are strong: Black Lives Matter, a resurgent labor movement that's winning victory after victory. Why do these somehow fail to coalesce?
I think about this a lot. Versus Poland or Chile, we are a huge, huge country. There are small pro-democracy movements inside the states, but to scale that up nationally is quite difficult, given the size of the United States.
The other problem is the bipartisan system. In the cases I'm looking at, recent elections internationally, we had a whole spate of victories against sitting autocrats or far-right populist parties. The winning formula — and this goes back to Chile, which I wrote about for The Atlantic in September — is that you have a wide coalition and all the parties come together. For example, in Italy in 2019, all the other parties, even though they didn't like each other, banded together and maneuvered so that Matteo Salvini of the League party couldn't become prime minister.
But we don’t have all these parties. And the Liz Cheneys, the Adam Kinzingers, the Mitt Romneys, these people who perhaps no longer see themselves in the Republican Party, they don't seem to be talking about banding together in this emergency and voting Democrat. They have nowhere to go. There’s a fossilization, an intractable character to our system, which is not helpful right now.
What would an actual pro-democracy movement, adequate to the task, look like in the U.S.? And what would it take to build?
Strongmen specialize in finding weaknesses, loopholes in our democratic system and exploiting them. So the first order of resistance is suing against voter repression and protecting democracy; that shores up the existing system. But that defensive stance is not enough. It's not enough to be anti-Trump. To get people mobilized at a national level, and get them excited, you have to have positive content. And we should have that in principles of foundational justice, principles of multiracial democracy, equity, social justice, climate justice, solidarity.
And that connects very well with the resurgent labor movement. And our civil rights heritage. I feel like we have all the pieces there. We have all the values, and in some cases, as in the labor movement, they've translated into successes.
Now, we know we can do it, because in 2017 more than 400 organizations came together for the Women's March. There was a huge umbrella constructed, and that's what made that march the largest movement up until its time in history, to be surpassed only by the Black Lives Matter movement. So we have the numbers, we have the interest. We are part of this global renaissance of nonviolent protests that's happening now. But the pieces are not coming together.
Do we not actually care about this as much as we say we care?
I think people care. Some people are very engaged locally, and, as we know, with the precinct strategy dreamed up by Steve Bannon, there are so many assaults on so many levels that people can only do maybe one or two things properly.
Then there is the question of whether it can become a regular ritual. That's what happened in Tel Aviv, with those giant protests, obviously pre-October 7th. And there are lots of lessons to be learned from those protests. Where they were sustained over a long period of time, they grew. And they involved what we call the pillars of society. You had CEOs, you even had Mossad — not the most progressive organization in the world — giving its employees time off to protest. So you had the buy-in. And so, every week, people came out. And it became a ritual.
Now Israel is a very, very social country. It's also tiny. So how do we construct something that would involve people here on a weekly basis? And where? The thing about small countries is that people can travel easily to the capital. Like in Poland recently; everyone converged on Warsaw. How would that work here? It's challenging.
Often it seems the left in this country takes things that should be inviting and joyous, and after processing them politically, makes them less fun, less joyous. And the right takes things that would be utterly dystopian for many, many people, and is able to build a fun, inviting, joyous movement. That inversion I find very puzzling. Can you talk about that?
Autocrats like Trump are able to use emotions. Now they're negative emotions, right? Grievance, fear, vengeance. But they're very good movement builders. And Trump is a movement builder. You’ve said this, too. (Clip below.) That’s really important.
Autocrats create these communities of belonging, these tribes. And in Trump's case, he even gave them apparel, he gave them slogans. This is what the fascists did. This is what Meloni's doing, the neo-fascist prime minister in Italy.
Liberal democrats have been afraid, in some ways, of passionate politics. And they also have a visual identity crisis. They don't have snappy slogans, they don't have snappy symbols and avatars, and visual icons. They need an update to excite people.
I don't know if it's just an update. It seems to me, many on the left, in America at least, really are not interested in the things you just mentioned, or even look down on them. Can you talk about why there is this contempt for what seems quite obviously useful in politics?