Tag Archives: propaganda

Returning to the Well of White Resentment

As Republicans in Congress back away from Trump, he throws red meat to his base.

When things go wrong, you go back to basics. As the down-home saying has it: “I’ll dance with who brung me.”

What “brung” Donald Trump to the White House was not the support of establishment Republicans like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, but the white resentment that had built up during the eight years of the Obama administration. And as Congressional Republicans start to back away from him, Trump is responding by going back to that well.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild started studying the Trump base years before anybody knew they’d be the Trump base. In her book Strangers in Their Own Land,  she summed up their “deep story” — the narrative of how life feels to them — like this:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black — beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

It’s tricky to argue with this narrative, because they’re not wrong about being stuck in an unmoving line: Middle-class wages have been stagnating for decades. The jobs you can get without a college education are going away, except for the insecure ones that don’t pay much. And college is increasingly a highly leveraged gamble: If you don’t finish your degree, or just guess wrong about where the future jobs will be, you may end up so deep in debt that you’re worse off than if you hadn’t tried.

What’s wrong with that deep story is in who it blames: Immigrants, blacks, and Muslims, not the CEOs who send jobs to Indonesia, or the tax-cutting politicians who also cut money for education and training, or the lax anti-trust enforcement that keeps monopolies from competing for workers and funnels so much of America’s economic growth to corporations that occupy a few key choke points. The story, in a nutshell is: Get angry about the real problems in your life, and then let yourself be manipulated into blaming people who are even worse off than you.

Writing in The Washington Post on Friday, Christine Emba summarized how Trump uses this deep story.

First, Trump taps into a mainstream concern, one tied to how America’s economic system is changing and how some individuals are left at the margin: Employment? Immigration? College? Take your pick. Then, instead of addressing the issue in a way that embraces both its complexity and well-established research, [administration] officials opt for simplistic talking points known to inflame an already agitated base: Immigrants are sneaking into the country and stealing your jobs! Minorities are pushing you out of college!

Misdirecting blame onto well-chosen scapegoats is the heart of the Trump technique. Two weeks ago I described how environmentalists have been scapegoated for the decline in coal-mining jobs, taking the real causes — automation and fracking — out of the conversation. This week, in the wake of TrumpCare’s failure, a brewing rebellion in Congress, and the increasing likelihood that the special counsel’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia will actually get somewhere, those dastardly immigrants and minorities were front-and-center again.

Why can’t working-class kids get into Harvard? Tuesday, the NYT’s Charlie Savage reported that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is looking for lawyers interested in “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” This appears to presage an attack on affirmative action programs which disadvantage white and sometimes Asians applicants.

Such cases have been litigated for decades, with the outcome so far that affirmative action programs are OK if they are narrowly tailored to serve the goal of creating a diverse student body, which can improve the university’s educational experience for all its students. (Two examples: A history class’ discussion of slavery is going to be more real if some participants are black. And an all-white management program might be poor preparation for actual management jobs.)

Black comedian Chuck Nice lampooned the affirmative-action-is-keeping-my-kid-out-of-Harvard view Friday on MSNBC’s “The Beat”:

I am so happy this has finally come to the fore the way it should be, because whenever I walk onto an Ivy League campus, I always say to myself “Where are the white people?”

Emba’s article was more analytic:

Affirmative action is a consistent hobbyhorse on the right because it combines real anxieties with compelling falsehoods.

The real concern is how hard it is for children of the white working class to either get a top-flight education or succeed without one. Nobody’s laughing about that. But the compelling falsehood is to scapegoat blacks, who have an even smaller chance of getting ahead. The truly blameworthy people who get taken off the hook are the rich, and particularly the old-money families whose children have been going to Yale for generations. They’re the ones who are sucking up all the opportunity.

At Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown and Stanford universities, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants is between two and three times higher than the general admissions rate.

If you want to blame somebody for why your children didn’t get into their first-choice schools, consider Jared Kushner. Daniel Golden had already researched Jared’s case for his 2006 book, The Price of Admission. In November, when Trump’s win made Jared (and Golden’s book) newsworthy, Golden summarized his findings:

My book exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. It reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school. At the time, Harvard accepted about one of every nine applicants. (Nowadays, it only takes one out of twenty.)

I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less than stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former official at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, told me. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”

It’s not that Somali immigrants are cutting in line ahead of your kid. It’s that there’s a different line for the very rich; your kid was never allowed to get into it.

Let’s shut down immigration, especially by people who don’t speak English. Donald Trump literally loves immigrants; that’s where his mom came from, and two of his three wives. His Mom, though, came from Scotland, where they speak something closely resembling English. And while Melania has a distinct Eastern-European accent, she was what Julia Ioffe calls “the right kind of immigrant. She is a beautiful white woman from Europe, and we like those.”

Those grubby brown Spanish-speaking immigrants, though, something has to be done about them. So Wednesday Trump endorsed a plan by Republican Senators Cotton and Perdue to cut legal immigration in half, and introduce a point system that favors English-speaking, youth, wealth, and education. (Homework: Try to figure out whether your own ancestors could have made it into the country under this system. I’m not sure about mine.)

The plan has virtually no chance of becoming law. Since it was introduced in the Senate a few months ago, no new sponsors have signed on. A number of other Republican senators criticized it, and it seems unlikely even to come up for a vote.

So the point of Wednesday’s push by the White House was purely to throw some red meat to the base. It also gave White House adviser Stephen Miller (who you may remember from his chilling quote in February that “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned”) a chance to get in front of the cameras and repeat a number of falsehoods about immigrants and their effect on the economy.

He also got to dog whistle to white nationalists. When CNN’s Jim Acosta challenged how this plan aligns with the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free … ), Miller waved aside the poem as something that was “added later” and accused Acosta of “cosmopolitan bias”.

The added-later part is true, sort of. Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” as part of a fund-raising campaign for the statue’s base, and it has been part of the monument for only 114 of its 131 years. The idea that its addition was somehow a usurpation of the statue’s original meaning is popular on the alt-right:

We’re having this “great war of national identity” because our New York-based Jewish elite no longer has the power to control the Narrative. The fake news Lügenpresse has steadily lost its legitimacy. Thanks to the internet, the smartphone and social media, they are losing control over everything from radio to publishing to video. I now have the capability to fire an Alt-Right cruise missile of truth from rural Alabama right back at David Brooks in New York City.

The “Occidental Dissent” blog recognized that Miller was repeating its case and felt suitably validated.

Chances are, you have never heard cosmopolitan used as an insult before, either. But that’s because you travel in the wrong circles. Nationalist movements have often used it to denote fellow citizens they thought might fit in better somewhere else. Stalin used it against Jews. It also traces back to Mussolini and Hitler. American white nationalists know this kind of history, which is what makes the word a good dog whistle.

Both these incidents go with Trump’s endorsement of police violence last week, the transgender ban, and his attempt to revive anti-Hillary-Clinton animus in West Virginia Wednesday. Governing is proving to be difficult, so he is trying to relive the glory days of the campaign. We should expect to see a lot more of it.

Climate of Propaganda

Bret Stephens’ climate column serves one very important purpose: It illustrates Jason Stanley’s model of propaganda.

Few issues in American politics are as frustrating as climate change. It’s a real concern with potentially catastrophic consequences. The basic scientific description of the problem — burning fossil fuels increases the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which warms the planet by blocking infrared radiation from escaping into space — is solid and hasn’t changed for decades. Every few years, the public seems to be getting energized about the problem, and it looks like we might finally get serious about taking action. But then we don’t.

At the moment we’re in one of our hopeless phases, where science-deniers are in power and we have to focus on preserving what little progress we’ve made rather than building on it. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes up every year. That’s not a conjecture or the result of some complicated computer model, it’s a measurement that gets made regularly by a NOAA laboratory on a mountaintop in Hawaii.

If the overall situation is frustrating in one way, attempting to change people’s minds about climate change is frustrating in a different way. You can go into an argument feeling that you have facts and logic on your side, and feel the same way afterwards, but at the same time realize that you didn’t convince anybody. Too often, environmentalists come out of a debate with a feeling of “What just happened?”

A good case in point was the discussion sparked ten days ago by Bret Stephens’ introductory NYT column “Climate of Complete Certainty“, which raised the specter of “overweening scientism” — radical environmentalists who claim 100% certainty for their predictions of global catastrophe and are “censoriously asserting [their] moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables”. The problem, in Stephens’ presentation, isn’t the scientists doing honest research on the climate, it’s the people pushing “ever harder to pass climate legislation” and “demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy”.

In many ways, the column was just another page from the science-denial playbook written in the 1970s by the tobacco industry: Emphasize the uncertainty of scientific findings, and from there argue that any action would be too hasty. We shouldn’t ban tobacco products, or restrict where smokers can light up, or put excessive taxes on cigarettes, or hold tobacco companies liable for public health problems, or even change our own individual smoking habits, because there’s still doubt. Of course we should take action once it’s been proven that tobacco causes cancer, but until the evidence is so conclusive that even the Tobacco Institute is convinced — which it never will be — we should wait and see. [1]

So Stephens isn’t anti-climate-research, he’s just criticizing the people who want to take action based on that research.

Or is he? There’s a puzzling vagueness to the column that made it very hard to argue against. Stephens didn’t name any of the “overweening” people who claim total certainty for uncertain things, or even identify what those claims are. The only specific example in the piece is a lengthy analogy that has no direct connection to the climate: the data-driven managers of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, who believed they were coasting to victory. They were wrong, so maybe the data-driven predictions of unnamed environmentalists are wrong too.

In other words, Stephens’ column is a very good example of that what-just-happened phenomenon. When I first read it, it seemed to be making some larger point that cried out for refutation. But the objectionable point had a vaporous quality; it didn’t seem to be contained in any particular sentence that I could quote and refute. Take this one for example:

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.

Like a number of other critics, I might argue with the characterization of 1.5 degrees in 130 years as “modest” — until humanity started affecting in the climate, a change like that usually took millennia rather than decades — but overall, the statement is correct: It’s indisputable that we’re changing the climate, but it’s a lot iffier to predict exactly how fast that change will play out or which catastrophic events will happen when. For example, the land-borne ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica might trickle slowly into the oceans and raise sea level over centuries, or one or more of them might suddenly slide into the water like an ice cube dropped into a glass of Coke. Nobody really knows.

Andrew Revkin, an environmental reporter that Stephens quotes admiringly (but who believes that “uncertainty, informed and bounded by science, is actionable knowledge” [2]), notes that changes in rainfall patterns are hard to predict: Some models show droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, while others foresee rainfall increasing.

I don’t have any trouble acknowledging that kind of uncertainty, and neither do most of the environmental writers I follow. So why do I feel like something Stephens’ column demands an argument?

What we’re seeing here is a masterful example of propaganda, as described in Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works, which I reviewed in 2015.

If your target audience has a flawed ideology, then your propaganda doesn’t have to lie to them. The lie, in some sense, has already been embedded and only needs to be activated.

What’s being activated in Stephens’ column is a stereotype that Fox News, talk radio, and other conservative media has been drilling into its audience for years: Liberals don’t respect you. They look down on you, they think you’re stupid, and because they’re educated they think they can fool you with technical mumbo-jumbo that isn’t true.

That’s the point of talking about the Clintons and using words like deplorable. By doing so, Stephens invokes a previously successful application of the stereotype. You know the way you resent and distrust Hillary? You should feel that way about anybody who wants action on climate change.

It’s also the point of offering no other examples, and no examples at all from the environmental movement. Who does the stereotype apply to? Whoever you need it to apply to. If listening to Bill Nye or Bill McKibben makes you feel stupid, apply it to them. Al Gore, sure. Your niece who just got back from college, or that know-it-all at work, absolutely. Even real climate researchers like Jim Hansen and Michael Mann — the kind of scientists Stephens’ column seems explicitly not to criticize — can be lumped in if you need to.

If Stephens actually made a case against any of those people, that attack could be fact-checked and refuted. If he specified some particular prediction as over-the-top doomsaying, that prediction could either be defended or it could be demonstrated that the real leaders of the environmental movement do acknowledge the uncertainties involved. But a charge made with complete vagueness, one left hanging for its target audience to apply as it sees fit, can’t be answered in any logical way.

That’s how propaganda works. And in particular, that’s the way you will see propaganda appear in conservative columns in respectable mainstream outlets like The New York Times, or in public speeches by supposedly respectable politicians. The real dirty work has been done elsewhere. The lies and stereotypes have already been planted: Immigrants are criminals who endanger your family. Muslims want to take over America, not assimilate into it; and they all support terrorism whether they admit it or not. The poor are too lazy to work, but want you to support them anyway. Blacks are inferior and can’t really compete with whites, so they want the government to take your job and give it to them.

Anyone who wants to take advantage of such notions doesn’t have to state them in places where critics might demand evidence or poke holes in the argument. Like Bret Stephens, the propagandist just has to allude to them vaguely. The target audience will receive the message, and will enjoy the spectacle of opponents flailing vainly to refute what was never really said.

[1] The tobacco playbook and how it has been used in all sorts of controversies over the last half century has been described in two books I’ve reviewed here in the past: Merchants of Doubt and Doubt is Their Product.

[2] I wish he’d stated that in less complicated language, because it’s a point that needs more emphasis in the national debate, and doesn’t require any difficult scientific analysis.

In everyday life, we deal with uncertainty in two very different ways, depending on the circumstances. When we don’t know what might happen, sometimes we freeze until we do know. If, for example, you have a peanut allergy and you don’t know whether the salad the waitress brought you includes some peanut-derived ingredient, you don’t just eat it and hope you don’t wind up in the ER. You send the waitress to talk to the chef, and you don’t do anything until she gets back.

But in other situations, we respond to uncertainty by preparing for all plausible outcomes. When your child is born, you have no idea whether she’ll want to go to college or what college will cost in 18 years. But you don’t wait 16 or 17 years until you have a clearer idea of what she’ll need; if you do, it’ll already be too late to start saving. The prudent thing is to start that college fund as soon as you can, even though you can’t be 100% certain it’s necessary.

If you’re not sure whether you left the oven on, you don’t start preparing for the possibility that your house might be about to burn down; you stop everything and go home to check, or have someone else check. But if you’re not sure whether your department is about to have a round of lay-offs, you don’t freeze until you know for sure; you start getting your resume in order and checking the temperature of the job market, just in case.

This isn’t fancy research-scientist talk; this is how ordinary people live. Sometimes uncertainty freezes you; sometimes it springs you into action.

We’ve let the fossil-fuel lobby get away with the argument that on climate change, uncertainty should freeze us. (Nobody can tell us exactly when Miami will be underwater, so let’s not do anything.) But this point didn’t make sense when the tobacco industry used it — you can’t be sure cigarettes will give you cancer, so keep puffing away — and it doesn’t make sense now. Certainly that’s not how the Pentagon or the insurance industry is thinking about climate change; they’re planning to live in the future however it turns out, so they’re preparing for the possibilities.

That’s just common sense. Rising oceans, more violent weather, changes in rainfall patterns — these are more like your daughter’s college fund or the possible lay-off than like the salad dressing that might contain peanut oil: Even if they’re uncertain, they’re significant possibilities that we need to be preparing against. If there were some quick way to find out for sure what’s going to happen — asking the chef, checking the oven — maybe it would make sense to freeze and wait; but nobody’s come up with a way to do that, so our preparations have to move forward without that certainty.

No facts? What does that mean?

Since Wednesday, you have undoubtedly seen several headlines about some Trump surrogate denying the existence of facts. It’s from Scottie Nell Hughes talking to NPR host Diane Rehm, and the money quote is: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts,” Sometimes condensed to “There are no facts”, that quote exploded across the internet in the same way that many fake news headlines do. But it had the added virtue of being true (to the extent that there is such a thing as truth any more).

But what does it mean?

If you make Hughes’ sentence stand alone, the most obvious interpretation is some kind of New Age you-make-your-own-reality philosophy. But I’m pretty sure that isn’t what she meant. For example, there are 2.6 million more Hillary voters than Trump voters, but even if we all get together on January 20 and visualize really hard, we won’t be transported to a world where President Clinton is being sworn in. Reality just isn’t that flexible, and I don’t believe Hughes was claiming otherwise.

So what was she saying? Let’s expand the context a little.

One thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say “facts are facts”, they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way, it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweets, amongst a certain crowd, a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some facts—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there are no facts to back it up.

I’m hearing a less metaphysical claim, which I’ll restate like this: You can’t win a political argument any more by claiming to have the facts on your side, because the other side can generate its own apparent “facts”, and the public as a whole doesn’t trust anyone to decide between the two sets of “facts”. So in the end, all that matters politically is who you like: If you like Trump, you’ll believe his “facts” and if you don’t, you’ll believe the “facts” that contradict him. Worse, no one can set himself up as a neutral fact-checker, because as soon as he decides the case one way or the other, his presumption of neutrality goes away: All the public will hear is that he likes Trump or he doesn’t.

So when The Atlantic‘s James Fallows (who was on the same episode of NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show as Hughes) listed a series of Trump lies, Hughes responded that the sources Fallows was relying on were all biased against Trump. Fallows immediately zeroed in on a Trump claim that the NFL had written to him about something, to which the NFL had responded by denying writing any letter to him at all. “The NFL?” Fallows challenged. “The NFL is biased?” And Hughes responded: “That’s the question you have to ask right now.”

So that’s Hughes’ not-quite-a-syllogism: What Trump asserts is true. People biased against Trump will say otherwise. Therefore anyone who says otherwise is biased against Trump. (Compare Woody Allen’s reasoning in Love and Death: “A. Socrates is a man. B. All men are mortal. C. All men are Socrates.”)

The interesting thing, if you listen to the rest of the episode, is that the other guests — Fallows, Glenn Thrush from Politico, and Margaret Sullivan from The Washington Post — are pretty much saying the same thing in terms less quotable than “There’s no such thing as facts.” Fallows begins the show by describing the old state of affairs as

a sort of built in constraint of most public figures, that they would at least try to tell the truth most of the time and they would recognize it as a significant penalty if they’re shown not telling the truth.

And then pointing out how this has changed:

This does not apply in the same way to Donald Trump and therefore, we sort of need to recalibrate our gears to say, how do we treat assertions where the speaker himself doesn’t seem to care whether they can be proven false five minutes later, just goes on and doesn’t show any affect from that.

One perverse result of this is that Trump has gotten a reputation among his fans as “telling it like it is”. In other words, we are used to politicians spinning; they speak in elaborately constructed sentences so that they can give a misleading impression without saying anything provably false. But Trump doesn’t spin. He speaks in very direct sentences because he just doesn’t care whether he’s saying something provably false. If he wants to give you the impression that millions of people voted illegally (when they really didn’t), he’ll just say that.

I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.

In the same way that “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue“, spinning is the homage liars pay to truth. Bill Clinton’s famous “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” was his attempt to recognize established facts, but still carve out some tiny sliver of interpretation in which he hadn’t been lying when he claimed nothing was going on with Monica Lewinsky.

It sounded weaselly. How much bolder and telling-it-like-it-is Clinton would have sounded if he had just kept saying “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” He could have claimed that the lab that analyzed Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress was biased against him, and DNA testing is junk science anyway. Surely some “experts” could have been manufactured to go on TV and make that argument.

He didn’t do that, because sounding weaselly was a “significant penalty” Clinton was willing to pay in order to live in a world of facts. But Trump has declared his independence from the world of facts, so he never has to sound weaselly. If more than a dozen women accuse him of groping and other sexual assaults similar to his bragging claims, they’re liars and he’s going to sue them. (He hasn’t sued any of them, and he won’t.) If Trump University students claim he defrauded them and the instructor’s manual backs them up, he looks forward to refuting their baseless case in court. (He settled right after the election, paying the students $25 million.)

No spin. Just bold, direct statements that aren’t true. He hasn’t paid a political penalty for those false statements, because his supporters have neither the inclination nor the attention span to check up on him, and they don’t trust anybody who does.

If that’s not disturbing enough for you, there’s a way things could turn worse from here. An Elliott Lusztig tweetstorm explained how:

Hannah Arendt in her book The Origin of Totalitarianism provides a helpful guide for interpreting the language of fascists. She noted how decent liberals of 1930s Germany would “fact check” the Nazis’ bizarre claims about Jews like they were meant to be factual. What they failed to understand, Arendt suggests, is that the Nazi Jew hating was not a statement of fact but a declaration of intent.

So when someone would blame the Jews for Germany’s defeat in [World War I], naive people would counter by saying there’s no evidence of that. What the Nazis were doing was not describing what was true, but what would have to be true to justify what they planned to do next.

Did 3 million “illegals” cast votes in this election? Clearly not. But fact checking is just a way of playing along with their game. What Trump is saying is not that 3m illegals voted. What he’s saying is: I’m going to steal the voting rights of millions of Americans.

It’s not hard to see how this might apply to other Trump lies. For example, his claim that the murder rate is the “highest it’s been in 45 years“, when in fact it’s close to a low for that period. Combine that with his characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapists and “Islam hates us“, and and you get a justification for a harsh police crackdown on those communities.

What Lusztig is pointing out here is how this kind of widespread lying can turn partisanship into horror: People accept claims as factual for partisan reasons, and then later can be moved to draw consequences from those false claims. Those consequences might include horrible actions that those same people would have rejected had they been proposed directly.

It’s hard to see what to do about this, but it has to start with identifying the advantages reality has over falsehood. Obviously, reality also has many disadvantages, but its advantages include that it is persistent, self-consistent, and infinitely detailed.

Fantastic lies depend on an ability to constantly change the subject, so that the thinness of the fantasy world can’t be compared to the richness of reality. When a topic becomes so important that it stays in the public mind for long periods of time — the Iraq War is a good example — it becomes harder to lie about. The closer a topic impinges on the everyday experiences of large numbers of people, the harder it is to lie about. And finally, anything a person cares deeply about can become a conduit to reality. For example, many otherwise conservative churches have made a project out of helping refugees resettle in America. Their commitment to those projects makes it harder to sell them horror stories about the refugee threat.

This is another example of a larger theme: The Trump administration is going to force us to think seriously about things we used to take for granted. (That’s why I wrote about white pride last week.)

For a long time, many of us have taken for granted that facts are facts, truth ultimately wins out, and lies eventually rebound against the liars. Those principles may still hold, but they’re not in the “of course” category any more. We’re going to have to study more closely exactly what strategic advantages reality offers, and figure out tactics that bring those advantages into play.

Fake news is like Jessica Rabbit

Designed to appeal, without regard to the boring constraints of reality

Have you ever thought about what makes a female cartoon or comic-book character sexy? (I know, I know: sexy animated character and thinking don’t go together. But bear with me on this; I’m going somewhere.) Wonder Woman? Holli Would? Storm of the X-Men?

We can eliminate one factor immediately: realism. Those balloon-like breasts, pencil-thin waists, enormous eyes … I mean, it’s not like anyone has actually had sex with such a woman and come back to tell us how great it was. Real-life movie stars are the kind of people you are unlikely to meet, but the animated characters are outright impossible. 

Hot male comic-book characters — Batman, say, or Thor — are impossible in different ways, with shoulders the size of truck bumpers and jaws drawn with a T-square. As with the women, no one has ever reported back from a date with such a guy, because there are no such guys. So why do with think we know anything about them as lovers?

Obviously, I’m being intentionally obtuse here. Sexual attraction doesn’t work that way. It has very little to do with experience, either our own or anybody else’s. Attraction is based on fantasy rather than reality, and the building blocks of those fantasies have been programmed into us at some very deep level. A lot of it is cultural, and some of it probably even goes back into biology: A stone-age man attracted to perky breasts would be more likely to pursue women of child-bearing age, rather than those who were too old or too young. A broad-shouldered man was probably going to swing a mean club when the wolves come looking for your babies.

But here’s the thing: That programming isn’t complex enough to be subtle. It just pushes you in a direction; it doesn’t tell you how far to go. At some point in evolutionary history, peahens got it into their heads that big peacock tails were sexy. Fast-forward a few thousand generations, and the guys have these ridiculous appendages that interfere with flight and make it nearly impossible to hide from predators. Nowhere in the peabrain programming language is there a command for “That’s enough already.”

It’s the same for us. If the kind of breast development that differentiates child-bearing women from immature girls is good, then ridiculously impossible balloon-breasts are that much better. And so on. Batman and Jessica Rabbit are sexy because they are extreme; they’ve been designed to appeal to our biological/cultural programming without needing to satisfy the constraints reality imposes.

So what’s any of that got to do with news, fake or otherwise?

We may like to think that we pay attention to the news for all kinds of virtuous reasons: It makes us better citizens, we are intellectually curious about our world, and stuff like that. And there are a few ultra-serious news sources that take us at our word, like The Economist or PBS Newshour. In terms of sexiness, the stories you read or watch there are like the people your mother tries to fix you up with: very practical marriage partners and good bets to produce grandchildren Mom could be proud of. But they usually don’t give your lizard brain much to work with.

The reason ultra-serious news doesn’t dominate the market is that we also are interested in news stories for a lot of other reasons: They give us something impressive to tell our friends, they provoke an energizing rush of anger at our enemies, or they prove that we were right all along about something.

That’s why, throughout human history, tales have always grown in the telling. If I tell you that I caught a bigger fish today than I usually do, you might mention it to somebody else if they happen to be talking about fish. But if I caught the biggest fish anybody has ever seen, and I embroider that story with all kinds of remarkable details, then you certainly will retell it. If the truth is that the new parson and the blacksmith’s daughter exchanged what looked like a meaningful glance, that’s kind of interesting. But if the story grows to where they were caught half-naked in the woods, that news will spread all over the county.

Journalists at more ratings-conscious news outlets — CNN, say — have to take more account of those less virtuous factors, so they are constantly repackaging real events to make them compelling. They pick out whatever is remarkable or stunning or infuriating and feed it to us as a concentrate, like the one zinger out of an hour-long speech. The stories they produce are like Kate Upton or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: They appeal to the inner programming that tells us what is interesting, while continuing to respect the constraints of reality. And if a detail gets fudged here or there — think Fox News — it’s like airbrushing or make-up: still real, more or less, just enhanced a little.

But fake news can be Jessica Rabbit. It’s designed to appeal, without regard to reality. And it works.

Did you hear that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump? (He didn’t.) Or that an FBI agent investigating Clinton died in a suspicious murder-suicide? (Untrue.) Or that Mike Pence credits gay conversion therapy with saving his marriage? (Nope.)

I don’t know about you, but when I saw that Pence headline, my first reaction was: “I knew it!” That’s what fake news is designed to evoke.

Real news, especially if it’s told accurately, almost never does that. Real events nearly always include some mitigating detail that disrupts our comic-book reaction of triumph or fear or anger. Even the worst stories about the public figures we dislike usually just show them to be common assholes rather than Dr. Doom style villains. Real reporting nearly always leaves room for doubt; there’s stuff we still don’t know that might change the conclusion.

Real news stories, in other words, are like the real people you might meet for lunch: interesting in some ways but not others, maybe worth spending more time with in the future, but not all like Thor.

In other areas of life, we eventually get good at recognizing the fantasies people construct to manipulate us, appealing as they might be: that Nigerian prince who wants to give you a pile of money in exchange for an insignificant amount of help; the titanium designer watch you can buy on a street corner for twenty bucks; the celebrity you can see naked if you just open this attachment. We’re onto that stuff now. Some offers are just too good to be true; learning to accept that they almost certainly aren’t true is part of growing up.

Fake news that goes viral on social media, that you hear about because it’s already been shared by somebody you know — that’s new enough that most of us don’t have a too-good-to-be-true filter yet. But that 100% pure news satisfaction feeling, that “I knew it!” or “Those bastards!” or “Everybody needs to hear about this!”, it’s too good to be true. It’s a sign of fakery and manipulation, not a ring of truth.

I’m not saying you need to give up your news fantasy life; just respect the line that separates it from reality. Similarly, you can, if you want, go on fantasizing about Storm or Thor or even Jessica Rabbit. There’s no harm in it. But if you come home from lunch believing that you’ve met one of them, you need to think again.

The Big Lie in Trump’s Speech

Stopping Mexican or Muslim immigration will not make you safe.

To explain Donald Trump’s acceptance speech properly, I have to go back to two previous posts: 2015’s “How Propaganda Works”:

If your target audience has a flawed ideology, then your propaganda doesn’t have to lie to them. The lie, in some sense, has already been embedded and only needs to be activated.

and also 2012’s “How Lies Work“:

You can’t be blamed for the false information, irrational prejudices, and ugly stereotypes that already sit inside people’s heads, waiting to be exploited. So good propaganda contains only enough false or repulsive information to leverage the ignorance and misinformation that’s already out there.

In other words, the central lie in an effective propaganda campaign is the one you never explicitly say. It’s out there already, sitting in the minds of your followers, so you just need to allude to it, suggest it, and bring it to consciousness in as many ways as you can. Your target audience will hear it, and afterwards most will believe you said it. But because you aren’t saying it in so many words, it’s immune to fact-checkers, and you barely need to defend it at all. Let PolitiFact and NPR carp all they want about the details of your speech. They can’t touch your central point because it’s not really there.

The explicit promise of Trump’s speech is that he will make the country safe, not just eventually after doing the long, hard work of changing public policy, but almost instantly.

The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.

So if you have been hiding under your bed, you’ll be able to come out next January.

This is the kind of sweeping pledge that ordinarily would be met with embarrassed laughter. It’s as if Barack Obama had promised not just that he would get health insurance for millions of people before he left office, but that all the uninsured would be covered by the time he got done with his inaugural address.

Imagine if Hillary Clinton were to promise this week in her acceptance speech that poverty and unemployment “will very soon come to an end, beginning on January 20”. I’m voting for Clinton, but I’d laugh at that promise. I might give her credit for good intentions, but systemic problems like poverty and unemployment are obviously beyond the power of presidential wand-waving.

So are crime and violence, but for some reason Trump’s audience was not laughing. Why not? What in the worldview of Trump or his followers makes it credible that “the crime and violence that afflicts our nation” can be ended “very soon” by presidential action?

If you don’t already know, the speech will not tell you. In fact, if you don’t already understand the big lie that the speech is based on, you will have a hard time making sense of it at all: The whole hour-plus speech will seem like a grab bag of loosely related anecdotes and factoids, many of which are false.

Since the speech never lays out that central claim, I will: The main threat to your personal safety is the street crime and terrorism brought to America by Mexican and Muslim immigrants.

If you hold that (false) fact in your head, the speech hangs together. Many of its details are still untrue, but at least it begins to tell a coherent story.

Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.

Here we begin to see how crime and violence might come within the president’s power, and what could instantly change on Inauguration Day: President Obama doesn’t enforce the law; President Trump will.

But what laws has President Obama stopped enforcing? Murder laws? Rape laws? No: In the American law enforcement system, those crimes are almost entirely the responsibility of state and local officials. But there is one kind of law that falls almost entirely under federal enforcement: immigration laws.

Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens. [See endnote 1.] The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total of 2015. They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.

Trump goes on to mention several individuals (some of whom previously spoke to the Convention) who are victims of violent crimes by Hispanic immigrants. The existence of such stories should not surprise anyone; it wouldn’t be hard to compile anecdotes of crimes by any reasonably large group of people, like the left-handed or the red-haired. What makes these immigrant-crime stories more than just talk is the unspoken implication that they illustrate some kind of trend: an immigrant crime wave.

But in reality, the anecdotes are just anecdotes: There is no trend. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, commit fewer violent crimes per capita than American citizens. They are responsible for such a tiny amount of violent crime in America that, if Trump does manage to make them all disappear somehow, your safety will be virtually unaffected. In short: There is no immigrant crime wave.

One more thing you should notice in that quote: how effortlessly Trump glides from immigrant criminals to immigrant families, and from public safety to public resources. Since there are so few violent immigrant criminals, the white voters Trump is targeting are very unlikely to be their victims or to know any of their victims. But many white families send their children to school with Hispanic children whose immigration status they don’t know. (Most are either legal immigrants or American citizens.) The point of lumping families and criminals together is to imply that those Hispanic children are a threat to your white child. [2]

In addition to crime, Americans are afraid of terrorism. This is another part of “the crime and violence than today afflicts our nation”. The federal government has a key role to play in disrupting 9-11 style plots, in which terrorist groups conspire to kill large numbers of Americans. In recent years it has been doing that job very well (or else the threat is not a large as we thought immediately after 9-11). No plot remotely comparable to 9-11 has been carried out.

But it’s not clear how much the feds can do to stop lone-wolf terrorists like Dylann Roof (a native-born American white Christian who bought a gun legally and used it to kill nine members of a black Charleston church) or Omar Mateen (a native-born American Muslim of Afghan heritage who used legal guns to kill 49 people in a LGBT nightclub in Orlando). For every American who carries out an attack, countless others fantasize about one in some vague way, and may even discuss their fantasies on social media. We can’t lock them all up.

But Trump again ties this threat to immigration.

Lastly, and very importantly, we must immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place. We don’t want them in our country.

My opponent has called for a radical 550 percent increase — think of this, this is not believable, but this is what is happening — a 550 percent increase in Syrian refugees on top of existing massive refugee flows coming into our country already under the leadership of president Obama.

She proposes this despite the fact that there’s no way to screen these refugees in order to find out who they are or where they come from. I only want to admit individuals into our country who will support our values and love our people. [3]

The only Muslim immigrant tied to a recent terrorist act is Tashfeen Malik, half of the couple who killed 14 people in San Bernardino last December. (Her husband was native born, as was the shooter in Orlando. So were the assassins who killed police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.) She came to this country on a fiancée visa, not as part of any refugee program or by sneaking across a border. So even in that exceptional case, building a wall or refusing to help Syrian refugees would have made no difference. There is no Muslim refugee terrorism problem.

The real American terrorist threat is overwhelmingly homegrown, and includes white supremacists, violent anti-abortion activists, and Bundy-and-McVeigh-style anti-government militiamen, in addition to native-born ISIS-inspired jihadists. Nothing Trump has proposed will do anything to make you safer from them.

The speech then segues from fear of violence to economic fears, and again immigrants are at fault:

Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens

Two things to notice here: First, in TrumpWorld those low wages have nothing to do with the decline of unions, which has diminished workers’ negotiating power. They also have nothing to do with the decades-long decline in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage, which Trump wants to see continue. In short, anything real the government could do to improve the lot of low-wage workers has been pushed aside in order to scapegoat immigrants.

Second, and perhaps even more important, adjectives like illegal or undocumented have vanished: All immigrants are the problem now. Having raised fear with anecdotes of violent crime by undocumented Hispanic immigrants and implications that Muslim refugees are responsible for our terrorism problem, that fear is now channeled into anxieties about jobs and money, and targeted at everyone who comes to America, including those who come legally hoping to find legal jobs, as my ancestors did 150 years ago.

So now that I’ve laid out the larger structure of Trump’s speech, and the unspoken big lie that pulls it together, I invite you to go back and read his text end-to-end, preferably one of the versions annotated by fact-checkers. If, as you read, you bear in mind that there is no immigrant crime wave and no Muslim refugee terrorism problem, I predict that the speech’s whole theme will fall apart. You will be left with a collection of cherry-picked statistics and random falsehoods, which the fact-checkers can handle quite well.

[1] The Chicago Tribune adds context to this number:

The actual crimes committed by this group are not documented, however, so Trump cannot easily claim that all of these illegal immigrants “threaten peaceful citizens.” A significant percentage of their crimes involve immigration violations and nonviolent offenses, according to historical records.

In other words, we’re more likely to be talking about paper crimes, like faking a driver’s license or other ID, rather than the violent crimes Trump is implying. And that stands to reason: If you’re in this country without legal status, you’re trying to hide from authorities, not call attention to yourself by assaulting someone.

[2] Obama’s most obvious non-enforcement of immigration laws is that he is not deporting the Dreamers, those undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as young children, who grew up in the U.S. and know no other country. Trump’s rhetoric also makes them a threat to your child.

Today, Dreamer Astrid Silva addresses the Democratic Convention. I invite you to watch her and do your own threat evaluation.

[3] Fact-checkers can catch all the individual lies here: We are admitting only a tiny number of Syrian refugees, so even a 550% increase will still be just a drop in the bucket. (About 5000 since October 1, and 1682 in the year before that. For comparison, Germany already had about 100,000 Syrian refugees a year ago, and is talking about admitting 500K a year. There are about five million Syrian refugees worldwide — 11 million if you count the ones displaced to other parts of Syria.) We are vetting them extensively. So far, the refugees who make it through the U.S. vetting process are responsible for zero acts of terrorism.

The “support our values and love our people” line is a dog whistle to Islamophobes. Newt Gingrich spelled it out on July 14:

Let me be as blunt and direct as I can be: Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization. Modern Muslims who have given up Sharia, glad to have them as citizens. Perfectly happy to have them next door.

As other people have explained in more detail, sharia is not the same as terrorism, and asking Muslims whether they “believe in” sharia is like asking Jews if they believe in the laws of Moses. At some level of interpretation, of course they do; but that doesn’t necessarily mean they intend to kill adulterers or gay men. Gingrich’s implication — that we can accept Muslims in America only if they don’t take their religion seriously — ought to offend any person who does take religion seriously.

BTW: Cutting off Syrian immigration means turning away Syrian Christians, who are being wiped out in some areas and whose relief is a special project of many Evangelicals. But if Trump makes an exception for them, then he’s back to having a religious test for letting people into the U.S.

The Political F-word

When and how should we talk about fascism?

Satirical Trump campaign logo.

When Donald Trump started talking about closing American mosques and perhaps even having Muslims register with the government, when he called for a “deportation force” to search out and expel the 11 million Hispanic immigrants estimated to be in the country illegally, and then when he justified his supporters in “roughing up” a protester at his rally, a number of his fellow Republicans began to use the word fascist.

Once you start viewing Trump through that lens, a number of his previous statements — many of which were seen at the time as so outrageous they would doom his campaign — take on a different significance, particularly his xenophobic comments about immigrants and the way his speeches rely more on assertions of his own greatness than on any identifiable policies or political philosophy. (It also wasn’t the first time he had justified the violence of his followers.)

Pundits have reacted to labeling Trump a fascist in three different ways:

None of those reactions is entirely wrong, as we’ll see. But that conclusion just raises a larger question: Would we have a basis for calling any contemporary figure a fascist? Or has the word just become an insult with no identifiable content? What is fascism, anyway?

If you try to answer that question by looking at expert opinion, you’ll find a muddle. Just about any good article on fascism starts by explaining why it’s so hard to define. Here’s how David Neiwert puts it:

In contrast [to communism], hardly anyone can explain what it is that makes fascism, mainly because all we really know about it is the regimes that arose under its banner. There are no extant texts, only a litany of dictatorships and atrocities. When we think of fascism, we think of Hitler and perhaps Mussolini, without even understanding what forces they rode to power.

Communism has a very concise description: public ownership of the means of production under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Liberal democracy is a government elected by the majority but constitutionally restrained from violating minority rights. For fascism, well, we’ve got the example of Hitler. But what was it about Hitler that made him Hitler? [1] Given that we don’t want another Hitler regime, or anything remotely like it, what should we be looking for and trying to avoid?

In his influential essay “Ur-Fascism“, Umberto Eco warns:

It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple.

You can’t identify fascism by blindly correlating policies. Hitler built the autobahn and Eisenhower built the interstate highway system, but Eisenhower was not a Hitler. Reagan and Hitler both increased military spending, but Reagan was not a Hitler. Fascism also is not a political philosophy. (Eco: “Mussolini did not have any philosophy: he had only rhetoric.”) It’s not an economic theory, and it’s not tied to a particular religion.

In his book In God’s Country (about the American Patriot movement of the 1990s), Neiwert adopts this definition (which he attributes to “historians and sociologists”):

a political movement based in populist ultranationalism and focused on an a core mythic ideal of phoenix-like societal rebirth, attained through a return to “traditional values.”

But Eco, who grew up under Mussolini, avoided all definitions, writing that “fascism had no quintessence”. Instead he tried to find deeper, pre-rational roots: “Fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations.” and “behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives.”

He reduced these “unfathomable drives” to 14 traits of what he called Ur-Fascism, upon which any specific form of fascism would be based. These 14, he said, “cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism.” The traits include a cult of tradition, anti-intellectualism [2], equating disagreement with treason, fear of difference, permanent warfare, and contempt for the weak. But the one that I want to focus on is #6:

Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. [italics in the original]

This points to what I see as the real difficulty of defining fascism as a political movement: It’s not fundamentally about politics at all. Fascism is primarily a phenomenon of social psychology. I would summarize it as a dysfunctional attempt of people who feel humiliated and powerless to restore their pride by:

  • styling themselves as the only true and faithful heirs of their nation’s glorious (and possibly mythical) past,
  • identifying with a charismatic leader whose success will become their success,
  • helping that leader achieve power by whatever means necessary, including violence,
  • under his leadership, purifying the nation by restoring its traditional and characteristic virtues (again, through violence if necessary),
  • reawakening and reclaiming the nation’s past glory (by war, if necessary),
  • all of which leads to the main point: humiliating the internal and external enemies they blame for their own humiliation. [3]

Now, I think, we’re in a position to talk about Donald Trump and his relationship to the conservative movement. Trump may or may not harbor fascist ambitions himself, but his campaign targets a segment of the population that is psychologically ready for fascism: working-class white Christian males, who have seen their privileged place in American society erode as blacks, women, gays, non-English-speakers, and non-Christians get closer to equality. What’s more, the good-paying no-college-necessary jobs that allowed their fathers to achieve the American dream have vanished, leaving them incapable of carrying forward their patriarchal legacy.

In his scapegoating of immigrants at home and foreign enemies abroad, and his vague promises to “make America great again” by applying his own greatness to a government that for decades has been run by “losers”, Trump is playing the role of a charismatic fascist leader.

But the audience he is appealing to didn’t pop out of nowhere. Its sense of grievance has been carefully nurtured and cultivated by decades of conservative propaganda, which has diligently pointed its resentment  downward at scapegoat groups like blacks, Muslims, and Hispanic immigrants, rather than upward at the wealthy bosses who profited by shipping jobs overseas.

In their defense, the propagandists probably didn’t intend to create a fascist movement. Instead, from one election to the next, it was easy to split the natural constituency of the Left by appealing to a sense of victimization among the white working class, using xenophobia, racism, and hot-button religious issues to turn them against the non-white working class, against women and gays, and against the liberal politicians who looked out for the interests of the emerging minorities. [4] As Neiwert concluded in 2004 after an analysis of Rush Limbaugh’s rhetoric:

What this exercise reveals is not so much that Limbaugh is a fascist, but rather, that he is making a career out of transmitting the themes and memes upon which fascism feeds to a mainstream conservative audience.

The result is the confusion that Trump has sown inside the Republican establishment. Fascistic themes of wounded pride and affronted identity were supposed to keep working-class white Christian men voting against their economic interests. [5] But nobody was supposed to take things this seriously.

Now that Trump is doing so, establishment Republicans are starting to yell “fascist!” But that won’t work at this late date, because by now “the themes and memes upon which fascism feeds” have been woven too deeply into standard conservative rhetoric. The audience that Trump has found and speaks to are the same people whose support Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio hoped to gain with winks and nods.

You can, if you want, regard that last sentence as a conclusion marking the end of the article. Or you can keep reading as we make a deeper pass through the psychology of fascism and its relationship to mainstream American conservatism.

To grasp fascism and its shape-shifting nature, you need to understand a series of concepts that can manifest differently in different times and places. What follows are some “themes and memes” of fascism, and where you can hear them in conservative rhetoric today.

Volkheit. A fascist believes that his nation has an essence, which does not evolve with the times, but is a fixed and eternal ideal. In German, an ethnic group is ein Volk, and their Volkheit (i.e. folkhood) is whatever makes them what they are.

The United States is a nation of immigrants that hasn’t seen itself as English for a long time, so its volkheit wouldn’t be strictly ethnic. For a time it was defined by the constructed ethnicity “White”, but even that characterization has become obsolete. Consequently, the “essence” that makes an American an American is hard to define.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a volkheit. The yearning towards a volkheit can be seen in way that various Americans feel threatened by non-English-speaking citizens, by the equality of non-whites, by multiculturalism, by non-Christian religions, and by any transnational authority like the United Nations or the WTO. Race plays a role in defining the American volk, but other factors weigh in the scale as well.

Whenever someone uses the phrase real Americans to mean something more than the people who live in or are citizens of the United States, they’re talking about our volkheit, particularly if they cite “real Americans” as the upholders of our “traditional values”.

One place you can see this playing out is in the otherwise inexplicable attempts to make President Obama an “other”: the baseless controversy over his birth certificate, the attempt to portray him as a Muslim, the unique sense of outrage when he does things many previous presidents did without anyone noticing or caring. It’s easy to read this as simple racism, but the real point being argued is that Obama doesn’t belong to the American volk. [6]

Herrenvolk. Fascism depends on a belief in the special status of our particular volk. There is a natural hierarchy of peoples, and we are meant to be at the top of it.

Herrenvolk is usually translated as “master race”, but that’s not exactly right. Herr has an aspect of master or lord — the German word for dominance is Herrschaft — but also of a respected head-of-household. (Herr Schmidt is just Mr. Schmidt.) So the herrenvolk doesn’t necessarily hold everyone else on a leash, but in a well-ordered world all the other volk recognize its natural superiority.

The contemporary American form of herrenvolk is American Exceptionalism. When de Toqueville described Americans as “exceptional” in the 1800s, he meant only that a uniquely favorable set of circumstances — like the lack of a competing power on our continent, and the absence of an established class structure and its corresponding centuries-long grudges — had given us a unique opportunity to leave behind Europe’s baggage and make a new start on civilization. That’s why our revolution could succeed, but the revolution in de Toqueville’s France got sidetracked into the Reign of Terror.

But since then, American Exceptionalism has developed into something more than just circumstantial: We are morally exceptional, so things that would be wrong for anybody else are OK for us. Consequently, we can torture people; we can start unprovoked wars; Iran shouldn’t feel threatened by our nuclear arsenal, but we’d be justified in attacking to prevent them acquiring nukes; and so on, because we’re the herrenvolk.

Grievance. Fantasies of belonging to the herrenvolk are like fantasies of secret royalty: If a child is happy with her life and home, she doesn’t need to dream about her real parents coming to claim her. This is why fascism is a product of hard times. When a nation is doing well — its ruling class feels secure, its middle class is confident in its upward mobility, and its lower classes are more docile than desperate — fascism has no place to take root.

But once you start claiming herrenvolk status, you’re left with a conundrum: Why is my life so hard? We’re better than everyone else, so why aren’t we more successful? This is the issue Trump is raising when he complains that “America doesn’t win any more.”

Fascism’s answer is that we have been robbed of our rightful place in the world. Again, fascism’s local variability comes into play. Every fascism has to claim that its volk has been robbed. But who robbed us and how can change in every country.


Indeed, one of the lessons I’ve gleaned from carefully observing the behavior of the American right over the years is that the best indicator of its agenda can be found in the very things of which it accuses the left.

There is no better example of this than Bill O’Reilly’s characterization of the Left as running a “grievance industry“. O’Reilly’s show is little more than a stream of grievances, of wrongs committed against whites, against Christians, against conservatives, against men, and against Real Americans of all types.

Purity. The strength of a volk is in its purity. Conversely, fascism ties a nation’s problems to its failure to guard its purity.

In Nazism, Jews were the impurity corrupting the German volk. In contemporary America, this impurity worry focuses on non-white, non-Christian, or non-English-speaking immigrants, as well as on American blacks who seem not to be assimilating into the white-dominated society.

Purity is a primal, pre-rational concern, which is why the irritation is not soothed by analyses of the economic benefits from immigration, or the overall good behavior of undocumented Hispanics and refugees, or even the rise in deportations during the Obama administration. Meanwhile, every individual crime by an immigrant sets it off again. The belief that foreigners are corrupting the purity of America is foundational; since this impurity is the cause of all our problems, the simple fact that we still have problems is evidence of its corrosive effect.

Another aspect of impurity is moral. The idealized Real America of the white suburbs and small towns of the 1950s had no place for homosexuals or the transgendered. So their presence — and even acceptance! — in contemporary America is evidence of our impurity. Again, evidence is beside the point. Forget that the gay couple living next door trims the lawn perfectly, or that their daughter is valedictorian. If we have problems — and who can say that we don’t? — the impurities we tolerate all around us must be the cause.

Our glorious past. Fascism looks back to a time before impurity set in, when the volk lived securely in its volkheit. For Mussolini, this was the Roman Empire and il Duce was the new Augustus. American conservatives similarly idealize four golden eras: Philosophically, the Golden Age was the founding era, and the Founders are portrayed as divinely inspired prophets. Economically, the Golden Age was the Gilded Age, when capitalists worked their magic unhindered by regulations. Militarily, it was World War II, when our entire society was mobilized behind the war effort. Culturally, the Golden Age happened in the Ozzie-and-Harriet suburbs and small towns of the 1950s.

The importance of this mythology is why any accurate assessment of American history is so threatening to conservatives that they find it necessary to promote their own pseudo-historians. In his announcement speech, for example, Ben Carson attributed the rise of America to the “can-do attitude” of the “early settlers”. His point comes completely undone if you understand the role of land stolen from the Native Americans and developed by slave labor. Similarly, conservatives can only see World War II as a battle of Freedom against Barbarism; the suggestion that dropping nuclear bombs on civilians is barbaric cannot be entertained.

Any reading of history in which America is a nation like other nations, exemplifying both good and evil, is beyond the pale.

Betrayal. Any myth of a glorious past is vulnerable to the criticism Jack Burden makes in All the King’s Men:

If it was such a God-damned fine, beautiful time, why did it turn into this time which is not so damned fine and beautiful if there wasn’t something in that time which wasn’t fine and beautiful? Answer me that one.

Impurity of the volk is only a partial answer, and the machinations of our enemies can’t be a complete answer either, because they shouldn’t be able to stand against the herrenvolk. No, we are suffering now because we have been betrayed by our leaders and by the culturally influential classes.

For Hitler, this was the famous Dolschstosslegende, the myth that German armies did not lose World War I in the field, but were “stabbed in the back” by traitors in high places at home.

You can hear the current dolschstosslegende in Ted Cruz saying that President Obama “does not wish to defend this country”. Or Michele Bachmann’s description of Obama’s immigration policy:

We have this invasion because a political decision was made by our president to intentionally flaunt the laws of the land and put at risk the American people, our culture, our way of life, our economic standing, and also he’s willing to allow a pandemic of disease to come into our country.

The conservative version of recent American history is full of betrayals: FDR betrayed the cause of freedom at Yalta, JFK surrendered American sovereignty to the UN, the Democratic Congress gave away the victory Nixon had won in Vietnam, and Obama not only gave away Bush’s victory in Iraq, but negotiated a “surrender” to Iran.

What the Republican establishment never expected was that they too would be included among the betrayers. But when John Boehner announced his retirement, no one cheered louder than the Republican base. And who imagined that Eric Cantor would be tarred as a traitor to conservatism? Ben Carson says, “I’ll tell you a secret. The political class comes from both parties and it comes from all over the place.” And Ted Cruz writes:

In 2010, we were told that Republicans would stand and fight if only we had a Republican House. In 2014, we were told that Republicans would stand and fight just as soon as we won a majority in the Senate and retired Harry Reid. In both instances, the American people obliged. Now we’re told that we must wait until 2017 when we have a Republican president.

Trump is just echoing them when he says, “I am more disappointed in the Republicans than the Democrats.”

Cruelty. Psychologically, the key to fascism is the (usually unstated) belief that you can work out your own humiliation by humiliating others. Did you fight bravely in the Great War, only to see your country shamed at Versailles, and your family lose everything in the subsequent inflation and depression? Go beat up a union organizer, or throw rocks through the windows of a Jewish shopkeeper; you’ll feel better.

And maybe you do, for a while, but in the morning you return to the same life you had yesterday. So like any addiction, the temptation is to try more next time. Maybe if you’d killed the organizer or set fire to the shop, the feeling would have lasted.

A similar pattern explains the way Republican presidential candidates seem to glory in their cruelty and heartlessness. Trump mimicked and ridiculed a reporter’s disability (echoing Rush Limbaugh’s mocking of Michael J. Fox), Chris Christie didn’t just call for leaving Syrian refugees to their fate, he specifically said he would refuse entry to “orphans under the age of five”. Several candidates have called for the return of torture, even though it accomplishes little beyond making suspected terrorists suffer. The persistent weakness in the protect-traditional-marriage argument was that its proponents could not identify anybody who would benefit; the point was entirely to make gay and lesbian lives harder. Republican deportation policies will break up families, and no one benefits from sending DREAMers back to a country they don’t remember. But none of that seems to matter.

What does matter is that when a candidate says something that is harsh or offensive, his poll numbers go up. [7] The Republican base is angry and is looking for a candidate who will inflict pain on its enemies. That pain is not a regrettable side-effect of a policy that accomplishes something else; inflicting pain is the accomplishment.

What’s the matter with Kansas today? For decades, the Republican establishment has used fascist themes as a tactic: While their policies destroyed unions, empowered employers, shifted the tax burden from the rich to the middle class, allowed higher education to become unattainably expensive for families not already wealthy, and made it easier to ship blue-collar jobs overseas, they could appeal to working-class whites on a symbolic level, offering them pride rather than paychecks or opportunities.

Now those chickens are coming home to roost: Republicans have set the stage for America to have an actual fascist movement, one that will see them as part of the corruption that needs to be purged. Like the businessmen who funded Hitler as a way to distract workers from communism, they thought they could control this, but they can’t.

Donald Trump is taking advantage of this situation, but he is not the problem. Ted Cruz will happily fill his role if something goes wrong, and if the fascist movement can’t win the Republican nomination or the presidency in 2016, there’s always 2020 or 2024. Who knows who might step forward to claim its leadership?

In the long run, I can only see one way out of this trend: Democrats need to offer a program that will genuinely do something for the working class, in the same way that the New Deal headed off American fascism in the 1930s. Americans who feel frustrated and humiliated by the culture and economy of the 21st century need to know that they can get help fixing their lives; there’s no need to seek relief by making others suffer too.

[1] Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is almost comical in its willingness to latch onto Hitler’s superficial traits (like his vegetarianism and support for universal health care) while never zeroing in on his movement’s toxic essence. The Onion could not write a line more ridiculous than this:

The quintessential Liberal Fascist isn’t an SS storm trooper; it is a female grade school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.

[2] The anti-intellectual nature of fascism is one reason it remains undefined. A real fascist is in the streets, not sitting in a library making up theories.

[3] The dysfunctionality of this program is why fascist regimes tend toward short-but-spectacular lives, particularly if the Leader is a true believer, and is not just using the movement to gain power. Humiliating others doesn’t really soothe your own humiliation, so the regime must constantly up the ante to maintain its supporters’ enthusiasm. Ultimately, no conquest and no level of enemy humiliation is enough. The world must fall, and the enemies must be exterminated.

[4] This is the theme of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? from 2004.

[5] For example, the struggling whites in Kentucky who just voted to eliminate their own health insurance.

[6] As you might expect, Trump voters believe these stories about Obama at a higher rate than supporters of other candidates.

[7] Josh Marshall has an interesting take on this: He believes that it isn’t Trump’s cruelty that appeals to the Republican base so much as his refusal to apologize for it.

How Propaganda Works

Jason Stanley has written an insightful book in the language of philosophers. Let me try to translate.

The popular view of propaganda is that it’s nothing more complicated than repeating the same lie over and over: Just keep telling people that voter fraud is a serious problem, Mexican immigrants are disease-carrying criminals, and more guns will solve the gun-violence problem; eventually they’ll start believing such things and repeating them to their friends. You pound a lie into people’s ears until it starts coming out their mouths.

But why do some falsehoods and misdirections catch on while others don’t? Why are some notions impervious to contrary evidence? How do they win out over truths whose perception ought to be in people’s best interest? Why, for example, will a person be unmoved by a hundred accounts of climate change from qualified experts, then listen to one crank claiming it’s a conspiracy to establish world socialism and think, “I knew it!”

In the marketplace of ideas, not all products are created equal. Some are born with inherent advantages that don’t depend on logic or evidence. How does that work?

In order to explain in an intellectually rigorous way, Yale Philosophy Professor Jason Stanley has to define or redefine a bunch of terms, and then argue that these concepts will survive the slings and arrows that other philosophers are likely to launch at them. For a layman like me, that makes for a slow and repetitive book (though not a tremendously long one: a little less than 300 pages). But while some of the basic ideas are familiar — motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, echo chambers, dog whistles, and so on — it’s rare to see them assembled in such a complete package.

Defining propaganda. Stanley proposes a broader definition of propaganda than just lies; it’s “manipulation of the rational will to close off debate”. In less technical terms, it’s the use of deception, emotion, misdirection, intimidation, or stereotype to eliminate certain facts or points of view from the discussion.

A specific use of a slur, for example, may not contain any false information, but instead pushes out of mind the humanity of the slurred person or group. Having police pay special attention to “thugs” doesn’t sound as bad as racially profiling young black men. Undermining “that bitch at the office” is easier to justify than driving women out of the workplace. The point of view of “thugs” or “bitches” doesn’t seem worthy of consideration.

Democratic propaganda. The canonical examples of propaganda come from totalitarian states like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, which had ministries of propaganda and officially sanctioned media like Pravda. But Stanley is more interested in the special problem of propaganda in countries that style themselves as liberal democracies, where ideas are supposed to be debated freely in an independent press in front of a autonomous electorate. In America, the echo chambers have unguarded exits. Why do so many citizens choose to remain inside?

Stanley points up a key difference: In a totalitarian state, you can easily recognize propaganda, but don’t know whether to take it seriously. (When Hitler cast the Jews as vermin he wanted to exterminate, a man in the street might have shrugged and said, “That’s just propaganda.”) In a liberal democracy, we take the news media more seriously, but have a harder time recognizing when it contains propaganda. (Example: Judith Miller’s NYT articles about Saddam’s WMD program.)

Another difference is that while propaganda fits perfectly into totalitarianism, it strikes at the heart of democracy: If citizens are not rational actors who use the democratic system to defend their interests and values, but instead are manipulated into some other kind of public discussion, then what’s the justification for giving them a say at all?

Two kinds of propaganda. Stanley breaks propaganda down into two types: supporting and undermining. Supporting propaganda is in some sense straightforward: It promotes what it appears to be promoting. For example, a government might raise support for its war effort by publicizing real or imagined atrocities committed by the enemy.

What’s more dangerous for a democracy, though, is undermining propaganda: appeals to public values to promote goals that in fact undermine those very values. For example, by popularizing the false belief that America has a significant voter-fraud problem, voter-suppression tactics can be put forward as necessary to defend the integrity of our elections. A laudable democratic value — integrity of elections — is used to undermine the integrity of elections.

Similarly, the false belief that Christians are discriminated against in America justified Kim Davis in denying marriage licenses to gay couples. The democratic values of equality and fairness were invoked to undermine equality and fairness.

Flawed ideology. Those examples raise another key concept in Stanley’s system: flawed ideology. A flawed ideology is a set of false or misleading ideas that are impervious to evidence. If your target audience has a flawed ideology, then your propaganda doesn’t have to lie to them. The lie, in some sense, has already been embedded and only needs to be activated.

For example, suppose you are addressing people who believe (or at least take seriously the possibility) that President Obama’s anti-ISIS policy is intentionally inept, because he’s a secret Muslim. Instead of making that claim explicitly, all you have to do is activate the flawed ideology by calling the President “Barack Hussein Obama”. Your audience will add the secret-Muslim point to whatever other criticisms you make of Obama’s moves in the Middle East.

What’s more, content that is evoked like this (and not explicitly stated) is harder for the listener to filter out. Stanley gives the non-political example: “My wife is from Chicago.” If the speaker says, “I am married”, the listener might consciously consider whether or not that is true. But “My wife is from Chicago” calls attention to the claim about Chicago, sneaking in the idea that the speaker is married.

In mid-conversation, it may be hard for the listener to specify exactly what content has been evoked by “Barack Hussein Obama”, much less consider whether it is true. Similarly, when Newt Gingrich referred to Obama as “the Food Stamp President”, he evoked all the content that had been previously associated with food stamps: that undeserving people get them because they’re too lazy to work, that most of those lazy people are black, that (because he is black himself) Obama is on their side rather than the side of hard-working white people, and so on. Challenging the explicit claim — that food stamp usage increased during the Obama administration — misses the point, because that part is true. In fact, challenging it and letting supporters defend its accuracy only reinforces their impression that the unspoken content must be true as well.

Flawed ideology is social. Once a flawed ideology exists, it gets reinforced by each use. So American Christians who believe they are persecuted closely followed the Kim Davis story, and came away more convinced than ever that they are persecuted.

But where does flawed ideology come from in the first place? Stanley roots flawed ideology in self-interest, particularly our unconscious attraction to comfortable ideas that tell us we are good and justified in what we hope to do. But the ideas most impervious to evidence aren’t just the ones that further our personal interest, but the ones that support our social identity.

Stanley gives the example of the near-universal belief among pre-Civil-War Southern slave-owners that slavery was justified, and that blacks were too lazy, stupid, and childlike to benefit from freedom. To turn away from that complex of beliefs, you would not only have to realize that your own standard of living is based on a great wrong, but you would also have to indict your parents, your church, your teachers, your friends, and your entire community for conspiring to commit that injustice. Literally everyone you had believed to be good might have to be reclassified as evil. So the stakes are far higher than just increasing the labor expense of your plantation or learning to make your own bed. Changing your ideas about blacks and slavery could change everything for you.

No wonder so few people did. Ideas like slavery could not be examined dispassionately, carefully weighing evidence for and against. Hearing persuasive criticisms of slavery would naturally evoke fear of losing your whole sense of self, so you might seize pro-slavery rationalizations like an overboard sailor grabbing a life preserver.

Today, the reason so few Americans leave their unguarded echo chambers is that those echo chambers are communities that define their social identity. As our politics becomes more polarized and entire states see themselves as blue or red, changing your ideas about abortion or race or Islam or guns or capitalism could mean becoming a whole new person with new friends and memberships, maybe living in a new town or neighborhood. Even your family relationships could be shaken.

Some ideologies threaten democracy more than others. As far back as Plato and Aristotle, philosophers have recognized that different forms of government are based on different values. A dictatorship values decisiveness and loyalty, an aristocracy refinement and breeding, a plutocracy wealth. A corporate state reveres efficiency and orderly procedures. Democracies are based on competing values of freedom, fairness, and equality; and a properly functioning democracy fosters a constant debate about how to balance those values and compromise each with the others.

So the propaganda that most threatens democracy isn’t the kind that argues directly for the values of another system — if people really want more efficiency, we should talk about that — but the undermining propaganda that invokes freedom, fairness, and equality to justify actions that diminish freedom, fairness, and equality.

Consequently, the flawed ideology that most threatens democracy is the self-justifying ideology of privileged groups, like the Confederate slave-owners. If our group has some unfair advantage that is based on foreclosing the options of other people, we will naturally want to believe that our advantage doesn’t really exist (there is no inequality), or that it’s actually fair because of the comparative virtues of our people and those who lack our privileges, or that the un-privileged folks are freely choosing not to do the things that (in reality) the system discourages them from doing.

Complexes of ideas that tell us such things — that freedom, fairness, and equality demand that my people keep their privileges — are so welcome that they seem obvious and natural. “Of course,” you say, “I should have seen that myself.” That nagging sense that our way of life is unjust and unsustainable vanishes. We are the good guys, and those who want to take away our advantages are the bad guys.

Former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis frames climate-change denial just that way in this clip from the movie Merchants of Doubt.

It’s not just a head thing. This is very much a heart issue. It’s not the science that’s affecting us. I mean, the science is pretty clear. It’s something else that’s causing this rejection. Many conservatives, I think, see that action on climate change is really an attack on a way of life.

The reason that we need the science to be wrong is otherwise we realize that we need to change. That’s really a hard pill to swallow, that the whole way I’ve created my life is wrong, you’re saying? That I shouldn’t have this house in the suburb? I shouldn’t be driving this car? That I take my kids to soccer? And you’re not going to tell me to live the way that you want me to live.

And along come some people sowing some doubt, and it’s pretty effective, because I’m looking for that answer. I want it to be that the science is not real.

So: personal interest leads to social identification with the people who share those interests; maintaining social identity prevents the examination of notions that would threaten our way of life, leading to flawed ideology; the false information contained in that ideology can be activated and reinforced by propaganda that may contain no false information of its own; with the result that freedom, fairness, and equality seem to demand the maintenance of our unfair and unequal advantages — “You’re not going to tell me to live the way you want me to live.” — even if it ultimately means that others will have their freedom diminished. The resulting beliefs are then almost impossible to refute with evidence, because such an argument is tied to a threat to the believer’s community and social identity.

[Propaganda is a topic the Sift returns to every now and then. My favorite previous articles in this series are “Liberal Media, Conservative Manipulation” and “How Lies Work“.]

The Artful Puppet Master

How Fox turned the first Republican presidential debate into a plus for the GOP.

Leading up to Thursday’s debate, most liberals I know were somewhere between smug and gleeful. The Republican presidential process had started out as something of a circus, with more candidates than anyone could remember and a corresponding need to say outrageous things to stand out from the crowd. And then Donald Trump got into the race, openly characterizing undocumented Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, and responding to criticism from Senator Lindsey Graham by saying Graham was “not as bright as Rick Perry” and revealing his personal cellphone number.

With Trump in the race and rising to the top of the polls, the other candidates started acting out like five-year-old boys competing for a pretty kindergarten teacher’s disciplinary attention. Previously, Ben Carson had set the gold standard for crazy, with his comparisons of ObamaCare to slavery and the IRS to the Gestapo. But now Mike Huckabee was talking about Obama “marching [the Israelis] to the door of the oven“, and discussing using the military and the FBI to stop abortions. Rand Paul was destroying the tax code with a literal chainsaw, and Ted Cruz went even further by cooking a strip of bacon on the barrel of an AR-15. Lindsey Graham seemed downright eager to be in a war with Iran. (“We win!“)

It got so bad that even Democrats were getting a little uncomfortable, thinking about how these shenanigans reflected on America. Humorist Andy Borowitz was only partially kidding when he wrote:

As preparations get under way for the first Republican Presidential debate, on Thursday night, a new poll shows that Americans are deeply concerned that the rest of the world might see it.

Hours before the debate, this showed up on my Facebook newsfeed.

For  a real news network or even an unbiased political entertainment network, none of this would have been a problem. (Pass the popcorn and let the insanity begin!) But the debate was being hosted and televised by the official Republican Party Ministry of Information, a.k.a. Fox News. So although a debate that descended into kindergartenish chaos would make great television, Fox’ brain trust recognized that such a spectacle would hurt the conservative movement it has worked so hard to foster. They saw that as a problem.

They solved it brilliantly.

If you watched the debate through your liberal glasses, you may not have recognized their achievement; to you, everybody probably looked just as scary and unhinged as you expected. (When Huckabee started talking about invoking the 5th and 14th Amendments to protect the personhood of the unborn, he seemed seconds away from calling for federal troops to occupy abortion clinics. But moderator Brett Baier wisely moved on.) However, in the eyes of moderates, independents, and low-information voters, I suspect the debate raised the image of the Republican Party and its gaggle of candidates.

How did Fox manage that? Artfully. I learned a lot by watching.

The problem and the solution. The first step in solving a problem is to state it precisely: The Republican Party’s problem is that its conservative base is shrinking and far out of tune with the rest of the country. So as they campaign for the nomination, candidates constantly have to choose: Should they appeal to the base voters (who will be the majority in the upcoming primaries), or to the American public as a whole (who will judge the eventual nominee in the general election)? For example: Members of the conservative base love to hear pledges that Republicans in Congress will shut down the government this fall and keep it shut until Obama knuckles under and agrees to defund Planned Parenthood. But the public as a whole is ready to be done with that kind of brinksmanship.

So the path to a Republican presidency involves walking a tightrope: leaning far enough to the right to get the nomination, but not so far as to topple out of the mainstream voter’s consideration. Mitt Romney (who I think was a far better candidate than he gets credit for) couldn’t manage it in 2012. His actual record as governor of Massachusetts would have been hard to defeat: He was a problem-solver who could work across the aisle to come up with bipartisan programs other executives wanted to imitate, the way ObamaCare imitated RomneyCare. But he had to pander to right-wing extremists to get the nomination, and he couldn’t recover in November.

Since then, the problem has only gotten worse: The base has gotten angrier and more demanding, while the white Christians who provide its membership continue to shrink as a percentage of the population.

The worst possible thing for the image of the party would be to lob a series of questions into that gap between the base and the average voter: Ask Ted Cruz about his role in the 2013 government shutdown. Ask Ben Carson if Hitler might actually have been a teensy bit worse than President Obama. Ask all the candidates how they plan to avoid war with Iran (if they do), or what they would say to the 16 million people who will lose their health coverage if ObamaCare is repealed, or whether they think our scientists are conspiring to deceive us about climate change, or why they want to force women to bear their rapists’ children.

Once you understand that, you also see the solution: Control the questions and control who answers them. If an issue makes the party look bad, just don’t ask about it. And when most of the candidates stand united around an unpopular position, pick out the one with the most moderate record and ask him to defend it. That answer will look completely different to the two camps: The base voter will see that you’re really putting this guy on the spot. But the average voter will listen to the answer and say, “Hey, these Republicans aren’t as far out as I thought.”

And finally, there’s the special problem of Donald Trump, whose wild statements have been turning off Hispanics, women, and other key demographics. Here, the solution is to excommunicate him: Trump is not a real Republican, so all the bile he expresses is just personal and has nothing to do with the party.

See nothing, say nothing. For two hours in that arena in Cleveland, large chunks of American political discourse just vanished, without even leaving a puff of smoke behind.

The environment, for example, was simply not an issue — not just climate change, but also pollution, oil spills, endangered species, or any other environmental concern. Bashing the EPA is a standard Republican applause line, but there was no cause for that here, because the environment did not exist. It was so far off the radar that Jeb Bush could express puzzlement that Hillary Clinton hasn’t endorsed the Keystone XL pipeline. Rand Paul didn’t have to explain why he once proposed a 42% cut in the National Park Service budget, and Ted Cruz didn’t have to justify his proposal to sell off large chunks of federal wilderness lands.

The related issue of energy policy was also off the table, so no one had to defend burning coal, or fracking, or drilling for oil offshore, or in other fragile ecosystems like the Arctic. No one had to explain wanting to end subsidies for wind and solar power.

Economic inequality was also not an issue, despite the fact that it has come up in several of the candidates’ campaigns: Rand Paul has talked about “the income gap”, and Rick Santorum has charged that “Middle America is hollowing out.” Just about every candidate has questioned whether the American Dream of economic mobility will be available to future generations. But none of that came up.

A related phrase you won’t find in the transcript is minimum wage. A large majority of the public supports raising it, because people who have full-time jobs should not have to live in poverty, and businesses whose workers need food stamps are the real moochers in our society, not the hard-working people they underpay.

But as far as I know, Rick Santorum is the only Republican candidate who wants to raise the minimum wage at all, and even his proposed rate is far smaller than the $10.10 that President Obama supports. (Bernie Sanders wants a $15 minimum.) And while I haven’t found a direct quote of a candidate openly calling to repeal the federal minimum wage, several seem to dislike it on general principles. Marco Rubio has said, “Minimum wage laws have never worked in terms of having the middle class attain more prosperity.” And the Rand Paul 2016 Facebook page posted a link with the comment “How the minimum wage hurts everyone.”

Student debt wasn’t in the questions, and only came up because Marco Rubio volunteered that he used to have some. “How is [Hillary Clinton] gonna lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago.” But that was just a fact, not a problem, so no solutions were necessary.

Equal pay for women? Off the table. Prosecute bankers whose law-breaking contributed to the Great Recession? No mention. Again, Marco Rubio volunteered that he wanted to repeal the only real financial reform Congress passed after the collapse, Dodd-Frank, inaccurately blaming it for the failure of small banks. But Fox completely omitted Wall Street reform from the agenda.

No one was asked about government shutdowns — including Ted Cruz, who more than any other person was responsible for the last shutdown. Another shutdown in the fall is a real possibility, and Cruz in particular wants that option left on the table. But it wasn’t discussed.

Although many candidates called for ending ObamaCare and none defended it, no one was asked how to replace it, or what they would say to the millions of Americans who have health insurance now, but will lose it if ObamaCare is simply repealed without a replacement.

Although all the candidates oppose the Iran nuclear deal and several criticized it during the debate, none was asked how he plans to avoid going to war.

The Black Lives Matter movement rated one question (to Scott Walker, who dodged it. He didn’t say whether he thought police were over-aggressive towards blacks, but merely called for better police training. There was no follow-up.)

Voting rights? Not an issue. Gun violence? Nothing.

Pin the tail on the moderate. Rather than draw attention to the most rabidly conservative positions the candidates have taken, Fox repeatedly picked out the candidates’ most moderate positions and asked them to justify why they weren’t more conservative.

For example, most of the ten candidates oppose allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest. But Marco Rubio was asked to justify favoring such exceptions (which he denied, misleadingly). No one was asked why he would force a woman to bear her rapist’s child. (The one counter-example to the pattern was when Scott Walker was asked to justify his opposition to abortions that protect the life of the mother. He dodged, and there was no follow-up.)

Governor Kasich was asked to justify accepting the money the federal government offered his state to expand Medicaid, but Governor Walker wasn’t asked to justify turning the money down in Wisconsin, thereby denying coverage to 87,000 Wisconsin residents. Kasich talked about the good that money has done in Ohio, delivering a paean to compassion and the effectiveness of government that is totally atypical of both his own philosophy and the Republican Party as a whole.

Kasich got to give another heart-warming speech about love and acceptance when asked how he would respond if one of his daughters turned out to be lesbian. But Mike Huckabee wasn’t asked why he believes same-sex marriage will lead to “the criminalization of Christianity“.

Jeb Bush was asked why he favors immigration reform. (Ted Cruz volunteered that he led the fight against the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate but died in the House.) On the campaign trail, I believe all the candidates have come out against the executive order by which President Obama has prevented DREAMer deportation, and the Republican-dominated House has voted to deport them, but Fox did not find DREAMer deportation worth mentioning.

Rand Paul had to justify why he wants to stop the NSA from collecting the phone records of Americans who have done nothing wrong.

Trump. From the opening question, the moderators made their position clear: Donald Trump is not really a Republican. That opening was a lesson in how apparently neutral questions can in fact be targeted. Brett Baier asked:

Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person.

Only Trump raised his hand, and that invited follow-up questions, a reminder that an independent run by Trump “would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton,” and a direct attack from Rand Paul:

This is what’s wrong. He buys and sells politicians of all stripes. … He’s already hedging his bet on the Clintons, OK? So if he doesn’t run as a Republican, maybe he supports Clinton, or maybe he runs as an independent.

Trump was later asked about his past support for “a host of liberal policies” (partial-birth abortion, an assault-weapon ban, and single-payer health care), and his donations to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. He has justified those donations as a normal business practice, and so he was asked “what specifically” he got in return.*

Megyn Kelly finally brought it home:

In 2004, you said in most cases you identified as a Democrat. Even in this campaign, your critics say you often sound more like a Democrat than a Republican, calling several of your opponents on the stage things like clowns and puppets. When did you actually become a Republican?

It was hard to miss her implication that the right answer was never.

Results. I suspect that when all is said and done, we’ll find out that Fox’ effort to pick the candidate — favoring Rubio and Kasich while trying to cast out Trump — had very little effect. But in the way the debate showcased all the candidates and made the Republican race seem much less clownish than it has otherwise been, I think Fox has scored a major victory for its party.

All in all, the evening resembled one of those holiday dinners where you introduce your fiance to your crazy relatives for the first time. All day long, you short-circuit the discussions that will set Aunt Jenny ranting about the Jews, or evoke one of Uncle Bob’s long pointless stories. You carefully approach your sister only when her husband is around to keep her in line, and you seek out Cousin Billy early, before he starts drinking. Only in the car, after hours of threading a safe path through the labyrinth of family issues, do you finally begin to relax. And that’s when your spouse-to-be says, “I don’t know what you’ve been so worried about. They don’t seem that bad to me.”

* Trump replied that because he was a contributor, Hillary had to come to his wedding. I wish I were doing Twitter for Hillary, because I know exactly how I’d respond. Of course she should deny that money was her reason for attending, and she should promise to attend all his future weddings as well, whether he gives any more money to her campaigns or not.

Rich Lowry’s False Choice

If you don’t like racist police, you must want no police at all.

There’s a rhetorical trick that everybody needs to learn to spot, because it’s widely used and very convincing if you’re not on guard: the false dilemma. In the false dilemma, an author or speaker cuts an entire universe of possibilities down to two: the one he likes and an alternative that is obviously horrible.

A particularly nasty false dilemma is the heart of Rich Lowry’s “#SomeBlackLivesDontMatter“, which appeared on the Politico website Wednesday. (Lowry is a longtime editor at National Review. Why Politico publishes his work is something of a mystery.)

Lowry starts with the familiar conservative trope that black activists don’t care about black-on-black crime.

Let’s be honest: Some black lives really don’t matter. If you are a young black man shot in the head by another young black man, almost certainly no one will know your name. Al Sharpton won’t come rushing to your family’s side with cameras in tow. MSNBC won’t discuss the significance of your death. No one will protest, or even riot, for you.

Of course, no one should protest for you, because protest is a tool for addressing the government, not criminals. So protesting against some random street criminal who shot some innocent civilian would make no sense. (This is frequently missed point on the Right. For example, the protests after Trayvon Martin’s death weren’t directed at George Zimmerman, but at the local legal system that wasn’t taking Martin’s death seriously.) But keep going, Rich.

The Baltimore Sun ran a headline (since changed) that had the air of a conundrum, although it isn’t very puzzling, “With arrests down in Baltimore, mayor ‘examining’ increase in killings.” According to the paper, arrests have dropped by about half in May. The predictable result is that violent crime is spiking.

The implication is clear: More people need to be arrested in Baltimore, not fewer. And more need to be jailed. If black lives truly matter, Baltimore needs more and better policing and incarceration to impose order on communities where a lawless few spread mayhem and death.

The reason Baltimore can’t get this “better policing” — somehow synonymous with “incarceration” — is because the black community doesn’t like the bad policing it’s been getting.

If the message is supposed to be that they don’t want the police there, it has been received.

Of course, literally no one is saying that the black neighborhoods of Baltimore shouldn’t be policed. (That’s why Lowry needs the if. If he could quote some black or liberal leader calling for no policing, he’d really have a point against them. But since none is, he needs a hypothetical.) And now that Lowry has cut the alternatives down to (1) continued racist policing and (2) no law enforcement at all, it’s clear that the people protesting against racist policing should just shut up.

It is wrong for the police to shrink from doing their job, but the last month in Baltimore shows how important that job is. This is especially true in dangerous, overwhelmingly black neighborhoods. They need disproportionate police attention, even if that attention is easily mischaracterized as racism. The alternative is a deadly chaos that destroys and blights the lives of poor blacks.

Again, he quotes no one saying that police don’t have an important job, and he offers no evidence at all that policing in Baltimore has been mischaracterized as racism. That’s just what Lowry wants to believe and wants you to believe. (If someday we reach a point where all the apparently racist actions of police have been “mischaracterized”, the #BlackLivesMatter movement will have succeeded.)

So that’s your choice, black America: Live in completely lawless communities, or STFU whenever police kill young blacks they already have subdued, or shoot down young blacks who are doing nothing wrong. You can have police who continue misbehaving the way they have been, or no police at all. There is no third alternative.

Newspeaking About Torture

If you can’t ban a word, break it.

One major theme of George Orwell’s 1984 is the importance of language to oppressive governments. From the beginning of recorded history, crude dictators have punished people for criticizing their rule. But modern, sophisticated dictators change the language itself, so that thoughts undermining the ruling ideology are hard to put into words, and no one would understand what you were saying if you did.

Orwell described this technique in detail in an essay he appended to 1984, “The Principles of Newspeak“.

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. … This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.

That’s a fine strategy if you already run a totalitarian government like the one in Orwell’s Oceania. But it completely ignores the problems faced by movements still trying to rise to power, like today’s American conservatives. Despite controlling Congress, they can’t just ban words they don’t like.

All they have besides Congress is a media empire, vast wealth, and an amazing degree of message discipline. What can you accomplish with those resources?

Just by being loud and persistent, you can try to alter common usage to favor your ideology. Sometimes that works (“death tax“) and sometimes it doesn’t (“homicide bomber“). But the real challenge is to disarm a word that works against you or for your enemies.

In Oceania they’d simply remove the word from the dictionary and correct everyone who kept using it. (“It’s not in the dictionary, so it’s not proper Newspeak.”) Or they’d keep the word, but remove all its offending meanings, again correcting the people who persisted in using it incorrectly.

But what if you don’t have that kind of power? American conservatives solved this problem a long time ago: If you can’t ban a word, you apply your resources to break it through misuse.

I’m not sure when this started. (That’s the great thing about breaking a word; eventually everybody stops using it, so it never comes to mind again. Your tracks are covered, because hardly anybody ever asks “How did zimzam become unusable?”) Maybe it was during the Reagan years, when liberal became an insult to throw at people you don’t like. I’m not sure. I wasn’t paying attention to the right things then. None of us were, or we might have tried to defend liberal rather than just stop using it.

I first noticed word-breaking* years later, during the second Bush administration. A lot of nasty stuff was happening then: The U.S. government was torturing people in secret prisons, spying on its own citizens, locking people up indefinitely without trials, and manufacturing bogus reasons to invade a foreign country. The administration was justifying all that by putting forward bizarre new legal interpretations of “the unitary executive” and the nearly unlimited “Article II power” he had whenever he determined that we were at war. Standing previous conservative small-government and fiscal-responsibility rhetoric on its head, the administration was creating huge new programs to buy off key constituencies, and not raising any revenue to pay for them. (Just tack them on to the deficit. No worries.)

As I was reading an Economist article characterizing Bush’s ideology as “big-government conservatism”, I wondered: Why use such a cumbersome phrase, when English already had a perfectly good word for this configuration of ideas and policies — fascism.

The answer was that fascism had become unusable, because misuse had broken it. Just when America needed the word to describe what was going on, conservatives were instead discussing “liberal fascism” and “Islamo-fascism” and so forth. In the conservative media, suddenly anything and everything was fascist, except the kind of militaristic, torturing, secretive, prying, corporatist, big-government conservatism that had been practiced by Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, and Pinochet — and was increasingly being adopted by Bush.

The word fascist could have been a rallying call for the enemies of American conservatism. But conservatives averted that threat by breaking fascist through misuse. As a result, today you are perfectly free to talk about fascism — I just did — but no one will know what you mean. Fascist is nothing but an insult now; it has no real content. If you use it, you aren’t saying anything in particular, you’re just being aggressive and rude.

Terrorism was broken in another way, like a proud wolf who gets turned into an attack dog. Terrorism used to have a clear meaning: threatening or perpetrating violence against civilians for political purposes. It was an ideologically neutral description of a tactic that any political movement might resort to. But after a decade of misuse, terrorism has become any violent act conservatives disapprove of. So the Fort Hood massacre is terrorism, even though it was an attack against a military base. Whatever ISIS does is terrorist, even fielding an army and fighting pitched battles against other soldiers. But hardly anyone (except me) called the Sikh Temple murderer what he was: a white right-wing Christian terrorist. White Christian right-wingers can’t be terrorists any more; it’s an oxymoron.

More recently, religious freedom and religious persecution have been broken. A generation ago those were ACLU words, used by atheists, Jews, and other minority movements that struggled against oppression by the Christian majority.

That oppression hasn’t disappeared; in many ways it’s getting worse. But the words to fight it have been hijacked so that they’re barely usable any more. Today, religious persecution is telling a Christian baker that a gay couple is part of the general public his business serves. Or maybe it’s just saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. Religious freedom means that a Christian employer is “free” to block any part of his employees’ health-care coverage that he doesn’t like, and a Christian pharmacist can freely decide whether he approves of your prescription (and the lifestyle it implies) before he fills it. Separation of church and state — which used to be the hallmark of religious freedom — is now a Communist idea that is part of the conspiracy to persecute Christians.

So now, when Kennesaw, Georgia won’t let a Muslim group rent space to worship in their town, or a parole officer forces an atheist to attend a religious program under threat of returning to jail, there are no words to describe what’s happening. Calling it “religious persecution” just confuses people.

And that brings us to torture. For the longest time, the primary defense of the Bush torture program was that it didn’t happen. There was no torture, there was just enhanced interrogation, a phrase brazen enough to do Newspeak proud.

But that defense has become untenable now that the Senate report on torture is out. Once the public heard the details, the claim that this wasn’t torture was exposed as ridiculous. (That’s only going to get worse as more details appear.) And although some are trying, the word torture can’t be reclaimed from the dark side. There’s no way to say, “We’re the Torture Party and that’s a good thing.”

But there is an alternative strategy: misuse the word torture until it breaks.

Dick Cheney pointed the way during his Meet the Press interview with Chuck Todd. When Todd asked how Cheney defined torture, Cheney deflected with this:

Well, torture, to me, Chuck, is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11.

Todd followed up by asking whether rectal feeding was torture, and Cheney continued his distract-with-shiny-objects strategy.

I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture. It’s what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.

The misuse campaign is on. The American Thinker blog reports on the “real torture scandal in America“, which is abortion. General Boykin says “Torture is what we’ve done by having the IRS go after conservative groups.” The Koch-funded American Energy Alliance is calling EPA fossil-fuel regulations “torture”:

Whether it’s the costliest regulation in history or the coal-killing power plant rules (that Obama’s law professor says raise “constitutional questions”), it’s clear that the CIA isn’t the only government agency engaged in torture. At least the CIA isn’t torturing Americans.

The AEA illustrated its point with this cartoon:

Yes, “raising energy costs” and “harassing property owners” are now torture.

Expect to hear a lot more of this. Soon, every inconvenience to a conservative special interest group is going to be “torture”. Anything and everything will be “torture” — except a CIA interrogator looking into the eyes of a helpless (and possibly innocent) prisoner and threatening excruciating pain, trauma, or humiliation unless he talks.

Torture can’t be defended, so the word torture has to become meaningless. If you can’t ban a word, break it.

* I anticipate the question: “What about the ways that liberals try to change the language?” There are a number of words liberals have tried to remove from the language, like nigger or faggot. We discourage men from referring to adult females as girls, and so on. But these efforts have been above-board and transparent. For example, we have largely removed nigger from common usage among whites by openly discussing the reasons whites shouldn’t say nigger. If conservatives want to start a similarly open discussion to convince people to stop saying torture, I invite them to try.