2020 has been the most surreal year of many of our lives. As if things weren’t already weird enough, we now have the fear and confusion of living through a global pandemic to contend with. Although that is not the subject of this post, I think it is worth noting that such a climate is a very hazardous one for an election. We have already been immersed in a “post-truth” political climate for some time, and the rampant fear and uncertainty leave us all vulnerable to manipulation by those with nefarious intentions.
So in “doing my part” to add to the conversation on this election, I thought I would discuss some important themes which I expect to dominate much of the debate, for better or worse: propaganda, conspiracy theories, and “big lies.” Fun stuff, right!? In any case, I hope you’ll find reading these reflections fruitful.
The “Big Lie” That Launched a Political Career
Politics have been in a “post-truth” era for quite some time now. Not only is the spread of misinformation more pervasive than ever, but politicians are now routinely making use of it to advance their agendas. Nobody has been more of a master of this than Donald Trump. Indeed, he has been a pioneer. His promotion of the “birther” conspiracy theory, alleging that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is not an American citizen, was how he built his political brand and base. When Trump started to promote this idea in 2010, few probably thought he would be the country’s next President. But Trump himself was thinking ahead. He instructed his personal attorney Michael Cohen to ask the National Enquirer to begin promoting the conspiracy, and to simultaneously begin promoting the idea of a Trump candidacy.
At the height of the conspiracy’s popularity, 25% of the American public doubted that Obama was actually born in America. Even after Obama released his long-form birth certificate in 2011, 13% of Americans still weren’t convinced. A conventional politician may have felt forced to apologized after he was so publicly proven wrong. But not Donald Trump. After Obama released the birth certificate, he used the occasion to boast “I am really honored and I am really proud, that I was able to do something that nobody else could do.” By 2016, Trump was blaming Hillary Clinton for the conspiracy’s popularity, even though he had been its most prominent proponent.
I submit that none of this was an accident. To Trump, it didn’t matter whether the birther conspiracy was true. What mattered to him was that it helped him build a brand and a core following. He was consciously using the “big lie,” a proven propaganda technique pioneered in Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler defined the “big lie” as a falsehood so “colossal” that nobody “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” In that sense, the birther conspiracy is the perfect “big lie,” as pandering to racism and xenophobia to undermine the first black president’s legitimacy is certainly an “infamous” distortion of the truth, regardless of whether you support or oppose Obama’s policies as President.
It doesn’t really matter if people find out the “big lie” is false, as the vast majority of Americans have in this case. Through simple repetition, a core group of people will believe the lie in spite of the evidence, and will thus remain fiercely loyal to its key proponent. As for the rest of the population, the big lie makes “smaller” lies seem acceptable in comparison. Take the false claim that it was, in fact, Hillary Clinton or her supporters who created the birther conspiracy. It gives space for Trump’s supporters to acknowledge that Obama was born in America, while simultaneously rationalizing Trump’s involvement in its promotion. They can write it off as just another example of Trump being an endearing “loose cannon” and tell themselves that it was a sincere pursuit of truth that drove him. It was the “liberal media” and “Crooked Hillary” who are actually to blame for the big lie, after all.
Other conspiracy theories promoted by Trump include Spygate, the Deep State, the notion that MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough murdered a staffer when he was a Congressman, and his latest, the spooky “Obamagate,” which has been purposely presented in as vague a way as possible.
During his presidential campaign, Trump appeared on the radio show of Alex Jones, who has promoted the idea that 9-11 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting were government-planned, “false flag” attacks, and that the government puts chemicals in the tap water in order to increase the prevalence of homosexuality. While he didn’t explicitly endorse these particular theories, Trump told Jones, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.” That shows that he was aware of just how influential people like Jones were becoming, and was interested in scoring political points by playing on the fears of his audience.
So how did we get here? Why are conspiracy theories gaining such popularity in our political discourse? Why are so many Americans now so ripe to believe them? And what are the implications for the 2020 election?
The Increasing Role of Conspiracy Theories in Public Discourse
In what many of us consider “serious” intellectual discussion, conspiracy theories are normally dismissed out of hand. Most of us have come to think of “conspiracy theory” as a catch-all term for the dystopian fantasies of cranks and lunatics. Of course, there is a lot of truth to this perception. The “facts” that make up the narratives of the great majority of popular conspiracy theories are easily disproven by a bit of digging. This begs the question: why are they such an effective tool in the rhetorical toolbox of Donald Trump (and increasingly, as they have observed his success, other politicians)?
The standard explanation for many on the left tends to be that Trump’s core supporters are simply stupid people, easily swayed by a combination of charisma and confirmation bias. I submit that not only is this explanation dangerously naive, it actually plays directly into Trump’s hands. Trump inspires the kind of devotion he does, particularly among his middle and working class base, simply by mocking an elite that so many of them instinctively know does not respect them. Finally, it feels like someone in politics is “on their side,” simply because he is validating their vague sense of anger at being treated unfairly by the elites of our society. After making this strong emotional appeal, Trump sets out to define the “elite” as including all Democrats, the entire media (besides Fox News, on a good day), experts in all fields, and more or less anybody else that is not in lockstep with his agenda. This way, only he and those he considers extremely loyal can provide the “facts” to his supporters, who don’t trust anyone else.
Part of his method for doing this is to employ conspiracy theories, such as a spooky “Deep State” intent on establishing a totalitarian New World Order (NWO), to fill in the blanks of the narratives he has constructed where the facts simply don’t fit. Since it is emotionally satisfying for ordinary folks to let out their pent up aggression on vague scapegoats, they have a strong psychological incentive to buy into these explanations at face value, rather than to look into whether the facts fit the narrative.
Up to now, many on the left who oppose Trump will likely have no qualms with what I am saying. But I think this is only half the story. Trump’s mastery of manipulation and propaganda would mean nothing if trust in our institutions had not deteriorated so precipitously in the last generation or two. Maybe something more is going on. A society does not become ripe for this sort of manipulation by charlatans overnight. Perhaps some of these conspiracy theories, while lacking factual accuracy, convey a certain narrative, mythical truth to people.
Conspiracy Theories and the Power of Myth
In popular usage, the word “myth” is synonymous with “made up story.” But this is a very incomplete understanding. Drawing on the ideas of Joseph Campbell, I summarized the concept in the following way in “On Freedom and Security,” my first post for this blog:
The word “myth” is derived from the Classical Greek word mythos, which simply means “story.” Human storytelling – and our shared capacity to understand narrative – is a cultural universal, and with good reason. Cognitive scientists describe narrative as a basic organizing structure of memory. By telling stories, to ourselves, to others, or to our communities, we construct a sense of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.
In his fascinating essay, “The Conspiracy Myth,” Charles Eisenstein asks us to take another look at conspiracy theories so that we might understand their appeal more deeply. He starts with this astute observation:
Sometimes the term [conspiracy theory] is deployed against anyone who questions authority, dissents from dominant paradigms, or thinks that hidden interests influence our leading institutions. As such, it is a way to quash dissent and bully those trying to stand up to abuses of power. One needn’t abandon critical thinking to believe that powerful institutions sometimes collude, conspire, cover up, and are corrupt. If that is what is meant by a conspiracy theory, obviously some of those theories are true. Does anyone remember Enron? Iran-Contra? COINTELPRO? Vioxx? Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? “
Indeed, I can name several other “conspiracies” that we have plenty of evidence for. The tobacco industry’s systematic disinformation campaigns meant to convince the public that smoking poses no health risks, and the fossil fuel industry’s systematic campaign to do the same with regard to the impact of its products on climate change come immediately to mind. Obviously, powerful interests, whether in government or in the private sector, often work behind the scenes to advance a shared agenda. In these particular examples, the companies involved even used the same researchers to misinform the public. Given the narrow range of people who would benefit from such an agenda and the disinformation involved in promoting it, it would make sense that the conspirators would want their activities to remain hidden from public view.
In these cases and countless others, the facts we now know show that a “conspiracy” of one sort or another took place. In some cases, it took decades for the conspiracies to finally be uncovered. No doubt, people who tried to sound the alarm on these historical realities at the time – albeit sometimes with incomplete or inaccurate information – were panned as “conspiracy theorists,” “wackos,” or worse. In fact, in many cases, the government agencies or industries involved in the conspiracies used their immense PR and propaganda capabilities to assassinate the character of these whistle-blowers. When they could, they often had them arrested and thrown in jail.
Because conspiracies are, by definition, hidden realities, conspiracy theories are often both unprovable and unfalsifiable. This presents an enormously confusing catch-22. On the one hand, anybody who reads history or follows the news knows that it is extremely likely – indeed, all but certain – that hidden conspiracies are taking place right now. But, on the other hand, if the conspiracies are well executed, they will remain hidden unless a really good investigative journalist or whistle-blower on the inside exposes what is going on: so well hidden, in fact, that we would not even know where to begin looking.
The cognitive dissonance produced by this line of thinking can be staggering. Conspiracies represent a “great unknown” in the realm of power and politics. And because of the way our minds work, we want to come up with a story to make this “great unknown” more digestible. For some whose minds desire a strong sense of certainty, this process can become very, very elaborate. Their minds spin grandiose narratives of a perpetual fight between the forces of good, ordinary people and the various shadowy boogeyman pulling the strings of power. Sometimes, these boogeymen are imagined groups such as the “Illuminati,” “Deep State,” or “New World Order.” Sometimes, they are caricatures of real groups such as the Rothschild banking family, the Freemasons or the Jesuits. Often, a variety of these concepts are combined into a grand, self-referential narrative, and facts that undermine the narrative are explained away as part of the conspiracy.
Often, the appeal of conspiracy theories is explained away as a sign of the poor psychological health of the conspiracy theorist. It is often thought that only paranoid, mentally ill people would indulge in such fantasies. This may be true enough for the most extreme folks who believe in reptilian overlords and elite schemes to reduce the world’s population to 10,000. But when it comes to the many millions of otherwise well-adjusted people who are buying into conspiracy theories on one level or another more and more by the day, the truth is far more complicated.
Eisenstein goes on to argue that beyond their literal content, popular conspiracy narratives embody certain mythic truths that we ignore at “great peril.” To summarize, they are the following:
- Trust in public institutions of authority – from government, to the media, to business, to the academy, to science – is in tatters. People in Western society today instinctively disbelieve what they are being told by so-called experts.
- “The conspiracy myth gives narrative form to an authentic intuition that an inhuman power governs the world.” But this power is not a literal cabal of nefarious conspirators. Rather, it is the systems in which we all participate, and the ideologies that drive them. Thus, imagined boogeymen like the Illuminati or “Deep State” allow us to disown our collective shadow.
Eisenstein goes on to say that “information suppression can happen without deliberate orchestration. Throughout history, hysterias, intellectual fads, and mass delusions have come and gone spontaneously. This is more mysterious than the easy conspiracy explanation admits.” Indeed. For our purposes, let’s look at the media.
It Gets More Complex: The Role of “Information Glut”
Never in human history have human beings had access to such an abundance of information. This includes everything from valuable information of a factual nature, to information of questionable veracity, to outright disinformation. What’s more, this dizzying smorgasbord of “data” is drowned out by ever more meaningless puffery, including tweets, memes, TikTok videos, and of course, a relentless barrage of advertisements.
Given the current hunger for entertainment in our culture, a news organization may not run particular stories simply because it would not bring them enough clicks or viewers to justify what they are spending on advertising. While there have certainly been situations where advertisers have suppressed news stories that make them look bad (see the section “The ‘Legitimacy’ of Trump’s Propaganda Machine” below for an example), more often than not, the profit motive driving the news business does their work for them. Complicated investigative reports simply don’t get as much attention as Michael Jackson’s latest plastic surgery or Kim Kardashian’s latest Instagram post.
Here again we see the genius of Trump’s reality-TV approach to politics: post provocative stuff on the internet and say outrageous things in public. Since people find it entertaining, he will automatically dominate the news cycle. Given how unfashionable depth and complexity have become in modern culture, the strategy has worked brilliantly for him. By and large, we live in an “attention economy” more so than a “marketplace of ideas.” Even for intelligent, educated people, the endless sea of “information” at our disposal can seem overwhelming.
To quote the media theorist Neil Postman, “When there is too much information to sustain any theory, information becomes essentially meaningless.” Therefore, if one can command attention in the never-ending sea of distractions that has become our modern culture, one can wield an enormous amount of influence. It is in this context that propaganda becomes even more powerful.
Postman wrote those words in the 1980s, before the internet was even a major player in all this. Things have gotten far worse since then, making his prophetic insights ever more relevant.
How Propaganda Tells A Story
As I hope I’ve made clear this far, we’ve reached a point in our history where the myths that have sustained our culture are breaking down. Many feel they have been sold a bill of goods about an “American Dream” which simply does not exist. Some people respond with the wish to delude themselves into believing that the American Dream is alive and well (“Make America Great Again!”). Others want scapegoats to blame for the decline of the American Dream (Mexicans in particular; immigrants & asylum seekers in general). Others are attracted to radical politics, apocalyptic religion, and, of course, conspiracy theories. However one might cope psychologically, trust in institutions, experts, and authority in general is very low.
What we call “social order” generally depends on the vast majority of a culture feeling they are a part of the same story or group of stories. Historically, in America, we’ve constructed a “shared myth” based on beliefs in individual liberty, hard work, and self-reliance, to one degree or another. The unrest we are seeing right now is quite predictable from this point of view. When it came to what the “facts” are, a generation or two ago, most people agreed that if Walter Cronkite said it or it was printed in the New York Times, it was likely true, and we had our public debates on that basis.
Now, I am not commenting here on the accuracy of these myths or perceptions. Certainly, I am not trying to promote a nostalgia for the “golden age” of America. Many of our country’s “original sins,” such as slavery and treatment of indigenous peoples, were conveniently left out of the shared myth, or selectively remembered or re-imagined in a way that fit the narrative (think of the sweet stories about Indians and Pilgrims eating together on the First Thanksgiving). But I’m not picking on the myth. Myths are never literally true. They simply tell us metaphorical truths, which orient us in a shared reality that “makes sense.”
Not all myths are vehicles of truth. Indeed, many can be downright harmful. In many other cases, they are a mixed bag.
Propagandists the world over have been very much aware of the power of myth for a century. Part of the methodology of the most cynical among them, as they spin grand narratives, is to employ conspiracy theories which fit well within the story line. In repressive regimes, such as China, factual information that contradicts the narrative is censored outright. In other cases, efforts are made to drown the truth in a sea of irrelevance, to paraphrase Aldous Huxley.
Propagandists in communist regimes construct narratives about the triumph of the Working class over the dark forces of the bourgeois. In the process, they consciously create elaborate cults of personality around their despotic leaders. Then, they either suppress religion completely or only allow it to operate only in a bastardized way that supports the state-sanctioned myth, in order to ensure that the natural religious impulse of human beings is rerouted towards a slavish devotion to state. North Korea has been infamously effective in getting people to believe such a narrative. And thanks to the regime’s relentless suppression of all contradictory information, the vast majority of the population believe a wide variety of patent falsehoods, from the absurd to the downright sinister. These include, but are certainly not limited to, the following:
- Kim Jong Il invented the hamburger
- The North Korean government cured AIDS and Ebola worldwide
- The first human beings (who also happen to be the master race) evolved in North Korea
- The members of the Kim family are divine figures to whom all owe total devotion
On the other side of the political spectrum, American history has seen the phenomenon of McCarthyism. The technique is named for the 1950s era Congressman Joseph McCarthy, who was downright paranoid about Communist infiltration and overthrow of the United States government. Although many of McCarthy’s Republican allies saw him as something of a kook, they thought his tactics were useful for killing left-of-center proposals and purging their political enemies from positions of power and influence.
Trump’s myth that Biden is a “helpless puppet of the radical left” is based on similar red baiting as McCarthyism was. The goal is to paint electing the moderate Biden, as radical and dangerous and to invoke images of gulags, hammers and sickles in the process. Middle of the road ideas such as expanding Obamacare or reinstating the DACA program are cast within the narrative of a Communist plot to nationalize everything, destroy the institution of the family, and replace democracy with centralized state decision making.
This is a big part of why Trump has attempted to brand Joe Biden as suffering from cognitive decline – even having some surrogates go as far as to claim that Biden is suffering from dementia. The point is that “Sleepy Joe” is just too old and feeble to know that the people pulling the strings behind the scenes in the Democratic Party have this dark future in mind for the country. They have consciously chosen him as the party’s figurehead precisely because of his lack of awareness of what they are up to.
The “Legitimacy” of Trump’s Propaganda Machine
A 2019 Gallup poll found that only about 40% of Americans trust the media to present the news “fairly, accurately and fully,” with an appallingly low 13% saying they trust the media “a great deal.” Thus, it is not hard to see that Trump gains much of his “legitimacy” among his supporters from the claim that the media are “enemies of the people,” doing the work of the “Deep State” to dismantle the “great” America of the past and create a new, unrecognizable country. At the risk of upsetting some of my readers, while this is factually incorrect narrative, it carries some mythical truth. I emphasize the word some, because this grain of truth, and the gut feeling of “yeah!” it elicits, provides the emotional basis for supporters to buy into the rest of the larger propaganda narrative in which it is embedded
So what is this grain of truth? It is none other than corporate media consolidation, and its consequences in terms of the quality of information we have access to. Since the 1980s, the number of independent news sources has declined precipitously due to various corporate mergers and buyouts. As of 1983, 90% of U.S. media sources were owned by about 50 companies. Today, just 6 corporations own 90% of the U.S. media. This often includes local TV stations and newspapers which appear to be competitors.
These large corporations are not free of political agenda, often making substantial campaign contributions to candidates of both parties. Their agenda has less to do with ideology and more to do with corporate greed. Have you ever noticed that when you watch cable news the primary advertisers are the insurance, pharmaceutical, auto, and telecommunications industries? These advertising dollars are the bread and butter of the news business, and therefore, these companies have a strong incentive to support policies – and kill unflattering stories – that protect their profits. See the video below for an all too common story of what happened to a couple of local TV journalists who ran a story on harmful dairy additives which was unflattering to their station’s advertiser, the agri-business giant Monsanto.
Sifting Through the Noise
I understand that I have presented quite a lot here. What to do with all of this? When it comes to propaganda, simple awareness of its existence goes a long way. I suggest keeping the power of myth in mind, and understanding that from the propagandist’s point of view, factual accuracy is not as important as the consistency of the myth.
When it comes to information presented in the news media, consider the source. Who are their advertisers? What niche audience is their marketing aimed at? How do these factors influence the stories they cover, the stories they don’t cover, and how they cover them?
When it comes to conspiracy theories, I hope it is clear that while they may occasionally be on to something, or at least convey some mythic truth, they also have a very dark side which can be used to great effect by malicious actors. So how are we, as ordinary people, to navigate all of this? How do we separate fact from fiction? Literal from mythical? Propaganda from a sincere search for the truth?
There are no easy answers, but I hope that the following guidelines can be helpful.
- Is it falsifiable? (Example: Obama’s birth certificate proves the “birther” conspiracy is false.) If so, DO NOT take it literally. At best, it conveys a mythic truth. If not, see step two.
- Can it be proven? If so, how? Do you have the ability to prove it yourself from where you stand? If not, all you have is a possibility. Consider whether other possibilities are more probable.
- Does it confirm your fears or prejudices? If so, consider the source. What motivation could the source have for appealing to you in this way? Propaganda works especially well when people are afraid, because fear inhibits rational investigation of the conspiracy.
- How does it sit as a myth? Try considering the conspiracy theory the way you would say, Aesop’s fables. Are there any intuitions it gives narrative form to? Does it point to any systemic realities which are otherwise hard to pinpoint? Even if you do find some mythic value, take any promotion of its literal truth (especially by politicians) with a grain of salt.
Ultimately, we will all have to make our own way through the “noise” of this era where the truth so eludes an easy grasp. For me, writing this article is as much an exercise in sifting through my own thoughts as anything else.
In the realm of politics in particular, it’s best to view everything as myth, with the assumption that the folks behind the curtain are propagandists. Ironically, many of these propagandists are willing to use conspiracy theories that whip up resentment against the very ruling class they represent to accomplish their goals of mass manipulation. And in American history, I submit that no President has had such a dark agenda in doing so as Donald Trump.
What about Biden?
Some readers will surely respond: “But Michael, you’re letting Biden and the Democrats off the hook!” To be clear: I am not saying that Biden and Democrats don’t use their own propaganda techniques. All political campaigns do. But what’s clear to me, and independent observers, is that Biden makes far fewer false statements and does not make use of conspiracy theories to push false narratives. See PolitiFact’s files on Trump and Biden for comparison, and Wikipedia’s long list of references, many of them detailed academic studies, which show the unprecedented nature of Trump’s relationship with the truth.
Ultimately, it is for the reader to make their own decision about how to vote. Surely, all of these problems won’t disappear the minute Donald Trump leaves office. I would argue strongly, however, that Trump’s position as President is contributing to an alarming decline in the quality of our discourse, and that his intentions in terms of policy are much darker than Biden’s are. Biden would restore some semblance of integrity to the office of the Presidency, which is a good place to start.