1 In Commentaries

This Is What Fascism Looks Like: Part II – Propaganda

We have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by others, many of whom want to impose their culture and laws under the manufactured utopian idea that all cultures are equal, and most are better than Americans. Of course more people should be proud of their heritage. They should teach their children to be proud of their history, and their traditions. And they should be welcomed in America. But America is a culture. It has a culture. And it must be recognized.                      

                                                                                    ~ Roger Ailes, Speaking in 2013

What united generations past was an unshakable confidence in America’s destiny, and an unbreakable faith in the American People. They knew that our country is blessed by God, and has a special purpose in this world. It is that conviction that inspired the formation of our union, our westward expansion, the abolition of slavery, the passage of civil rights, the space program, and the overthrow of fascism, tyranny and communism. 

                                                        ~ Donald Trump speaking at the RNC in 2020

With profound distress millions of the best German men and women from all walks of life have seen the unity of the nation vanishing away, dissolving in a confusion of political and personal opinions, economic interests, and ideological differences. Since that day, as so often in the past, Germany has presented a picture of heartbreaking disunity. We never received the equality and fraternity we had been promised, and we lost our liberty to boot. For when our nation lost its political place in the world, it soon lost its unity of spirit and will….

                                                           ~Adolf Hitler, Speaking to the nation in 1933

 

Last week’s Republican National Convention seems to be the moment that the national press finally realized that there are two different Americas. One that is grounded in traditional media outlets and expectations of fact-based reporting that lead to thoughtful, measured, democratic – leaning ideology and policy.  The other is centered in newer media, primarily Fox News, and expectations of theory-based reporting leading to emotional, spin-doctored, republican-leaning ideology and justifications.  

Fox News is an American basic cable and satellite television news channel. Moscow, Russia – March 26, 2019 | Source: Adobe Stock

The two versions of America is not new.  It took living in the rural South for nearly a decade for me to understand that in many ways, the civil war never really ended.  Not for many southern white Americans, anyway.  It’s a wound and an ideology that has been kept alive generation after generation and nurtured like blowing on a spark in a little pile of dry grass.  Over the last 25 years, that ember caught fire and has torn across our country. Unfortunately, like the fires burning across California recently, it’s been relatively easy not to see the flames until it was too late. 

If you are not living in more rural area of the country or already leaning right, these Trump years probably feel about as shocking as someone sneaking up from behind and zapping you with a cattle prod.  But it’s been there, this growing rage and self-righteous desire to turn back the clock to a different time.  This is the flame that right wing media has been nurturing on Fox News, conservative Christian radio and the ever-increasing number of talk shows spawned by Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones.  Now, after hearing Trump speak about defending “the American way of life or whether we will allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it”, there can be no doubt.  Those right-leaning justifications are about ignoring the rights of many in the service of an inherently superior white, conservative class.

Just as the alt-right has increasingly taken over the screens of many white young men in the last decade, Fox News began to dominate the airwaves in the early 2000’s and in some parts of the country, became inescapable.  I remember taking a road trip across the U.S. in 2009. It was an adventure I had dreamed of for many years.  I wanted to see my beautiful country in its totality and visit places that I had always dreamed of seeing for myself.  I took the southern road from California across to my mother’s in Florida and then north through my old home in South Carolina.  Next I continued my journey up the east coast so that I could take in more of the northern states, see my father in the Midwest and journey through Nevada’s desert and over the Sierras back home to California.  It was a magnificent journey.  With the great big blue skies and Emmie, my Aussie canine companion, I never felt lonely or even alone.  I felt home.

But once I got past the reaches of my favorite public radio station and grew a bit tired of my stacks of CDs, I started to notice something different.  The radio stations on the open road were far fewer, of course, but they were also extremely limited.  Much more so than when I had driven across the country in the 1980’s or 90’s.  Now it seemed that I could drive for days with little to listen to besides very conservative Christian radio, Christian music, belligerent talk shows and country music.  Even the news casts seemed to be much more conservative in their interpretations.  Sure, I could still find a rock station or more contemporary rap or pop music along the way.  But there was rarely more than one or two stations like this to choose from.  All the rest sounded conservative and overly self righteous – even about what had previously been less controversial topics.

Then there were the motels.  I had brought along a tent, camping gear and a sleeping bag, but I had forgotten one important thing: my dog.  My dreams of saving money by camping evaporated as soon as I arrived in Las Vegas and it was nearly 100 degrees.  I realized that I could not camp on those hot summer nights.  My hairy companion would truly suffer.  So, I’m embarrassed to say that I sought many more motels and the comfort of air conditioning along the way.

Each morning I took Emmie out and then trotted down to the breakfast area or wherever coffee was being served.  Invariably, a large flat screen TV hung in the lobby, dining area or both.  It was always blaring Fox News.  Always.  Usually very loudly.  It wasn’t just noticeable, it was inescapable.  Restaurants, gas stations… it seemed that the particular self-righteous and condescending tone so familiar on these stations permeated the very air I breathed.  It reminded me of living in the deep South.  I was not comforted.

Civil War Memorial on Monument Avenue, Richmond VA | Source: Adobe Stock

Over the last 20 years, I have often felt that I was watching the southern culture I had escaped march its way across the country.  There’s a rage in the South that has been kept alive in virtually every institution and social structure.  I saw it in the ways that school children were taught about the “war between the states”, the rebel flags flying over the state capital and on the front porch of small town homes.  The reverence for “Civil War Heros” lived in the everyday references of many white people I knew and worked with, as did their pride in their monuments – many of which towered over traffic in Richmond, VA and awed onlookers in Kentucky, where the Jefferson Davis Monument stands some 25 stories tall.  Over time, I adjusted.  But in the end I could not bear the oppression I felt as a woman of color living in the Carolinas or in Virginia.  When I finally got back to California, it took me a year to feel safe enough to express an opinion – even at a dinner party among friends.  That’s when I realized how much I had learned to bottle my thoughts, my feelings, my truth, myself up inside simply to survive in such a conservative environment.  

Fox News is instrumental to the rise of Trump and the conservative wave we are facing today, so it’s important to understand where it came from.  The station was hatched in the middle of my “southern period” in 1996.  The brain child of Roger Ailes, it was created to be an alternative reality maker and propaganda machine for the Republican Party.  Early in his career, he served as the TV and media advisor for republican presidents, where he “encouraged Nixon to practice the politics of resentment that came naturally to him, creating the basic formula used by Reagan (and) both Bushes”.   Then he dreamed of creating what would later become Fox News:  “In a memo to top Nixon aides, he even proposed creating a White House television news service that would provide local stations with administration-produced news segments to counterbalance what viewers consumed via regular TV.” 

Ailes was born in Ohio, but his world views fit perfectly within the party’s move toward the “Southern Strategy”.  It took two more decades, but by the mid 1990’s, Ailes began partnering with Rush Limbaugh, producing a TV show for the talk show host and then introducing him to President Bush.  Together, they moved conversations that had been on the margin for decades steadily, strategically into the mainstream:  

Limbaugh and a bevy of similar radio and TV hosts operated very much in the Ailesian vein: militant in their ideology, aggrieved in their attitudes, provocative in their rhetoric. Collectively, they began prodding not just liberals but also the GOP establishment, urging them to adopt increasingly extreme stands while also forcing workaday journalists to give respectful attention to far-right arguments that once would have been deemed beyond the pale. Taking these voices and methods from radio to television, Ailes hoped, would not only be a lucrative business prospect but also held the potential to enhance conservative power regardless of who held the White House.

In 1996, Ailes joined forces with Rupert Murdoch to realize his vision with the launch of Fox News.   They leveraged the now booming technology of cable television to create a network (soon followed by more radio on and off the internet) that was designed not to educate or enlighten, but for the sole purpose of convincing millions of average (white) Americans that a more inclusive and equitable vision of the country was not just wrong, it was anti-American:

Source: Adobe Stock

Empowered by Rupert Murdoch, who was intent on upending the traditional news media, Mr. Ailes built a network, the Fox News Channel, that would speak to and for those Americans he said were being ignored and disrespected. They were the people who went to Friendly’s for milkshakes, flew the American flag on their car antennas and didn’t see much point in trying to “understand” America’s enemies.

His network would load its prime-time slots with opinionated talk-radio-style personalities while presenting news with an approach he called “fair and balanced,” an indictment of the rest of the news media as excessively liberal. He implicitly injected the news with politics — and set Fox to the right of its rivals — even as he professed to be doing the opposite.

Even after his fall from grace and subsequent death, some conservative pundits continued to uphold “The genius of Roger Ailes”.  But his tactics are not new.  Using new technology to communicate directly with potential followers, manipulation of facts, and even the meaning of “the truth” was central to Hitler’s rise in Germany.  It was Hitler who coined the term “Big Lie” while dictating Mein Kompf in 1925.  He advocated for a propaganda technique that sounds so very familiar today:

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.

His tactics are not new.  Using new technology to communicate directly with potential followers, manipulation of facts and even the meaning of “the truth” with propaganda was central to Hitler’s rise in Germany.

President Trump, like Ailes and Hitler, often use this very technique to blame their victims while simultaneously accusing them of lying:

Just imagine if the so-called peaceful demonstrators in the streets were in charge of every lever of power in the U.S. Government.  Liberal politicians claim to be concerned about the strength of American institutions. But who, exactly, is attacking them? Who is hiring the radical professors, judges, and prosecutors? Who is trying to abolish immigration enforcement, and establish speech codes designed to muzzle dissent? In every case, the attacks on American institutions are being waged by the radical left.  Always Remember: they are coming after ME, because I am fighting for YOU.               

                                                                       ~ Trump’s RNC speech, Aug. 27, 2020

Trump uses newer technology in the same way (and with the same affect) as did the Nazi’s.

Strange as it sounds today, in the 1930’s radio was just as new and unique as was Twitter in 2009.  Beginning in Germany and increasingly across Europe, the Nazi’s used the new medium of radio to reach and cultivate their followers:  “During the consolidation of dictatorship, radio propaganda helped the Nazis enroll new party members. After the Nazis established their rule, radio propaganda incited anti-Semitic acts and denunciations of Jews to authorities by ordinary citizens.”  Once Hitler seized power, he used regular radio chats to speak directly to his followers on the “People’s Radios”.  Developed by the Nazis to be cheap and accessible, these little radios were radically new and distributed widely.  This allowed the Nazi party and Hitler himself to bypass the traditional media of the time and communicate with masses of German-speaking people across Europe directly – right in their homes.  Years later, at the Nuremberg Trials, Hitler’s Minister for Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer, described the results:

“The People’s Radio”  (Volksempfänger VE301) The distinctive bakelite cabinet was the work of the architect and industrial designer Walter Maria Kersting. | Source Wikipedia

Hitler’s dictatorship differed in one fundamental point from all its predecessors in history. His was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made the complete use of all technical means for domination of its own country. Through technical devices like the radio and loudspeaker, 80 million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man.

 

Like Trump, Hitler had many scapegoats and one primary target upon whom the woes of the country were blamed.  In Germany, it was Jews (also a frequent target of the Alt-Right).  In America, all brown people are the receivers of the President’s contempt, but above all African Americans remain the most vilified. 

There is no question that we have a white supremacist president.  He has reminded us of the fact nearly every day in speeches, tweets and policy.  He was raised this way by a father who was a staunch racist and once marched with the KKK in New York.  In her recent memoir Mary Trump, Donald Trump’s cousin describes her grandfather as a sociopath with a home in which Donald (who did all that he could to emulate and please his father) was buoyed by the racism surrounding him:

“Fred, she explained, was “quite anti-Semitic,” and, as she has said elsewhere, the n-word was routinely used within her family circle.  She also shared her view that Donald Trump inherited his father’s bigotry. “He’s racist,” Mary said of her uncle. “It has to be said honestly and straightforwardly.”

Trump has always used twitter to promote racist and xenophobic ideas, most notably his promotion of the claim that President Obama was not born in the United States.  It’s how he built his following.  Between appearances on news channels and dozens of tweets, Trump used the idea that Barak Obama was not a “real American” to undermine his predecessor’s presidency, fan white resentment and build a following which has now grown to over 70,000,000 on Twitter.

The Nazis used their “People’s Radio” to organize, empower and then deploy their loyal followers.  Over the last four years, Donald Trump used the same playbook – and very effectively.   When even an idea as absurd as drinking disinfectant to clean your body of the coronavirus could be taken seriously by even one follower, you know you have a problem.

In the same vein as his German predecessor, Trump has used Twitter to consolidate his power.  German radio became a primary tool of the Nazi propaganda machine, especially once Hitler became Chancellor.  They used it to engage supporters, many of whom had joined the SA and SS during the rise to power, and sent them into the streets (first in Germany and then in other parts of Europe) where they rioted “spontaneously”:

With each sentence, the Führer stirred the Sudeten Germans to rebellion. The British journalist, Sydney Morrell, witnessed the speech’s impact in the spa town of Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), where he listened in the company of an elderly Sudeten German widow and her teenage son. While the widow got rather bored, “her son, his head pillowed on his arms, huddled up to the loud-speaker, listened avidly, his bright eyes darting round the room, seeing visions …”Such was the alchemy of radio.  As soon as the speech was over, Morrell went out into the streets of the town, where large crowds were gathering, singing the Nazi anthem, the Horst Wessel song, which, like the swastika, was banned in Czechoslovakia. Still more menacingly: “In a side street I heard the crash of glass and ran towards the sound. They were smashing the windows of Jewish shops.”

My first thought when I heard about President Trump’s tweet “Liberate Michigan”, just a few weeks into the pandemic shut down, was that he was taking his army of followers to the next stage in exactly the same way.  He was deploying his troops to disrupt the shut down and force state authorities to reopen.  The fact that this was motivated solely by corporate leader’s greed and his own fears of economic disaster before the November election was not lost on anyone who was paying attention.  Nor was the very real threat of loss of life both as an immediate outcome of the gatherings themselves and for the country as a whole if businesses were allowed to reopen too soon.  But this was of no concern to Trump.  He was testing a strategy designed to shore up his poll numbers and increase his power by deploying his base.  

Plenty of people (and too many writers) like to refer to President Trump as an idiot.  I think this is a serious mistake.  Yes, by all accounts Trump is not the brightest bulb in the box.  But there is a difference between being stupid and being inept.  Trump may not be very well versed in many of the things we would normally expect of a strong leader, but he is highly competent when it comes to the tools, tactics and strategies of dictators.

There is a difference between being stupid and being inept.  Trump may not be very well versed in many of the things we would normally expect of a strong leader, but he is highly competent when it comes to the tools, tactics and strategies of dictators.

Once his test in Michigan proved successful, the president quickly sent out texts to “liberate’ four other democratic-leaning states.  His supporters (many of them armed to the teeth) responded with rallies very similar to the early Nazi campaigns.  Since then, we have seen his rhetoric escalate.  

When the Black Lives Matter movement exploded into peaceful protest following the murder of George Floyd, it was white supremacists who burned the city of Minneapolis.  Trump has since used that same violence to blame the BLM movement itself for the damage here and in other cities like Portland and Chicago where his recent deployment of troops led to many more violent clashes.

A leader who encourages his followers to defy the rule of law and unleashes his most violent factions against peaceful citizens – whether at a protest or simply running for their morning exercise – is the very definition of a fascist.  And fascism always comes with mob violence.  During his previous campaign, Counties that hosted a 2016 Trump rally saw a 226 percent increase in hate crimes.  By 2018, the FBI reported 4,571 violent hate crimes against people — a 16 year high.  This summer we have seen a horrifying escalation in violent deaths perpetrated by white supremacists against African Americans, our white ally protesters, and other people of color by both police officers and an ever-increasing number of white Americans who are both fearful and empowered by Trump’s rhetoric.

In my last essay, I introduced this series on American fascism by highlighting the way in which a poor economy and high unemployment set the stage for both Hitler and Trump’s rise to power.  Our president’s rhetoric becomes increasingly dictatorial (as in his recent chant for “12 more years” at a campaign rally or his suggestion that supporters “vote twice” in November) by the day.  Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that there are many aspects of our current situation that are characteristic of living in a fascist society.  In case you have never seen it, here’s a list from Holocaust Museum:

Powerful and continuing nationalism

Disdain for human rights

Identification of enemies as a unifying cause

Supremacy of the military

Rampant sexism

Controlled mass media

Obsession with national security

Religion and government intertwined

Corporate power protected

Labor power suppressed

Disdain for intellectuals & the arts

Obsession with crime & punishment

Rampant cronyism & corruption

         Fraudulent elections

 

This is what fascism looks like.  Really.  And it’s happening all around us.

In the midst of the storm, my fear rises and I feel more and more overwhelmed by the increasing violent attacks and the breakdown of our institutions.  It is easy to forget that I am not alone.  This too, is part of how fascism works.  Trump’s expert use of Twitter and Fox News’ continuous fanning of ‘us verses them’ antagonism is designed to mesmerize its followers and drown out the rest of us.   But I am not alone. You are not alone.  We are still the majority.  Even on twitter, President Obama has millions more followers than Trump

Yes, really.  Obama has over 30 million more followers than Donald Trump.  But here’s the rub: How is he using it?

Former President Obama has nearly 108 million followers. | Source: twitterbinder.com

Trump and conservative media in all forms are barraging their followers everyday and they are marching at his command.  Furthermore, if you watch Fox News for any length of time, you’ll see a constant of flashing warnings and bright red headlines crawl across the screen.  I first noticed this during the Obama administration.  Every time there was a story about him or his administration, no matter the topic, the screen would flash red and a bright yellow “ALERT” would crawl across the screen.  This is a form of brainwashing and it’s highly effective.  I suspect it has a lot to do with how quickly their followers get so agitated.

I am not advocating for progressives to use all the same tactics.  However, the traditional media’s strategy is not enough. If we are to combat this tide and defeat Trump, we need to use every tool available to counteract him and to motivate the majority of Americans to take the energy in our street protests to get every democratic voter to the poles.  Proving that his lies are false is only effective if you are outside the Fox echo chamber.  A large part of the reason that Trump’s supporters are so entrenched is that they had already bought the narrative via the conservative media.  Fox News leads this assault, where one analysis found that only 18% of the “facts” it dispenses were actually true. Their audience doesn’t care.

Those of us who believe in an American dream based on equity, not supremacy, need to work together as never before.  With the election less than two months away, getting out the vote should be our primary focus.  Think about it.  He’s got followers chanting “twelve more years” at his rallies now.  Once Hitler was named Chancellor, he quickly  “took on dictatorial power through the Enabling Acts”. 

On what basis shall we assume our President won’t do the same?

We don’t need to brainwash anyone, but we do need to communicate and organize in ways that affirm that we are not alone.  I am speaking rather urgently, because the need is urgent.  As another writer I admire recently noted, dictators don’t need a majority to win.  They only need control of enough minds and the mechanisms of power:

It’s never taken a majority to ignite the chain reaction of a democratic collapse. Hitler never had one. Putin clambered his way atop the ruins of a broken Russia. In the Islamic world, it took a fanatical minority of just about 30% to plunge nations into dictatorship and long-term ruin. It only takes a fanatical enough, committed enough minority to really, genuinely bring down a democracy. It’s never taken a majority. Sadly for America, it’s outmoded electoral college system only aids that minority, giving them outsized power formally.

                                                                                 ~ Umair Haque, Eudaimonia & Co.

You Might Also Like

1 Comment

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Molly C McCormick
    October 11, 2020 at 8:41 am

    Excellent post Kim! The parallels of the past dictatorships can’t be denied and use of media is insanely successful in this case. Love this site and what you’re doing!

  • Leave a Reply