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A Late Note About Donald’s Rhetoric: Lies and Authoritarianism

2016-11-17

As the Republican candidate for president in 2016, Donald J. Trump has accomplished many things. He engaged in rhetorical tactics unprecedented in recent American electoral history. He was straightforwardly misogynistic. He repeatedly endorsed obviously false claims. There were frequent open discussions of the intentions behind his many odd comments, retractions, semi-retractions and outright false statements.

On a certain level, the media lacked the vocabulary to describe what was happening. Trump was denounced repeatedly for “lying” and at times the apparently more egregious “bald faced lying.” But that is not a sufficient description. Neither was the charge by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt that Trump was in fact a master of “bullshit,” which is distinct from lying in that the speaker is not just communicating information he knows to be false, but is unconstrained by any consideration of what may or may not be true. While this description is technically true, it is at best terribly misleading. This presidential campaign has revealed that our academic and media class has insufficiently grappled with the problem of mass communication.

Liberal democratic societies by definition have a pluralism of value systems. This poses a problem for the politician seeking to gain office, just as it does for the advertiser seeking to gain customers. The total audience consists of sub-audiences with conflicting value systems. The problem of mass communication in a liberal democracy is that of creating and conveying a maximally appealing message to an audience made up of groups with conflicting value systems.

There is a familiar way to respond to the problem in United States presidential politics. It is to convey shared acceptance of a value system to one specific group of voters, while concealing one’s commitment to it to other groups in the audience. In the 2012 campaign, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney repeatedly said that President Obama was weakening the work requirements on welfare. The claim was immediately debunked. In an essay for The Stone, I used Romney’s strategy to explain this familiar response to the problem of mass communication. The goal was to communicate to a certain group of white Southern voters that Romney shared their racial attitudes. But the strategy of communication was sophisticated enough that it provided plausible deniability to the many Republican and independent voters who do not share racist ideology.

Trump has taken an entirely distinct approach to the problem of mass communication.

In “Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt writes:

Like the earlier mob leaders, the spokesmen for totalitarian movements possessed an unerring instinct for anything that ordinary party propaganda or public opinion did not care to touch. Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered with corruption … The modern masses do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience … What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.

According to Arendt, the “chief disability” of authoritarian propaganda is that “it cannot fulfill this longing of the masses for a completely consistent, comprehensible, and predictable world without seriously conflicting with common sense.”

The goal of totalitarian propaganda is to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups. It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power. Its open distortion of reality is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Donald Trump is trying to define a simple reality as a means to express his power. The goal is to define a reality that justifies his value system, thereby changing the value systems of his audience. Two questions remain: What is the simple reality that Trump is trying to convey? And what is the value system to which this simple story is intended to shift voters to adopt?

Trump regularly says that America’s “inner cities” are filled with Americans who are impoverished, and of African-American descent. According to Trump, these are places of unprecedented horror. In a tweet on Aug. 29, 2016, Trump wrote: “Inner-city crime is reaching record levels. African-Americans will vote for Trump because they know I will stop the slaughter going on!”

This has continued as one of the central themes in his campaign; there is supposedly an unprecedented wave of violent slaughter. In November 2015, Trump tweeted an image of the following statistics about race and murder from 2015, supposedly from a source called the “Crime Statistics Bureau of San Francisco,” which does not appear to exist. It included wildly inaccurate figures that indicated that a large majority of white people killed were being killed by black people.

In the United States, around 14 percent of the population is of African-American descent. White Americans make up around 75 percent. If 81 percent of white American citizens who were murdered in 2015 were murdered by a small minority group of American citizens with some kind of vaguely generalizable profile, it may be worth addressing in policy. However, F.B.I. statistics from 2014 tell us that 15 percent of whites are killed by their black fellow Americans, and 82 percent of white Americans are killed by their white fellow American citizens. Fact checkers of Trump’s tweet were displeased.

Trump’s narrative about “inner cities” is so old that young people are unfamiliar with it. There is no national crime wave. While increases have occurred in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, violent crime in the United States remains at historic lows. (A thorough study of this topic can be found at FactCheck.org.)

The simple picture Trump is trying to convey is that there is wild disorder, because of American citizens of African-American descent, and immigrants. He is doing it as a display of strength, showing he is able to define reality and lead others to accept his authoritarian value system.

The chief authoritarian values are law and order. In Trump’s value system, nonwhites and non-Christians are the chief threats to law and order. Trump knows that reality does not call for a value-system like his; violent crime is at almost historic lows in the United States. Trump is thundering about a crime wave of historic proportions, because he is an authoritarian using his speech to define a simple reality that legitimates his value system, leading voters to adopt it. Its strength is that it conveys his power to define reality. Its weakness is that it obviously contradicts it.

Trump is, as Frankfurt asserts, certainly openly insensitive to reality. But he is not carelessly insensitive. To lump Trump’s rhetoric into a category that includes advertising is strange. It is prima facie bizarre to be satisfied with a description of the rhetoric of a dictator like Idi Amin’s as “insensitive to truth and falsity.” Why have we been satisfied with such descriptions of Trump? Perhaps our media, as well as our academic class, assumes that we are healthy liberal democracy, and not susceptible to authoritarian rhetoric. We now know this assumption is false.

Denouncing Trump as a liar, or describing him as merely entertaining, misses the point of authoritarian propaganda altogether. Authoritarian propagandists are attempting to convey power by defining reality. The reality they offer is very simple. It is offered with the goal of switching voters’ value systems to the authoritarian value system of the leader.

This campaign season has been an indictment of our understanding of mass communication. Either we lacked the ability or concepts to describe authoritarian propaganda, or we lacked the will. Either way, we must do better.

Describing what Trump has done requires us to talk not just about the importance of honesty and accuracy, but also about power, value systems and in-groups vs. out-groups. It also requires us to confront the failures of elite policy that have led to an erosion of democratic norms, primarily public trust, that make anti-democratic alternatives suddenly acceptable.

[Author’s note: this was written on November 6, 2016, but failed to make it into the blog before the election.  My apologies for the delay.]

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