Say what you like about the tragicomedy of errors that is Trump’s presidency, the people writing Trump’s re-election propaganda know exactly what they’re doing. The latest campaign letter, sent to supporters Tuesday night (not coincidentally, after Comey’s revelation that Trump asked him to stop investigating Flynn), manages to pack the seven most common propaganda techniques into seven short sentences. (For those of you keeping track at home, that’s an astounding average of one lie per sentence.)
Here’s your chance to brush-up on propaganda before people stop talking about it altogether. Because if DeVos has her way, history classes will be replaced with “Denying the Holocaust 101,” political science classes will be replaced with “Introduction to Bear Shooting,” and student handbooks will be replaced with The Handmaid’s Tale. (That’ll teach those sinful teenage girls to show their ankles in school.)
Okay, so here’s the original letter:
Now, let’s address the types of propaganda in the order in which they appear:
1. First, there’s the “bandwagon” appeal. It’s achieved here simply by using the right pronouns – in this case, plural ones. “Us” in the first paragraph, “our” in the second, and “we” in the last. These are simple words used deliberately to make Trump fans think they’re not alone, but rather part of a larger group with a united cause, a group that’s nonetheless getting smaller by the minute with Trump’s approval rating tanking at 36% (http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/15/politics/donald-trump-polling/). (Spoiler alert: I’m going to use this technique in the next-to-last paragraph of this piece.)
2. Then there’s “name-calling.” In paragraph two the phrase “fake news” is used to discredit news outlets that are telling the truth about Trump. A fair and neutral way to say “fake news,” of course, would simply be to write “news outlets that are publishing stories with which we disagree.” Unwieldy, no doubt. I’m sure Goebbels would have rejected it too.
3. After that, some “glittering generalities.” In paragraphs two and four “America First,” and then in paragraph five “Drain the Swamp.” Neither one of these phrases means anything at all, particularly since Trump is putting America last with his goal of stripping health care from millions of Americans, his conflicts of interest, the alienation of our allies, and collusion with Russia. And “Drain the Swamp”? You’ve got to be kidding me. He’s turned a bog into a bayou.
4. Next is “card stacking” in the sentence, “There are people within our own unelected bureaucracy that want to sabotage President Trump and our entire America First movement.” The truth is, lots of members of our current governmental bureaucracy are “unelected” (you know, like Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump), but Trump is counting on the fact that his supporters won’t analyze this too deeply and instead will have an emotional reaction to the word “unelected” — as if their rights have somehow been taken away.
It’s a not-too-subtle dig at Comey, and by extension, intelligence agencies in general, with the goal of discrediting them. To draw attention to this key sentence (In case, you know, his supporters can’t be bothered to read the entire letter. Oops, did that sound too cynical?), it’s italicized and “un” is underlined.
5. After that, a “testimonial” in paragraph three, a quote by Steve Bannon speaking at CPAC: You “If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight, you’re sadly mistaken. Every day is going to be a fight. That is the promise of Donald Trump.” You might wonder why Trump’s supporters (who, we’ve been led to believe by Trump, are largely Christian, uneducated, unemployed, disenfranchised middle class Americans with traditional values) would give credence to anything a millionaire/prep school and Ivy League educated/Goldman Sachs investment banker/environmentalist/film producer/media mogul/writer says. Too bad they haven’t bothered to wonder too.
6. Then a “plain folks” appeal in paragraph four with an opposition set up between “Special Interests” and “citizens” (bypassing entirely the fact that members of special interest groups are citizens too and that most of them hold positions in Trump’s cabinet). “Special Interests” is capitalized here to make them seem like one big, bad entity, an intruder that exists outside of Trump’s administration. (Note to Trump supporters: We’ve traced the call. It’s coming from inside the House.)
7. And finally, the “transfer” technique. Ordinarily, this technique makes use of a well-known symbol (the flag, The Constitution, The Bible, the cross, etc.) to transfer the positive qualities of the symbol to a candidate. Here we have a more subtle example: use of the language of battle to galvanize Trump’s supporters and associate Trump’s campaign with righteous war. In the last paragraph we see “ … every day will be an uphill battle – and we need to be prepared to go into the trenches to FIGHT BACK.”
Is this an oblique reference to the Civil War? The only enemies alluded to in the letter are the fake media, the unelected bureaucracy, and Special Interests. In other words, American against American. And to make the process of transference even more all-encompassing, there’s also a reference to trench warfare, the most famous use of which occurred in World War I.
Of course, this letter is just one example of Trump-related propaganda using only the seven most common techniques. Multiply this by hundreds of speeches, letters to supporters, rallies, TV ads, pro-Trump pieces on Fox News and in right wing publications using dozens more techniques and you see what we’re up against.
I don’t want to go all PSA on you, but have you talked to your kids about propaganda? Hey, the more you know, right? Because while we were doing all those things in college we don’t want our kids saying “I learned it by watching you” about, we were also listening to some kick-ass music, and now we’re living in precisely the world Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine prepared us for.
It’s time to fight the power and take it back.