Trump’s advocates have ramped up use of an effective propaganda technique. In editorial comments, social media posts, and thence to barbershop and coffee conversations, the theme is that those who oppose Trump are elitists and haters who are not authentic Americans. It need not be said that authentic Americans are neither elitist nor haters, but it will be said in as many ways as possible to assure Trump supporters that they alone are the authentic Americans, while everyone else is an elitist hater, or one of their (duped?) sympathizers.
It’s a technique skillfully used with amazing success in the last couple of centuries to isolate dissenting opinions, making them unpalatable to citizens fearful of being labeled unpatriotically disloyal. More important, it’s been used to isolate whole populations from exposure to plainly verifiable truth.
Given the ubiquity of today’s social media, freedom of speech, and plethora of news outlets it’s harder to have the nation shattering kinds of success it had in the 19th and 20th centuries. Just the same, it’s possible to use it with considerable success by relying on the self selected isolation of information sources. Thanks to algorithms, I, at least, am finding it harder to keep abreast of social media comments inconsistent with my political views, and I’m certain more conservative friends see little of what I write or the news sources I use.
What surprises me a little is the boldness with which commentators such as Steve HIlton use it, and operatives like Ed Rogers lean into its language. I doubt whether they care very much that it’s an obvious old technique. Rogers, for instance, is a gifted political strategist who knows how to push buttons without blowing things up, and this is a useful button. Hilton’s more of a semi-refined Steve Bannon who relishes pushing all the buttons to see if something can be made to blow up.
It would all be fun and games but for the barbershop and coffee conversations that reveal how well powerful techniques like this work to cement into otherwise decent people the certainty that they’re the only loyal authentic Americans standing tall against all those elitists who hate America. It’s a frightening game given Trump’s frequent, enthusiastic statements in support of authoritarian rule and rulers, and his administration’s moves to reconstruct the economy to favor unrestricted business practices for large companies, while endlessly teasing his faithful supporters with unreachable carrots.
It’s hard to know what effect his blundering trade war moves will have. They could be the undoing of his whole charade. Or they could create such a catastrophe that strong, authoritarian measures would be said to be needed. It’s worked for other dictators. Or he could do what he’s done before: teeter on the edge, back away, surrender, claim victory, and strut on.
In the meantime, his faithful followers will continue to believe he’s defending them against elitist haters. Their minds will not be changed by proving to them how wrong they are, how misled they’ve been. They will only be changed by messages emotionally driven, well crafted, evangelically delivered that lay before them an understandable pathway to their personal prosperity and security. It can’t be stage scenery. It has to be the real thing. I haven’t seen it yet. Maybe it’s coming.