In 1932, as the Nazis surged towards electoral victory, the psychologist Wilhelm Reich explained what the German left were doing wrong. The communists hire a Berlin sports hall, he said, 3,000 jobless people turn up, and the speaker gives them a lecture on how bad unemployment is. A few days later the Nazis hire the same hall, a lot of the same audience are there, and Goebbels simply shouts: “Blood and honour!”.
The Nazis, in short, had a theory of the subconscious. The left did not. They understood that emotion can beat economics. And though today’s circumstances are radically different, there’s a danger that the US Democrats will lose the next presidential election for the same reason. Trump could win from jail. Trump could win after avoiding jail by turning any trial into a showcase for his increasingly fascist ideology.
Trump could win, even if Biden gains votes, simply by deluging four key states with a tsunami of irrationalism backed by money. He could win, fundamentally, because against all evidence, 75% of 2020 Republican voters believe he won last time.
That’s part one of the nightmare for western liberalism that could unfold in 2024. Unless something changes within the Republican Party, we would be looking at an ultra-isolationist project, an American walk-away from Nato and Ukraine, and the validation of every book-banning, vote-fixing project of the US right.
On both sides of the Atlantic, as I wrote last week, centrist politicians now understand that the threat to democracy requires a radical change in economic policy. Biden has set the pace, using technological protectionism against China to trigger a surge of investment in semiconductors and green energy, which is creating jobs. Europe too is finally grasping the fiscal and monetary levers it needs to use to achieve growth, energy security and technological sovereignty. With luck, the EU and USA will engage in a form of collaborative competition to save the west through state-directed growth.
But both Trump and Ron DeSantis have the power to blow this all away in December 2024 unless the US Democrats learn the basic lesson that Reich (who before he became an oddball was a cogent political thinker) was trying to teach.
The Biden administration has delivered jobs. It has delivered technology investment. It is motoring ahead on clean energy. Through a mixture of government-backed takeovers it has, for now, weathered a crisis in its regional banking sector.
But all this counts for nothing to voters who prefer “blood and honour” to the employment statistics. America is in the grip of irrational theories because large sections of the electorate want to believe those theories. They provide simple answers in a complex world. And, unlike in Wilhelm Reich’s day, the most vulnerable western country to irrationalism is not the weakest link but America – the supposed rock on which the western system is based.
So the Democrats need to translate economic success into a story that pulls the gut-strings of Americans so hard that the Trump/DeSantis anti-woke crusade becomes ineffective. The centre left can never follow the far right down the rabbit hole of irrationalism and lies. But an example from Reich’s day show’s what is possible.
If you’ve ever seen the “three arrows” graphic of antifascism, you’re looking at a symbol that the left-wing Russian scientist Sergei Chakhotin invented in 1932 to counter Hitler’s swastika. Though based on spontaneous graffiti, Chakhotin persuaded Germany’s social democrats to adopt it as an official symbol. He showed how doctrines, programmes, slogans and symbols act together to communicate in the era of mass political psychology. But for weeks he was told by left wing parliamentarians “we don’t do graffiti”.
To stop the catastrophe of a Republican victory in 2024, the American left and centre left need the full suite of solutions: doctrine, programme, slogan, symbol. Chakhotin wrote that there are only two defences to far-right hate propaganda: ridicule and suppression. I’m in favour of both.
But, he said, the positive counter-message has to be visceral as well as rational. The first Biden campaign re-election video has the gloss of viscerality – the threat of another January 6, the images of Biden on the stump with workers – but it’s content-lite. I wouldn’t know what its slogan is from watching it, or what the systemic change it wants to enact.
The so-called “upper left quadrant problem” – where voter analysis shows the main US electoral battlefield is voters with conservative views on society but progressive views on economics – demands the US Democrats start constructing an argument about what actually could “make America great again”.
It means refusing to talk about what the far right wants to talk about, and instead turning the palpable economic achievements of Biden’s CHIPS and Inflation Reduction Acts into a belief-system that ordinary voters can identify with.
Biden’s decision to stand again is a gamble, because of his age and declining communicative powers. If he fails to pull it off, the entire collective west will likely fragment. To do that he’s got to deliver not just jobs and growth but American self-belief.