For students of official propaganda, manipulation of public opinion, psychological conditioning, and emotional coercion, it doesn’t get much better than this. As Trump and his army of Goldman Sachs guys, corporate CEOs, and Christian zealots slouch toward inauguration day, we are being treated to a master class in coordinated media manipulation that is making Goebbels look like an amateur. This may not be immediately apparent, given the seemingly risible nature of most of the garbage we are being barraged with, but once one understands the actual purpose of such official propaganda, everything starts to make more sense.
Chief among the common misconceptions about the way official propaganda works is the notion that its goal is to deceive the public into believing things that are not “the truth” (that Trump is a Russian agent, for example, or that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, or that the terrorists hate us for our freedom, et cetera). However, while official propagandists are definitely pleased if anyone actually believes whatever lies they are selling, deception is not their primary aim.
The primary aim of official propaganda is to generate an “official narrative” that can be mindlessly repeated by the ruling classes and those who support and identify with them. This official narrative does not have to make sense, or to stand up to any sort of serious scrutiny. Its factualness is not the point. The point is to draw a Maginot line, a defensive ideological boundary, between “the truth” as defined by the ruling classes and any other “truth” that contradicts their narrative.
Imagine this Maginot line as a circular wall surrounded by inhospitable territory. Inside the wall is “normal” society, gainful employment, career advancement, and all the other considerable benefits of cooperating with the ruling classes. Outside the wall is poverty, anxiety, social and professional stigmatization, and various other forms of suffering. Which side of the wall do you want to be on? Every day, in countless ways, each of us are asked and have to answer this question. Conform, and there’s a place for you inside. Refuse, and … well, good luck out there.
In openly despotic societies, the stakes involved in making this choice (to conform or dissent) are often life and death. In our relatively liberal Western societies (for those of us who are not militant guerillas), the consequences of not conforming to the official narrative are usually subtler. Despite that, the pressure is still intense. Conforming to the consensus “reality” generated by these official narratives is the price of admission to the inner sanctum, where the jobs, money, professional prestige, and the other rewards of Capitalism are. Conforming does not require belief. It requires allegiance and rote obedience. What one actually believes is completely irrelevant, as long as one parrots the official narrative.
In short, official propaganda is not designed to deceive the public (no more than the speeches in an actor’s script are intended to deceive the actor who speaks them). It is designed to be absorbed and repeated, no matter how implausible or preposterous it might be. Actually, it is often most effective when those who are forced to robotically repeat it know that it is utter nonsense, as the humiliation of having to do so cements their allegiance to the ruling classes (this phenomenon being a standard feature of the classic Stockholm Syndrome model, and authoritarian conditioning generally).
The current “Russian hacking” hysteria is a perfect example of how this works. No one aside from total morons actually believes this official narrative (the substance of which is beyond ridiculous), not even the stooges selling it to us. This, however, is not a problem, because it isn’t intended to be believed … it is intended to be accepted and repeated, more or less like religious dogma. (It doesn’t matter what actually happened, i.e., whether the “hack” was a hack or a leak, or who the hackers or leakers were, or who they may have been working for, or what whoever’s motives may have been. What matters is that the ruling classes have issued a new official narrative and are demanding that every “normal” American stand up and swear allegiance to it.)
The ruling classes are not exactly making it easy for their followers this time. Their new official narrative (let’s go ahead and call it “The Putinist Putsch to Destroy Democracy”) is so completely fatuous that it’s beyond embarrassing. The plot is more or less what you’d expect from a mediocre young adult novel or a Game of Thrones-type fantasy series. And if that wasn’t already humiliating enough for the liberals being asked to pretend to believe it, the PR folks in charge couldn’t even be bothered to assemble a new collection of liars to market their childish fairy tale for them. Not only are they insisting that liberals take the word of the “Intelligence Community” and the mainstream media that sold the world the “Saddam Has Secret WMDs” hoax, they actually dispatched James R. Clapper to sit there, in more or less the same spot he sat in the last time he lied to Congress, and do his dog and pony show again.
Meanwhile, the ruling classes’ papers of record, which cosmopolitan liberals rely on to provide a simulation of “serious journalism,” highbrow “arts and culture,” and so on, have descended to the level of the National Enquirer. Among the recent highlights was The Washington Post‘s “Russians Hacked the Vermont Power Grid” story, which it turned out involved neither Russians nor hackers, nor the Vermont power grid’s actual computers, and was basically just another made-up story, like the one about Putin’s Fake News Army. The New York Times, which has also been dutifully rolling out the new official narrative, has taken the leash off Charles M. Blow (aka “The Withering Gaze”), who is accusing Trump of being Russia’s appointment” and proclaiming his election “an act of war.” And now, as I was writing this piece, they hit us with the “Golden Showers” story, in which Trump paid a bunch of Russian hookers to pee on the bed where Obama slept. Any day now we are going to be told that Elvis is secretly working with Putin to deploy a Zhirinovskian gravitational weapon in a UFO disguised as Jesus that Assange and Snowden will personally pilot across the Atlantic to sink America. It’s like some kind of loyalty test in which the ruling classes are trying to determine just how far they can go with this crap before liberals refuse to salute any more of it.
The point of all this propaganda is to delegitimize Donald Trump, and to prophylactically reassert the neoliberal ruling classes’ monopoly on power, “reality,” and “truth.” In case this wasn’t already abundantly clear, the neoliberal ruling classes have no intention of giving up control of the global capitalist pseudo-empire they’ve been working to establish these last sixty years. They’re going to delegitimize and stigmatize Trump (and any other symbol of nationalist backlash or resistance to transnational Capitalism), bide their time for the next four years, and then install another of their loyal servants … after which life will go back to “normal,” and liberals will do their best to forget this unfortunate period where they pretended to believe this insipid neo-McCarthyite nonsense.