The 3 Reasons Donald Trump Won the Media
1a) The Wages of Propaganda Is Cynicism, or, Why Melania’s Plagiarism Doesn’t Matter, but Leaked DNC Emails Do
This is the second article in a series. Read the first installment (“The Books That Explain Trump’s Rise Have Already Been Written”) here.
In preparation for her speech at the Republican National Convention, Melania Trump cast aside her expert speechwriters, and, seemingly on account of an “in house” friend and employee, plagiarized two paragraphs of banal boilerplate from Michelle Obama and/or her professional speech writer(s). This has not likely changed public opinion about Mr. and Mrs. Trump in the slightest.
Plagiarism, if not unintentional and accidental, is traditionally considered to be wrong insofar as it is a species of both theft and lying, but we live in an era full of elite figures accused and convicted of plagiarism with ever decreasing consequences. American high school and college students sometimes have a hard time grasping what plagiarism is, never mind why it is contemptible.
But as Luke Thompson noted wryly of Melania’s speech: “It won’t matter of course. Sloppiness has apparently become part of the appeal.” To understand why the plagiarism charge has not had significant effect on the Trumps — to explain this appeal — is to lay forth the first reason Donald Trump improbably “won the media” to become the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America.
In an era in which increasingly vacuous political speeches are written by committees, incessantly tweaked by means of polls and focus groups, purposely nibbling around the edges of substantial problems while highlighting distractive and often shallow side issues, and — perhaps most significantly — lamely packaged within an increasingly creaky framework of outdated ideology, charges of plagiarism lose their force.
We don’t choose politicians — and we certainly don’t indirectly choose their spouses — based on the originality or quality of their thought and a corresponding originality and quality in their arrangement of words. We do not consider the actual substance of speeches so much as we criticize or glory in their effect.
We know all too well — albeit often only vaguely as to how, exactly — that political speeches are merely a part of a “consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, group, or idea.”
We know, in other words, that such speeches are part of what Edward Bernays, known as the father of modern public relations, defined as “propaganda” in his 1928 book of the same title.
We live in a world created by what quickly became a veritable caste of consultants like Bernays over the last century. They work daily to harness the power of the evolving communications technology of the industrial revolution, which we sometimes call “mass media,” for the sake of businesses and politicians alike. They helped created the rules of the modern “news” media game, attempting to sell ideas and politicians — albeit with wildly varying degrees of success — by means of the same techniques that work to sell products.
What delights Trump’s supporters is that he doesn’t play this game according to what have become customary rules: he has no Karl Rove or David Axelrod in his backrooms. Trump’s campaign guru, Paul Manafort, does not seem to play the same role in the same way, by means of the same accepted rhetorical stratagems and now familiar, data-driven techniques — on the contrary, it is notable that he has advised many a strong foreign leader in corrupt and unstable regimes.
Further, Trump eschews carefully vetted texts, has few if any meticulously scripted moments, is not a lover of precise policy prescriptions, and has no heavily managed image. Unlike his opponent, who rarely holds press conferences and has attempted to carefully reinvent and reintroduce herself to the public with the help of consultants on several occasions, Trump makes himself constantly available to the press, generally speaking off the cuff in everything from speeches to Tweets.
Trump supporters thus love to proclaim that he is not afraid of the media, but to the extent this is true it is because in a very real sense he is media. He is not a policy wonk nor an orator. He is not an innovator nor a manager. His greatest accomplishments could arguably all be filed under public relations. He is inarguably an accomplished propagandist of the American salesman variety, and the one thing he has always successfully sold from the start, both literally and figuratively speaking, is his own name.
It is fitting, then, in order to explain Trump’s rise, to turn to the thoughts of another man whose name is often followed by the phrase “the father of public relations;” the mere fact Bernays gained the title in a crowded field is perhaps the greatest testament to his knowledge and skill. Propaganda is a classic text, but it is itself a work of propaganda through which Bernays slyly advertised his own accomplishment. It is always in the interest of those who practice such arts to convince their potential clients that theirs is an exact science, and thus that they have far more power they actually possess.
The explicit goal of the book — to defend the word “propaganda” from negative connotation — turned out to be beyond even Bernays’s formidable powers. But in his opening lines alone his defense of propaganda haunts us because, if even partially true, of the consequences should we disregard them:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.
— Opening paragraphs of Propaganda, by Edward Bernays, 1928
These lines might justly anger or terrify us. But we must not willfully turn away, nor reflexively deconstruct — we must look first to what is incontestable about their meaning. As Abraham Lincoln said in his debates with Stephen Douglas, in a democracy, “public sentiment is everything.”
With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.
— Abraham Lincoln, In the First Debate with Douglas, 1858
Let this premise be self-evident. Two obvious questions immediately arise from it: how it is possible to “mold” (note that both Bernays and Lincoln use the same verb) public sentiment, and how ought one to mold it.
II. Molding Minds
In regard to the first question, Lincoln made his above remarks while arguing that the political machinations and rhetorical maneuvers of a particular politician and his allies, perhaps in concert outside the public view, were moving public sentiment towards allowances for slavery. Bernays, who was not running for office, with the era of mass media well underway in the aftermath of the industrial revolution, went further than Lincoln. He argues more generally that some sort of “conscious and intelligent manipulation” by those largely outside of the public view and unknown to them is a merely the “logical result” of furnishing the order a democracy needs if it is to function well.
To simply dismiss this latter claim as mere elitist nonsense is to willfully remain in a comfortable world of democratic illusions.
Let us start, again, with what is most true about this more troubling part of Bernay’s claim. I will reframe his understanding, in accordance with my own, as a principle that, if true, ought to profoundly alter your understanding of human organization in politics, business, and culture:
As one increases a) the size of any group and b) the equality of its members, to the extent that group seeks to communicate, organize, and govern itself hierarchies of smaller groups and individuals will necessarily arise in proportion to the increased size and leveling.
This is true for what we might call “practical” reasons, as it is difficult for large groups — even those with democratic intentions — to deliberate or communicate well without such hierarchical organization. It is also true for what we might call “deeper” reasons: far more than a mere organizational problem, as increased size thins interrelations and increased equality “atomizes” the members of a group, either or both of these changes can cause a substantial change to the very nature and overarching structure of the community in question.
This understanding was written into the very structure of our government. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 58, “in all legislative assemblies the greater the number composing them may be, the fewer will be the men who will in fact direct their proceedings.” This is why the 435 members of the House of Representatives have organized themselves in a tightly aristocratic fashion, with clear hierarchical procedures and structures all leading up to a single ruler (the Speaker of the House); whereas the operations and culture of the 100 members in the United States Senate is much more open and democratic by comparison.
The underlying paradox the authors of the Constitution acknowledged is that if the people have too many representatives, democratic procedures and rule diminish. Again, this is not merely a practical, organizational problem: too large a group of equals will change the very character of the government, tending towards an opaque oligarchy.
The people can never err more than in supposing that by multiplying their representatives beyond a certain limit, they strengthen the barrier against the government of a few . . . The countenance of the government may become more democratic, but the soul that animates it will be more oligarchic. The machine will be enlarged, but the fewer, and often the more secret, will be the springs by which its motions are directed.
— James Madison, Federalist 58
This principle not only applies to the total number of representatives we choose, but also to how we procedurally choose each one of the them. When Bernays considers our national politics and the Constitution itself, for instance, he says:
In theory, every citizen may vote for whom he pleases. Our Constitution does not envisage political parties as part of the mechanism of government, and its framers seem not to have pictured to themselves the existence in our national politics of anything like the modern political machine. But the American voters soon found that without organization and direction their individual votes, cast, perhaps, for dozens of hundreds of candidates, would produce nothing but confusion. Invisible government, in the shape of rudimentary political parties, arose almost overnight. Ever since then we have agreed, for the sake of simplicity and practicality, that party machines should narrow down the field of choice to two candidates, or at most three or four.
— Chapter One, “Organizing Chaos,” Propaganda, Edward Bernays, 1928
We do not often consciously appreciate the ordering role that political parties play, but this principle, in the context of our winner take all system, reveals why there are only two major parties. Their potentially positive role becomes clearer when we think things have gone wrong: for instance, many who oppose Trump say the reason the Republican party failed to prevent the rise of Trump, who they regard as unelectable in the general election, is because they allowed too many candidates to run in the primary for far too long.
Perhaps this same principle is also why initiatives and referenda — in which large groups of voters acting as millions of individual legislators vote directly on matters of complicated policy — often allow elite interests able to masquerade in the guise of the public interest to pass favorable laws with relative ease.
Still scratching your head? Still not convinced?
Consider the technology of communication itself, through which we deliberate about which policies and politicians are best: since the birth of the American press at the time of our founding, we have loudly hailed many a technological advance for its power to render more of us equal. Yet, like Charlie Brown to Lucy’s football, we are repeatedly surprised when hierarchy and a form of aristocracy and oligarchy inevitably emerge with a vengeance from the mass leveling such technologies initially bring about.
It ought not surprise us that in an era in which nearly everyone in the first world and beyond can suddenly record and then share videos online, one website (YouTube) became the centralized dominant player without competition. Since all must now maintain a presence on the one platform that emerged to rule them all, YouTube is able to gouge users for 45% of all ad revenue.
Nor should it surprise us that increasingly cheaper modes of production of entertainment and a fast increasing global audience have lead the major studios to tighten their stranglehold on the pipeline to theaters and turn to high budget, four quadrant global blockbusters with sequel and spin-off potential that no one else can afford to make.
We will likely look up what time those movies are playing by searching the internet, which provides more information to more people daily, continually equalizing the ability to access, produce, and distribute content. But as Peter Thiel points out in Zero to One, Google doesn’t want you to notice the fact that at its core it is a vast monopoly: for the most part, much of the world accesses its information through a single search engine which organizes the entire universe of the internet for each one of us individually.
So what, we might ask? Is this not just a cycle of a free market economy? These titans will eventually die, to be replaced by what we the people next desire. And it may be, we might argue further, that to follow and protect democratic principles among large groups of equals some sort of organization into hierarchies is necessary, but this doesn’t negate the fact that each of us can and must think, govern, and choose for ourselves.
Bernays might partially agree, but he challenges us from the start to think through how, exactly, we think, govern, and choose for ourselves both in terms of material and immaterial goods.
First, think about the last time you made a purchase that required research. Even if we sometimes do the best we can to research a particular product, as Bernays says, no one of us alone can ever conduct the research we would need to make fully informed choices about the products we purchase:
In theory, everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered him on the market. In practice, if every one went around pricing, and chemically testing before purchasing, the dozens of soaps or fabrics or brands of bread which are for sale, economic life would become hopelessly jammed. To avoid such confusion, society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to its attention through propaganda of all kinds. There is consequently a vast and continuous effort going on to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea.
— Chapter One, “Organizing Chaos,” Propaganda, Edward Bernays, 1928
Fine, you say, maybe he has at least a partial point. But we’ve already seen Mad Men. Marketing, advertising, and the like are part of selling products. So they are always trying to manipulate us — it’s neutral because it’s just stuff we buy, right? Any anyhow, you say, this doesn’t apply to policy or ideas — what about politics? For that matter, is how we ought to live our own private lives still not up to us — what about ethics?
In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything. We have voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions.
— Chapter One, “Organizing Chaos,” Propaganda, Edward Bernays, 1928
Socrates himself would at least partially agree: whether we are talking about what justice is or what the known results for a specific law or policy proposal might be, we generally depend on others to “conduct the original research,” as it were. We do not thoroughly research every choice, and we cannot usually “fully” do so, whatever that might mean. No one of us has the time, training, and ability to research and think independently through every decision, idea, or way of life without getting help and taking cues from others.
Truth be told, generally speaking human beings do not and cannot come to the truth about what is best for themselves all by themselves. If left alone on a desert island or in solitary confinement, we soon find ourselves fighting off insanity. This ought not to worry us except insofar as it is manifestly not the individualistic story that is constantly being told to us about ourselves. Since it is a far cry from how we are taught and encouraged to think about ourselves, it can be an uncomfortable truth, and it’s likely not what we want to think about ourselves.
When we realize how much we have been taking for granted, might we not become angry at those who have been assuring us that we ourselves have been making every choice and independently thinking through every thought every step of the way? Might we not see how dangerous our ignorance is, and that this ignorance, say, about the paradox of large groups of equals, can actually lead to dangerous results for democracy itself?
Even more importantly, given that amidst the ever swirling tides of public opinion and hubbub of democracy public sentiment will be molded by hierarchical structures and organization, what makes this kind molding good or bad? In other words, how ought public sentiment be molded?
I will take up this question, and how it relates to the rise of Donald Trump amidst a backdrop of cynicism, in my next installment.