Last November, I wrote a piece on how media networks routinely normalize Donald Trump’s propaganda — from news channels that gave Donald $2 billion of free coverage during the 2016 election, to vetted tech bros who profit from Trump’s brain farts while allowing the child-president to threaten countries with nuclear war, because of the “newsworthiness” of his tweets.
Since then, the factors that led to the biggest upset in U.S. political history have become even more pronounced. While liberal media and the so-called “Resistance” movement are still trying to figure out their game plan, Donald continues to woo key demographic groups, exploit mainstream media, and dominate Democrats when it comes to digital ad spending. The Trump 2020 campaign has already spent $4.5 million on Facebook and Google ads; according to Axios, that’s twice as much as all the Democrats who are running against him combined.
To make a long story short, for the past two years the liberal establishment has used “Russia” as a lightning rod for its own inability to attract voters. Yet, Mueller has yet to accuse a single American of collusion with Russia, and instead is nailing members of the Trump team on financial crimes.
As the Trump-Russia narrative wears off, and those who profit from it have fewer and fewer “bombshells” to obsess over, liberals will go back to what they do best — gaslighting their own base and smearing progressives.
This means The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, CNN, MSNBC and other experts in democracy are rallying the troops against “sexist” Bernie, “Assad-supporting, Russia-supported” Tulsi, “anti-Semitic” Ilhan, and anyone who dares to defy the bipartisan support for war, apartheid, class warfare, and environmental destruction. Nothing brings the duopoly together better than supporting coup attempts abroad, or colluding against the working class.
As Margaret Kimberly described the present moment in her weekly Freedom Rider column featured in the Black Agenda Report:
The charge that Trump colluded with the Russian government in the 2016 election has been abandoned even by the people who turned the allegation into a well paid cottage industry. The Mueller investigation has come up empty and Democrats are scrambling to keep their creation alive in order to make themselves politically relevant. They should be planning how to go about giving the people what they need and want. But Medicare for All and any other proposals that would benefit the masses are off the table for them and their corporate donors.
Trump and the right-wing propaganda machine behind him will be the obvious benefactors from Democrats’ inability to energize progressives. Right-wing personalities in the U.S. (a competitive market in itself) don’t even need to be creative about their marketing — all they need to do is use liberals’ attacks against the working class and sling them right back, but with an all-American, Koch-approved racist, xenophobic, sexist, and militarist sizzle.
Here’s how this partnership works. Democrats manufacture outrage about Rep. Ilhan Omar’s criticism of AIPAC, which enables Trump to label Democrats “anti-Jewish” and members of his team to describe Omar, the first black Muslim woman ever elected to Congress, as “filth.” Or ex-Clinton staffers use their dwindling influence to attack Bernie Sanders for flying on planes and for having a second home, which gives Fox News material to attack Bernie and paint all Democrats as hypocrites.
By punching progressives from the left, corporate Democrats help the right-wing movement redefine the political spectrum in the U.S. and paint proposals with overwhelming public support as fringe and “far-left.” This type of “bothsidesism” is a tool of the trade for Democrats who use the pretenses of bipartisanship and incrementalism to avoid action on climate devastation, student debt, stagnant wages, and other pressing issues that have nothing to do with Russia.
The Cost of Russiagate
Ever wonder why, amid all the grave concerns regarding Trump’s win, the question of dark money behind his campaign remains unexplored by mass media? Or why the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which helped unleash unprecedented amounts of outside spending in U.S. elections, doesn’t get discussed much on mainstream media? It’s because the issue of money in politics doesn’t appeal to the donor class, which is another reason why Russiagate was a godsend to the U.S. oligarchy, including Trump.
In their paper on the 2016 presidential election, Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen express skepticism about the popular narrative that Russian “influence campaigns” won Trump the presidency. Instead, the political scientists highlight the growth of right-wing media empires that have blossomed through partnerships with firms “as American as apple pie”:
Large numbers of conservative websites, including many that that tolerated or actively encouraged white supremacy and contempt for immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, or the aspirations of women had been hard at work for years stoking up “tensions between groups already wary of one another.” Breitbart and other organizations were in fact going global, opening offices abroad and establishing contacts with like-minded groups elsewhere. Whatever the Russians were up to, they could hardly hope to add much value to the vast Made in America bombardment already underway …
Some firms could add value though, but every one of them was as American as apple pie. With no publicity, the tech giants — Google, Facebook, Twitter — were all trying to muscle in on the richly rewarding arena of campaign consulting. Their aim was not to “weaponize” internet ads, in the ominous sounding term that analysts of Russian internet now throw around — their interest lay in monetizing them, just as they have restlessly tried to do in everything they engage in.
In his interview with PBS, featured in the documentary The Facebook Dilemma, Trump’s digital media director Brad Parscale explains this process in-depth, including how Trump’s team used Facebook’s “Custom Audiences” tool to microtarget the people who were most likely to show up to vote.
While the Russiagate fixation succeeded in diffusing and diverting accountability for the Democratic establishment, it also provided cover for Trump’s actual advantage — the growing alt-right networks that are running circles around Democrats’ engagement strategy.
As Democrats cannibalize their base, in collaboration with Silicon Valley and the news entertainment industry, Trump’s team of neocons is moving the U.S. closer to war, environmental destruction and, as predicted by Steve Bannon, a total “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
The cost of Russiagate, two years after the made-for-TV presidential extravaganza, is that Democrats are once again fighting on two fronts (against progressives and Trump), while Don’s team of Breitbards is planting stories and weaving plot lines that get gobbled up by the same corporate channels and personalities that claim to fight for the left.
Don’t get me wrong, Trump clearly has a an uphill battle ahead of him. However, for someone whose administration is literally ripping families apart, destroying the environment, wheeling and dealing with despotic regimes, rigging U.S. elections, and working to overthrow the Venezuelan and Iranian governments, he is doing a superb job at controlling the dominant narrative.
Similarly to 2016, it’s not a foreign “influence campaign” that is advancing Trump’s agenda, but the right-wing billionaires, media organizations, and pundits who rallied behind him from the beginning of his, shall we say, presidential phase.
In contrast, the Democrats continue to demean and gaslight supporters of all ages. In February, a video released by the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led environmental organization that urges lawmakers to take action on climate devastation, showed Senator Dianne Feinstein dismissing young activists who were pleading for her support on a Green New Deal.
“The government is supposed to be for the people and by the people,” one child tells Feinstein in the video. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Feinstein replies. “You come in here and say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that…I know what I’m doing. Maybe people should listen a little bit.”
Predictably, Feinstein’s tone deaf reaction was embraced by right-wing operatives who gladly use any opportunity (and there are many) to join corporate Democrats in dunking on the progressive movement. In his article for In These Times, Branko Marcetic was quick to point out that Feinstein’s family has financial interests in fossil fuel companies.
Here’s how Thomas Ferguson and his team describe the differences between the two Parties in the age of Trump:
Within the Democratic Party, the desires of party leaders who continue to depend on big money from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, health insurers, and other power centers collides head on with the needs of average Americans these leaders claim to defend. On medical care, minimum wages, unionization, and many other issues, there is no consensus; only intense wrangling behind a cloud of opaque rhetoric and increasingly hollow “resist” slogans. The continued pressures to blame the Russians for the Democrats’ failures is also doing nothing to clarify matters.
Meanwhile big finance and the telecom giants intensify their pushes to be free of deregulation, while traditional patterns of alliances dissolve as the relative position of the U.S. in the global system alters. Trump’s triumph, with its powerful overtones of bait and switch, will not end the Hunger Games. His presidency looks to be a moment in the disintegration of a money-driven political system that is now appears trapped in a fatal circle of corruption and cynicism. 2016 showed that mass citizen involvement can dramatically reshape politics, but it also highlights the essential point of the investment approach to politics, which is the enormous advantages elites retain in political action even as political systems collapse.
Infiltrating Universities and Colonizing Social Media
In his speech at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in Washington, DC, Trump expressed a desire to “protect free speech” on U.S. campuses. Judging by Donald’s previous intentions, it’s useful to question his support for free speech, especially when it’s announced through partnerships with leading conservative youth propaganda organizations — Young America’s Foundation (YAF) and Turning Point USA (TPUSA).
During the speech, Trump invited Hayden Williams, a member of the conservative Leadership Institute who was recruiting for TPUSA and was subsequently punched in the face by Zachary Greenberg, a non-student, at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. In a widely shared video, Hayden (who is also not a student at Berkeley) and Greenberg appear to be in a heated debate before Greenberg punches Williams.
Trump, who is known to parade people in order to extract support for his causes, used the opportunity to reignite the manufactured narrative that there’s a “free speech crisis” on liberal campuses (although studies point otherwise).
“If they want our dollars, and we give it to them by the billions, they’ve got to allow people like Hayden and many great young people, and old people, to speak,” Trump told the CPAC crowd and indicated he would issue an executive order that would withhold funds from universities unless they agreed “to support free speech.”
When Trump called him to the stage, Hayden made sure to express his disdain for “socialist progressives”:
I just like to say, if these socialist progressives have their way, they would put our constitution in a paper shredder in a heart beat. That’s why it’s important as ever to work in the Leadership Institute and Campus Reform, you know, exposing these liberal abuses to the public … And these students do it because they have a love for our nation, and freedom, and frankly a love for you Mr. President, so if you keep defending us we will keep defending you.
“He took a punch for all of us,” proclaimed Trump to a cheering audience after Hayden left the podium, “but you know what, he is going to be a very wealthy young man.”
As one would expect from Trump, the lack of data on the so-called free speech crisis didn’t stop him from using an isolated incident to threaten universities. Although his promise is likely just a diversion (given that he needs Congressional approval to limit federal funding), his high-profile attacks are meant to divide campuses across the U.S., which is what the right-wing movement does best.
As we get closer to 2020, the propaganda groups that promote Trumpism and vilify socialism in colleges all over the U.S. will intensify their attacks on the “far-left,” with the support of pop psychologists and pseudo-intellectuals who use their perceived neutrality and centrism to lend credibility to the right-wing agenda.
It doesn’t take much effort to see the kind of “free speech” Trump and his auxiliary propagandists want to protect. Here’s a sample of recent videos produced by the “millennial” organizations that spread the word of Trump on U.S. campuses:
“The moral case for Trump’s wall | Dinesh D’Souza SPECIAL EVENT at Stanford University”
“LMAO: Delicate student tries & fails to stump Knowles, turns & runs away in fear”
“LOL: Leftist student tries to stump Shapiro on abortion, fails miserably & publicly”
These anti-intellectual, antagonizing videos are the main products of such groups and the reason why they are rightly protested on U.S. campuses. The agenda of such organizations, as illustrated by the click-bait titles of their videos, is to paint all Democrats as radicals and give exposure to a new crop of right-wing provocateurs willing to shill for their corporate masters.
This type of propaganda is extremely dangerous, as it gives an “intellectual” backing to Trump’s racist, xenophobic, and militarist dog whistles in an environment that is already defined by mass shootings and escalating threats against progressives.
Just last month, a Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described white nationalist was arrested in Maryland for “plotting to kill a long list of prominent journalists and Democratic politicians, as well as professors, judges, and what he called ‘leftists in general’,” according to federal prosecutors.
Investigators said in their court filing that Lieutenant Hasson had been “stockpiling weapons since 2017.” When federal agents searched his cramped basement apartment in Silver Spring, Md., they found “a cache of 15 assault rifles, shotguns and handguns and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition that the lieutenant had amassed,” according to The New York Times.
It was also found that Hasson routinely read the manifesto written by far-right domestic terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 Norwegian citizens in 2011. Breivik is known to have been inspired by cultural Marxism — a conspiracy theory with anti-Semitic roots, according to which elitists in media, academia, and science are engaged in a decades-long plot to undermine Western culture.
Although it is clearly a dog whistle for extreme right-wing factions in the U.S., the cultural Marxism conspiracy is often evoked by popular right-wing personalities and New York Times opinion writers to criticize the progressive movement in the U.S.
These examples illustrate why it’s not exactly true that the U.S. has an equally polarized political climate. There are no leftist organizations infiltrating universities to push a left, much less a far-left, agenda, but that narrative helps Trump and company justify their hate toward progressives.
Unfortunately, Democrats are willing to accept this version of events, rather than acknowledge the emergence of a highly connected right-wing media ecosystem that is outsmarting the liberal establishment on every turn. Trump’s youth engagement strategy and support for right-wing media organizations are some of the most overlooked aspects of his presidency — and for a good reason — Democrats have done nothing to counter such efforts, because that would imply actually listening to their supporters and providing an alternative agenda.
By blaming Putin, Comey, Obama, millennials, Bernie Bros, and others, and demeaning those who voted for Trump, the Democratic establishment failed to expose and counter Trump’s strategic advantage going into 2020.
Facebook was also blamed for influencing the 2016 elections, but everybody forgot about that after Zuckerberg assured us his team will “get back with the details.” Facebook hasn’t changed much since then, aside from the fact that the platform now asks for one’s personal information in order to buy ads and target people — a task that doesn’t require a Russian passport.
In addition, while it has previously censored lefty shows on its platform, Facebook has become a home for Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze, a concoction of right-wing “news” shows that have captured the attention of millions of Facebook users.
Not to be outdone, YouTube’s algorithm has also shown affinity toward right-wing content, a lot of which is generated by the groups mentioned above.
Add to that Twitter’s policy of bending over backwards for Trump and his team and you get a pretty good idea of how Donald’s fascist tendencies get normalized across social media — and what will happen once Trump’s plethora of cultivated personalities coalesce around him whenever that’s needed.
Counting on Democrats to Fail
While, at least on paper, Trump should be easy to beat in 2020, the inability of corporate media and the Democratic establishment to provide a clear alternative to his tyrannical regime is a major cause for concern. Democrats are just as corrupt as the Donald, and corporate media is just as willing to cater to, and profit from, Trump’s followers.
Contrary to the many initial public denouncements of his agenda, Donald was quickly normalized by the ruling class — liberals supported his appointments, justifications for bigger war budgets, and plans for foreign interventions. How’s that for bipartisanship?
While various right-wing factions have, at least temporarily, solidified their support for Trump, the Democratic establishment embraced the narrative that “we are just too divided.” This mantra works well for the U.S. oligarchy — liberals use it to justify their public-private and militarist partnerships with Trump’s team of neocons, while Donald uses it to further insulate his base and vilify proposals coming from the “far-left.”
Whether enough people will vote for the chosen Democrat, or Trump and his gang of right-wing financiers and provocateurs will make another huge upset in 2020, is yet to be seen. For all it’s worth, early indicators suggest that Democrats are once again refusing to learn from the lessons of the 2016 election, which is working just fine for their donors, and ultimately for Trump.