I first learned about the insidious nature of propaganda in junior high. It was in the early 1970s when U.S. foreign policy was solidly defined by the Cold War.
Russia, China and all things communist, I was taught, were the real enemies of the people. Propaganda was the tool they used to brainwash you.
In high school, I learned about the masters of propaganda, Hitler and the Nazis, who elevated the craft of misinformation to a dark art, all in the name of convincing the world they were the masters of the universe.
It would be years before I understood that Nazis and communists weren’t the only ones steeped in spinning hardline political doctrine out of “fictional narratives,” to cite a phrase from Russia expert Fiona Hill’s testimony in the recent impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump.
The truth is Americans have always had to navigate, or swallow, a certain measure of government propaganda.
Growing up, I thought we were better than that. Turns out sometimes we’re not.
Think of the wholly undemocratic measures our nation has taken to spread the propagandist view that if the world would just follow our lead they, like us, would all be blessed with peace, freedom and prosperity.
It’s propaganda that the American economic powerhouse that was birthed in our first century of nationhood was thanks almost entirely to the grit, brilliance and know-how of that bunch of really smart white guys who founded the original 13 colonies.
Grit and know-how did play a part. These were, after all, some of the same folks who shocked the world by waging a successful war against the British Empire. But even the most rabid free-marketeers have to agree it’s a lot easier to create a thriving economy if it’s built on the backs of slave labor.
It was propaganda produced by U.S. military leaders and eagerly accepted by the White House that communist North Vietnam led an “attack” against U.S. Naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964. In a televised address to the nation, President Lyndon Johnson cited the incident as the basis for his escalation of U.S. military’s engagement in Vietnam.
By the end of the Vietnam War nine years later, 60,000 U.S. troops and 3.5 million Vietnamese, including 2 million civilians, had been killed.
Historians have since concluded the August 4 “attack” never happened.
It was propaganda based on false intelligence claims that President George W. Bush used to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In a speech he delivered several months ahead of the invasion, Vice President Dick Cheney said, “Simply stated, there’s no doubt that [Iraq President] Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.”
There were no WMDs. The Bush Administration’s claims were false. Yet, more than 4,500 U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed.
Now comes Trump, who seems hell bent on making propaganda great again.
The Washington Post has documented that our president, arguably the most powerful man on the planet, has made more than 13,400 “false or misleading claims” since he took office.
Not that all of Trump’s lies qualify as propaganda. He’s been known to lie about the stupidest things. Lying is a compulsion with Trump. But he also lies about important things, like the baseless claim that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
His lies about Ukraine are propaganda of the first order. Not only is there no evidence whatsoever to support Trump’s repeatedly debunked conspiracy theory about Ukraine, but every major U.S. intelligence agency and a bipartisan committee of the U.S. Senate have officially pinned the attack on our election system on the Russians.
In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin promoted the lie about Ukraine at a press conference in early 2017, and Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort – whose current residence is a federal prison – began talking up the accusations against Ukraine in the summer of 2016, according to The New York Times.
To be effective, true propaganda (if you’ll forgive the oxymoron) requires at least two elements: a desire to gain or maintain power and a clear underlying ideological agenda.
Like all bullies, Trump loves wielding power, and he really loves abusing it even more.
As for his underlying agenda? It’s not complicated. Trump’s agenda isn’t about conservatism. It’s not being pro-life or anti-communist or defending America’s constitutional principles.
Trump is just greedy. Greed is what drives him. It’s what gets him through the day.
Unfortunately for Trump, he can’t stop wanting to be richer, even if that means squandering his presidency or his freedom.
It’s Trump’s greed that will lead to his impeachment. If justice and the rule of law prevail, it could one day land him in prison.
Trump is like the scorpion from a classic Russian fable. Even after the unsuspecting frog carries the scorpion on his back and across the pond to safety, the scorpion stings him.
When the dying frog asks, “Why did you sting me?” the scorpion answers without remorse, “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”
Except unlike the scorpion, Trump wouldn’t admit his betrayal, even if caught red-handed, because he knows that “great” propaganda only works if you never own up to the lie.