I have been puzzled as I watch the new administration seemingly stumble and lie about trivialities drawing unnecessary fire from the media and the progressive opposition. What could he gain by disputing the press characterizations of the inaugural attendance, or lack thereof? Why would Kellyann Conway talk about “alternative facts”?
Indeed, why did the inaugural speech paint such a dismal picture of America, one that most people reject. Why would Trump insist that there was widespread voter fraud that accounted for his loss in the popular vote when there is so much evidence to the contrary?
All of these postures trigged an adversarial response from those who are critical of him. If anything, they deepen the resentment and vitriol about his yet unformed administration. The answer is right under our noses: the propagandists need an enemy.
Keeping ’em Fired Up
The tendency after an election is for both winners and losers to turn away from the political news and return to the mundane concerns and activities of daily life. This leaves those in office with no activist base to support the agenda. Consider this quote from an article about the rise populism in Chavez’ Venezuela.
The recipe is universal. Find a wound common to many, someone to blame for it and a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Cartoon them. As vermin, evil masterminds, flavourless hipsters, you name it. Then paint yourself as the saviour. Capture their imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a good story. One that starts in anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.
That’s how it becomes a movement. There’s something soothing in all that anger. Though full of hatred, it promises redemption. Populism can’t cure your suffering, but it can do something almost as good — better in some ways: it can build a satisfying narrative around it. A fictionalized account of your misery. A promise to make sense of your hurt. It is them. It’s been them all along.
For all those who listen, Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity. The narcotic of the simple answer to an intractable question. The problem is now made simple. The problem is you.
–Andres Miguel Rondon
There was and still is a very strong backlash against Trump from the opposition that includes some of his fellow Republicans in congress. He knows he is in for fights on many fronts.
How can he keep his base angry, loyal and motivated? By setting a context story (yes a “story“) that features him as the embattled champion with the establishment media trying to dispute and discredit him at every turn. If this reminds you of the run up to a professional wrestling match, it’s a suitable analogy. In pro wrestling, the combatants are costumed and hyped as good guy versus bad guy. Each has his brand or meme – a story that defines him for the fans. It’s entertaining and even though it’s pure showmanship, the fan’s emotions are real.
If you frame the first 100 days of Trump as a show, a lot of other stuff starts to make sense. We saw an inaugural that plays like a movie trailer, or the narrative intro to a video game. America is depicted as a rusting hulk of a once great nation, and POTUS Donald declares defiantly that “the carnage” stops right here and right now, because he has arrived on the scene. He will defy the political norms and set elite establishment Washington on its ear. Indeed, he actually said, “..today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.” Thus he builds the POTUS Trump brand as being the proxy of the American People.
Once you think of all the utterances and actions of POTUS Trump as crafting a story, and establishing a brand identity, the bizarre behavior starts to make a perverse kind of sense. The inaugural speech defines the enemy as Washington, D.C. By provoking attacks from the liberal comics and the fact-obsessed press adds the drama. To followers the withering attack on heroic and embattled outsider President only serves to confirm that he’s shaking things up as he promised.
Understand that the bulk of Trump’s base is composed of low-information, high passion people. They feel loyal to their guy, and all the more so when those same nasty elitist journalists are at him again from his very first seconds as President. Trumpists don’t trust those outside the cult of personality, the tribe. So if the Trump-crafted story is truthy enough, they accept it.
We don’t know what the whole agenda of the administration is yet, and we won’t likely be told. There will be the public and populist actions, and there will be the private and anti-democratic actions.
But already we see the cast of characters. Many appear to be chosen for their devotion to the interests of the fossil energy industry and the finance and banking industry. They are business people who would be pleased to see oligarchy prevail over democracy, and over science. They appear to be gearing up to massively deregulate the business interests they served in the private sector. They are not part of that populist base, and the things they are poised to do are also not coherent with the “power to the people” populist story line.
That’s why the crafted story needs drama elements: to distract. They need not be factual or real in the conventional sense. They only need to be perceived as essentially truthful by the audience/followers. And that, dear reader, is why and how our cherished accurate facts become irrelevant. Could Kellyann Conway have forgotten that she was speaking to an outsider when she called her disinformation “alternative facts”? Maybe inside the cult “alternative” is a word of art used to describe “truthy” but false assertions.
Implications for Opposition
If progressives take on the mantle of enemy to POTUS Trump, they are willingly playing the role he’s assigned in the story he is crafting. As we saw in the primary campaign, and in the presidential debates, despite overwhelming bad press, his proven mendacity, and complete misrepresentation of the problems facing his constituents, Trump motivated his base by using all of the criticism as evidence that he was the outsider they needed to defeat the Washington Elite.
Facts, honest reporting, logical analysis, and exposure of Trump’s deceptions only harden the shell of the bubble that has become his cult of personality. His followers get their information from each other and the Trump propaganda machine. His strategy will be to keep giving them actions that build the brand and story. Right now those include the wall, anti Muslim immigration actions, and showy confrontations with job outsourcing companies. He’s stage-managing executive orders to suppress abortion, and block bureaucratic growth. Like a good story teller he is not revealing the plot before he has achieved the dramatic effect.
I wish I could do more than illuminate and inform about what djt is doing. I don’t yet have a resistance strategy to suggest. My intuition says we need to communicate to those inside the propaganda bubble. But I have not found that the Trumpists I know are open to discordant information. Trump is their hired gun, and they want to stand by an let him do his unpleasant dirty work.
How sad, that we cannot come together and support our president. Please stop sending me this garbage you will never change our position. If Trump does not uphold his end of the deal in 4 years we will vote him out. Until then we will support him. So far since he was nominated he has been working everyday for the American People…..
The writer clings to her certainty that her trust is not misplaced and that given the opportunity, he will deliver for her.
I’ll close this essay with a psychological observation about certainty. All of us differ in our tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. Those with low tolerance tend to grasp at fundamentals or rules. They are literalists in matters of religion, authoritarians in matters of governance, and deniers in matters of inconvenient truth. This means they can be played by a con artist who manipulates by over simplification and deceptions that appeal to their beliefs. To better understand this, watch the documentary below.