When Emotion Trumps Dispassionate Politics

The radical populist right’s appeal to emotions has been one of the main reasons for its staying power over the span of more than four decades.

© Yevgenij_D / Shutterstock

The triumph of Nazism in the years following the election of 1933 that brought Adolf Hitler to power represents arguably the greatest human catastrophe of the 20th century — a century rich in human catastrophes. Until today, historians, social scientists and writers, from Primo Levy to Jonathan Littell, the author of “Les Bienveillantes,” and filmmakers, from Claude Lanzmann to Stephen Spielberg, have tried to come to grips with the scope of monstrosity Nazism wrought across Europe within just a few years. What possessed Germans, the proverbial country of poets and thinkers such as Kant, Goethe and Einstein, and world-renowned composers such as Bach and Beethoven to follow a hollow pied piper without panache or substance?

One response to this question comes from the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. In 1934, he remarked that the Nazis “spoke deceptively, but to human beings,” while the communists “spoke the plain truth, but about things.” Or, as Al Gedicks, an American left-wing sociologist wrote some 70 years later, the left “appealed to materialist interests,” while the Nazis “appealed to deep emotional yearnings.” In a similar vein, Thomas Paxton has suggested that the evocation of “subterranean passions and emotions” via “the use of ritual, carefully stage-managed ceremonies, and intensely charged rhetoric” was central to the appeal of fascism in interwar Europe.

Curiously enough, given the central role of emotions in explaining the success of Nazi and fascist mass mobilization, there is little discussion of the mechanisms that link the two — emotional appeal and mass mobilization. More often than not, emotions are taken as a given, without necessitating explanation. Thus, Paxton observers that Hitler “played skillfully upon the resentments and fears of ordinary Germans, in incessant public meetings spiced up by uniformed strong-arm squads, the physical intimidation of enemies, the exhilaration of excited crowds and fevered harangues, and dramatic arrivals by airplane and fast, open Mercedeses.”

The second part of the observation leaves the reader in the dark as to the nature of the resentments and fears Hitler evoked and whether or not these emotions were reasonable.

Emotions and Mass Mobilization

Understanding the nature and role of emotions in political mobilization has taken on a new urgency with the dramatic upsurge in support for radical right-wing populism in recent years. Take the case of US President Donald Trump. As early as 2015, the American business and financial news website Business Insider noted that Trump “may be the most emotionally connected candidate in the 2016 race.” The article’s author, a successful “brand strategist” for major American corporations, went on to explain what accounted for Trump’s appeal. Trump, he noted, was “activating what in neurological terms are referred to as emotional triggers, which the brain uses to avoid the energy and difficulty of analytical thinking.”

Like all “great persuaders” Trump managed to “tap into the functions of the emotional brain, where decisions are made with great speed and intensity.”

In order to understand the logic behind these observations, it might be useful to refer to the field of advertising and marketing. After all, both the fascists of the interwar period and contemporary radical right-wing populist parties were and still are masters in political advertising and promoting both their “brand” and the vision of the world associated with it.

Studies on advertising generally distinguish between emotional and rational appeals, or what two prominent marketing professors — echoing Bloch’s observation cited above — have called the “appeal to the heart instead of the head.” The latter is based on the assumption “that consumers process information while making purchase decisions based on logical or/and utilitarian decisions.” The former, by contrast, “make the consumer feel good about the product by creating favorable brand associations. These brands work on feelings for effectiveness.”

Emotion and reason, the literature on advertising insists, represent two types of knowledge, both legitimate in their own way, both following their own logic. The former is “knowledge by acquaintance,” the latter “knowledge by description.” Knowledge by acquaintance represents an intuition-based “immediate and direct subjective experience which is ‘known’ as self evident.” By contrast, knowledge of description refers to “the sequential and analytic processing of information based on an appraisal of the environment.”

Knowledge by description is the result of a process of formal reasoning. Against that, emotional experience, the basis of knowledge by acquaintance, is typically “pre-reflexive,” visceral — meaning reflection is not essential to the experience. This does not mean, however, that evaluation is absent in the latter; on the contrary, emotions do involve “evaluative appraisals of their objects.” For instance, feeling disgusted leads to the conclusion that something is disgusting; experiencing fear results in the appraisal that something is fearsome.

Values engendered by emotional experiences, or so Jonathan Mitchell has recently maintained, “are thick (determinate) values, such as the disgusting, fearsome, admirable and sublime, rather than thin (determinable) values such as the good, bad or (dis)valuable.” This helps explain why the appeal to emotions has proven particularly effective for populist mobilization. The appeal to emotions not only appears to activate latent populist sentiments. As Kirk Hawkins and Levente Littvay write in “Contemporary US Populism in Comparative Perspective,” emotions also “may independently facilitate or catalize a populist framing of issues” such as migration, gender, climate change and global warming, multiculturalism and national identity, national sovereignty and globalization.

Empirical evidence suggests that populist attitudes and sentiments tend to be relatively widespread in any political system that claims to be a democracy. Most of the time, however, they remain latent and only appear to become salient when certain conditions are met: First, when politics gets suffused with a range of emotions provoked by large-scale socioeconomic, sociostructural and sociocultural disruption, and, second, when there are political actors capable of channeling diffuse emotions into purposeful political action.

Mabel Berezin has noted that emotions are “physical and expressive responses to some sort of destabilization.” On the individual level, instances of destabilization can be the passing away of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job, a severe illness. On the collective level, they might include severe economic depression, an epidemic or a lost war. Under certain conditions, instances of destabilization and dislocation engender radicalism. In general, radicalism entails “opposition against hegemonic sociopolitical systems or powerful people, organizations, and institutions in a particular context.”

Strong Associations

Fascism constituted one of the most extreme types of challenges to the hegemonic sociopolitical and sociocultural systems in the past. Contemporary radical right-wing populism plays a similar, yet significantly attenuated role. In both cases, a strong and relentless appeal to emotions features centrally in both political mobilization and garnering support for core ideational objectives. One of the most notorious examples of fascist appeal to emotions is a scene from the Nazi propaganda film, “Der ewige Jude” (“The Eternal Jew”). It shows rats emerging from a sewer, followed by a sequence showing Jews in a crowded street of the Lodz ghetto.

To drive home the point, the narrator explains that rats constitute the destructive element in the animal kingdom, just like Jews do among humanity. The sequence is designed to evoke strong emotions — particularly disgust and fear — but also to shore up determination to resist the threat, do something about it, such as do away with the vermin. As has been pointed out on numerous occasions, the film was meant to prepare the German public for the “final solution of the Jewish question.”

A contemporary example of radical right-wing populist appeal to emotions comes from Scandinavia and the Sweden Democrats’ appropriation of the notion of folkhemmet — people’s home. This is not to suggest that the Swedish populist right should be confounded with fascism, even if the party traces its roots to postwar white supremacism (nowadays disavowed). It is also not meant to imply that the party consciously adopted this notion — which, after all, originated with the Swedish social democratic left —because of its strong associations with productivism and eugenics.

Yet a well-known election campaign spot from 2010 (never shown on Swedish TV but popular on YouTube) suggests that the party’s recourse to folkhemmet is more than a walk down memory lane, a nostalgic trope designed to evoke the lost world of Astrid Lindgren’s children of Bullerby. The spot features an elderly woman, desperately clutching on to her rollator, in a race for survival — or so it seems — with burqa-clad women, apparently pushing baby carriages, both sides seeking to come in first and claim welfare benefits before they become exhausted. It is filmed in dark colors, accentuating an atmosphere of gloom and despair reminiscent of the noirish scenery of Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film “Brazil.”

The intended message is clear: This is how far we have come in Sweden that a native-born citizen, who presumably has worked all her life, has to compete with culturally alien migrants whose only claim to benefits is that they have produced children. In emotional terms, the spot seeks to evoke empathy for the elderly woman, resentment toward the migrant women, and anger and rage toward the impassioned Swedish welfare bureaucracy. In the years that followed, the Sweden Democrats surged in the polls, from 5.7% in 2010 to 17.5% in 2018.

The success of right-wing radicalism both in the interwar period and over the past few decades is to a large extent owed to its ability to appeal to a panoply of primarily negative emotions. The Sweden Democrats’ adoption of folkhemmet is a prime example. It appeals to nostalgia, which reflects a profound sense of loss. This leaves the question of under what conditions the appeal to emotions provides enough of an impetus for radical right-wing mobilization.

Modern Strain

One of the most promising answers comes from general strain theory, which has primarily been employed to explain criminal behavior. In recent years, however, its scope has been expanded to explain other instances of support for violent behavior, such as terrorism. The general strain theory predicts that support for extreme behavior — most notably terrorism — is “more likely when collective strain is experienced,” such as “perceived discrimination against a group one identifies with, feelings of injustice, or vicarious or direct trauma from war and civil strife.”

There can be no doubt that both the interwar period following the end of World War I and the past few decades caused enormous destabilization and strain, both individually and collectively. Erich Maria Remarque’s “Der Weg zurück” (“The Way Back”), George Grosz’s paintings, Alfred Döblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” bear witness to the enormous social, cultural and psychological dislocations impinging on individuals in the interwar period, in Germany as well as elsewhere in Europe.

On the collective level, grievances abound, from the shock of the lost war in Germany and the disintegration of the empire in Austria, from the less than satisfying postwar settlement in Italy to the anxieties provoked by the new Soviet regime. Under these circumstances, yearning for a strong leader, a deus ex machina capable of restoring order and national pride, was more than understandable.

The situation is perhaps less dramatic today. After all, in the West, war no longer appears to be a viable option — at least between “advanced liberal democracies.” Yet even in these countries, the strain impinging on both the individual and the collective has dramatically increased over the past few decades: secular macroeconomic and sociostructural changes, such as globalization, accelerated technological change, soaring inequality, demographic pressures — the list is long and getting longer.

Arguably even more important is the impact of profound sociocultural changes, such as the rapid and sharp decline in religiosity in recent decades; the pressures exerted by processes of individualization; the challenges to, and questioning of, collective identities in the wake of growing international migration and unabated cultural globalization.

Anger and Fear

All of these developments engender a strong and pronounced emotional response. Take, for instance, two headlines from The Atlantic, one of America’s most analytically perceptive magazines. In 2016, it featured an article on “Donald Trump and the Politics of Fear;” two years later, the focus has shifted to “Trump and the Politics of Anger.” Add to that a recent piece by Thomas B. Edsall in The New York Times commenting on Trump’s “knack for turning anger and fear into political power.”

And for good reasons: Fear and anger, together with resentment, nostalgia and hate, have been among the major emotions evoked by the contemporary radical populist right throughout advanced liberal democracies. From France to Australia, from the United States to Spain, right-wing populist entrepreneurs routinely invoke a slew of emotions as a means, as Hawkins’ and Littvay’s study of Trump’s appeal notes, to “facilitate or catalyze a populist framing of issues.”

Examples abound, from immigration (framed in terms of invasion and “the great replacement”); to gender (framed in terms of the destruction/annihilation of the traditional family, the destruction of Western civilization, even humanity itself); and climate change (framed, ironically enough, in terms of “elitist hysteria,” “climate hype” and “fear-mongering”).

The radical populist right’s appeal to emotions has been one of the main reasons for their staying power over the span of more than four decades. They have benefited from the reluctance of the established parties — and particularly of the left — to trade in emotions. As Karolina Wigura and Jarosław Kuisz write in The Guardian, all of them “fear that pandering to emotion plays the same game as populists. They prefer to calm feelings down or just steer clear of them.”

Unfortunately, this is a losing proposition. For whatever reasons, the present age has seen an upsurge in emotions, reflected, for instance, in the revival of patriotism, if not blatant nationalism, even in countries such as Germany, which for a long time — at least since 1945 — appeared immune to such sentiments. Germans were notorious in rejecting the notion that they were “proud to be Germans.”

Those who have devoted their academic careers to understanding the radical populist right are often asked how to effectively respond to the challenge. The answer is simple — and yet exceedingly difficult. An effective response to the radical populist right has to be grounded in a frank analysis of the conditions that provide the opportunities for right-wing populist mobilization. One is material. Much of the recent analysis of populism has focused on the “left behind.” And for good reason: Macrostructural change has had a profound sociostructural impact, which is hardly limited to the bottom rung of society. In fact, one of the most alarmist phenomena has been the gradual “erosion of the middle class,” even in countries with relatively advanced welfare states.

A central cause has been rising inequality, which has left those in the middle with the impression that they are treading water, if not falling behind, their status threatened. For much of the postwar period, inequality was held in check via policies that favored redistribution. Yet over the past several decades, governments independent of ideological couleur have done virtually nothing to rein in the structural dominance of financial and corporate power.

On the contrary: Waves of deregulation and tax reforms predominantly benefiting the rich not only strengthened corporate and financial power; they also chipped away at the last vestiges of the “relative autonomy of the state” with respect to its ability to compensate the losers of economic, and particularly technological, innovation. Hardly surprising that even portions of the middle class, left to their own devices, have succumbed to the siren calls of the radical populist right.

The other cause is cultural. The left in particular has to learn how to talk about identity, community, patriotism and the nation in a way that is constructive and inclusive, and provides a narrative of the possibility of a more just and equal world. Unfortunately, narratives of hope appear to have gone out of fashion. Yet without such a narrative, the established political parties, both center-left and center-right — such as the paradigmatic cases of the German SPD and CDU — will find it difficult to reverse their descent into relative irrelevance.

Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See his profile here.

© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

This post is also hosted by our partner organisation, Rantt Media, here.