Since the 1992 election of Bill Clinton, it seems each year levels paranoia and mistrust rise to a point suggesting we’re headed to a kind of mass nervous breakdown — if you’re a steady reader of political news. Going back to Clinton, the right was obsessed with things like the death of Vince Foster (Deputy White House Counsel for six months during Clinton’s first term). Foster killed himself — and five government investigations came to the same conclusion — but that didn’t stop right-wing radio talkers from pushing various conspiracy theories for Clinton’s entire presidency — one of which claimed Hillary Clinton was the person who shot and killed Foster.
Then came George W. Bush — who won the 2000 election with the help of the U.S. Supreme Court (Bush v Gore). With 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, and the Iraq war (based on fabricated evidence of weapons of mass destruction), paranoia and patriotism were back at it with, this time, the left spinning theories of how Big Brother was gonna get ya. It didn’t help matters that the Bush administration routinely lied, expanded government surveillance of its citizens, and squashed dissent. The neocons of the Bush era were eager to create a robust American Empire that would last ’til the end of the 21st century — and it took a kind of Machiavellian will to power that the Dick Cheney wing of the administration excelled at.
With Barack Obama’s presidency, a never-ending obsession with his birth certificate led to a second career for Donald Trump with the so-called Birther Movement. Fueled by paranoia, racial prejudice, and a willingness to let the most base instincts and wild paranoid fantasies abound, Trump, right-wing talk radio, and even members of the GOP stirred the pot of resentment and hatred to block policies the Obama administration tried to implement. They were not always successful in their attempts to harness racism in the quest for political victories, but they widened the divide between a cross-section of whites (who viewed themselves in a zero-sum struggle against immigrants, blacks, liberals, and anyone else who was in that camp). All the while, the right-wing media was stoking the flames of resentment and hatred. It paid dividends in terms of campaign donations, viewers of Fox News, and listeners to right-wing talk radio. And while Obama served two terms as president, around a 30 percent of whites were now in the thrall of massive propaganda effort to reframe their opinions.
Now that Donald Trump is president, paranoia and hatred still exist on the right (after more than two decades of constant manipulation, why would it go away ?) But now those violent and exclusionary impulses have state power at the federal level that hasn’t been seen since the early 20th century. Yes, Trump is a racist — in that he uses the power of the state to “socially engineer” conditions that give an advantage to whites while systematically denying it to those who are not in Club White. He harbors deep racial hostilities borne out of a lifetime of viewing (mostly) blacks as either too poor, too lazy, too ungrateful, or too violent. However, while Trump may have friends who are black, his knee-jerk reaction to the presence non-whites is to attack them in very public ways that are praised by Nazi organizations.
Having a president like Trump means he’s done away with dog whistle politics of stirring racial resentment through coded language. It’s all upfront and in our faces now. Because his behavior has broken long respected norms in politics, he dominates the news cycle — and therein lies the problem. The Media (writ large) knows to generate views (and profits) it has to churn out stories that will grab the attention of readers eager to follow the twists and turns of politics (mostly the investigation into Russian influence in the election — and Trump campaign collusion with a foreign entity). Those on the center-left have (for about eight years) been away from the river of paranoia that the right-wing media echo chamber has delivered to their audience with regularity. But manipulation is manipulation, and papers like The Washington Post, The New York Times, or sites like Vox, Slate, Salon, Talking Points Memo, The Nation, and The Atlantic are feeding the center-left a steady diet of Trump stories. It’s fatiguing, it wears on one’s emotions, and it starts to imprint on one’s lizard brain that the sky is indeed falling.
Now, there’s no dispute that with a Trump presidency, many gains for progressives, liberals, centrists, and even some on the right are being erased. We’ve seen a dizzying array of events that signal our political culture has the potential to swing one way or another. We have a president who bragged on an audio recording about getting away with sexual assault and still get elected. We’ve seen in the past year, men in many high-profile sectors of society get run out of positions of power because of decades of sexually abusive behavior reached a point where #MeToo went from a hashtag to a movement. There have been four indictments by the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump campaign officials’ ties to Russia, money laundering, and lying to the FBI. EPA regulations, immigration laws, health care, consumer protections…all getting rolled back. Special elections in states where GOP candidates usually win are seeing Democrats victorious. And while our political culture has been historically partisan (save perhaps for moments between post-WW-II and 9/11 when consensus wasn’t anathema), we’re at a point where life in our self-selected bubbles mean we can’t even agree on the same facts. It’s a postmodern condition where Truth becomes truths. Put it another way, all we have are perspectives competing with each other for power. That’s not to say an ideal of Objective Fact isn’t problematic. It’s just in the age of “alternative facts” in a “post-truth” world, information is easier to mold into propaganda, PR, and spin — creating both fatigue and a level of paranoia leading to a kind of tribal derangement over the evilness of “the other side.”
The Soviets used to think that children were like wax and could be molded into The New Soviet Man (or human). That’s why a multi-pronged use of media was employed to indoctrinate the young. Mediums like radio, film, print, theater, and lectures went on and on about the evils of capitalism, the bourgeoisie, liberalism, and anything that went against the ideology of the party. The constant barrage of propaganda created a bubble where reality was controlled by the elites of the State. Large-scale psychological operations like this wouldn’t be used if they didn’t work. Children may be malleable like warm wax, but so are adults. And if Trump’s tweets, outbursts, and rants prove anything, it’s this: it far easier to believe the worst in “others” if the leaders you identify with are telling you who to hate.
When the profit motive is factored into news media content, propaganda isn’t used entirely in the service of the State, but rather to a corporation’s bottom line. The gamut of media outlets (from left, right, and center) do report news in a more standard way. However, the proliferation of opinion media (wherein news is “analyzed” by self-styled pundits) pervades in part because it’s cheap to produce. Paying reporters to chase news stories (where sometimes there’s no there there when it comes to a lead) is costly. Paying a so-called “pundit” to comment and criticize news stories that other outlets have reported is cheaper because opinion media doesn’t have to do the hard work of journalism. One just needs to read news stories from sources one hates (or loves) to come up with hours of content. There’s also the reality that people want their views confirmed (and not challenged) — and opinion media is right there to give that service. Giving the people what they want when they want it is a kind of propaganda that’s designed not to make some “New Human,” but rather keep groups separated, fearful, and full of suspicion and hate. All the while, there’s a small elite who are profiting off such manipulation. Heads of media companies know this — and politicians like Trump know this. Conflict is the show that plays out on our TV and computer screens, and we’re addicted to it — even though it’s making us kind of crazy.
Update: since this post was written, a couple of friends have sent me articles that go deeper into propaganda and technology.
First, from my friend Tony, this Scientific American piece looks at how our brains tend to accept false information — even when it’s later revealed that information is not true (click HERE to read).
Second, my friend Mary sent me a BuzzFeed post on how new technological innovations have the potential to distort reality through video, create emails that mimic a friend or family member’s writing style to deceive you in phishing campaigns, and other nightmare scenarios. Read it and weep. (Click HERE).