In the episode called “Patterns Of Force” on the original Star Trek series, the Enterprise crew beams down to a planet that is modeled after Nazi Germany, complete with swastikas and “heil Hitler” type salutes. When they hear the supposed charismatic leader (who actually is being controlled by others) deliver an oration to rouse the rabble, Spock comments that the speech really makes no sense; it’s just a string of ideological soundbites — which nonetheless have the effect of stirring their hearers to carry out the ideology’s nefarious agenda. This aptly epitomizes the nature and the effect of emotionalizing, the next in our series of propaganda props.
If Spock was surprised to discover the vacuity of the Fuhrer’s rhetoric, then he was unduly naive. Ideologically charged rhetoric seldom if ever sounds rational. It’s not supposed to. Indeed, the less sense it makes, the more likely it is that the audience will take the bait — provided it’s delivered in an emotionally charged style.
It makes no sense, for instance, to characterize a campaign against gay marriage as a “defense of marriage” because it’s trying to do just the opposite — i.e., make marriage inaccessible for certain individuals. But that’s exactly how the crusaders frame it, and their supporters buy it.
Likewise, Republican efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election were branded as an attempt to protect “election integrity” by eliminating “fraud”. They actually did exactly the opposite. But the frenzied MAGA cultists who howled to “Stop the steal”, while in fact supporting an attempted heist, didn’t bother with getting the facts or rationally analyzing the cockamamie conspiracy theories they were swallowing. They didn’t need to — they had powerful feelings about the topic, so they just “knew” they were in the right.
The gist of the matter is simple, obvious, and unsurprising: emotionalizing bypasses reason, and tempts the brain like a drug to join in the chorus. There are chiefly five emotional responses that propagandists employ to make their message strike home and stick:
When Frank Sinatra was a rising young star, his savvy publicist hired teenage girls to scream and swoon at his concerts. Before long, other girls were screaming and swooning, without being paid. It was a very successful experiment demonstrating the contagious power of zealotry.
If you’ve ever watched an old-fashioned fire and brimstone preacher deliver a sermon, you’ve surely noticed that he (they are almost always male) doesn’t exactly declaim in a calm, rational tone of voice with charts and diagrams. Instead, he rants and raves and howls and growls, and bangs his fist on the podium, and thumps the Bible and at times has a convincing quiver in his voice. And the congregation really gets into it to a much greater extent than they would have otherwise.
And this style of oratory has been copied quite effectively by political and media demagogues, who tend to shout rather than discuss. They’ve learned that anything that conveys enthusiasm in themselves whips up enthusiasm in their audience. This includes tone of voice, confrontation, and physical gestures and props like red caps, swastikas, heil salutes, chants and catchy slogans.
One surefire way to generate and maintain zeal is by stoking anger. You don’t have anything to be angry about, you say? Well, guess what: it doesn’t matter. Demagogues and their followers who traffic in rage seldom have anything to be angry about, either. In fact, the better off people are, the more prone to self-righteous rage they tend to be.
It would be perfectly understandable for African-Americans or Native Americans or Asian-Americans to be angry about the persecution, oppression and violence they have endured. But the biggest displays of rage you see are from white nationalists, who are convinced that they are the most oppressed group of all — because that’s what they have been told to believe.
There is a tsunami of outrage on cable TV for one simple reason: outrage sells. For right-wingers, anger is the default mode rather than a state reserved for occasions when circumstances warrant. Accordingly, they consider it vital to maintain under all circumstances and in all arenas the narrative that they are oppressed, marginalized and persecuted. (One typical right-wing propaganda site is revealingly called 100 Percent Fed Up.)
There is often a thin line between anger and hate, especially if you’re talking about perpetual anger. The rage many times is directed toward certain specific targets — e.g., Muslims, gays, immigrants, atheists, socialists, and above all, “liberals” — who are the objects of the hate, and whose existence is cited as a justification for ire.
Among liberals, hate is generally aimed toward specific individuals who actually have done something to earn it. Among conservatives/ right-wingers, hate is more likely to be directed toward demographic groups such as those mentioned; and the hate they feel for specific individuals is based on the fact that those individuals are perceived as representing one or more of those groups.
Nowadays, that hatred is generally camouflaged as something else that sounds more noble — at least to the True Believers. Hatred of brown-skinned foreigners is packaged as “protecting our borders”. Hatred of gays is packaged as concern over “family values”. These code words are sometimes referred to as “dog whistles”, a very appropriate label. Not everyone hears the real tone embedded in them, but those for whom they are intended certainly do.
When people hate without good cause, it’s generally because they fear something. The thing is, the represented fear and the actual fear are usually not the same. When confronted with the presence of demographic groups such as those mentioned above, reactionaries always experience the same fear: i.e., the fear of being exposed to people who are different from themselves.
But this is not the fear they present to the world in an effort to persuade others to validate and feed into the hatred. Instead, they manufacture fears: immigrants will bring crime and disease, gays will destroy marriage, Muslims will commit terrorism, atheists will outlaw religion, socialists will take your home and your car. Scapegoating, of course, is an essential component of this fearmongering.
In general, propagandists package fear as a warning that if X happens, then Y will result — or more accurately, if A happens, then Z will result — since there tends to be a huge gulf or no connection at all between the proposed cause and effect. If you legalize gay marriage, people will marry camels and computers. If you tax the rich, they will take their business elsewhere. If you vote for Obama, he will take away your guns. And so on.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t publicize genuine threats or advocate due concern over them. It has become very common among right-wing polemicists to downplay the risks of real threats like climate change and COVID-19, and to proclaim that fears about them are being overly hyped. The irony is that in trying to accuse others of fearmongering about genuine dangers, they themselves are fearmongering about the supposed existence and dominance of a vast conspiracy between scientists, the media, and the chimerical “deep state”.
The above four emotions are the most forceful ones, and they’re the ones that are exhibited in both the manipulator and those being manipulated. But even if a propagandist does not display those traits (at least not overtly) he or she still can go a long way with the more subtle emotion of (ersatz) earnestness.
Ronald Reagan was a master of this. While seemingly a good-natured avuncular Mr. Rogers type of character who did not raise his voice or burst into histrionics, and did not seem to harbor blatant hate, fear, or anger toward anyone, he nonetheless was able to shepherd his admirers into displaying those strong responses by the power of his seeming earnestness about what he was saying. He had an uncommon gift for lying his ass off and appearing to believe what he was selling with every fiber of his being.
There’s an old saying floating around in The Gipper’s former profession of show biz: “The key to success is sincerity; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Well, he was very good at faking sincerity. And so are, to a lesser extent, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. (Beck made a shtick of actually working himself into tears — apparently with the aid of some kind of eye irritant.)
As for the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant, his skill in faking sincerity must be gauged as very low on the scale, way down in the negative numbers, if it is evaluated according how to believable he sounds (or doesn’t). His phoniness and blatant machinations are so painfully, comically obvious that you’d never expect a single person to fall for them. And yet, if you judge by the extent to which people believe him anyway, then he must be reckoned a phenomenally successful bullshitter — which says more about the gullibility and naivete of his followers than it does about his acumen. People like this get where they are by convincing their fans that they really care about them — while in reality they only care about their own bottom line.
So those are the primary emotional responses that propagandists exhibit/ provoke. But there are a couple of important points to remember that may have occurred to you already. First, these responses do not operate in a vacuum. They frequently appear in various combinations — and of course in conjunction with other propaganda techniques. The other thing is that there is nothing inherently bad about any of these emotions; they all can be quite well founded and healthy, and can be used for constructive ends. Yes, even hate.
But quite often, these emotions are exhibited and/or drummed up in a very hollow and artificial fashion, simply for the purpose of manipulation. And if you are reasonably informed and alert, it really isn’t hard to tell the difference.