“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.” — Unknown
“Beyond Lying: Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Reality,” The New York Times, Nov. 4, 2016, by Jason Stanley, Professor of philosophy at Yale, author of How Propaganda Works offers some of the most perceptive commentary on our current, frightening political situation. The key idea is that authoritarian propaganda disregards truth as a means to gain power. Here are some salient quotes from this perceptive piece.
As the Republican candidate for president in 2016, Donald J. Trump has … engaged in rhetorical tactics unprecedented in recent American electoral history … [and] He repeatedly endorsed obviously false claims …
… the media lacked the vocabulary to describe what was happening. Trump was denounced repeatedly for “lying” and at times the apparently more egregious “bald faced lying.” But that is not a sufficient description. Neither was the charge by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt that Trump was in fact a master of “bullshit,” which is distinct from lying in that the speaker is not just communicating information he knows to be false, but is unconstrained by any consideration of what may or may not be true. While this description is technically true, it is at best terribly misleading … our academic and media class has insufficiently grappled with the problem of mass communication.
Liberal democratic societies by definition have a pluralism of value systems. This poses a problem for the politician seeking to gain office … The total audience consists of sub-audiences with conflicting value systems. The problem of mass communication in a liberal democracy is that of creating and conveying a maximally appealing message to an audience made up of groups with conflicting value systems.
There is a familiar way to respond to the problem in United States presidential politics. It is to convey shared acceptance of a value system to one specific group of voters, while concealing one’s commitment to it to other groups in the audience. In the 2012 campaign, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney repeatedly said that President Obama was weakening the work requirements on welfare. The claim was immediately debunked … The goal was to communicate to a certain group of white Southern voters that Romney shared their racial attitudes. But the strategy of communication was sophisticated enough that it provided plausible deniability to the many Republican and independent voters who do not share racist ideology.
Trump has approached the problem of mass communication differently. He has made explicit what was once implicit. Even if America is not really threatened by African-Americans, immigrants, gays, or non-Christians, when these prejudices are made explicit they seem important to people who aren’t interested in facts.
The goal of totalitarian propaganda is to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp … It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power …
… The goal is to define a reality that justifies … [Trump’s] value system, thereby changing the value systems of his audience. Two questions remain: What is the simple reality that Trump is trying to convey? And what is the value system to which this simple story is intended to shift voters to adopt? …
The simple picture Trump is trying to convey is that there is wild disorder, because of American citizens of African-American descent, and immigrants. He is doing it as a display of strength, showing he is able to define reality and lead others to accept his authoritarian value system.
The chief authoritarian values are law and order. In Trump’s value system, non-whites and non-Christians are the chief threats to law and order. Trump knows that reality does not call for a value-system like his; violent crime is at almost historic lows in the United States. Trump is thundering about a crime wave of historic proportions, because he is an authoritarian using his speech to define a simple reality that legitimates his value system, leading voters to adopt it …
Trump is … certainly openly insensitive to reality. But … It is … bizarre to be satisfied with a description of the rhetoric of a dictator like Idi Amin’s as “insensitive to truth and falsity.” Why have we been satisfied with such descriptions of Trump? Perhaps our media, as well as our academic class, assumes that we are healthy liberal democracy, and not susceptible to authoritarian rhetoric. We now know this assumption is false.
Denouncing Trump as a liar, or describing him as merely entertaining, misses the point of authoritarian propaganda … Authoritarian propagandists are attempting to convey power by defining reality. The reality they offer is very simple. It is offered with the goal of switching voters’ value systems to the authoritarian value system of the leader.
This campaign season has been an indictment of our understanding of mass communication. Either we lacked the ability or concepts to describe authoritarian propaganda, or we lacked the will. Either way, we must do better … It … requires us to confront the failures of elite policy that have led to an erosion of democratic norms, primarily public trust, that make anti-democratic alternatives suddenly acceptable.
I previously blogged about Stanley’s insightful piece, “Democracy and Demagoguery,” which covers related themes. I highly recommend it.