Skip to content

Primary Lessons in Propaganda

All propaganda is not advertising, but all advertising is propaganda. With “sponsored content” becoming the norm, corporations hiring “reporters” to cover themselves, and media organizations hiring political operatives to deliver the news, the notion that journalism once had a meaning distinct from advertising sounds increasingly quaint and fanciful, like believing in gnomes and fairies. This process of redefinition is pretty far along, and when it is complete, the sort of critical speech once deemed essential to democracy will be shunned as deviant, conspiratorial, or even criminal.

The victory of propaganda will be total. There will be no escaping it, and no fighting it—except by vigilantly rejecting abuses of language and, where appropriate, condemning the perpetrators to quiet time in the naughty corner.

The powerlessness and futility many Americans feel is exacerbated by the inadequacy of their political vocabulary. That’s why it’s so important to use that word, propaganda, and to understand what it means. Propaganda is not merely an export of the Islamic State, China, or Russia. It is the principal product of the “new media,” which is so awful and regressive it makes New Coke seem like a triumph of innovation on par with the Apollo program.

This year’s presidential election, which many people find profoundly frightening, coincides with the most pervasive, intense, and successful domestic propaganda campaign since the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. Now, as then, the campaign is based on fear, one of the most powerful emotions. But the object of that fear has shifted from an amorphous external enemy to an array of internal scapegoats. (This was foreseeable, as the foreign wars enabled by that earlier propaganda campaign ended in defeat, while underlying social stresses have grown worse.)

There is another difference: today’s propaganda is more all-consuming, because people are more absorbed by media than at any time in history. Americans were spending, as of 2013, nearly eleven hours per day with electronic media, up from eight hours a dozen years ago. That eleven-hour-a-day group includes not just vaping, Minecraft-addicted fauxdults, but also real grown-ups with jobs.

The nature of the problem suggests the solution. Many who find themselves repelled by the ominously barbaric overtones of the leading GOP propaganda campaign imagine that it can be countered through the dissemination of contrary facts. But that is not how propaganda works. People are drawn to the irrational programs of belligerent demagogues not because they lack information, but because they have too much of it.

Info-addicts may scoff at that. But the mental mechanics of propaganda, as well as its relationship to technology, were best described by a French philosopher several decades before the invention of the iPhone. That philosopher was a grandiloquent but courageous Christian anarchist named Jacques Ellul. Writing in his 1962 book Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Ellul described how the daily tide of news delivered by mass media presented a disorienting overabundance of information. “To the average man who tries to keep informed, a world emerges that is astonishingly incoherent, absurd, and irrational, which changes rapidly and constantly for reasons he cannot understand,” Ellul wrote. 

He finds himself in a kind of kaleidoscope in which thousands of unconnected images follow each other rapidly. His attention is continually diverted to new matters, new centers of interest, and is dissipated on a thousand things, which disappear from one day to the next. The world becomes remarkably changeable and uncertain; he feels as though he is at the hub of a merry-go-round, and can find no fixed point or continuity.

Incoherence is painful, so coherence will be imposed. Ellul recognized the irresistible human hunger for explanations. He saw that every additional piece of information delivered by mass media presented a new psychological problem awaiting resolution.

And the more complicated the problems are, the more simple the explanations must be; the more fragmented the canvas, the simpler the pattern; the more difficult the question, the more all-embracing the solution; the more menacing the reduction of his own worth, the greater the need for boosting his ego. All this propaganda—and only propaganda—can give him.

The implications of Ellul’s insight are not hard to grasp, now that headlines arrive not in daily bundles but in relentless torrents. Omnipresent Internet-connected devices do not merely multiply the available delivery channels for propaganda, or increase the frequency of its incursions upon our consciousness. These devices also intensify the psychological demand for coherence. Because the information that arrives in ever-greater quantities is increasingly fragmented, complex, threatening, and detached from history, only the most brutal and stupid explanations will satisfy the restive mind.

And so we arrive at Election 2016, the most brutally stupid in American history.

The top political story across all major media was, at the time of this writing, Donald Trump’s thoughts about an advertisement from an opponent’s camp. Guess what? He didn’t like it. 

The ad in question was intended to damage Trump among a narrow demographic but had the secondary effect of propelling his master narrative to a much larger audience, a dynamic that should be familiar to everyone by now. The ad featured a nude image of Trump’s wife Melania, cribbed from an old spread in British GQ. It ran on Facebook, specifically targeting Mormon voters in the Southwest. Even by the standards of low-rent Facebook shark bait, the ad was terrible—clumsily executed and poorly conceived. It presumed that sexually repressed religious conservatives would react with outrage when presented with a coquettishly posed nude model—who just might be “your next First Lady.” I’d bet the actual feelings of that audience were more . . . complicated.

People are drawn to the irrational programs of demagogues not because they lack information, but because they have too much of it.

The Trump campaign quickly turned the provocation to its advantage, blaming the ad on Trump’s rival, Ted Cruz. “Be careful, Lyin’ Ted,” said Trump’s scowling Twitter avatar, “or I will spill the beans on your wife!” 

What beans? Nobody knew! In all probability there weren’t any beans. It didn’t matter. The Trumpist propaganda framework maintains that “the establishment” always lies while the heroic leader always tells the truth. This construction easily digested the hostile information presented by opponents and used it to fuel another acid trip into the campaign kaleidoscope, where Trump exists as a fixed point, always in focus, as the rest of the universe whirls deliriously around him.

The naked-Melania ad—placed by a political action committee aligned with the Cruz campaign—was supposedly seen by thousands of Facebookers in Utah and Arizona. (I am skeptical.) Trump’s response on Twitter, by contrast, reached some share of his seven million followers. Nearly sixteen thousand users retweeted Trump’s message, and those mindless little echoes were seen by hundreds of thousands of people, at least. 

But social media junkies were only the first against the wall. The total audience for this sorry study in mass distraction was in the tens or even hundreds of millions of people, given that Google News counted more than two thousand separate articles based on Trump’s tweets in their immediate aftermath; then, by the end of the day, nine thousand; and, one week later, more than 26,000. This hallucinatory episode might have quickly faded from memory, but then Trump the apeman, who has already bragged about the size of his package, sought to further demonstrate dominance by maligning the appearance of Cruz’s wife, Heidi.

Ad-industry hucksters call this process the creation of “earned media,” denoting media coverage that serves the same purpose as advertising but which, unlike advertising, costs the beneficiary nothing. Public attention is “earned” through bombast, cleverness, or what the historian Daniel Boorstin characterized as the creation of “pseudo events”—inconsequential happenings staged for the sole purpose of generating media attention. The New York Times recently reported that Trump has broken all records in this category, having “earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history.”

Was any of it newsworthy? No, not much. “Trump makes derogatory, unsupported allegation about opponent” is a headline that could run on any day of the week. It’s a “dog bites man” non-story. Yet today’s floundering, cash-desperate media companies are incapable of providing their audiences with a framework for understanding the world. Put another way, “the media” have ceded their title as champions of propaganda and become mere conduits for it. Trumpthink fills the vacuum.

Even political opponents are captives to his framing and in thrall to his image. The Make America Awesome PAC—which created the Melania ad—not only appropriated Trump’s campaign slogan but also plastered his face all over its website. To glean that it’s not actually a pro-Trump PAC, you literally have to read the fine print.

Alone among the anti-Trump candidates, Bernie Sanders provides a coherent ideological framework that might counter Trumpism. But when it comes to propaganda, the Sanders campaign is subpar, and faces the added disadvantage of having to combat a longstanding cultural bias against his program of democratic socialism.

Repetition is the crucial element of effective propaganda. Trump understands this. His opponents don’t seem to get it, because they keep repeating his messages before formulating their own. It’s hard not to conclude that they simply have very little to say.

This is certainly true of Trump’s distant rival for the Republican nomination, John Kasich. Among the first words in the two most popular videos on his YouTube page are “Trump.” The most popular Kasich ad doesn’t feature the candidate’s voice or face—but it opens and closes with close-ups of Trump.

It also looks like it was made with Apple iMovie in about fifteen minutes. The dull and amateurish presentation is unfortunate, because it contains some genuine import. The ad shows retired Air Force Col. Tom Moe reciting a lengthy historical paraphrase. “You might not care if Donald Trump says Muslims must register with their government, because you’re not one,” Moe says. “But think about this: if he keeps going, and he actually becomes president, he might just get around to you.”

But that’s not where the ad starts, with the scary part. It starts with Moe clearing his throat. “I would like anyone who is listening to consider some thoughts that I have paraphrased from the words of German pastor Martin Niemöller,” he drones.

This soporific introduction goes on for a full ten seconds. By the same point in the Trump campaign’s first paid TV ad, released in January to more earned media fanfare, the candidate himself has appeared, towering and confident; the dark, glowering faces of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have dissolved into eerie portraits of the San Bernardino shooters; and Muslims have been banned from entering the United States “until we can figure out what’s going on.” All that in ten seconds.

The campaigns arrayed against Trump would do well to read some Ellul, who understood that propaganda requires spectacle. “A government official giving a speech is not a spectacle,” Ellul wrote.

Trump offers more spectacle in the final twenty seconds of his first ad than the remainder of the presidential candidates have in their entire careers. Trump will “quickly cut the head off ISIS and take their oil,” the narrator says matter-of-factly. Gore and plunder is about as primal as politics gets.

This visceral threat is accompanied by footage of a missile launching from a warship, which cuts to a top-down view of the resulting explosion—the familiar visual shorthand for every American military campaign of the past twenty-five years. It doesn’t really matter whether one more bomb dropped in the Middle East will accomplish anything. In the Trumpist propaganda framework, threats must be met with bloodshed and explosions. Anything less is for pussies.

Some are rising—or sinking—to the challenge. A so-far online-only ad by Citizen Super PAC, a “people-powered” anti-Trump outfit founded by two Republican operatives, offers a disturbing juxtaposition of speeches by Trump and Adolf Hitler. Naturally, it’s titled “Heil Trump.”

Dispensing with the subtleties of Kasich’s Niemöller spot, this ad actually closes with the letters of Trump’s name arranged in the form of a swastika. The presentation is so loud and intense as to induce nausea. I’m not sure if it’s effective. Frankly, I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be effective, or if the PAC’s “crowdsourcing platform” is just another conservative con job masquerading as a tech startup—an ad for political consulting services masquerading as a grave warning about fascist demagoguery.

Curiously, the PAC seemed to undercut its own efforts by pulling “Heil Trump” from YouTube on copyright grounds after websites reported its existence. It’s unclear how they expect to raise money from the public to fund the distribution of their ad if they’ve actually made it harder for people to see it.

Two days before its self-imposed fundraising deadline, “Heil Trump” had raised less than one-third of its modest ten-thousand-dollar goal. “Funding this ad—which cuts to the core of the danger Trump poses to America—might be the only way to stop Trump, before it’s too late,” the PAC claims.

Well, in that case, we’re screwed.

It’s amateur hour on the Democratic side, too. Many Democrats support Hillary Clinton because she has survived many savage and personal attacks over her years in public life. But she has never faced an opponent like Trump, and so far her campaign appears outmatched by the volume and quality of propaganda from the likely Republican nominee.

Trump recently posted a thirteen-second sneer directed at Clinton to Instagram, and it illustrates the point.

The video opens with an image of Vladimir Putin judo-slamming a hapless sparring partner, followed by a balaclava-clad terrorist striking a pose with a handgun. The driving action-movie soundtrack is interrupted by the sound of a record scratch, and the picture cuts to a strange one-second clip of Hillary Clinton barking like a dog. The clip plays twice. The video closes with an image of a mirthful Putin chuckling to himself. It is bizarre and underhanded and captivating. It is the ad that proves the Trump campaign’s command of new media.

The Clinton machine’s maladroit response, launched by the pro-Clinton super PAC “Priorities USA Action,” was to copy the Trump ad, shot for shot, but with the embarrassing barking bit replaced by a televised interview segment in which Trump boasts, “I have a very good brain.” Instead of Putin, the ad closes with a decontextualized shot of Clinton laughing, apparently at Trump.

From a grizzled veteran such as Clinton, one might’ve expected a more compelling counter-attack. Instead, the ad permits Trump another opportunity to compliment himself—which will only bother people who already dislike him—while Clinton is cast as overtly condescending and dismissive. Because there’s nothing the American people like more than the straight-A student who strikes a superior pose, right?

There are obvious sexist double standards at work in this propaganda exchange, which place Clinton at a disadvantage, and which the Trump campaign will exploit with increasing ruthlessness in the coming months. Clinton’s initial response does not seem to bear out the talismanic reverence her supporters hold for her “experience.”

Like Kasich and Cruz, Clinton makes the mistake of reiterating Trump’s messages in an attempt to undermine him. This information war is wholly asymmetric and leaves one with the dismal impression that the only possible response to Trump is more Trump—that he is thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; and the answer to every problem.

Incidentally, the footage of Clinton barking was snipped from a rambling February speech in which she fondly recounted an old-time political ad from Arkansas. The ad involved a dog that barked whenever it heard a politician lie. How nice it would be, Clinton said, if the Democrats could get that dog back, to sic him on the Republicans.

News flash: The dog ran away. The dog is not coming back. Sadly the dog is probably dead.