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Challenging Trump’s Propaganda Means Creating a Counter-Narrative

On Twitter, Trump controls the message and shapes the parameters of debate.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a 'Make America Great Again' rally at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, on September 20, 2018.

Modern propaganda is best understood through the praxis of messenger, recipient and mode of messaging. The late Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s axiom “the medium is the message” demonstrated how political propagandists cater messages for specific audiences. Framing plays an important role in creating perceptions that support or reject public policy or candidates running for public office.

Framing is especially powerful when it targets a specific population who make claims of grievance or victimization. In the 1960s, McLuhan identified newspapers and television as the primary medium for spreading political messaging.

Today, with the rise of the internet and social media platforms like Facebook, Reddit and Twitter, messaging is primarily intended for niche audiences who are likely to agree with the ideological position of the political actor sending the message. In our current narrowcast environment, “personalized” messages can be distributed selectively to thousands of groups and subgroups that have a shared ideological viewpoint. The purpose of this messaging is to encourage group solidarity and deepen political identity. The politician who creates the most convincing narrative is likely to establish the most ideologically motivated support.

Facts, empirical data and truth have little significance when the message’s objective is to solidify a group’s political identity. Republican strategist Frank Luntz has argued this messaging process turns perception into reality. Donald Trump has turned this idea on its head. For Trump, perception is meant to create falsehood. Through his messaging, Trump creates an emotion-laden echo chamber in which he demonizes all political opponents, caters to the emotional psyche of his supporters and asserts repetitive lies. As Nicholas Lemann writes, “If you introduce a subject using language that will produce a strong opinion no subsequent information will get people to change their minds.” Lemann stresses that an image can be “so powerful that its lack of factual basis is no impediment to its viability.” To mobilize your political base, notes Ezra Klein, “You don’t need to win the argument. You don’t even need to have the facts. You just need to have an argument. All you need is to offer your side an alternative story in which to believe, a story that makes you sound trustworthy and your enemies untrustworthy.”

Since attaining power in 2016, Trump’s political messaging has exploited two powerful perceptions that solidified his political base. The first — white victimization — is most evident among his white, working-class supporters. This perception is based on their economic security being compromised by political elites through rampant globalization, multilateral trade agreements, the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, and international institutions taking advantage of the US’s economic and military power. The second — civilizational decay — perceives the disintegration of white, European cultural identity. Republican extremists like Rep. Steve King of Iowa claim that, “demographics are our destiny.” Representative King purports that demographic change is causing white people to be subsumed by an influx of immigrants, refugees and non-white population growth which, if not reversed, will imperil white Americans’ privileged socioeconomic status and political power.

Trump sees the linkage between white victimization and demographic change as existential threats to the US. Framing these issues in this way has provided Trump with the pretext to see the executive branch as the exclusive and absolute protector of national sovereignty. In this regard, Trump sees no purpose to the constitutionally mandated separation of powers. He sees himself as above the law, not subject to constraint by Congress or the courts.

For his supporters, Trump’s messaging portends the allure of acceptance and exclusive membership as part of the Trump brand. In exchange for their veneration, Trump plays to their fears and emotions by offering them a sense of belonging, security from the threats of the “other,” fraternization in his exclusive club and a vicarious experience in fulfilling the “American dream.” Existing in the angst of the middle and lower echelons of society, and threatened on all sides by “alien” groups they feel are undeserving of support or the “privileges” of citizenship, Trump’s base readily embrace the cynicism, racial animus, and lies he offers them through his tweets, staged rallies and vulgar attacks on the political opposition. British psychoanalyst Roger Money-Kyrle described followers of autocrats as “dependent types” who felt compelled to support authority and the security that comes from being part of an in-group. After viewing a speech in Germany by Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler in 1941, Money-Kyrle noted that “most people, although they seek to deny it, carry an imaginary enemy within themselves; and for this reason they are often over-ready to believe in a grievance of external origin.”

In Trump’s messaging, truth exists only in terms of how he defines it. Facts are an inconvenience and ignored. Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” When confronted with validated facts such as the Russian collusion in the 2016 election, Trump lies or creates an ephemeral narrative, redirecting the issue to the “usual suspects”: Hillary Clinton, the biased news media or Robert Mueller’s “witch hunt.”

Twitter is an effective medium for Trump to perpetuate lies. There, he possesses sole control of the message. He shapes the parameters of debate regarding the issues he chooses to address, and his messaging gains notoriety via retweets, analysis in mainstream news media and access to a global audience. Most importantly, Trump’s tweets effectively reinforce the perceived victimization of his followers, who see them as validation of their rage. The propaganda message becomes symbiotic: It creates an emotional and messianic connection between Trump and his base.

So what must be done to provide a counter-narrative to Trump’s propaganda techniques? First, mainstream journalists must establish deep, sustained and evidentiary scrutiny of Trump’s messaging. In his book On Anarchism, renown political dissident Noam Chomsky stresses, “The person who claims the legitimacy of the authority always bears the burden of justifying it. And if they can’t justify it, it’s illegitimate and should be dismantled.” Trump abhors policy. He does not provide a coherent rationale for policy decisions associated with his administration.

Second, the mainstream media must be more judicious in its gatekeeping power by ignoring Trump’s vile attacks on opponents. Character assassination via tweet is not newsworthy. These tweets only magnify his strategy of obfuscation. They redirect attention away from his extremism and scrutiny of his ineffective political agenda.

Third, the Democratic Party must develop a counter-narrative that exposes Trump’s greatest weakness: his lack of a coherent vision for the country. Democratic strategist George Lakoff argues that to beat Trump, “Do the opposite of what the Republican president wants.” The way to defeat Trump is to reframe the political debate by developing a social-democratic agenda that Trump despises: ending government corruption; reengaging with the Paris Accords; establishing health care for all, free community college, open borders, affordable housing; protecting workers’ rights; and reestablishing a multilateral foreign policy.

A people’s political agenda undermines Trump’s assault on democracy. Autocracy withers when the people assert their rightful demands for freedom and justice.

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