Political Propaganda in America

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

This essay is also available as a podcast on anchor.fm and other platforms, and as a video on YouTube.

Last week, I opened an essay with a description of the murder of George Floyd by the police officer Derek Chauvin by way of introducing the ongoing political unrest in the United States that was instigated by Floyd’s murder, and that by way of introducing a White House photo shoot at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., which took place in the midst of the protests and which, for me, exemplifies the relationship between Christianity and white supremacy in this country. This week, I’ll be turning to my roots as a propaganda analyst for the United States Army and examining that photo shoot — and the video montage it was used to create — in further detail, analyzing it as United States government propaganda using the methods in which I was trained.

Just by way of recapping my introduction last week, we have the murder itself, and while that was my starting point for broaching this topic, the subsequent protests are responding not only to that specific incident but also to a legacy of oppression of and violence against black people, indigenous people, and people of color that stretches back centuries. And in the midst of these protests, on Monday, June 1st, we have a speech by President Donald Trump, which concluded with the violent expulsion of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square for the purposes of a photo shoot at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Footage from that shoot was used to construct a video montage which was then posted to the official White House Twitter account, and that video montage — along with its context in the speech given by President Trump immediately prior — will be the focus of my analysis here today. In my last episode I covered why this is relevant to the Satanist Reads the Bible project, so if you have questions about that, that’s where to look for answers.

As I mentioned in the first episode of the show, I am a trained propaganda analyst, a distinguished honor graduate from the propaganda program at the United States John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Though never one myself, I was trained in propaganda and propaganda analysis by a cadre of Green Berets. I was told privately that elements from my reports had been included in the briefings of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and I was awarded an Army Commendation Medal for my analysis of insurgent militia propaganda during Operation Iraqi Freedom. My analysis today will be based on the SCAME approach described in FM 3–05.301, Psychological Operations Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures, the United States Army field manual on which I was trained. This will not be a formal analysis and I will be skipping over some things which I would include in a formal report but which I feel would not be sufficiently interesting or relevant to warrant their inclusion here.

My first task is to prove that the aforementioned photo shoot is indeed propaganda. While propaganda is a difficult term to define, I believe I make my strongest case by basing my argument on the military’s own definition: “Intentionally incorrect or misleading information directed against an adversary or potential adversary to disrupt or influence any sphere of national power — informational, political, military, or economic.” I think that this definition is unnecessarily restrictive and has likely been sculpted so as to exclude American government information campaigns. If we look at the Wikipedia page for “Propaganda in the Soviet Union,” we find many examples of information campaigns that we would likely agree are propaganda but which are directed against Soviet citizens rather than against Soviet adversaries. But as I said, using the American military’s own definition makes a stronger case. So here are the things I have to prove in order to demonstrate that this video is propaganda:

  1. The information presented is incorrect or misleading
  2. Whether incorrect or misleading, the information presented is intentionally so
  3. The information is directed against at least one adversary
  4. The information is intended to disrupt or influence any sphere of that adversary’s “national power”

And I think I can safely define the vague term “national power” as power that exists or operates on a national scale. I’m not going to prove any of those things right at this moment, but please keep them in mind, as all four will be proven in the course of the analysis.

Propaganda is a weapon. While I was a participant in the U.S. Army’s propaganda campaigns in Iraq, we were classified as “indirect fire,” meaning weapons systems targeted indirectly at the enemy. Artillery is another indirect fire. Cannons, in other words. The United States military believes that propaganda is a kind of cannon.

If the people who are using propaganda against you think of it as a weapon — and I’m telling you that they absolutely do — then you should also consider it in those terms, the better to defend yourself against it. And if they’re going to use it against us, I’m going to use what they’ve taught me about it against them.

I suggest that my viewers and listeners view the video for themselves, but by way of being thorough, I’ll begin with a description of the video in question in the most neutral language I can muster. Against a soaring orchestral score that continues throughout, the video begins with an image of the White House. There are four people standing on the building’s roof. This is followed by a procession along a walkway in front of the White House led by President Donald Trump, which includes about twenty people in total, almost all of whom appear to be white men of middle to late middle age. Next is a quick shot of the destination: Saint John’s Church. It is a close-up shot and only the name of the building is visible among several plywood panels which have been placed over its windows. The procession arrives at the church. There is a very brief shot of a sign in front of the church. The sign is labeled “ST. JOHN’S CHURCH PARISH HOUSE” and displays the words “SUNDAY SERVICES ONLINE” and “ALL ARE WELCOME” as well as the names of the church clergy. Donald Trump appears in front of the sign, holding a book. He bounces it in his hands a few times. A closer shot shows him holding it up by his head with his right hand. The procession is displayed again, this time walking among lines of police in riot gear. The procession returns to the White House. A final shot of the White House exterior is displayed, followed by a fade to black, followed by a minimalist graphic depicting the White House as an icon. This concludes the video.

The first target of propaganda analysis is the source of the propaganda, the “individual, organization, or government that sponsors and disseminates the propaganda” (as per the Field Manual). There are four aspects to the source: the actor, the visible person conveying the information; the author, the person or persons who designed the information campaign; the authority, the source of credibility for the message; and the disseminator, the channel by which the message reaches its target audience.

Several actors are visible, the most prominent being President Donald Trump himself. The author is not stated, but is likely Ory Rinat, the chief digital officer for the Trump administration. According to the Wikipedia page for the White House Office of Digital Strategy, Rinat “manages various social media tools to communicate its messages including Twitter.” That’s… not a great sentence. “Messages including Twitter?” But whoever did the writing on the Wikipedia page, I think it’s likely that the primary author is indeed Oly Rinat.

Authority is where this starts to get interesting, because we have several being claimed here. Authorities in propaganda are generally recognizable by their strong symbology. After all, you’ll only buy into a message if you accept the authority. If the guy at the Ford dealership tells you that you should immediately purchase a Ford brand automobile, you’d rightly be suspicious. If your best friend tells you, even if your friend gives you all of the same reasons for purchase as the salesperson, you might consider it. It’s the same message; the authority is the reason you accept or reject the message. And so a great deal of weight is given to the symbology that conveys the authority.

So what are the authorities being claimed here? First of all, the White House. The building itself features prominently throughout the footage, and not only is it the final image displayed, that image has been iconographied, turned into an icon, in the very last image. Being the first and final image, and the only one iconographied, I believe that this is the final authority of the video, the one hierarchically superior to all other authorities being claimed, the one which all other claims of authority reinforce. My analysis will turn to the significance of the claim of property as the highest authority further on.

There is also President Trump himself. As the President, Donald Trump is himself an authority. This is reinforced by his prominence in the video. He is often the central figure in group shots, and he is the only person who is given solo and close up shots. The people with whom he surrounds himself in this footage are also relevant: as I described earlier, almost exclusively white men of roughly middle age. Given that this is demographically abnormal, authority is conveyed upon this demographic by way of the Office of the President.

And then there’s the church. That is the destination. That’s the story of the video. First we see the White House, then people traveling, then the destination, the church, then a presentation at the church, then a return journey, then the destination of return: the White House again.

Then there’s the book, and the book is not named in any way in the video but I think it’s perfectly obvious that it’s the Bible, the foremost sacred text of Christianity, and sacred to some degree as well in Judaism and Islam.

Having invoked the Christian Bible at a Christian Church, we have Christianity itself invoked as an authority as well, and that leads us in turn to the presumed authority of the Christian god. It’s worth noting here that this god is invoked only indirectly, via the symbols of the Church and the Bible, so this god is clearly not the final authority of the message.

Finally, we have the authority of the police. President Trump walks between two lines of them. They face him, many at positions of attention, all wearing riot gear. President Trump pumps his fist twice as he walks between them, a sign of approval. The police are lowest on the authority totem pole — they’re featured in only one brief shot — but their authority is nevertheless vital to the message, as theirs is the authority with whom the people will most likely be directly interacting.

The disseminator of the message is the internet social media platform Twitter. I don’t follow Twitter much, but I have to add that, in a brilliant work of counterpropaganda, an account under the name of Dave replied with a post of the video unaltered except for the soundtrack, which had been replaced with the Imperial March from the Star Wars series, and with an image of Darth Vader appended to the end of the video. Apparently Dave understands the weight of the final image. Dave captioned the video, “I fixed your video for you, the music wasn’t good!” and I agree completely, Dave. The music wasn’t good. The Imperial March is clearly the better music for this particular display.

The second target of propaganda analysis is the content itself. I’ve already offered a description of the video, but this portion of the analysis is focused more on the underlying meaning. What does the content tell us about the objectives of the video? To understand this, we can look to the relationships and hierarchies between the message’s various authorities. I would summarize this relationship as follows: The White House — the property controlled by President Donald Trump — under the authority of the Christian god, authorizes and blesses the police in their current activity. We’ll talk about this more when we get to the discussion of the audience towards whom the propaganda is directed, but it’s relevant to mention here that only those who already recognize the authority of the Christian god will accept a message presented under that authority, so we can assume that the objectives behind the message primarily relate to that audience. The message presented here is that President Donald Trump acts under that authority, and in that capacity approves of the actions of the police.

This is of particular relevance because that authority is presently in question among the broader American public. Many Americans have seen or heard tell of footage which shows the police using their power and authority to dominate and murder with impunity, with clear and particular prejudice against black and indigenous people and people of color. And as the American people have moved towards resistance against these tyrants, the state has moved towards violent suppression by means of police in riot control gear, which the state, in the person of President Donald Trump, blesses under the authority of the Christian god, in a government-authorized video distributed to the general public via Twitter.

Content exists only in context, and the context for this video is a speech made by Donald Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House just prior to the clearing of Lafayette Square, and the clearing of Lafayette Square itself. I suggest that my listeners and viewers read or watch the speech in question. Trump begins by invoking two authorities: the Office of the President and the Law. Under this authority, he vows justice for George Floyd and his family and proclaims himself an “ally of all peaceful protesters.” But given that this speech was immediately followed by the use of chemical weapons against peaceful protesters, it is evident that this is entirely disingenuous.

Remember our first two criteria for propaganda: first, that the information presented be incorrect or misleading. The context of the message presents Trump as supporting peaceful protest, but the actions of his government belie this. Given that his subsequent actions — his participation in the photo shoot — proceeded without any evident concern on his part that his agents had worked against his intentions, we can assume that the misinformation was intentional. What’s more, it is entirely evident that Trump is not a religious person and that he knows little about the Bible and about Christianity, so this aspect of the video is intentionally misleading as well. Our first two criteria for this video being propaganda have been met; I think that this establishes this campaign as propaganda in a minimal sense and I believe the remaining two criteria for proof according to the U.S. military definition are self-evident at this point, but I’ll prove them regardless in due course.

As I mentioned earlier, the use of a physical building — a piece of property — as the primary authority behind the message is significant. Freedom and citizenship in this country are historically grounded in property rights. In a prior essay, I discussed the relationship of the philosophy of John Locke to the ideals and principles upon which this country was founded. As I describe in that essay, the Founding Fathers were strongly influenced by John Locke’s philosophy, and while I didn’t focus on this particular aspect in that essay, it’s worth noting here that concepts of property were central to Locke’s thought and thus to that of the Founding Fathers. Indeed, Locke believed that the government’s primary role was to protect property and the rights of property-owners (Locke & Laslett, 1988, II§3), who have historically almost always been white men, and even at present, five white landowners own more land than all of black America combined (link references a USDA report that I was not able to track down; however, I was able to find an earlier report (Gilbert et al., 2002) which indicates that the disparities described in the article are accurate). This matter is also particularly relevant as Donald Trump himself got his start in the real-estate business.

The audience of the message is separable into four components: apparent audience, ultimate audience (the primary and final audience for which the message is intended), intermediate audience (the audience or audiences which might intercept the message on its way to the ultimate audience), and unintended audience. As the message has been disseminated via Twitter using the official White House account, the audience is ostensibly the American people in general, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the people of the world in general. However, the content reveals that the ultimate audience is in fact President Trump’s core base, evangelical Christians and all those who would accept a Protestant Church and the Christian God as authorities which endorse the authority of the White House.

I’ve always thought the propaganda messages directed at the intermediate and unintended audiences to be the most interesting, because any propagandist with even a modicum of competence is going to sculpt their message to some degree to convey something to those audiences. If the message is going to reach them regardless, then why not? They may be considered secondary ultimate audiences in such cases, and can be analyzed in either terms. I think the main reminder here for unintended audiences — those who might not be entirely on board with the authoritarian message directed at the ultimate audience — is those lines of police in riot gear. In other words: if you’re not on board with Trump’s ostensibly god-given authority, these are the people who are going to beat it into you. The authority of the president stands behind them as they gas, shoot, and beat peaceful protesters and instigate riots. As this method seems intended to disrupt protest movements — whose power exists on the national scale — by instilling fear and obedience, we have here our third and fourth criteria for propaganda.

The final element to consider is the effects of the propaganda. Without access to greater resources and empirical data, this is difficult to assess. However, the intended and likely effects can be considered and discussed.

I believe that the strong symbology of authority presented in the video will reinforce beliefs among Trump’s core base that Trump is acting under the authority of and with the blessing of the Christian god, and that this authority and blessing are transferred via Trump to the police. The fundamental message here is a unity of authorities which the target audience already sees as being individually authoritative: the police, together with President Donald Trump and the White House, together with Protestant Christianity and the Christian god. This unity reinforces core aspects of American national identity among conservative Americans. In The Nationalist Revival (2018), political analyst John Judis cites an extensive survey, published by Emily Ekins and John Sides, which found that “The intersection of Christianity and nationalism was particularly common among Trump voters. According to Sides, nearly two-thirds of Trump voters thought ‘being a Christian’ was part of being truly American” (p. 68).

As this discussion has been focused on the power of symbolism, it seems fitting to end with a brief discussion of what’s going to be happening a week from today, on Friday, June 19th. This will be the date of Donald Trump’s first post-COVID-19 campaign rally. It is also the date that, in 1865, the Emancipation Proclamation was read to slaves in Texas, announcing their liberation from slavery. They were the last of the slaves so liberated, and the date has been celebrated since then as the holiday Juneteenth. So the white supremacist President Donald Trump is holding a major campaign rally on a notable African American holiday, and is doing so in the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, possibly the single worst day of racial violence in the history of this nation, in which as many as 300 black Americans were killed by white racists. This is especially notable given that Trump’s campaigning in Oklahoma is entirely unnecessary to his reelection: the state voted for him overwhelmingly in 2016 and presently leans very strongly in his favor. The reason for Trump and his team to have chosen this particular date and location must then be their symbology. We’ll have to wait until the 19th to see how the President intends to invoke that symbology, but I’m not optimistic that he will in any way use it to honor those who have been subjugated or whose lives have been lost under the pall of American white supremacy.

I hope you’ve found this piece interesting and informative. If you’ve enjoyed it, I encourage you to look at some of my other essays, and if you find my approach to philosophy and religion at all valuable, I hope that you’ll stop in at my Patreon page, which features bonus content for patrons, and that you’ll stop back by to check on my new content.

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