When a Strongman Tries to Demoralize Reasonable Folks

When a Strongman Tries to Demoralize Reasonable Folks

So if you’re a reasonable person, you’re likely feeling a little—or a lot—down just now. I’m here to unwrap for you enough of the context behind why that’s happening, specifically how a particular–ahem–right-wing fascistic strongman has been working to try to make their opponents seem immoral and weak—to hopefully give you some oomph to get back up off that mat and keep working toward a healthier world for us all.

And let’s be clear—I first wanted to write this post last week, but I needed the processing time to get to this point. It’s okay to rest. Just please don’t quit.

In short, none of us can fix everything on our own, but if we keep all collectively doing what we can, we can absolutely come out in force and keep help making things better even in the midst of this dangerous, precarious election season in the US.

I have faith in that. Hang with me, and hopefully by the end of this you’ll have a little more faith in that too.

My Background and Standpoint

As always, I’m coming at this as a former pastor’s kid who went on to become a communication scholar studying and teaching about stress, trauma, and conflict communication.

The former is important because I grew up in a right-leaning moderate church that always was susceptible to fascistic takeover by Christian nationalism, and I’ve seen that accelerate since 2016 particularly. I talked about that here.

The latter is important because my academic discipline—communication—studies propaganda and fascistic rhetoric to try to prevent new Holocausts. We also teach an awful lot of students with communication apprehension, so studying stress and trauma and how that impacts our words and actions in the world is a natural fit.

In Which My Experience and Training Are Much Too Relevant

And believe you me, these lenses are so disturbingly valuable in decoding the current election season. So let’s get down to what I see right now.

Fascistic Thinking Is Impacting EVERYONE Right Now—Let’s Resist!

And let’s be clear: What I see are the combined effects of so many of the facets of fascistic rhetoric on EVERYONE. Not just the right wing.

In fact, today I want to focus on some context of how we on the left got so incredibly demoralized, especially in recent days, despite the fact that things have been gradually improving in a lot of ways over the last four years.

Looking Back to Resist Fascistic Messaging

Speaking of the last four years, can we just talk about how incredibly worse things would have been had the last presidential election not gone down the way it did?

Because SHEEESH. That would ABSOLUTELY have been SO MUCH WORSE.

Looking back at this is actually an act of resistance to fascistic rhetoric all on its own, so take a moment to do that, please. Fascism wants you to avoid looking at these kinds of historical comparisons.

Looking Back to Reclaim Our Agency Moving Forward

It wants you to feel so overwhelmed by the crises of the current moment that you feel there’s no chance the future can be brighter than it is right now.

So let’s fight that, please, shall we? And celebrate the HUGE WINS of the past 4, and also 8, years.

Because let’s be clear: in 2016 things looked dire. And yes, let’s be clear: some of what we feared then has absolutely come to pass.


We Still Have a Democracy—Let’s Keep Fighting for It!

But we’re still, 8 years later, living in an actual democracy.

A tenuous one, for sure, with a lot of disturbing erosions to that foundation.

But—and this is SUPER IMPORTANT—we’re still living in a place where we’re allowed to fight to keep and shore up that foundation so it’s stronger moving forward.

Of course, there is no way the former president should still be on the ballot, much less looking in any way viable in this race.

The Former President Has Been Playing Dirty Pool to Influence Perceptions

And yet, if you look at the fascistic rhetorical techniques that have been deployed lately, it makes total sense how this strongman candidate has been working to try to look viable.

Let’s be absolutely clear: these techniques are a huge part of why we’re all so tired and demoralized right now.

Understanding Why We’re Demoralized as a Window into Further Resistance

And if we understand the reasons they’re effective, hopefully we’ll all rise up together and say hell no, I’m not falling for that garbage and get back in the fight (or have more energy to keep fighting—or, you know, take a brief rest and then come back, as needed).

The Fascistic Rhetorical Goals

Here’s the biggest techniques I’ve been seeing: the strongman candidate (the former president) has been working his sources to try to make the current president look (1) weak, and (2) immoral.


The biggest result of these techniques has resulted in roughly a f*ckton of bothsidesism that is really really seductive, even to a lot of reasonable folks.

If you don’t know the term bothsidesism, this is the idea that both sides are about as bad as the other.

As someone in a right-leaning moderate church, as I’ve described before, I grew up with roughly several metric tons of bothsidesism in the air I breathed, which has been an odd sort of gift in recent years, because now I can see through it like nobody’s business.

Why We—and the “Mainstream Media”—Are Vulnerable to Bothsidesism

The thing is, it’s sneaky, the fascist rhetoric that bothsides things. And I can see how what the right loves to call the “mainstream media” can easily fall prey to the fascistic rhetoric techniques along these lines.

See, as a journalism minor in undergrad as well as someone with a media, narrative and society concentration in my PhD, I’m very aware that news organizations LOVE to look balanced in their news coverage.

Our Brains Tend to Look for Negative Stories—Which Isn’t Always Helpful

They also are vulnerable to some of the basic ways storytelling leans toward: in short, we tend to like to hear about the unexpected, the extreme.

And we tend to find good news a little boring at times.

That’s because our brains are wired to try to look for danger to keep ourselves safe. Which is all well and good except when our brains try to do this in unhelpful and misguided ways.

Fascism Unfortunately Loves to Exploit These Tendencies

As a result of these natural tendencies, it makes sense that both our brains and news organizations alike would, in the face of a big threat—say, the potential toppling of democracy by a grifter who seems to be shifting the system increasingly toward his own end to avoid being held accountable—look for dangers on our side of the aisle as well.

And fascism LOVES to exploit those natural flaws in news reporting as well as in our own brains.

Trying to Make the “Strongman” Look Stronger—And/or Make Everyone Else Want an Actual Strongman—Just Maybe a Different One

Let’s be clear: the purpose of bothsidesism, from the perspective of the practitioners of fascistic rhetoric, isn’t actually to make both sides seem the same.

It’s to make the “strongman” on the fascistic rhetoric side look STRONGER even while making reasonable people feel like it’s inevitable that the strongman will win.

And if people—read this carefully—are opposed to the strongman in question, unfortunately it makes them look down on their own candidate(s), hoping for another imaginary strongman character to arise on their side who could defeat the “strongman” opponent.

Trying to Induce Reasonable People to Despair

The goal of this technique is simple: to get the reasonable people to preemptively give up or flee or to fight each other rather than to exploit the fact that we’re STILL LIVING IN A DEMOCRACY NOW, and have every opportunity to keep fighting to keep it that way.

How the Right Has Been Playing Dirty Pool with Local News: Sinclair Broadcasting

A great example of some mostly behind the scenes work to make this happen has been reported on recently in a wide range of news sources, thank goodness—and that’s the news about how the right-wing Sinclair Media Syndicate has been using local news and social media to try to pick on Biden’s age, especially in the weeks leading up to the recent debate.

Now, I’m not saying that reasonable people shouldn’t have reasonable concerns about both candidates’ ages.

What I am saying is that there is an awful lot of evidence that a disproportionate number of propagandistic stories have aired on Sinclair stations that are highlighting and underscoring recent Republican talking points that have been exaggerating and even fabricating things about Biden that make him look much more off his game than he really is.

If you want to see specific examples of this, you can see some examples of the reporting on this tendency here at Mother Jones, here at Salon, here from Yahoo News, here from the Guardian, and some background from the Guardian here.

Soooo Important to Remember We Still Have the Freedom to Resist!

And again—just to highlight that democracy is still here and that we still have plenty of ability to fight to save it—these news sources who are reporting on these unhealthy tendencies in Sinclair are still allowed to report on this now.

That is so important to pay attention to.

Because despite the Supreme Court’s recent disturbing ruling on the former president’s supposed immunity, we still are living in a democracy. And despite all of his shadow “diplomacy” going on, HE IS NOT THE PRESIDENT NOW.

And if we all work together to defeat him, he won’t be come January either.

We Don’t Need a Perfect Candidate to Win This Election

And listen, I know how hard fascism is working to try to get you to look for our candidate to become some sort of perfect person.

That’s what fascism does, after all—tries to create the illusion that the “strongman” actually is strong and that you need some sort of superhero to defeat him.

All We Need to Do Is Keep Fighting and Get Out the Vote

But the truth is, we don’t need that at all. We just need to dig down deep and use our stress energy about this crisis to take action. To rise to the occasion.

We need to direct that stress energy at gathering together and each doing what we can to fight to maintain democracy.

So Important We Each Do What We Can

I know we’re all tired—we’re tired for incredibly good reasons—but here’s the thing: none of us has to do everything, including the representative we’re electing for offices up to and including president.

None of them—and none of us—need to be some sort of superhero to save the day.

Time—Once Again—to Continue to Fight for the Vulnerable

All we need is to be supremely human. And empathetic enough to think about the negative outcomes for a wide variety of vulnerable groups if we don’t work together to pull this off the best we can.

Because let’s be clear: this current administration is by no means perfect in helping various vulnerable groups. But they are doing quite a few things, actually.

So Important To Keep Our Senses of Perspective Here

What I do know is that the strongman would make things SO MUCH WORSE IN ALL CATEGORIES for all of those people. Every single one of them.

I’ve been saying for 8+ years that I would vote for a piece of moldy blue cheese over the former president, adding that I’m allergic to mold and don’t like blue cheese. And this is why.

Both Sides Are Simply Not the Same

The truth is that each of the sides is not remotely the same. And while I understand why the reasonable people are discouraged lately, I really hope those of us who can see through the lies that they are will find the strength to keep pointing that out.

Because d*mn, one thing is really really clear: we all need to keep pitching in here.

We Can Collectively Be Stronger Than the “Strongman”

See, the “strongman” himself is weak, but the techniques he’s been using CAN be effective. But only if they convince us collectively to give up.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t plan to now.

I hope you won’t either.

So Important to Build on Our Past Successes

Just a reminder: we’ve worked together effectively many times to make things as good as possible in the last 8 years. We haven’t collectively been able to stem the damage from everything, for sure—I mean, no one’s yet been able to single-handedly solve 2000 years of tragic history in the Middle East, for instance.

But things genuinely could be soooo much worse. Think about how things would have been if the #metoo movement hadn’t been followed by the Women’s March hadn’t been followed by record numbers of female candidates taking back the 2018 midterms. Or if we hadn’t pushed and taken back the Senate and the presidency in 2020.

It Still Is a Democracy—Which Means We All Have to Do Our Part to Keep It That Way

The thing is, in a democracy it’s not just up to the president to win this election, or to, king-like, have all the power to rule on their own, whoever they end up to be.  

Nope, in a democracy all of us can absolutely do our parts—big or small—where we are with what we’ve got, to do what we can to help use our voices and feet and actions to see what we can do to keep making the world a better place.

None of us can do everything, but everyone can do something—and hopefully that means that the most vulnerable and tired can be lifted by those who can keep working as they need more rest.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to keep speaking up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing!

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Venmo: @assertivespirituality

PayPal: https://www.paypal.com/donate/?hosted_button_id=Q2QWKELCNATBE

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