The Misinformation Industry

Published — August 10, 2016

Analysis: Donald Trump, propagandist-in-chief?

AP/Evan Vucci

Candidate’s appeals target emotion, not reason


The Trump phenomenon can’t be explained through factual reporting and reasoned analysis on his positions. What’s really going on here is an exercise in the art of propaganda. Effective propaganda isn’t about facts and policy, it’s about emotion.

In Trump’s case, the emotions being provoked are fear and rage.

Trump seems to come by this talent naturally. His methods for stirring up the masses, though, are tried and true and have been used over and again throughout the course of history.

Propaganda has been deployed by politicians in both parties, not to mention advertisers and public relations professionals. But seldom has there been a candidate who has used it so deftly. He also takes it to extremes, said Aaron Delwiche, a professor in the Department of Communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and an expert on the subject.

“He does not hesitate to demonize large groups of people,” he said. “That, I think, is new. You would have been more likely to hear that rhetoric on Internet forums and on talk radio.”

Appeal to fear

Trump’s view of America in his convention speech was widely described as “dystopian.” The New York Times editorial board wrote that his intention was to “terrify voters into supporting him.”

“Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” said Trump. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”

What followed was a litany of alarming statistics, many of them since refuted by fact-checkers, laying out just how dire the situation is for Americans. The economy is in the Dumpster. Terrorists frolic in our midst. Immigrants are endangering our safety.

“Together, we will lead our party back to the White House, and we will lead our country back to safety, prosperity, and peace,” he said. “We will be a country of generosity and warmth. But we will also be a country of law and order.”

In 1932, another budding politician used an appeal to fear to rally the masses, notes Delwiche on his handy website, which delves into these techniques. That was Adolf Hitler. It’s absurd to compare Trump to Hitler, but it’s important to grasp how powerful the fear card can be.

“By playing on the audience’s deep-seated fears, practitioners of this technique hope to redirect attention away from the merits of a particular proposal and toward steps that can be taken to reduce the fear,” writes Delwiche.

The professor bases his website largely on the work of the short-lived Institute for Propaganda Analysis, created in 1937 to educate the public about the dangers of the propaganda. The privately funded institute was staffed by social scientists, opinion leaders, historians, educators, and journalists. It ran out of money in 1942.

Appeals to fear work better if there are recommendations for reducing the threat. Trump’s proposals to ban the immigration of Muslims to the U.S. and build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico — and make Mexico pay for it — are simple solutions that have no doubt appealed to his followers.

‘She’s the Devil’

Trump is famous for his name calling, which is also an effective technique, according to information published by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis.

In addition to referring to Clinton as the Devil, Trump also calls her “crooked Hillary.” He’s also called U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, his former primary opponent, “lyin’ Ted.” He’s called Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida “little Marco” and Jeb Bush “low-energy Jeb.” Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is called “goofy” and “Pocahontas.”

Why is such a seemingly juvenile practice so effective?

“The name-calling technique links a person, or idea, to a negative symbol,” Delwiche writes. “The propagandist who uses this technique hopes that the audience will reject the person or the idea on the basis of the negative symbol, instead of looking at the available evidence.”

This is closely related to scapegoating, another effective technique. An excellent example: Trump blaming the ills of the nation’s economy on immigration — Mexicans crossing the border. He’s also had harsh words for China.

But Hillary Clinton is the true enemy, as portrayed by Trump and his supporters.

Tell a lie often enough…

Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister in Nazi Germany, knew that the facts were often inconvenient, and in the end, irrelevant when the goal was to whip the masses into a frenzy.

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” he is alleged to have said.

PolitiFact, the fact-checking website, awarded Trump the 2015 “Lie of the Year” award for a series of false statements. The site rated 76 percent of 77 statements “Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire.”

“No other politician has as many statements rated so far down on the dial,” reported the website.

Among them, his claim that “thousands of people” in New Jersey cheered as the World Trade Center came down on Sept. 11, 2001. Public safety officials say it never happened.

Trump has flummoxed the fact checkers.

The Poynter Institute quoted Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s fact checker, as saying: “Trump is unusual in that even though he’s corrected or fact-checked, he keeps saying it, says it over and over.”

Loaded words

Trump also uses what’s known as “glittering generalities,” a propaganda device common to politics. It is basically name calling in reverse. His campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again,” is an illuminating example. Great how? And for whom?

Glittering generalities are words that have no specific meaning. They appeal to the emotions and are associated with high-minded ideals and beliefs. They inspire us, yet are usually not accompanied by specifics.

The close of Trump’s convention speech marked the pinnacle of his use of the technique.

“To all Americans tonight, in all our cities and towns, I make this promise: We Will Make America Strong Again. We Will Make America Proud Again. We Will Make America Safe Again. And We Will Make America Great Again.”

Well, who can’t get behind that?

John Dunbar is deputy executive editor and political editor for The Center for Public Integrity. He is also creator of The Misinformation Industry, a project that looks at propaganda and other misleading communication techniques used in the mass media.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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