Monday, April 19, 2021

Donald Trump and Saul Alinksy

 In one of those unproductive Facebook exchanges, someone accusing Michigan’s governor of being a socialist (a rather goofy charge) mentioned Saul Alinsky. For those not familiar with him, Alinsky was a leftist social organizer whose career spanned the decades from the 1930s to the 1970s. His most popular book is Rules for Radicals (1971), which outlines rules for community organizers. Alinsky claimed to be a Machiavelli for the have-nots, and at first it seems curious to assert that Donald Trump, the man who claims to have everything (wealth, intelligence, sexual irresistibility, etc.) was following Alinsky’s rule book. 

But the more I thought about it, the more plausible it became. Trump pretended to be one of the “have-nots,” a brave lonely figure fighting the “deep state,” the swamp. As in other areas, Trump is a master of absorbing and transforming things. Let’s work through Alinsky’s list of rules for radicals.


“Power is not only what you have, it’s what the enemy thinks you have.” Throughout his career, Trump claimed to have more money than he in fact did. Many believed him. He claimed to have powers that courts said he didn’t have. 


“Never go outside the experience of your people.” Those who went to a Trump rally knew what to expect. It would be good vs. evil, light vs. dark.  He hardly ever asked people to exercise their intellect, rather favored chants and jeers. No one ever left a Trump rally with doubts or uncertainties (assuming they agreed with him at the start of the rally). As people, we like certainty, It’s unsettling to be unsure. Historian George Marsden cites an old Puritan preacher who said: “I should rather have ten settled opinions, nine of them wrong, than to have none of the ten settled at all.” The divine may have been speaking slightly tongue-in-cheek, but Trump speaks as if he had papal authority (although its worth noting that the doctrine of papal infallibility has been invoked only once).


“Whenever possible, go outside the experience of the enemy.” Trump excels at this principle. In the past, politicians at least attempted to seem truthful. Even Joseph Goebbels recommended telling the truth, or at least part of it, whenever possible. Lies have the distressing habit of being found out. Trump’s strategy was to ignore truth. The Washington Post tallied 30,573 demonstrable untruths and exaggerations over his four years in office.  


This was a brilliant strategy. Politicians in general get roasted for dubious claims. Think of Obama’s statement that people could keep their doctors — often, but not always true, as it turned out . It was cited against him repeatedly. But Trump’s lies were so numerous that by the time one was refuted, it was already forgotten in the face of five new ones. A kind of “lie exhaustion” set in. What was the point of refuting one lie among so many? 


“Make the enemy follow his rule book.” I'm still thinking about this one. 


“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” Trump is the Don Rickles of American politics, except that Rickles was actually a nice guy off-stage. Ridiculing anyone who disagreed with him both angered his opponents and delighted his supporters.


“A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” Watch a video of a Trump rally. People are having a fine time. Read social media comments by Trump supporters. They insult others with obvious glee. Their favorite “argument” is often a visual meme, with no source, no evidence, and no sense.  But it’s fun, rather like an insult contest on the middle school playground.


“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Trump’s strategy was consistent, but he constantly invented new approaches, or at least new ways of saying the same thing.  


“Keep the pressure on.” Trump was great at this. Have you noticed how quiet things have been since he left office? Whenever he needed attention, he’d launch a barrage of tweets that kept the opposition perpetually off balance. He never rested.  There were around 25,000 Trumpian tweets during his term, an average of 17 a day. If one line of tweetery didn’t work, he’d try something different. After it was clear he’d lost the election by a landslide, he kept finding new false claims. Refuting one didn’t help, since by the time it was refuted he launched three more. Then he’d come back to the old one.


“The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” There is a good Politico essay titled “The Truth at the Center of Trump’s Hollow Threats” that speaks to this point. The article begins: “Donald Trump issues threats with the frequency that other people take out the garbage.” It’s a great analysis, well worth reading. Basically, he kept making new threats that kept the opposition worried, quickly dropping or forgetting those that didn’t have the desired effect.


“Maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.” What I said two points above applies here. 


“If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside.” Trump is relentlessly negative.  Repetition is a cardinal principle of propaganda and advertising. The most obvious example is his mythology of a stolen election. Despite total lack of evidence and complete failure in the courts, Trump repeated the claim so often and in so many ways that most of his acolytes still believe him.  For those curious, by the way, this blog has done a good job of tracking the various court embarrassments Trump has suffered.


“The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” Trump did less well here, largely because he was better at attacking than at getting things done. Remember his claims of being the great deal maker? Turns out he wasn’t very good at making deals with people who weren’t marching lockstep behind him.


“Pick a target, freeze it, personalize it,  and polarize it.” Here he excelled. A fascinating particle on Psychology Today found that Trump demeaned people, groups, and countries far more than the average. Over the course of his presidency, Trump insulted almost everyone who didn’t agree with him.


In sum, Donald Trump is the most effective user of Alinksy's principles ever seen. Previous Alinksy followers aimed at getting the city to provide better medical care for poor people or eliminate racist policies. Donald Trump applied them to a whole country.


Monday, March 8, 2021

Self-Propaganda

Propaganda is often thought of as a nefarious art favored by Nazis and communists in the past and the Chinese today.  This has some truth, since democratic societies claim propaganda is a bad thing. Yet as Jacques Ellul argued in his 1965 book Propaganda: The Formation Men’s Attitudes, propaganda has become a necessity for all modern states. Even citizens of the West, he asserted, could become “totalitarian men with democratic convictions” when subjected to unrelenting democratic propaganda.

Propaganda is often thought of as a nefarious art favored by Nazis and communists in the past and the Chinese today.  This has some truth, since democratic societies claim propaganda is a bad thing. Yet as Jacques Ellul argued in his 1965 book Propaganda: The Formation Men’s Attitudes, propaganda has become a necessity for all modern states. Even citizens of the West, he asserted, could become “totalitarian men with democratic convictions” when subjected to unrelenting democratic propaganda.


Things have changed since Ellul wrote that book. Back then, propaganda was largely the preserve of governments and political parties.  Today we have become our own propagandists, feeding ourselves information by our choice. We persuade ourselves.


What happened?  In earlier days, individuals lacked the ability to propagandize themselves.  True, Nazis could immerse themselves in a Nazi echo chamber before 1933 and after that Hitler’s state restricted information flow.  But in democracies people called editors exerted quality control over what people read and saw.  Editors (and publishers) had biases, but leading newspapers, magazines, and television networks generally kept nonsense from reaching a large audience.  There were curiosities like John Stormer’s 1964 None Dare Call It Treason, but wild conspiracy theories usually had restricted circulation. Local crackpots felt isolated, sometimes reluctant to be open with their views for fear of attracting the scorn of neighbors.  


But then came the internet.  Suddenly everyone could be a publisher. Just as in the biblical book of Judges when there was no king in Israel and “every man did what was right in his own eyes,” every person could be an editor. The strangest theory could attract wide and self-reinforcing attention.  The isolated crackpot was no longer isolated, but rather a member of a world-wide group of people who knew what others did not, that Bill Gates is inserting microchips into COVID vaccinations, that the 2020 election was shamelessly stolen, that a sinister conspiracy of pedophiliac Democrats is committing terrible deeds. (I use current examples from the Right not because the Left is blameless, but rather because the greatest nonsense today is on the Right.) Before the internet, few such fantasies became “viral.” Now new ones emerge daily and by strange inversion of the principle of “the survival of the fittest,” the worst often become the most believed. 


Since the profusion of internet sites promoted the development of silos, each its own echo chamber, proponents of peculiar views do not need to be unsettled by the work of doubters.  People restrict themselves to sources that reinforce their opinions, that make them members of an elite far more knowing than the mass of “sheeple.” And nothing they read or see suggests anything else.  


I wish I had a good solution, but at the least editors merit more esteem than they often get. We can ourselves read reliable sources that disagree with us. We can gently (and probably unsuccessfully) encourage friends and family to broaden their media.


Propaganda is bad enough when being done to us; it is even worse when we do it to ourselves.

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Beer Hall Putsch and January 6

There are numerous recent press comparisons of Hitler’s 1923 Beer Hall Putsch to the events of January 6, 2021. Although there are similarities, differences, and things to be determined. I think the differences are the more significant.


Similarities


In both cases a political leader gave a passionate address to his followers that resulted in insurrection. An observer commented that Hitler had turned the Munich crowd inside out, “as one turns a glove inside out, with a few sentences.  It had almost something of hocus-pocus, or magic about it.” Trump, too, used rhetoric to move his audience to march. Without explicitly ordering the audience to break into the Capitol, he gave them all the encouragement they needed. In neither case would the insurrection have occurred without the leader’s rhetoric. In both cases, the insurrectionists clearly broke the law.


Neither crowd knew what it was doing.  Those marching with Hitler had little idea where they were going or what they were trying to accomplish. Although there is evidence that some insurrectionists in 2021 were planning violent action within the Capitol, most were more interested in taking selfies than in taking over the government.  Most did not expect the break into the Capitol, and indeed the crowd that gathered at Trump’s urging was significantly larger than the group that entered the Capitol. I haven’t seen figures, but will be surprised if more than 5% of those gathered at Trump’s rally entered the Capitol building.


Differences


An immediate difference is that Hitler led the march through Munich and was physically wounded. Trump implied to his followers that he would be marching with them, but instead returned to the White House and watched events on television. Whatever else one can say about Hitler, he had physical courage (and World War I medals to demonstrate it). Trump’s physical courage is open to doubt. For example, if Trump really did not want violence, he could have gone to the Capitol with his followers and told them to go home before they became violent  (as he did after the fact on Twitter much too late to do any good).  I think that the crowd would have obeyed him, but we will never know.


Hitler took explicit responsibility for the Putsch. As he said at his trial: “The judges of this state may go right ahead and convict us for our actions at that time, but History, acting as the goddess of a higher truth and a higher justice, will one day smilingly tear up this verdict, acquitting us of all guilt and blame.” Trump, on the other hand, denied that he had told his followers to break into the Capitol, and some on the far right claim it was a “false flag” operation by groups like Antifa.  


The Beer Hall Putsch came at the beginning of Hitler’s political career (he was 34), while it is to be hoped that January 6 sealed the end of Trump’s (he is 74). Before the Putsch Hitler was not widely known outside Bavaria. Afterwards he was a national figure. Trump was already president (if a defeated one), and his encouragement of insurrection for most Americans was despicable rather than inspiring, even if a significant minority welcomed it. In short, the Putsch built Hitler’s reputation; January 6 for most Americans harmed Trump’s.


Hitler also found the Putsch valuable propaganda. It demonstrated the “revolutionary” nature of the Nazi movement.  Having demonstrated that in 1923, Hitler thereafter claimed to follow a legal path to power, and indeed he did take power in 1933 in a way consistent with the Weimar constitution. At this point, it looks as if the far right is viewing January 6 as the first step in violent insurrection rather than as a one-time event that demonstrated its revolutionary credentials. 


To be Determined


Hitler was tried and convicted for his role in the Putsch.  The court that convicted him said that Hitler “thinks and feels like a German” and gave him a light sentence of eight months, which he served under comfortable conditions. We do not yet know what penalties, if any, Trump will face.  Hitler used the time to write Mein Kampf. I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump finds another ghostwriter to develop a book as well. If so, they will be different sorts of books. Mein Kampf lays out in turgid prose Hitler’s ideology. Trump’s book, should he produce one, will be a litany of claimed, if dubious, accomplishments, calumny, and fantasy.


Sixteen Nazis died on November 9; they became  “blood martyrs” of the movement.  After 1933, their remains were dug up and interred in two “honor temples” in the center of Munich. Each year pompous ceremonies were held throughout the Reich.  My German Propaganda Archive has considerable material on those pseudo-religious ceremonies. See, for example, advice for propagandists for November 9, 1942. Ashli Babbitt, the insurrectionist killed inside the Capitol, was immediately presented as a martyr by a variety of right-wing sources, but one may doubt that there will be a monument in her honor erected in Washington. Still, movements of all kinds have always welcomed martyrs.  Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Babbitt will have a place in the mythology of the far right. We will hear more of her.


The Putsch created relics, the most famous of which was the Blutfahne (blood banner), the “holiest” item in the Nazi reliquary. It was supposedly stained with the blood of those who died in 1923. In Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Hitler holds that flag with one hand while allowing its mythic power to flow through him as he consecrates new party standards.  Whether January 6 will leave sacred relics behind is yet to be determined.  Although things stolen by the insurrectionists may come to have a place of honor in right wing mythology, Nancy Pelosi’s missing laptop probably will not grace Trump’s future quarters.


Summary


As I said in my initial post, I am wary of comparisons of Trump to Hitler, since I find Tump dreadful, but not on the same scale of evil as Hitler.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to compare the use of propaganda by both.


In this case, all things considered, I think the differences between the Putsch and January 6 are greater than the similarities. However, the uncertainties of the moment render my conclusion tentative. Time will tell, as it always does.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Donald Trump and the Art of the Little Lie

 Hitler’s discussion of the “big lie” is widely cited, but often incorrectly.  His discussion in Mein Kampf is as follows:

But it remained for the Jews, with their unqualified capacity for falsehood, and their fighting comrades, the Marxists, to impute responsibility for the downfall precisely to the man who alone had shown a superhuman will and energy in his effort to prevent the catastrophe which he had foreseen and to save the nation from that hour of complete overthrow and shame. By placing responsibility for the loss of the world war on the shoulders of Ludendorff they took away the weapon of moral right from the only adversary dangerous enough to be likely to succeed in bringing the betrayers of the Fatherland to Justice.

All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.

It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.

Hitler on the face of it is not recommending lying as a part of propaganda, but rather accusing the Jews of it.  Note that I say “on the face of it.” It would be a poor sort of propagandist who admitted that he lied.  The Nazis almost always claimed that they told the truth in their propaganda, and that the other side lied. And, in fact, the Nazis preferred to tell the truth, or at least part of the truth, when possible.  For example, when Goebbels reprinted his wartime essays (six months to a year or so after they were written) he could print them without revision since he was careful when writing them not to say anything demonstrably false or that might prove embarrassing in the future.

When the Nazis did lie, they often lied big.  The clearest example is the myth of the International Jewish Conspiracy, but even there the Nazis could adduce some evidence, however thin, of Jewish depravity.  That is a subject for another post.

Donald Trump, however, is the master of the “little lie.” The Washington Post back in January 2021 carried a story titled “Trump's false or misleading claims total 30,753 over 4 years.” Some of them meet the criteria for the “big lie (e.g., that he won the 2020 election by a landslide),” but many are small, easily disproven lies. The Wikipedia article “Veracity of statements by Donald Trump” includes examples of both big and little lies.

Why is Donald Trump successful at using an unprecedented number of lies?  I still don’t have a great answer to that question.  However, I think one reason is that his supporters view him as an almost infallible source of truth.  For example, 4% of Democrats vs. 84% of Republicans trusted his information on the COVID-19 outbreak according to a CNN piece in May 2020. While looking over a site for Trump supporters, I found a woman who claimed (in January 2021) that Trump had never lied. Trump’s supporters almost worship him with such fervor  that many simply cannot accept the fact that he lies.

A second reason was discussed in a Psychology Today article titled “How President Trump’s Lies Are Different From Other People’s” (2017). The author found that Trump’s lies were different than the norm:

I was right about Trump telling an especially big proportion of self-serving lies. Instead of telling twice as many self-serving lies as kind lies, he told 6.6 times as many.....

As it turned out, though, that was not the most interesting finding. As I read through Trump’s lies in the process of categorizing them, I realized I could not limit myself just to the categories of self-serving and kind lies. I had to add the category of cruel lies — lies that hurt or disparage or embarrass or belittle other people. In the research my colleagues and I did, we found that only 1 or 2 percent of all lies were cruel. That’s why I wasn’t going to bother with them when coding Trump’s lies....

Now let me tell you what I found when I tallied Trump’s cruel lies. Instead of adding up to 1 or 2 percent, as in my previous research, they accounted for 50 percent. When I first saw that number appear on my screen, I gasped. I knew, of course, that Trump likes to mock and denigrate other people (and countries and agencies), but I didn’t realize just how often he was doing that with his lies.

This is interesting and, I think, accurate.  Why would this be? Part of the reason goes back to another point Hitler makes about propaganda in Mein Kampf.  He argues that the masses understand black and white, yes and no, not shades of gray.  Hitler says that once propaganda admits even the slightest possibility of right for the other side, the masses begin to waver in their support.  Trump presents his enemies not only as wrong, but as absolutely, completely, horribly wrong. When discussing the Devil’s workforce, it is not necessary to be polite.  They are so evil that anything one can say about them is not only accurate, but perhaps understated. As humans we have a tendency to like the “dirt” about others, and Trump is a master of insult. Trump’s world is one of absolute clarity, and he tells it to his followers as they would like it to be.

A third point is the sheer number of lies Trump tells.  Politicians who lie or mistake facts at the normal rate can be held accountable for what they say.   Take, for example, President Obama’s famous statement that if people were happy with their doctors they could keep them. That turned out not to be entirely accurate, although it was true for many. That statement was held against Obama over and over again.  Trump, on the other hand, says so many demonstrably false things that a kind of exhaustion sets in.  What is the point of refuting one lie when in the meanwhile twenty others have surfaced? And, of course, it is far easier to lie than refute a lie.  

In short, I think Trump has developed the art of the “little lie” to a hitherto unseen extent. 



Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Trump and the Potempa Murder of 1932

 On the night of 9 August 1932, five uniformed Nazis S.A. men broke into the apartment of a Communist trade unionist and brutally murdered him. This became known as the Potempa Murder. Hitler sent this telegram to the culprits: 

My comrades! I am bound to you in unlimited loyalty in the face of this most hideous blood sentence. You have my picture hanging in your cells. How could I forsake you? Anyone who struggles, lives, fights, and, if need be, dies for Germany has the right on his side.

Hitler could hardly have disavowed his followers. Instead, he forthrightly approved their conduct. In 1934 his government passed legislation granting amnesty to anyone in prison who had committed a crime “for the good of the Reich during the Weimar Republic.” The five were promptly released from prison. I am not the first to make this comparison, but the earliest example I can find is not particularly persuasive to me, as it refers to Trump’s pardon of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.

On 6 January 2021 Donald Trump gave a speech to his followers in Washington that by any reasonable interpretation urged his supporters to do more than march to the Capitol and yell for a while.  His supporters broke into the Capitol and caused considerable damage. One of the insurrectionists died and a number of people were injured.

Trump was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, he could hardly publicly favor federal crimes (although reports are that he watched the proceedings on television with considerable satisfaction). On the other hand, he could not condemn his followers for following his advice. 

He hesitated for hours before saying anything before finally mildly urging them: “So go home, we love you, you’re very special.”

He avoided criticizing his followers. Some of his supporters immediately began spreading fantasies that the damage had been done by leftist Antifa provocateurs. 

There is speculation that before leaving office he may pardon everyone involved.  We shall see what the next week brings.

Both Hitler and Trump faced a situation in which their followers had committed acts that most of their countries found despicable. Both chose to defend their followers. A propaganda movement depends on loyalty to the leader, and those leaders know that unless they stand by their supporters, come what may, they risk losing those supporters.

What is this Blog About?

 I have been interested in political propaganda for many years.  My focus has been on Nazi and Marxist-Leninist propaganda, but there are often similarities in the propagandas of today and those of yesterday.  As comparisons occur to me, I shall post them here.

Note that the techniques of propaganda are common to  a wide range of users.  I may make comparisons, for example, between Donald Trump’s propaganda and that of the Nazis.  That does not mean I think Trump is the current incarnation of Adolf Hitler, even if I find him egregious.  First, Hitler had an ideology, whereas Trump has no discernible ideology that he has consistently followed.  I compare him more to a Central American tinpot dictator wannabe willing to do anything and say anything to maintain influence with his supporters. And second, whatever his deficiencies, Trump has not instigated a world war that killed sixty million or so people.

I suspect most of my initial posts will discuss Trump and his supporters, but propaganda is a set of techniques used by many on the political spectrum and I will find examples at other places on the political spectrum as time goes on and the focus on Trump blurs.

I will welcome comments that meet reasonable standards of civilized discourse.