By Christine Arena
Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images
Trump’s first weeks in office were among the most alarming in history. Right out of the gate, the new Commander-in-Chief declared war on the media, while his spokesperson pitched the Orwellian concept of “alternative facts.” A gag order muzzled government agencies from communicating scientific truths, as journalists were charged with felony offenses just for covering the news. An executive order banning Muslims was signed on Holocaust Memorial Day, setting off a third wave of international protests, while the doomsday clock moved closer to midnight.
Today, the world’s eyes are glued on Washington, as fear, outrage and panic dominate the American zeitgeist. “The press has never seen anything like this before. The public has never seen anything like this before. And the political leaders of both parties have never seen anything like this before,” lamented veteran journalist Dan Rather in a recent Facebook post.
But if recent political events seem unprecedented, the messaging strategy behind them is not.
We’ve seen authoritarian propaganda campaigns before. Many times, in fact. And while Trump puts his own vindictive spin on things, we can recognize the parallels with regimes from the past. More importantly, we can learn from them, using the insights to more effectively combat Trump today.
At its most basic level, authoritarian propaganda is not designed to convince the majority of people of a new idea. Rather, it is meant to convince enough people to adopt a radically different worldview, an alternate reality based on alternative facts.
By design, authoritarian propaganda campaigns hinge on the supremacy of a charismatic strongman, yet are easy for the layman to understand. They are emotionally resonant, but not rationally sound. They are simultaneously divisive and electrifying, which makes them so potent and potentially viral.
Trump is currently using all the textbook methods: The speed, pace and ferocity of his attacks. The attempted silencing of his dissenters. The consistent use of lies and falsehoods. The unleashing of ill-borne policies that target everyone at once — Muslims, Australians, Mexicans, immigrants, women, veterans, scientists, federal workers, Madonna, Saturday Night Live, The New York Times — thereby creating confusion and chaos.
These tactics, known as “shock events” in academic circles, effectively create a dramatic tension that that electrifies the audience (Trump’s base) and divides opponents (everybody else).
The authoritarian propogandist’s foremost objective is to dominate the news cycle, which is why a free press is cast down as the common enemy.
Remember Goebbels, the Nazi spin doctor, who began Hitler’s campaign with a systematic assault on the media. Newspapers, he said, were “messengers of decay.” And of radio, he said: “We make no bones about it: the radio belongs to us, to no one else! And we will place the radio at the service of our idea, and no other idea shall be expressed through it.”
Similarly, Trump’s media strategy is to denigrate and disparage the press in the public’s mind — seeking to convince his supporters that, with the notable exceptions of Fox and Breitbart, the media is out to get him. “Dishonest people,” he insists. “The worst!”
Trump sees his Twitter account as a megaphone directly to the people, and he doesn’t hesitate to scream into it at 3am. The objective here is to make himself the only source of public information about what is happening and what he’s doing.
Trump’s media attacks, lies, and distortions are classic propaganda techniques. This is his craft, his one-man Kabuki theater. Expecting him to admit that he’s wrong, or to apologize for what he’s said or done, partly misses the point. As we have seen, Trump is openly insensitive to reality. Therefore, denouncing him as a liar, or holding him to the frequency, spontaneity and seeming irrelevance of his lies, only helps him to amplify his message.
In many ways, Trump’s first weeks in office have shown how ill-equipped we are to respond to this powerful form of mass communication. Either we lack the ability to fully describe authoritarian propaganda, calling it out for what it is, or we lack the will to disrupt it. Either way, we must do better.
Effective counter-communications are our first line of defense against Trump’s authoritarian regime. Words, not violence, can make or break the Resistance, possibly wining the actual war before it starts.
Imagine if there had been a stronger and more forceful resistance to Goebbels’ Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Chávez’ Venezuela, or Jonson’s Vietnam War. Stronger verbal opposition might have turned the tides at many points throughout history, potentially saving millions of lives.
Right now, we need to do more than fact-check Trump’s lies. Instead, we need a systematic approach to winning people’s heart and minds, thereby diffusing a potentially dangerous situation.
Above all, we need to remember who the real enemy is. It is not Trump himself, but the chaos, fear and apathy bred by his platform. Trump’s underlying strategy is to divide, demoralize and disgust people, so that they disengage. But if we diffuse the fear and apathy, we can keep people engaged and turn the tide.
Here, in my view, is where to begin:
1. Focus, people.
As Trump continues to send shockwaves throughout society, the most important thing communicators can do is help people step back and gain perspective on what, exactly, is at stake. Currently, there is far too much hysteria and reactivity coming from the “left,” which is adding additional noise rather than clarity. Instead of squabbling over who belongs at the Women’s March, setting fire to trash dumpsters or dropping F-bombs on live TV, we need to channel our inner Van Jones.
Here is the point we need to drill home: Today’s Resistance is not a liberal cause or a political game. This is not just a clash of right versus left-wing policy agendas. Instead, this is a straight-up struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. There will be a winner and a loser in this war, and all Americans must fully appreciate the gravity of the situation.
An effective way to disseminate this message is to illustrate how this is an epic moment in time — one that will determine the future of democracy. In a recent article for The Atlantic, conservative scholar Eliot A. Cohen did exactly this:
“This is one of those clarifying moments in American history, and like most such, it came upon us unawares, although historians in later years will be able to trace the deep and the contingent causes that brought us to this day. There is nothing to fear in this fact; rather, patriots should embrace it…. For the community of conservative thinkers and experts, and more importantly, conservative politicians, this is a testing time. Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist…Those in a position to take a stand should do so, and those who are not should lay the groundwork for a better day. There is nothing great about the America that Trump thinks he is going to make; but in the end, it is the greatness of America that will stop him.”
Cohen’s message is highly engaging as well as unifying. He takes the wind out of Trump’s “America First” sail by better defining the concept of patriotism and what it means to us all. We must look deep within ourselves for the answer to this crisis, Cohen suggests, and actively decide which side we are on.
2. Disrupt the dystopian vision.
Imagery is a highly useful propaganda tool, and so Trump paints a very dark portrait of America. As we see in his recent communications, including the inauguration speech he partly stole from Batman, Trump’s ‘alt’ America is insular, bleak and increasingly dangerous. His profoundly grim descriptions of American “carnage,” of a country whose borders have been “ravaged,” whose companies have been “stolen,” whose Department of Justice has been “betrayed,” and whose leaders have “forgotten” their people, target an audience wired for fear. Trump further commands “total allegiance” to his dystopian vision, casting dissenters including Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, as “weak.”
To date, the majority of pro-resistance communicators have attempted to counter Trump’s vision with logical arguments and facts. They’ve tallied the number of lies and erroneous remarks made. They’ve published data and infographics illustrating steadily declining crime and unemployment rates, as well as the net benefits of multiculturalism and international diplomacy, to counter Trump’s arguments.
While these points are necessary for an effective rebuttal, they are not enough to win people over.
In the context of propaganda counter-communications, facts don’t matter as much as the imagery. Therefore, fact-checking and discounting Trump’s vision is not nearly as powerful as painting a brighter, equally forceful one.
In his State of the State address last week, California Governor Jerry Brown laid forth such a vision. He said:
“California is a place where, through grit and determination, [people] could realize their dreams. And they are not alone, millions of Californians have come here from Mexico and a hundred other countries, making our state what it is today: vibrant, even turbulent, and a beacon of hope to the rest of the world… It is that spirit of perseverance and courage which built our state from the beginning. And it is that spirit which will get us through the great uncertainty and the difficulties ahead…Let me be clear: We will defend everybody — every man, woman and child who has come here for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state.”
Brown’s vision of a hopeful, courageous California is a de facto call to arms. In articulating the resolute spirit of the State, he defines what its citizens have to lose, and therefore, what is worth fighting for. He positions diversity as an asset, not a weakness, emboldening people to re-engage. His message was clear and inclusive rather than alienating, leaving the audience to shout a resolute: “Hell, yes!,” which subsequently echoed across social media.
We need to hear more of this from leaders on the front lines. Rather than giving into to the worst sentiments of the electorate, we must stir up the best.
3. Provoke him to self-destruct.
The relationship between Trump and most Americans is an abusive one. The more Trump is hated, the more he acts like a hater. The more we accuse him of offensive behavior, the more offensively he attacks his accusers. The more we defy his executive orders, the more he lashes out. This is a toxic cycle and if we let it continue, it will eventually lead to his downfall.
As many people now realize, Trump is his own worst enemy. And in the coming days and weeks, he will lay down an endless stream of falsehoods. He will rouse racist, sexist, Islamophobic sentiments to shore up his rebel brand. He will alienate and threaten anyone who seems to push back, including America’s closest allies. He will tarnish the nation’s global reputation and disgrace the memory of every founding father in the process. As the shit continues to hit the fan, let us not play into his tiny hands.
Rather than fueling the fire with liberal or conservative takes on his vitriolic behavior, we should openly discuss his underlying psyche and possible mental illness. Instead of simply disproving his lies, we should ask deeper questions about his personal motives and moral judgment. In doing so, we must address the 45 percent of Americans who mistake his incoherent and belligerent language for genuine ‘tough talk.’
In her SAG award acceptance speech, actress Meryl Streep took a most effective tact:
“There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. … There was nothing good about it. But it was effective, and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life…This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.”
Streep called Trump out for being a bully, a prejudice troll. And clearly she got under his skin, because at 6:27am he rose to tweet a response, calling her “overrated” and “a Hillary flunky who lost big.”
But Streep’s insight does have some application for communicators at large. It’s a reminder that attacking Trump’s spiteful character is more provocative than attacking his policy decisions. So much of Trump’s message is rooted in his own self-image of superiority that it is extremely important to help him demonstrate his true nature.
Trump’s trademark hostility is not just an act. This is, deep down, who the man is. Mayhem is his leadership style, and to counter that effect, we would do well to constantly confront him about it.
Knowing what effectively sustains social movements, especially authoritarian ones, can give us a considerable strategic advantage — particularly when we combine that knowledge with the prevailing cultural currents.
With millions of Americans feeling fearful and downtrodden, now is an excellent time to inspire them with a shared purpose and common cause.
There is a certain thrill to being a part of the pro-democracy Resistance. A sheer delight in taking a bully down. For in standing up for one another, we find ourselves in the process. So let’s tap into the collective instinct to rise, to be better citizens, and in doing so, convince good people of all political persuasions to stand together against this dangerous regime.
This piece originally appears in LinkedIn.
About the writer
Christine Arena is Founder and CEO of GENEROUS. A digital, marketing and communications leader with 20 years of experience building and evolving sustainable brands, she was recently named a “Top 100 Thought Leader in Trustworthy Business.”
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