Rise of the Trash Talkers

Vitriolic political rhetoric is eroding the world's two biggest democracies.

Anti-beef protesters in India are thriving.

Photographer: Hindustan Times/Getty Images

In the guise of hyperpatriotism, trash talk has gone mainstream in the world’s two biggest democracies. Donald Trump, the leading candidate in Republican primaries, set a new low in public discourse by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.” The Hindu nationalist chief minister of one of India’s richest states recently underscored the deterioration in India’s political culture by declaring Muslims could only live in the country if they stopped eating beef.

One hopes that a dignified retort of the kind that defused the menace of McCarthyism -- “Have you no decency, sir?” -- terminates this season of demagogues. But public support for them suggests that a disturbingly broad assault is under way on democratic values -- indeed, on civility itself.

People foaming at the mouth with hate and malice have become a common sight on both traditional and social media. Mobs in India and mass shooters in America have thrived in this climate of irrationalism. Many people, it seems, can think only in the categories of friends and foes, group loyalty or treason; their preference for abuse kills all possibilities of reasoned debate.

In its absence, conspiracy theories and downright lies abound, and even gain wide credence. India’s public sphere today has multiple indigenous versions of the myth that “Obama is a Muslim.” The malign falsehoods are stoked by the most modern technologies of communications and organization. In fact, a strikingly large number of Indians with technical and scientific training man the armies of the new irrationalists.

It’s true that many of these practitioners of the paranoid style in politics feel threatened in a world of uneven and unstable economic growth. The faith in a better future has generally frayed in the last decade.

But material interests and economic grievances don’t fully explain the adoration of brute power among even the well-educated. We must pay more attention to the deeper psycho-political dynamic at work, especially in modernizing countries like India. 

Economic uncertainty and mass culture bring about a fundamental shift in age-old patterns of individual growth and development. For instance, the father who is perennially insecure in his role as the economic guarantor of his family also ceases to represent paternal authority to his children.

The sociologists associated with the Frankfurt School claimed that the breakdown of traditional family-based authority had unleashed the “authoritarian personality” -- an immature individual exceptionally vulnerable to the rousing cliches of tub-thumpers, and prone also to vicious outbursts of his own.

For these sociologists, the “loosening of self-control” was closely related to “psychological weakening.” India’s public sphere today seems full of these unmoored, “half-educated” individuals who have skipped life processes that nurture the capacity for mature reflection and autonomous decision-making. Urbanization and technology offer them opportunities for self-expression while exposing their confused and isolated selves to severe pressures for social conformity.

Mass media, popular culture and demagogues fulfill and manipulate their childlike need for psychological dependency, and fill up their imaginative lives with a range of virtual enemies: immigrants, Muslims, liberals, unbelievers, beef-eaters, the media, and most recently in India, literary writers and actors with Muslim names.

Confronted with an opaque world, the underdeveloped ego populates it with his own projections: weird histories involving large-scale treachery. It also dreams into being a dragon-slaying leader. 

Uninhibited strongmen like Trump come to embody in magnified form the aspired-after virtues of their psychologically weakened followers. Identification with the big loudmouth offers the pleasure of narcissism to the little man. Politics for him turns into a gratifying slaughter of civilized conventions -- a relief from his persistent sense of failure and smallness.

The problem for the rest of us is that the leader onto which he projects his lurid fantasy of power is very unlikely to break his creepily codependent relationship with his devotees. That’s why rational considerations, economic or political, haven’t made Trump tone down his rhetoric or convinced Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to confront his more radical supporters.

The larger consequences of a routinized venomousness in public life are incalculable. Compared to the battered dams of moral restraint, the legislative dysfunction in India and America today seems harmless.

For the trash-talkers aren’t only destroying the middle ground where compromise -- the mainstay of democracy -- is found. They’re tearing away what Edmund Burke called the “decent drapery” of civil life -- that which makes “power gentle and obedience liberal,” and helps citizens of even nondemocratic states look dignified to their own selves. Political cultures, a delicate web of relations among human beings and between citizens and governments, aren’t known to recover easily from such a frenzy of hate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Pankaj Mishra at

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    Nisid Hajari at

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