How Trump Propaganda Works


John Pilger may certainly be correct in arguing that “Trump is not the Issue” but the way the latter’s propaganda works certainly is. Trump undoubtedly values the propagandistic role in domination and oppression and the fact that it helps obscuring the narratives that explaindomination and oppression.[i] Trump is a master of domination and oppression and his recently acquired power demands that both remain unexplained. As a consequence, Trump depends on propaganda so that he can carry on packaging racial bias as objective facts. Not only for this reason is what Noam Chomsky calls “The Spectacular Achievements of Propagandaimportant for Trump. He also knows that the proper application of propaganda leads to success – in business as in politics.

The spectacular success of propaganda has been shown, for example, when a Washington Post poll in September 2003 found that almost 70 percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks on New York City. Propaganda paved the way for Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But propaganda also told Bush’s henchmen that “Operation Iraqi Liberation” is not a good title as it can be shortened into the all too obvious “OIL”. Propaganda and language are important. They are even more important in a world defined by “post-truth” – recently announced as the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2016. Beyond that, propaganda is also more than just a ‘big lie technique’. Under Trump understanding what propaganda is and the mechanism that makes it effective is an essential task for understanding political reality.

One of the first goals of Trump propaganda is that the political ideals of liberal democracy appear as being incomprehensible.Hence during Trump’s campaign we already saw the reduction of politics to “deal making”. This is set to continue as Trump sees himself as a business oligarch favoring a system in which the rich rule and the poor man has no share in ruling. The greatest good of an oligarchy is wealth.Trump certainly has wealth – as do many of his cabinet members. Whether for his entourage or in public, Trump propaganda will bypass rational deliberation as rational deliberation and rationality itself are not part of propagandistic announcements even though propaganda is rationally constructed.

Trump’s art of deal making may well raise the possibility that in the future, the United States…will be managerial states instead of democracies merging the art of deal-making and politics into anti-democratic propaganda. Trump will seek to eliminate politics and democracy in favor of business deals while most likely claiming that this is the most efficient way of “getting things done” – it is just not the most democratic way. In Trump’s image of a managerial society, the greatest good is efficiency. For Trump this is a society ruled by technocrats and ideologues who make decisions on behalf of the masses. Trump will never make this obvious. Instead, he will use the language of democracy to mask an increasingly undemocratic reality.

Under Trump, propaganda will be associated with demagogues posing an existential threat to liberal democracy. Most likely, the “Cold War Rhetoric”, already converted into “The War on Terror”, will intensify. To fight this, one needs efficiency, might be the new mantra. Trump propaganda will also utilize the fact that there is a wide acceptance of the antidemocratic position of what could be regarded as authoritarian that presents itself in the economic language of efficiency. Beyond that Trump is someone who is in fact a towering despot who will represent himself as a protector of the people and seize power. This is the classic statement of the problem propaganda poses for democracy. Given this, Trump will continue focusing on external threats (e.g. China, ISIS, Mexian migrants, Islam, globalization, etc.) while presenting himself as the savior of America. This version of propaganda is set to continue.

It will allow Trump to not just present himself as the protector of America; he can, simultaneously, also silence the remaining opposition. This is a vital part of propaganda even though speech that is silencing has the effect of restricting our free speech rights. But what are human rights when the existence of America is at stake, Trump will inevitably argue. The key for Trump is that silencing speech is propagandistic as it favors his idea that democracy requires a people who have the proper obedience to authority while concurrently annihilating the opposition.

Already the Greek philosopher Plato knew that a demagogue is one who sows fear among the people and then presents himself as the people’s protector all the while intending to exploit them. Over two-thousand years ago, Plato described propaganda to perfection. Obviously, what Trump has in store as he invents external and internal threats is nothing new. Nothing new is also the way in which Trump propaganda works when, for example, the propagandist simply says “there are Muslims among us”. Such an assertion is true; there are many Muslims in the United States. But the claim is clearly some kind of warning. The speaker is raising the presence of Muslims to the attention of his audience to sow fear about Muslims. Therefore, even demagogic claims can be true. But the claim is propaganda because it communicates that Muslims are inherently dangerous to others, which is false. This is how Trump propaganda works and it works even better when it is not recognized as propaganda.

Trump propaganda will also continue to present Trump as a doer, a man of action, a leader who gets things done. Just as the theory of propaganda predicts, in Trump’sinauguration speech he said: “the time for empty talk is over…Now arrives the hour for action”. Propaganda uses this sort of language. As a consequence, almost Trump’s entire vocabulary is dominated by the will to movement and action. Action, or at least the pretense of action, is important for propaganda as it bypasses democracy and the rational will. To achieve that, Trump will promise action against those he perceives or invents as threats such as Muslims, Mexican migrants – perhaps everyone non-white. Underscoring this, Trump propaganda works in a friend-enemy grouping while the enemy is often presented in ghost-like abstractions of, for exemple, illegals and aliensnever as real people. This means that Trump propaganda works with a strong “friend-vs.-foe”, us-vs.-them”, “outsider-vs.-insider”, “Non-American-vs.-American”, “non-white-vs.-white” image, and plenty more. It also means that these groups are dehumanized and turned into ghosts.

In addition, Trump’s propagandistic useof the enemy will require itto cover up the significant gap between ideals and reality. This is because the Mexican migrant is a laborer, not a rapist or criminal, just as the Cadillac driving welfare queenis no more than a poor mother, just as the Jew is not of a minor race, and so on. But Trump propaganda will essentially create and then exploit these faked ideals. In order to create Trump propaganda, it will need a vehicle for the production of propaganda…a site or mechanism for the production of propaganda and for that Trump has now the federal state or at least those whom he trusts and those who he can position strategically in the state. They, more likely than Trump himself, will be the producers of Trump propaganda. French philosopher Althusser calls this the “Ideological State Apparatus”. Trump will make full use of the state apparatus for his propaganda. On the up-swing, this will not lead to the creation of a ministry of propaganda as democratic countries do not have an official ministry of propaganda. This would make it all too obvious.

Trump’s apparatus will create propaganda and this propaganda will be the manipulation of rational beings toward an end [e.g. keeping Trump in power] without engaging their rational will – it is a kind of deception. Although rationally constructed, Trump propaganda will work against the rational will of the target audience and it will work as a deception. One way of achieving this is when Trump’s speech will use liberal democratic ideals in the service of undermining the ideals of liberty, humanity, equality, and objective reason. For Trump’s propaganda machine, these are no longer worthy ideals. But this will never be said in public.

Trump propaganda will involve the appeal to a cherished ideal, usually a political ideal, which it then in fact tends to undermine. Its deviousness is due to the fact that it broadcasts the very political ideal it threatens to erode. In other words, Trump will never openly appear as the anti-democrat. Instead, and like any good propaganda, Trump propaganda will use democracy to undermine democracy. A typical propagandistic statement was, for example, when Trump announced in his inauguration speech: “we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.” This sort of propagandistic language will continue. In the coming years, democracy will be eroded. In democratic societies, democracy is seen as one of the methods that allows people to evaluate policy decisions rationally. This is of no matter to the propagandist. Instead, the aim of the demagogue is to disrupt the rational evaluation of policies.

Instead of supporting democracy, Trump propaganda will be antidemocratic because it will wear down the possibility of democratic deliberation. Such propaganda is demagoguery. It sabotages rational discourse. Hence the prevalent use of a rather non-discursive instrument called Twitter – I tell you! For Trump propaganda there is no deliberation with one’s fellow citizens but there are Twitter announcements. Under Trump propaganda, there will be the failure of public discourse. This is the failure to see a point from another man’s position. For Trump propaganda, there will be stereotypical fantasies but there will almost never be a taking the role of the other, whether it concerns women, African American, Latinos, migrants, Muslims, etc.

Key to understand Trump propaganda is the fact that this version of propaganda will make it more difficult for the participants in a debate to be reasonable. In turn, it will give Trump propaganda the weapon to abuse those leaving the arena of rational debate (which Trump has left already) and protesting against Trump loudly as irrational, riotous, and a danger to be eliminated. The main idea behind this is in effect to erode empathy for a targeted group which in Trump’s case is not just the political activist but virtually everyone non-white as Trump propaganda will perpetuate the position of group inferiority.

The goal of Trump propaganda on this is to engineer a public perception so that the perspectives of such groups are invisible to everyone else, their interests are not weighted. This is designed to assure the following: if the members of the excluded group are without property, they will remain so; if they are without political power, they will remain so as well. In other words, Trump’s policies will favor those in his immediate orbit and those he perceives as relevant for re-election – everyone else will be excluded. At times, it appears as if Trump’s conception of liberal democracy only extends…to whites.

This, of course, will never be stated publicly. Instead, Trump’s speeches will appear reasonable but serve the goal of decreasing reasonableness by representing certain groups as not worthy of empathy…it is demagoguery. Trump may very well be someone who ultimately seeks to by-pass democratically legitimate processes to establish policies that will erode…public reason. Eliminating government transparency is a way to erode the ideals of public reason. This means that Trump propaganda is not only a public show to gather support for Trumpism but it will have a corrosive impact on America’s democratic institutions. Perhaps Trump propaganda works with four basic maxims:

  1. Muslims are the enemy,
  2. Women are submissive,
  3. Blacks are violent,
  4. immigrants are criminal.

On these and others, Trump propaganda will engineer emotions – not rationality, open, and democratic debates. For that Trump propaganda will make full use of the authority of the presidency as it tellssomeone something from a position of authority. This remains imperative because it is commandon which propaganda is build. As a consequence, the ideology of “Commander-in-Chief” might play a rather different role from what many thought it is. Like in real wars and in business wars, Trump propaganda lives and breathes an insider/outsider distinction…to mark members of an out-group and in so doing they also mark the in-group. Propaganda lives from friend and foe thinking. But there are limits to this.

Trump propaganda, for example, will not cross certain borders such as the boundary to genocide. It uses dehumanization even though genocide is often preceded by dehumanization. Trump propaganda will dehumanize certain groups and that may well be the precursor for mistreatment. But it will stop there. It will not go any further than that. Modern propagandists are well aware of the well-established link between dehumanizing propaganda and genocide. Indeed, it should make all of us wary when a group of our fellow humans is represented as subhuman animals, insects, or vermin. The message of such representation is to legitimate the kind of treatment our society recommends for the relevant kind of animal. Trump propaganda has not crossed that border and it may never do – Mexican migrants will not be called cockroaches. Though some elements of Trump propaganda may well border onto moving towards being pre-fascistic,his men will not be fascist. Trump propaganda may be racist but it is not fascist. It would have learned from facts like these: President Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, wrote in his diary, “President emphasized that you have to face that the whole [welfare] problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this, while not appearing to do so. Dog Whistling will remain a key component of Trump propaganda as propagandistic dog whistling creates political messages, employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.

Trump propaganda will alsoinvolve a constant search for words that do not appear to be slurs, but that carry prejudices…using dehumanizing terms such as illegals and illegal aliens. Hence hispropaganda involves attaching problematic social meanings to seemingly innocuous words while conveying a negative social meaning, inspiring strong emotions in an audience. This is how propaganda works. These negative social meanings are broadcasted.They are also the means by which the highly privileged group in a society controlsa targeted group.

Finally, Trump propaganda will not only shape the relationship between both groups it will also lead to diminished self-respect on the part of subordinate groups and thereby hinder emancipation with the ultimate goal of preventing liberation altogether. Propaganda has succeeded when African Americans start to believe in the propaganda of blacks are lazy and the migrant worker believes to be an alien. Beyond that, Trump propaganda also creates legitimizing myths. These are important to Trump propaganda. They supply the means by which a high-privileged group (e.g. white and wealthy) assigns to themselves positive social value while portraying others as justifiably possessing lower standing.

Unsurprisingly, Trump propaganda will create this as an ideological belief, since it is resistant to rational revision. As a consequence, this immunizes Trump propaganda against rational analysis. Trump propaganda exists beyond that.Most devastatingly, this has been shown in the 85% chance of winning for Clinton as announced by the New York Times for days on end before the election in 2016. But in the coming years it may well be just as George W Bush once said,

“while you’re studying that reality -judiciously, as you will- we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

In other words, the blue/Republican Enlightenment outer states of the US will rationally debate and analyze Trump propaganda and even interpret it judiciously. Meanwhile, the blue voting population of so-called fly-over states will be locked into an irrational but highly emotional ideology. They will carry on “Deer hunting for Jesus” while supporting Trump. For Jesus’ deer hunters, Trump propaganda will invent ideologies that will make irrational proposals appear rational,making them believe that Trump is their hero and they act. This is the true beauty of propaganda. Virtually the same applies to the accusation of Trump and his followers of being racist. Given the power of Trump propaganda, such accusations no longer hit their target as even the most virulently racist groups have replaced claims of genetic inferiority with claims of cultural inferiority when propagating racism. Hence “Trump, the racist” hits empty space – Trump propaganda has won.

Thomas Kilkauer teaches MBAs and is the author of eight books including “Communication and Management at Work” and “Management and Communication – Communicative Ethics and Action”.

[i]               Italics are from: Stanley, J. 2015. How propaganda works, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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