Donald Trump is less the president of a superpower than he is a master of marketing and propaganda. In style, temperament, and character, he is reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party member who became Adolf Hitler’s Propaganda Minister in 1933 and served in that role until May 1945 when he and his wife killed their children and took their own lives as the Russians invaded Berlin. As the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels had power over all German radio, press, cinema, and theater. He controlled the party’s messaging to the German people and masterminded the denigration
of the Jews in the minds of Germans that paved the way for the Final Solution.
Goebbels didn’t invent propaganda, but he was one of its shrewdest practitioners and theorists. His Principles of Propaganda are instructive because they illuminate much of what Donald Trump does as he attempts to manipulate American public opinion.* Here are ten of Goebbel’s Principles and how Trump uses them to create political advantage:
- Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda must evoke the interest of an audience and must be transmitted through an attention-getting communications medium.
In 1930’s Germany, the principal media were radio and print. In our era, Trump uses Twitter as his primary communications medium. Twitter gives him a direct conduit to millions of his followers, and his tweets, particularly the more inflammatory and outrageous ones, are reported in newspapers and on television. So he reaches tens if not hundreds of millions of people through his tweets. His other primary attention-getting media are television and political rallies, where he markets himself and his ideas to thousands of followers directly and millions more indirectly through television reporting on his rallies. The rallies give him not only a supportive audience for his ideas but also the attention and adulation he craves.
- Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Credibility alone must determine whether propaganda output should be true or false.
Goebbels believed that it didn’t matter if what the propagandist says is true or false; it only mattered that it appears credible in the minds of the audience. Trump has long been an adherent to conspiracy theories because he knows many people will accept even the most outlandish claims because those claims reinforce already deeply held suspicions or biases. The notion that Obama was not born in the United States is one example. As was the ridiculous claim that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex ring operating out of a diner with D.C. (called Pizzagate, this conspiracy theory prompted a North Carolina man to travel to D.C. and open fire inside the diner with an assault rifle. He’s now serving four years in prison). More recently, Trump has claimed that there is rioting in some California cities by people opposed to them being sanctuary cities (not true), and that Democrats organized the caravan of migrants now traveling north through Mexico to the U.S. border (not true—Democrats had nothing to do with it), and that the Democrats are promoting “unhinged” mob rule (ridiculous, not true). Trump is a skilled propagandist, and it doesn’t matter to him if his claims are true or false. The only thing that matters is that his supporters and other gullible people find the claims credible enough to be fearful and vote for Republicans. I’ve offered only a few examples of Trump’s lies and outlandish claims, but in the past two years there have been thousands of examples. The sheer volume of his propaganda is difficult to keep up with.
- Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda must be carefully timed. The communication must reach the audience ahead of competing propaganda.
Trump understands that he needs to control the narrative by making his claims and accusations ahead of competing media (i.e., the fact checkers in traditional media outlets). Timing is crucial for Trump because he wants his opponents to be reactive rather than proactive. When the counter-narrative of reporters in traditional media houses gains enough strength, Trump changes the narrative by introducing a new, controversial topic (past examples have included granting presidential pardons in questionable cases or threatening to fire cabinet officials like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and more recently Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis). Shifting the narrative enables Trump to shorten the life cycle of counter-narratives and change the public’s focus so often that people are distracted by the blurring of events.
- Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: A propaganda theme must be repeated but not beyond some point of diminishing effectiveness.
Trump knows that in propaganda, as in marketing, your major themes—the things you want people to remember most—must be repeated. His propaganda features recurrent themes: Crooked Hillary, the Mueller witch hunt, the fake news media, no collusion. He repeats and emphasizes these themes to the point that they become drilled into the consciousness of his intended audience. People who don’t buy into his nonsense may be annoyed by Trump’s repetition, but it works well with his base—with people who are already inclined to believe it or who have heard it so often they believe it without realizing why and how their beliefs were formed.
To doubt that this propaganda tool is effective you would have to believe that marketing has no impact on viewers and listeners—and study after study has shown that marketing does change people’s minds, that it does influence their buying behavior. The current Liberty Mutual television ad is a good example of intentional repetition. After the substance of the ad, a chorus sings a short jingle that ends with “Liberty. Liberty. Liberty.” Liberty Mutual’s ad agency cares less about you remembering the substance of their ad; they primarily want you to remember “Liberty.” So when you need insurance, that word pops up in your mind.
Likewise, Trump wants his audience to remember that Hillary is crooked, that Mueller is leading a witch hunt, that the mainstream new media spouts fake news, and that there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russians. He drills those points home through constant repetition. Does it ever reach the point of diminishing effectiveness? I think this depends on the audience. I have an adverse reaction to Trump’s annoying repetition of these themes, but his true believers likely see it as reinforcement of what they already believe.
- Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda must label events and people with distinctive phrases or slogans.
Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Crazy Bernie Sanders, Goofy Elizabeth Warren (Pocahontas), Little Marco Rubio, Horseface Stormy Daniels (his insults about women are often based on their appearance). Trump understands the power of labels as well as the guilty pleasure of ridicule: we take pleasure at seeing other people ridiculed, just as we are secretly pleased at others’ misfortunes. This is a phenomenon known as schadenfreude in German. Psychologists say that we are often pleased with others’ misfortune, particularly if we think the person deserves the misfortune, we had no part in causing the misfortune, and the misfortune is relatively minor. We find ridicule in the form of name calling humorous in the political arena when the person being ridiculed is on the other side of the aisle or when we think there is some truth to the label. To those who were troubled by Hillary Clinton’s missing emails, the label “Crooked Hillary” fit, and if they didn’t like Clinton (as many people didn’t), it was pleasing (secretly or not) to hear Trump call her that.
But ridicule through name calling is more than a political gag because labels shape people’s opinions of the victim. By calling Clinton “Crooked Hillary,” Trump shaped the public’s opinion of her, not everyone, to be sure, but enough of the public to sway the vote. Labeling her “crooked” helped convince many people that there was something shady about those missing emails, that Clinton couldn’t be trusted. Calling Cruz “Lyin’ Ted” convinced some people that Cruz was a liar, even in the absence of evidence (the irony, of course, is that Trump himself is a monumental liar, but propagandists often accuse others of disparaging traits they themselves have in abundance). Calling Elizabeth Warren “goofy” makes some people think it must be true and therefore she doesn’t have to be taken seriously.
In a political era when civility has sunk to its lowest point, Trump is a master of schoolyard-worthy name calling. It is an adolescent form of bullying, unworthy of a man who holds the highest office in the land, but Trump resorts to name calling over and over because it works. When the gloves are off (and Trump took them off), labeling your opponents with derogatory terms will influence many voters—perhaps enough to sway an election. This is one of Trump’s most effective propaganda techniques.
- Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda must evoke desired responses which the audience previously possesses.
In other words, effective propaganda must reinforce or reflect previously held beliefs or inclinations, and Donald Trump does this admirably well. He knows how to appeal to his base’s prejudices and fears. Prior to the 2016 presidential election, he read the mood of Republican voters and mainstream white Americans better than any other candidate. He stoked their fears and biases by presenting himself as anti-Obama, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim—and pro-law-and-order, pro-military, and pro-jobs. By wrapping the whole message around “Make America Great Again” he built upon the needs and attitudes of a large segment of the population. He intuited how they felt and fed them propaganda that evoked the response he desired from them. Donald Trump didn’t invent their sense of disenfranchisement, but he understood it and crafted his messages to appeal to fears and beliefs they already possessed. In much the same way, Joseph Goebbels and Adolf
Hitler crafted messages they knew would appeal to a German population still reeling from the disaster of World War I and the mistreatment they felt they received from the victorious allies at the end of that war.
- Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda must be capable of being easily learned, and it must be utilized again and again, but only in appropriate situations.
Donald Trump keeps his messages simple. Whether he does this by design or because he’s incapable of more sophisticated messages is debatable. However, he has a knack for the right name calling or the right turn of phrase to make his messages easy for his audience to remember. His latest “#jobsnotmobs” tagline is an example. In this simple tag he implies that the Republicans are for jobs and the Democrats are a mob. It’s simple and easy to remember.
Trump uses these kinds of tags often, arguably too often. His accusations and exaggerations are repeated so often that they begin to sound strident and hollow. If you’re not a Trump supporter, the sheer repetition of these simple messages can become not only annoying but counter-persuasive. But for Trump’s base and persuadable people on the fence, his simple, repeated messages become a subliminal message thread that is woven into their subconscious and shapes what they believe and how they vote.
- Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda to the home front must create an optimum anxiety level.
A month ago, Trump claimed that if the GOP losses the mid-term elections, there will be violence from the left. He also claimed that if he is impeached, the stock market will crash and everyone will be poor. His mini-me, Rudy Giuliani, said that if Trump is impeached, his supporters would rebel. All these warnings are intended to ratchet up the fear and anxiety level among his followers. When they’re fearful, they’re motivated. When they’re afraid of the other side winning, they’ll get out and vote. Donald Trump wants Americans to be afraid, and he wants them to believe that only he can protect them. He knows, as Goebbels did, that fear is a glue that creates cohesion among masses of people who will support or at least acquiesce to the leader’s political will. It worked in Nazi Germany, and it’s working here.
- Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda must reinforce anxiety concerning the consequences of defeat.
Trump excels at inciting fear and loathing among his base, particularly raising fears of criminals like MS-13 running through the streets, which he claims will happen if Democrats win, and raising the specter of lost jobs and higher taxes and unprotected borders. His propaganda emphasizes the extreme negative consequences that will arise if he or his agenda are not supported or if his critics are not disregarded or otherwise silenced.
- Goebbel’s Propaganda Principle: Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.
The specters that Goebbels raised were the Jews, the gypsies, and the communists, as well as the old factions in Germany that were responsible for defeat in World War I and kept Germany from achieving its manifest destiny. The specters that Trump raises are loss of jobs, drugs flowing into the country, rampant lawlessness, floods of illegal immigrants taking American jobs, the loss of Second Amendment protections, and in generally subtle ways, the displacement of whites and white privilege in an increasingly diverse country. He wraps that all up in hatred of the Democrats, whom he depicts as enemies of the people, along with hatred of most mainstream media, whom he labels “fake news.”
Trump understands that the purpose of propaganda is to create enemies, to target people and groups his followers should fear and loathe, and thus to rally his supporters against this “common enemy.” It’s not a unifying message, but Trump has no desire to unify the country. He wins only if he stays in power, and to stay in power he must manipulate his followers and shape their beliefs. He knows that to accomplish that he must channel his followers’ fears and aggression to specific targets, and he is a master at letting them know what those targets are.
How effective has Trump been in specifying targets for hatred? Look at the recent pipe bombs mailed to CNN, the Clintons, the Obamas, Joe Biden, Maxine Waters, John Brennan, Eric Holder, George Soros, Tom Steyer, Kamala Harris, James Clapper, Cory Booker, and Robert De Niro. All are critics or opponents of Trump, and he has targeted them using inflammatory rhetoric, lies, and exaggerations. The suspect in this case, Cesar Sayoc, is a criminal with a long rap sheet, and he's also a registered Republican whose van was covered by pro-Trump bumper stickers. Sayoc is the kind of dangerous person who's been brainwashed by Trump’s propaganda and has acted to harm or kill those who oppose or criticize him. Propaganda is dangerous. From 1933 to 1945, Joseph Goebbel’s Propaganda Ministry told lie after lie and helped propel the world into a war that took between 70 to 80 million lives.
Today, in America, we had a bomb-making fanatic who took it into his own hands to try to kill Donald Trump’s opponents. Don’t imagine that it will end here. When Trump and his Republican cronies demonize their political opponents, they create an atmosphere where irresponsible, mentally ill, or criminally inclined people may decide to take action.
The purpose of propaganda is to manipulate the populace by creating a false narrative that causes people to believe what the propagandist wants them to believe, usually to advance a political cause or purpose, consolidate power, or sanctify an idea that legitimizes action against a person or group. Propagandists use facts selectively, exaggerate, or lie to achieve their goals.
Joseph Goebbels was a master of propaganda during the Nazi era in Germany. Donald Trump is a master of it in America now. I am not saying or implying that Donald Trump is a Nazi. But he is using the tactics of propaganda that Joseph Goebbels used so effectively in Nazi Germany, and propaganda is deceptive manipulation of the truth. It is dangerous.
Those of us who recognize his propaganda for what it is have an obligation to speak out. Those who don’t recognize it—and are influenced by it—should step back and ask themselves if what they’re hearing from Donald Trump, in his tweets and at his rallies, is really true. They have an obligation to recognize that they are being manipulated by a modern Minister of Propaganda, a powerful con man with a gift for marketing whose intentions are entirely self-serving and whose methods are devious. Propaganda is a dark art, and Donald Trump is a masterful practitioner of it.
*The Goebbels principles of propaganda that I’ve cited here are from Leonard W. Doob’s “Goebbels’ Principles of Propaganda,” published in Public Opinion and Propaganda: A Book of Readings edited for The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.