Post Truth, Fake News and Trumpism: The Stuff of Propaganda

  • Eyes blinded by the fog of things cannot see truth
  • Ears deafened by the din of things cannot hear truth
  • Brains bewildered by the whirl of things cannot think truth
  • Hearts deadened by the weight of things cannot feel truth
  • Throats choked by the dust of things cannot speak truth

— H Bell Wright – The Uncrowned King

The formal definition of post-truth, a term which was declared the international word of the year by Oxford dictionary for 2016, is that which “relates to or denotes circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief.” In less academic terms, it may be described as a situation where “opinions” matter more than facts and the “influencers” carry the day in shaping public beliefs and the national mood.

Ironically the term has been popularized at a time when the new President of the United States, who apparently decides and acts on “what somebody has told him” or what Fox News has reported, appeared on the scene. Donald Trump is also a great adept of another term which is on its way to acquiring similarly iconic meaning: fake news, that is “inaccurate or fabricated reports presented as legitimate news in order to deceive.”

Control perception

The almost obsessive insistence on denying the reports that the crowds which attended his inauguration were much less than that of his predecessor is the perfect illustration of the Trump administration’s compulsion to control perception rather than to comply with facts.

This inability to cope with facts and the resulting urge to transform reality into a “virtual situation” more amenable to the interests and worldview of its propagators can result in terrible situations for all those who are somehow mired in its web. It becomes frankly frightening when no less a person than the President of the United States seems to have given in to such an urge. Indeed, after one month of his presidency, an increasing number among those who supported Mr Trump’s election are forced to admit that the hoped-for transformation of the business tycoon and super deal-maker into statesman has not happened and is looking less and less likely to do so.

As for those who were sceptical from the beginning, they are certainly not amused by the fact that their worst predictions seem to be materializing, if anything, at a faster rate than even they had ever imagined. The fact that the elected President continues to operate in a permanent campaign mode, organizing mass rallies with his supporters during which, among other things, he regularly lambasts the press, is a unique phenomenon in US political history.

While the press as an institution is certainly not without its faults in the US, it nevertheless remains a strong pillar of the democratic process. Such continuing, indiscriminate and savage attacks on the whole press is a hugely risky gamble with potentially damning consequences for democracy.

The evolution of language is a dynamic phenomenon and new terms are coined to describe and understand the events happening in an evolving environment. It is no coincidence that terms such as post-truth and fake news are being extensively used with regard to the methods of governance of President Donald Trump in relation to his actions and behaviour as candidate and as President of the United States of America. A President who is determined to communicate with the American people via Twitter and partisan mass rallies thus ignoring the national press which he finds untrustworthy and disloyal is in itself an extraordinary event.

Ominous signs

The fact of the matter though is that these are ominous signs. The dangers to the democratic way of life are real. It is not that Donald Trump could be accused of deliberately sabotaging democratic institutions while harbouring some sinister motives. As everyone knows though, “the path to hell is often paved with good intentions.” Beyond the semantics there are too many indications that Mr Trump’s conduct is reminiscent of some of the worst periods in recent political history when the confusion of facts and lies have led to catastrophic consequences.

In a recent speech in Munich (!) senior and respected Republican Senator John McCain, referring to Donald Trump’s “growing unwillingness to separate truth from lies”, warned that “more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.”

In classic political science textbooks, the phenomenon which we have described above has a name and it is called PROPAGANDA. The use of propaganda techniques to manipulate large sections of populations and form public opinion dates back to the 1920s. It is generally recognized that, under Field Marshal Goebbels, the Nazi regime in Germany had perfected the propaganda machine into a powerful instrument of control of the masses by a small ruling elite.

A big lie

The United States Office of Strategic Services prepared a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler during the war, an extract of which stated the following: “His primary rules were never allow the public to cool off, never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy, never accept blame, concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”

The historical context and the latent opposition to what is presently happening in the US does not, of course suffer any comparison to what prevailed in Germany in those days. What is indeed worrisome are the similarities in the methods which are fundamentally inimical to the democratic process.

The more optimist among us find that Trumpism may actually be provoking a real prise de conscience among the liberal elites in America about how decades of intellectual passivity has allowed the emergence of such a dangerous situation. Witness the protests by 600 teachers about Trump’s catastrophe-prone position on climate change. There are indeed some early signs that the Trump methods are so antithetical to the institutions of the United States that it may indeed be untenable — something will have to give way…

Rajiv Servansingh

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