How Media, Tech, and News Networks Normalize Trump’s Propaganda
Throughout his life, Edward Bernays (1891−1995), known as the “father of public relations,” argued in favor of using “third parties” to influence public opinion.
“If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway,” Bernays wrote in Propaganda (1923), his popular book that explored the psychology behind manipulating public opinion.
“Because man is by nature gregarious he feels himself to be member of a herd, even when he is alone in his room with the curtains drawn. His mind retains the patterns which have been stamped on it by the group influences,” wrote Bernays.
In the age of Citizens United — and with Trump in the White House — Bernays’s insights on public manipulation have become plain to see for anyone willing to look.
This is because President Trump doesn’t use propaganda to just sell hotels, steaks, and hats — he also uses his platform to rile up his racist and xenophobic supporters, and channel hatred toward immigrants, people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and progressives.
In October 2018, a Trump supporter was arrested for mailing bombs to high-profile figures within the Democratic party and critics of the president. Shortly after, a right-wing extremist, who has been linked to anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant posts on social media, killed 11 Jewish Americans inside of a Pittsburgh synagogue.
These and other horrific events prompted some to question the extent to which Trump’s hateful rhetoric inspires far-right terrorists. An ABC report identified at least 17 criminal cases where Trump’s name was invoked in “direct connection with violent acts, threats of violence or allegations of assault.”
However, it would be disingenuous for anyone to put the blame solely on Trump, as he is simply a product of the righy-wing media empire which cultivated his followers. Likewise, we shouldn’t ignore the ways in which liberal elites have contributed to Trump’s rise by supporting his talking points and strategically voting for his militarist and corporatist agenda.
Being a savvy marketer, Trump has employed various “third parties” and channels that disseminate his rhetoric to different segments of the U.S. population. Outlining these channels across the media, tech, and news industries can help us re-imagine how we share and perceive information, and prevent the next Trump from hijacking our political process and collective attention.
Free Media and Obedient “Entrepreneurs”
One of the most apparent ways in which Trumpism entered the U.S. mainstream was through support from media executives and Silicon Valley.
Although he had one of the smallest campaign budgets, spending less on television advertising than any other major Republican candidate, Trump received a staggering $2 billion worth of free media during the 2016 presidential elections, according to the New York Times. “Mr. Trump is not just a little better at earning media. He is way better than any of the other candidates,” wrote authors Nicholas Confessore and Karen Yourish at the time.
To put this in perspective, the article mentions that “Mr. Trump earned $400 million worth of free media last month, about what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign.”
Corporate love for the Donald was perfectly exemplified by Les Moonves, the ex-CBS CEO who claimed that Trump is “not good for America, but damn good for CBS” at a conference in San Francisco before the 2016 elections. Moonves was referring to the ad money that Trump and his competitors were bringing to the network at the time. In 2018, Moonves left CBS after six women raised assault and harassment claims against him.
While media platforms welcomed Trump with open arms, Silicon Valley executives found ways to target independent media and journalists — one of our last defenses against a fascist dictatorship. For example, in October 2018 Facebook shut down pages devoted to covering war, police brutality, and other issues that get little media attention.
“Facebook has removed the pages of several police accountability/watchdog/critic groups, including Cop Block, the Free Thought Project, and Police the Police,” wrote Washington Post journalist Radley Balko following Facebook’s announcement. “They’ve also apparently severely restricted activity for the Photography Is Not a Crime page.”
Also in October, Facebook announced its partnership with the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank that serves neoconservatives and liberal interventionists. As Greyzone Project journalists Max Blumenthal and Jeb Sprague have reported, the Atlantic Council is “funded by NATO and repressive, US-allied governments including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Turkey, as well as by Ukrainian oligarchs like Victor Pynchuk.”
Facebook’s “brand” continues to take hits following the platform’s lack of serious response regarding user micro-targeting. Although in May of 2018 Facebook added a mandatory “Paid For” disclosure for politically-related ads, a recent VICE News investigation found that one can easily place fake political ads on behalf of figures such as Vice President Mike Pence — even after being screened by Facebook’s new process.
The reporters were able to place an ad approved on behalf of the “Islamic State” and copy the same Facebook ads that were blamed for “Russian interfering” in the 2016 elections. In another experiment, VICE staff were able to “run ads in the name of every single one of the US’ 100 senators,” getting approved under names like “Cookies for Political Transparency” and “Ninja Turtles PAC.”
If this wasn’t enough, a November 2018 New York Times article (that was six months in the making) further exposed Facebook’s wheeling and dealing with Republican “opposition research” propagandists, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, and its own staff.
Another example of Silicon Valley’s embrace of Trumpism is the way in which YouTube’s algorithms recommend conspiratorial and propagandist content. According to Guillaume Chaslot, a 36-year-old French computer programmer who was fired from Google in 2003, “there are many ways YouTube can change its algorithms to suppress fake news and improve the quality and diversity of videos people see.” “I tried to change YouTube from the inside,” Chaslot said in an interview for The Guardian, “but it didn’t work.”
Chaslot has since developed a program that explores bias in YouTube, available here— Algotransparency.org. While “each study finds something different,” reports from Chaslot’s work suggest “YouTube systematically amplifies videos that are divisive, sensational and conspiratorial.”
On the eve of the US Presidential Election, Chaslot and his team gathered recommendation data on Clinton and Trump, and found that “more than 80% of YouTube’s recommended videos were favorable to Trump, whether the initial query was ‘Trump’ or ‘Clinton’. A large proportion of these recommendations were divisive and fake news.”
Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube, a New Data & Society report by researcher Rebecca Lewis, describes how an “alternative influence network” of about 65 scholars, media pundits, and internet celebrities promotes a range of right-wing political positions, from mainstream conservatism to overt white nationalism on YouTube. “By connecting to and interacting with one another through YouTube videos, influencers with mainstream audiences lend their credibility to openly white nationalist and other extremist content creators,” the report states.
Trump’s rise to power has proven that traditional and “new” media companies are OK with letting oligarchs hijack their platforms for the right price. It might require a little bit more preparation next time, but if the money’s there Comcast and Fox will be there too, and so will the “social media” platforms with their concerned CEO’s and profit margins to chase.
Those who control the information diet of millions of Americans have readily given the keys to Donny, without realizing that his clown car is already hurting people at home and abroad.
Trumpism Sold as “Free Speech” on Campuses
While media executives and obedient entrepreneurs became comfortable with a white nationalist and racist President, the donors that have supported America’s right-wing insurgency for decades cooked up ways to normalize their new messiah’s message in the mainstream.
Obviously, a strategy based on being overtly racist or hateful all of the time wasn’t in the cards. This is why Trump’s affiliate network took a hint from the master himself and started presenting their arguments through affiliate speakers, suggestive content, re-tweets, and other implicit means that rile up the extreme right-wing base without alienating the rest of Trump’s followers.
Often, concepts like “free speech,” a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, are used to smear progressives in the U.S.
A cursory look at Young America’s Foundation (YAF) and Turning Points USA (TPUSA), the major conservative youth organizations that promote “free speech” on U.S. campuses, reveals that it is not their “dangerous ideas” that have caused students to protest them — it is the fact that they use “free speech” as a way to promote trickle down economics and anti-left rhetoric.
Similarly to the Donald, YAF and TPUSA’s operatives often use smear tactics on social media to rile up their base. Their speakers rarely talk about the actual issue of freedom of speech in college campuses; instead, their paid speakers, who regularly make the rounds on Fox News and alt-right media outlets, often toe the line between right-wing ideology and outright agitation.
If you think YAF and TPUSA’s efforts are limited to a small number of institutions, chances are there are chapters, events, speakers, and efforts to build up their “National Field Program” somewhere near you.
Whether they present themselves as pro-Trump, “never Trump,” or somewhere in-between, YAF and TPUSA’s operatives work in favor of the oligarchy.
This makes the dispute between the two organizations that much more revealing, as a leaked YAF internal memo recently claimed TPUSA lacks “integrity, honesty, experience, and judgment.” As examples, the memo listed an infamous public stunt in which students wore diapers to protest safe spaces, in addition to evidence that TPUSA is falsifying activities and dollar figures, and even risking their non-profit status to support politicians.
The memo listed other organizations that are competing to capture the conservative youth market:
Тhe YAF-TPUSA feud illustrates the distrust of old school neoliberals toward Trumpians like Charlie Kirk, TPUSA’s founder. Yet, despite the occasional fussing, the conservative movement has embraced Kirk, Trump’s “man on campus,” the same way Wall Street lackeys in both Parties readily welcomed Trump’s proposals on tax cuts, military spending, and deregulation.
Cash rules everything in this system, which means Trump’s cheerleaders in the media are going to be listened to, admired, discussed, and promoted — or Donald will be Disappointed.
(Million dollar advice for Democrats: why not create organizations that listen to students and provide them a platform to counter YAF/TPUSA’s indoctrination? You can send your check in the mail. Oh, and don’t read the next section.)
Centrism and False Equivalency — How Liberals Enable Trumpism
While the feud between YAF and TPUSA exposes the inner-workings of the conservative youth propaganda business, it also illustrates Democrats’ lack of meaningful engagement with young people.
In fact, liberal elites welcome the conservative narrative against safe spaces on campuses and the false equivalency between progressive movements and white nationalists.
In doing so, “The Democrats” have helped manufacture consent in the mainstream that blame for domestic terrorist activity should be equally attributed to both sides of the political spectrum.
Such efforts have opened the door for right-wing operatives to downplay Trump’s hateful rhetoric, even though some alleged domestic terrorists who plotted to slaughter Muslim refugees, and the Nigerian Army which killed dozens of protesters, have explicitly claimed they were influenced by Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States.
Democratic Party elites like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, who flaunt their “neutrality” and willingness to compromise with Trump as a sign of sophistication, rather than a profitable way to milk liberal and right-wing narratives without ever having to take a stand, are in high demand today.
Their role in Trump’s affiliate network is to preserve their perceived image of neutral observers and use it to give credence to right-wing talking points on moral, rather than political, grounds. This allows Democratic elites and self-described moral psychologists to further obfuscate the political climate in the U.S. while using their “neutrality” as a bargaining chip for attracting donors and audiences alike.
There are many examples of how liberal pundits play this game. For example, HBO host Bill Maher and his guest Jonathan Haidt recently blamed millennials for safe spaces and advocated for “anti-fragility” in schools.
For reference, a safe space is “a place, as on a college campus, intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.”
One has to wonder how Maher and Haidt’s conversation differs from explicit cases of right-wing propaganda against safe spaces. From where I stand, the consequences are the same — blaming victims, spreading fake news about the collective character of millions of people, and refusing to analyze the failures of both Parties.
At a time when school shootings and hateful rhetoric from the highest places of power have become a regular part of our lives, advocating for “anti-fragility” in schools just makes you look like a dumbass. To blame young people, who constitute the most diverse generation in U.S. history, for their need for protection in a culture shaped by extreme partisanship when it comes to race, social needs, and immigration is the definition of self-importance and intellectual dishonesty.
“I have talked about the fragility stuff for a long time,” Maher says in the interview, visibly surprised by Haidt’s narrative that safe spaces are a recent phenomenon.
However, unlike comedians like George Carlin who deconstructed how the youth are used by those in power, Maher and Haidt work in favor of power — they blame the new generation and their parents for the existence of safe spaces. Neither of the two white men attempt to place the issue in the context of mass poverty among students today, a drastic increase in hate crimes in the U.S., and elevated stress levels across the board — you know, the kind of things that might require safe spaces.
This top-down way of shaping public perception about young people is nothing new. It has been in effect ever since another two white males with connections to the ruling class coined the millennial label and turned generational theory into a consultation industry.
As tangential affiliates of the Trump network, who peddle this bullshit either by design or a lack of thought, Maher and Haidt don’t have to take their case any further.
This is what makes “centrist” public figures like them valuable to conservative organizations — it exposes their audiences, aka you, to one of the main right- wing “verticals” today — campuses and students who are willing to entertain “dangerous,” meaning pro-corporate, ideas.
This process is outlined quite explicitly in this interview between TPUSA and YAF staff.
To be clear, I am not calling for liberals to censor the psychologists and commentators who normalize Trump’s messaging. I am calling for all of us to realize the ways in which self-described progressives and centrists have normalized Trump’s rhetoric by simply branding themselves a certain way and profiting from their role in Trump’s parade.
The Cross Pollination of Trumpian Pundits
Maher and Haidt’s conversation illustrates one of the main mechanisms that allows Trump’s rhetoric to enter different marketing channels — having affiliate members appear on each other’s YouTube shows, events, digital platforms, and so on to lend credibility to each other’s mission without explicitly coming out as “right-wing.”
The cross pollination between TPUSA/YAF operatives, moral psychologists, corporate media pundits, and centrists further exposes the scam behind “free speech” narratives on the right.
Ironically, for all of their insistence on allowing dangerous ideas to surface, such organizations rarely feature progressive or leftist speakers in their events. Instead, they recycle upcoming and familiar propagandists who routinely distort and radicalize public perception of the progressive movement in the U.S.
Take for example this exchange between Stephen Crowder, a conservative commentator affiliated with Young America’s Foundation, and Jordan Peterson, another recently popular psychologist who is a regular on the conservative pundit media circuit.
Crowder: “Can you name me anyone today in 2018, anyone on the national DNC platform bench who we wouldn’t consider radical left? Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Debbie Wassermann Schultz, Elizabeth Warren, Maxine Waters, Eric Sneiderman…Can you name any one of them who would be as reasonable as people as even a Rubio on the right?”
Jordan Peterson: “Well, it’s a good question. I think the question is to what extent the moderate left has been able to separate itself from the radical left. This is a big problem…We know the Left can go too far, that’s a historical fact. The question is: when exactly does the Left go too far, what combination of policies do they put fort that produces the proclivity towards tyranny and catastrophe that categorize the radical Left movement in the 20th century…I think it’s the triad of the diversity, exclusivity, and equity — it’s a deadly triad, especially equity.”
Similarly to Haidt, Peterson is not expected to back up his partisan assertions with anything other than selective data and wordplay. For someone who is regularly advocating for “setting limits on the Left,” he fails to be the adult in the conversation and instead lends credibility to Crowder’s dangerous right-wing propaganda.
Presenting establishment Democrats as the “radical Left” helps both wings of Trump’s bipartisan promotion network; first, by brainwashing those on the right who actually believe this narrative, and second — by implying that anyone to the left of Nancy Pelosi is some sort of a leftist guerrilla revolutionary.
Peterson, a Canadian citizen, is open about monetizing the SJW movement. “I shouldn’t say this, but I am going to — I have figured out how to monetize social justice warriors,” he says in an interview with Joe Rogan. “If they let me speak then I get to speak and then more people support me on Patreon…so they go protest me, then that goes on YouTube, and then my Patreon account goes way up. So it’s like, they don’t know what to do.”
Peterson became popular following his well publicized criticism of the Canadian Bill C-16, which proposed adding gender identity and gender orientation to the Canadian Human Rights Act. According to him, such efforts would limit “free speech” and criminalize one’s failure to use preferred pronouns.
Here’s what he said regarding his own university’s efforts to incorporate transgender pronouns for students and staff who identify themselves as other than male or female:
“If they fine me, I won’t pay it. If they put me in jail, I’ll go on a hunger strike. I’m not doing this. And that’s that. I’m not using the words that other people require me to use. Especially if they’re made up by radical left-wing ideologues.”
As it turns out, C-16 wasn’t about “radical left-wing ideologues” limiting his free speech, but about equality for trans and non-gender binary Canadians. This has been explained at length by fellow professors, supporters-turned-critics, and even the Canadian Bar Association itself.
This account from one of his ex-supporters is especially revealing:
Following his opposition to Bill C-16, Jordan again sought to establish himself as a “warrior” and attacked identity politics and political correctness as threats to free speech. He characterized them as left-wing conspiracies rooted in a “murderous” ideology — Marxism. Calling Marxism, a respectable political and philosophical tradition, “murderous” conflates it with the perversion of those ideas in Stalinist Russia and elsewhere where they were. That is like calling Christianity a murderous ideology because of the blood that was shed in its name during the Inquisition, the Crusades and the great wars of Europe. That is ridiculous.
In Jordan’s hands, a claim which is merely ridiculous became dangerous. Jordan, our “free speech warrior,” decided to launch a website that listed “postmodern neo-Marxist” professors and “corrupt” academic disciplines, warning students and their parents to avoid them. Those disciplines, postmodern or not, included women’s, ethnic and racial studies. Those “left-wing” professors were trying to “indoctrinate their students into a cult” and, worse, create “anarchical social revolutionaries.” I do think Jordan believes what he says, but it’s not clear from the language he uses whether he is being manipulative and trying to induce fear, or whether he is walking a fine line between concern and paranoia.
Despite his multiple hats and pivot points, Peterson continues to be given airtime in the media. By giving credibility to him, even after his obvious anti-LGBTQ stunt, commentators have enabled him and other “third parties” to peddle anti-left rhetoric to their viewers.
Comedians like Bill Hicks would’ve had a field day with the concept of whiny fifty-something psychologists who parachute into campuses to preach against “diversity, exclusivity, and equity.” Instead, commentators often go along with “centrists” like Peterson, who in another one of his Joe Rogan Experience podcasts described his critics as “social constructionist, women studies, and neo-Marxist types” who “don’t give a damn about biology.”
It doesn’t take much for explicit Trumpian propagandists to take Peterson’s incoherent statements on the “radical Left,” free speech, immigration, LGBTQ rights and whatever their donors require, and coordinate with the Trump administration to turn such propaganda into policy proposals.
For example, in January of 2018 the Department of Justice sided with Young America’s Foundation against the University of California, Berkeley on a lawsuit about discriminatory practices in “stifling the guaranteed constitutional right of free speech.”
“The Berkeley College Republicans are grateful to the DOJ for filing a Statement of Interest into the lawsuit of discriminatory practices in stifling the guaranteed constitutional right of free speech brought against UC Berkeley,” said the Berkeley College Republicans President Bradley Devlin. “We are also grateful AG Sessions has called the success of the Ben Shapiro event hosted by YAF and BCR a ‘victory for free speech’.”
While it’s conceivable that Young America’s Foundation’s coordination with the DOJ might be a good thing, the mingling between our judicial system and an anti-progressive propaganda machine that runs on “Socialism Sucks” memes suggests otherwise.
Understandably, the Internet is filled with questions about whether figures like Peterson are alt-right, liberal, or conservative — with passionate argumentation in support of all possible scenarios. Yet, it’s precisely the lack of a label that makes him and other “classical liberals” suitable partners in the lucrative field of manufacturing of consent about Trump’s policies.
The use of “free speech” as a tool to vilify those who protest militarism, corporatism, and racism is a talking point shared throughout the platforms and pundits that normalize Trump.
Trumpism is Here to Stay — Support Independent Media
A lot has been said and written about how Trump affects the public. Yet, the networks that prime audiences for Trump-like messaging often go announced — perhaps because a serious look at “Who brought us Trump?” requires honest reflection from both Parties and the information business industry.
Media executives, obedient entrepreneurs, “free speech” Trumpian disciples, and assists from moral psychologists and neoliberal pundits have provided as big of an umbrella as someone like Trump can fit under.
What happens when this umbrella can no longer contain the public’s collective anger toward Trump is yet to be seen. My guess is that the decentralized network that normalizes Trump’s rhetoric will eventually coalesce into a new right-wing media empire that will mobilize against the “radical Left.”
Our support for independent news platforms and journalists, both through our finances and attention, will determine how influential Trumpism will be in the decades ahead. Until we find what’s on the other side of the OrangeMoon™, we should be mindful of what many warned against, but quickly forgot about following the 2016 elections — the normalization of Trumpism in our culture driven by savvy propagandists whose funding often points out their true motives.
Failure to trace and analyze Trump’s “third parties” — as well as their justifications, data, euphemisms, and implicit support for right-wing ideas — brings us that much closer to a world in which Trumpism is the new normal. If we aren’t there already.