As the old saying goes, “You can fool some of the people all the time.” Last week’s historic open revolt against civil authority is proof. Most rioters were true believers in Donald Trump’s dishonesty that the election was stolen. It wasn’t. But Trump isn’t the first to use misdirection, lies and propaganda. He’s just the most successful. Here’s how it’s done.
Understand Donald Trump committed impeachable offenses on Jan. 6, and should resign. Lacking that, Vice President Mike Pence should invoke the 25th Amendment and expel him. And if not that, he should be impeached and convicted by Congress.
But, while we’re waiting on events to unfold, let’s consider how fooling is done.
Around the year 1200, Genghis Khan sent advanced infiltrators to spread rumors about how big and ferocious his army was. It wasn’t, but the technique was effective.
Early Romans perfected the “Roman Invective,” a method for turning an audience against a political foe.
Today we call it “character assassination.” The attacks may include references to a person’s habits, physique, birth, clothes, or other perceived moral defects.
Small hands come to mind.
In the late stages of the Roman Republic, the invective intensified in accusing foes of tyranny and casting them as an enemy of the state. Today, many think the “media” is an enemy of the state.
During the Reformation, the printing press accelerated propaganda, particularly in Germany. This often happens with new technology. Just look to the internet and social media.
World War I saw the first large-scale, organized propaganda. Germans thought British propaganda played a big part in their defeat. Adolf Hitler echoed it.
Historian Robert Ensor said that “Hitler ... put no limit on what can be done by propaganda; people will believe anything, provided they are told it often enough and emphatically enough, and that contradicters are either silenced or smothered in calumny (making false and defamatory statements to damage someone’s reputation; slander).”
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s notorious propaganda minister, used symbols easily understood to rally the masses: justice, liberty and devotion to country. Today we see American flag-draped rioters breaching our Capitol.
Knowing what propaganda is has always been a problem. Leaders know the information to be one-sided or untrue, but often true believers who disseminate propaganda do not.
Propaganda dehumanizes and creates hatred toward a supposed enemy by creating a false image and making impassioned appeals to prejudices. Invectives against all Mexican illegal immigrants being rapists and murderers are recalled.
Often propaganda may be recognized by inclusiveness and lack of specificity. “All,” and “everyone,” are commonly used describing broad groups along with phrases lacking in specificity. “Everyone knows all Muslims are terrorists,” is an example.
Most propaganda efforts require the audience to feel the enemy has inflicted an injustice or will do so.
Claims of mass invasion of illegals in caravans is an example.
Propaganda also reinforces believers. The assumption is they will constantly be assailed by doubts that they are eager to extinguish, so they are receptive to reassurances. Antifa didn’t breach the Capitol, Trump supporters did.
Since few double-check facts, disinformation will be repeated, reinforcing the idea that the disinformation is a “well-known fact,” even though no one can cite an authoritative source.
Several techniques based in social psychological research are used to generate propaganda. Many of these are found under logical fallacies, since propagandists use arguments that, while sometimes convincing, are not valid.
According to William W. Biddle, “[t]he four principles followed in propaganda are: (1) rely on emotions, never argue; (2) cast propaganda into the pattern of “we” versus an “enemy”; (3) reach groups as well as individuals; (4) hide the [one spreading propaganda] as much as possible.”
A friendly Trump supporter blamed all the post-election court decisions to dismiss more than 60 lawsuits on “technical issues.” She ignored the fact that the technical issue was mainly that no evidence was provided to support the allegations.
So, you can fool some of the people all the time using propaganda. And Donald Trump has been the most successful of all presidential propagandists.