Why we see prominent political figures reverting back to scapegoating and demonization.

By Keren Binderman
08/13/2021 • 08:55 AM EST

In chaotic times, propaganda techniques like scapegoatingsee definition - placing unmerited blame on a person or group to channel societal resentment and frustration towards a common adversary or powerless victim.
and demonizingsee definition - characterizing a group or those who support an opposing viewpoint as threatening, immoral, or less than human.
take on more power, as everyday people look for those to blame for their seemingly irrational suffering. Leaders who flourish during these times are experts at channeling this anger and constructing targets, by pointing fingers and creating villains. In doing so, these leaders make themselves out to be not only champions of the people, but saviors; a depiction that often brings with it a cult following.

Stalin, in the Russian Revolution, used Leon Trotsky as a scapegoat for a host of problems in the post-revolution USSR, even though Trotsky had been exiled long before the problems arose. To shift focus from the terrorizing effect his brutal leadership had on the Russian people,[1] Stalin channeled his people’s fears into a hatred for Trotsky. Stalin branded and demonized his political opponent as a capitalist stooge and counter-revolutionary, as a means of redirecting blame from his own administration.[2] But while Stalin did create a scapegoat in Trotsky, he fell just short of building a divergence between the common people and the scapegoat.

Anti-Jewish poster issued in German occupied Serbia in the fall of 1941.

In that regard, Hitler did not fall short. He drew unequivocally clear lines between the Aryan people, the Jewish people, the Roma, the Poles, those with disabilities, homosexuals, blacks, Jehovah Witnesses, and communists. From very early on, Hitler was releasing propaganda about how Jews were a biologically different species and passed laws like the Nuremberg Race Laws, to define what a Jew was.[3] In this way, Hitler was doing more than just giving a face and name to the enemy, he was completely dividing the German people into factions of superiority. And once Germans were able to grasp the concept that they were inherently superior, it became all that much easier for Hitler to target the enemy. So, in all the chaos, Hitler redirected public loathing towards a very specific group of people, one he had very specifically labeled different and dangerous.

And now, over 70 years later, we can again see prominent political figures reverting back to scapegoating and demonization. We see Geert Wilders blaming Moroccans for the crime and the loss of national identity in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen comparing mass Islamic immigration into France to its Nazi occupation, and Donald Trump channeling Americans’ fears of crime and unemployment against undocumented immigrants.[4] And while those fears may be unsupported by evidence,[5] scapegoating is still a surefire ticket to national unity as citizens recognize an answer to their own struggles in the rhetoric.

As the late French theorist of mythology René Girard argued, “the target is not chosen because it is in any way responsible for society’s woes … The scapegoat is instead chosen because it is easy to victimize without fear of retaliation.”[6] In this way, monumental social issues hold select blameless groups, who are less understood by the majority for their different customs and cultures, accountable. Politicians that use these techniques effectively are thanked for revealing the grave injustices that have wronged the public for so long. They make themselves out to be correcting the scales of justice and in doing so, by tearing a down one group, they build themselves up.

2. "Trotsky's Struggle Against Stalin". The National WWII Museum . Published: September 12, 2018.

3. "The Nuremberg Race Laws". United States Holocaust Memorial Museum . Published: August 08, 2020.

4. "Trump and the International Rise of the Politics of Scapegoating". Georgetown Journal of International Affairs . Published: January 19, 2017.

5. "Is There a Connection Between Undocumented Immigrants and Crime?". The New York Times. Published: May 13, 2019.