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How propaganda will win the presidency Biden and Trump buttress two very different myths about America's deepest nature

What could be more postmodern than a Donald Trump presidency? Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What could be more postmodern than a Donald Trump presidency? Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


November 3, 2020   5 mins

“In the beginning the United States had to unify a disparate population that comes from all the countries of Europe and had diverse traditions and tendencies. A way of rapid assimilation had to be found.” So wrote the devotedly pessimistic Catholic philosopher Jacques Ellul in his classic study of Propaganda in 1962.

For Ellul, that meant establishing the underlying myths that hold a society together: the American Way of Life, faith in Progress and Happiness. Everything, from conscious PR campaigns through to unconscious decisions by movie makers, connected people to these underlying myths: “Propaganda in the United States is a natural result of the fundamental elements of American life.” Ellul saw the country’s over-intense insistence on its cohesive identity as a symptom of uncertainty about whether it could hold together.

“There is only one America. No Democratic Rivers. No Republican Mountains” intones a Joe Biden Presidential campaign ad, with lush shots of the American landscape. It’s a message that goes right to the anxieties that have always lingered underneath the surface in America. The backdrop of today’s Presidential election is the fear that America is disintegrating as an imagined community. Americans are alarmingly polarised: increasingly more likely to dislike and distrust people from other parties; less likely to live near them and, as a recent Pew Research poll shows, placing their trust in different partisan media environments. In response, each Presidential campaign has chosen opposing strategies for its election ads. It’s a test not so much of policies but which dynamics are stronger: the forces pulling America together, or those pushing it apart?

“We’re the United States of America” stressed Biden in an epic ad last week, which showed a shower of images of people from all walks of life: a rainbow coalition brought together by the Democrats with Biden’s personal emotional experiences as the glue. Biden has positioned himself as someone who has experienced horrific personal loss with the death of his wife and two sons, meaning he can feel other people’s pain too. ‘We are united in our trauma’ is the message, with Donald Trump defined in absentia as the “divider in chief”, incapable of empathy. Biden’s betting big that even some possible Trump supporters are worried about the divides in American society and will vote for a candidate that stresses unity: Vote for Trump and we might lose America.

The Biden team have taken into account that, in a world where all the old Left-Right economic ideologies don’t cleanly define parties, the only thing that can bring a diverse coalition together is something more nebulous: a feeling that each can project its own agenda onto. Trump won 2016 with anger and resentment, now Biden is betting that more positive emotions can compete: “compassion” his ads say, “is on the ballot.”

The Biden campaign is also swimming with Christian motifs. In perhaps his most moving ad, one of his speeches is interlaced with Black Eyed Peas singing ‘Where is the Love’. “Father, father, father help us / Send some guidance from above,” they plead, and for a moment I wasn’t sure if they meant God or Biden. At the end of the ad we see a line from Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Then the word Love appears on a black screen, after which the word Vote appears, the Os of the two words crossing. There are echoes of the American Pledge of Allegiance: “One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Ellul argued that effective propaganda has to tap into existing myths to be successful: the ad needs to resonate with a big underlying thing that people live by already. And so Biden connects his own campaign with the powerful founding story of American religious redemption, the caring father of a nation that has lost its way in the last four years, but just needs to, as another of his ads puts it, “remember who we are”.

Part of Donald Trump’s propaganda power has also been to connect his own story with a fundamental American myth — that of the businessman, the dealmaker. It’s a myth he has played into his whole life and cemented when he hosted The Apprentice. The sophisticated arguments from Trump critics accusing him of crypto-fascism don’t resonate with audiences who know Trump as the guy who hosts a prime time business reality show. (How can he be Hitler when he was in Home Alone 2?) And he is constantly selling Americans some great new deal he’s sealed. In recent ads on a tour of Pennsylvania he even used clips of Biden admitting that Trump’s trade deal with Canada and Mexico is “better than NAFTA”. But the salesman role is not only metaphorical. When I checked Trump social media ads with the help of NYU’s ad-tracker tool, I found people were literally using The Donald as a way to promote their own deals: something called ‘Trumprack’ was flogging Trump whisky flasks and sweaters (“a sweatshirt for the silent majority” ran the tagline).

Trump’s critics also accuse him of being a cheesy, sleazy salesman — but maybe that’s part of his appeal. He can play every embodiment of the American wheeler-dealer drama, from a gauche Great Gatsby to the door-to-door salesman down on his luck. After he came out of hospital recently there was something pathetic and desperate in the way Trump begged pensioners to vote for him. Here was Trump as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman — but one who could then, in an ad filmed the same week, fly into the White House on a helicopter to martial music in scenes with a whiff of Mussolini. The Salesman dies — and is resurrected!

But the dealmaker myth is hard to tap into when the main threat facing the nation is one that can’t be flattered or bullied into submission. No matter how artful Trump is, Covid-19 will go about its business. And so the President is left invoking divisive ‘wedge’ issues: Biden will strengthen ‘the radical Left’ and usher in riots; Trump will defend wealthy suburban lifestyles from poor people in the inner cities. The ads are right out of B-movie urban apocalypse movies, with thundering cords and burning buildings; you half expect Kurt Russell to appear.

Trump seems to be hoping that the forces driving America apart are so strong he can further fuel them, then ride them to victory — or at least into confusion. Some fear that what might be just an ad campaign for Trump will be taken seriously by Right-wing militias. Every week I get a newsletter from The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a counter-extremism think tank, about the latest online campaign in the dankest parts of the internet. Such groups are already trying to seed doubt in the results of the election if it goes against Trump and planning pitched battles in its aftermath. They are waging a vicious civil war — but for now it remains in squalid echo chambers.

Whether Trump wins this week or not, can the cohesion Ellul saw as essential to the American project ultimately survive in a media landscape broken up into such information archipelagos?  The way Trump is both reality show and buffoon yet a symptom of things genuinely disturbing makes this election, like so much with the Trump era, seem simultaneously petrifying and silly. An ad from actor Mandy Patinkin, who is running his own pro-Biden get-out-the-vote campaign, captured the tension best. It starts with a sense of impending doom and drama: “This November 3rd everything is at stake” it bellows, only for the ad to break off and cut to a discussion in the recording studio between Mandy and his wife about whether he is being too hysterical. They try to re-record the ad in a more measured tone, but keep on slipping into angst, finally screaming “It’s going to just be more fucking chaos.”


Peter Pomerantsev is the author of This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.
He is a Senior Fellow at the Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University and at the LSE
peterpomeranzev

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Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

What a one sided piece, biden is a good man, trump is not.
I think you will find it is not the republican supporters who have and will carry on rioting it’s the democrat supporters but don’t let facts get in your way!
Biden can’t even string 2 words together and is the very definition of a time serving, personal fortune making, corrupt politician.
If after 4 years of trump that is the best the democrats could put forward as their candidate then they are out of ideas.
P.s. Harris is horrible, insincere and just unlikeable and the real candidate

Walter Fawcett
Walter Fawcett
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

ðƾ‘

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Harris is not a serious person which has been reiterated by a number of pundits, never mind her far left politics. Biden’s health is of great concern; he’s already had two operations for brain cancer and he’s not quick on the uptake.

jon snow
jon snow
3 years ago

this article strikes me as a good example of propaganda disguised as analysis. bidens campaign is all light and unity… trump wants to harness the dark energy of division and ride it to victory. do you smell what your are shovelling?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  jon snow

There is, as you say, more propaganda in this article than in either of the campaigns. Sadly, we don’t expect anything else of the media class these days. That is why I no longer fund it in any way whatsoever.

Craig Bishop
Craig Bishop
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Surely just by accessing an article like this, you are exposed to the adverts, and are therefore unavoidably “funding” the media. Even if the page this article appears on is ad-free, you had to bypass a lot of ads to get here, no? Interested to know…

Kiran Grimm
Kiran Grimm
3 years ago
Reply to  Craig Bishop

What adverts? I see none of the pop-up ads (or any other kind) that are such a nuisance on other sites. Is it just the browser I use? Is it my settings? Interested to know…

Craig Bishop
Craig Bishop
3 years ago
Reply to  Kiran Grimm

No, you’re right (apart from the odd Fox News ad, or in-house ads for Spec Life, for example, which I’m sure no one minds) the Spectator site is ad-free, which is great. But, Fraser was referring to not funding the media, in general, and to access most media, you do have to bypass loads of irritating ads. So in a sense, just to devour one’s daily content of hard news or opinion pieces from the widest range of platforms possible, you do have to choke down the fluff and chaff, no?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Craig Bishop

The phrase i used more often is ‘directly fund’ i.e. I don’t buy, or subscribe to, any newspapers, magazine or websites etc. And there was a time when I bought a lot of newspapers and magazines etc. I have no problem with ads – nobody forces me to take any notice of them or to click on them.

Mike SampleName
Mike SampleName
3 years ago

Even without subscribing to counter-extremism think tanks, just on Twitter and Reddit, I see people encouraging violence, unrest, looting and rioting, “planning pitched battles” in the aftermath of the election – regardless of who wins. To continue and intensify what has been going on every night for the last six months.

Guess what? They ain’t Trump supporters.

David George
David George
3 years ago

Watch Trump’s July 4th Mt Rushmore speech. It was patriotic and unifying, Americans, past present and future, all races together. Divisive? Propaganda? No.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

Ellul saw the country’s over-intense insistence on its cohesive identity as a symptom of uncertainty about whether it could hold together.
Without cohesion, society falls apart. How’s immigration without assimilation working out for Europe? In the US, we are gifted with the bright minds who on one hand tout multi-culturalism while on the other, complaining about “appropriation.” Sorry, kids, but appropriation is a feature of a multi-culti society, not a bug.

We also have the diversity and inclusion industry whose basis is the cosmetic differences among us. No organization was ever successful by fixating on the differences within the ranks. Those differences were necessarily secondary to the a unity of purpose in accomplishing the goal at hand. The rise of identity politics is one means of tearing away at the unity, with predictable results.

Jim le Messurier
Jim le Messurier
3 years ago

Judging from this article and so many like it, it seems as if absolutely nothing was learned after Trump’s victory 2016. Back in the day, students who failed an exam were made to stay in the same class another term until they could retake and pass the exam. Perhaps the lesson needs to be repeated. If a Trump win happens, the tantrums from the radical left will be truly and eye-wateringly spectacular, and alot of mischief will be done, but Trump won’t be able to stand again, a more acceptable Republican leader like Pence will take over, and things could calm down as Trump’s tenure winds up in 2024. This outcome might well be preferable to the headlong plunge into Critical Theory imbued dystopia that a Biden win will precipitate, which will take decades to reverse and could be the point of no return for America.

Trevor Mapstone
Trevor Mapstone
3 years ago

Minor point: Jacques Ellul was not a Catholic. He was a Christian anarchist with roots in the Reformed tradition.

halkolamom
halkolamom
3 years ago

Nonsense and foolishness.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 years ago

Propaganda? We expect the ads. They are uniformly trite and can only target a few who are remarkably clueless in following daily news. Trump’s election wasn’t so much for him, the person, as others have observed, but for a change to poll tested talking points created to influence thought in a given direction. Those talking points are spouted by insincere hypocritical politicians who really care little for the people they claim to represent. If Biden wins it will be a victory for an unrelenting press anxious to get Trump out of the way before he can do real damage. Following a Biden accession one might imagine a revolt against both the media and politicians in the mid-terms. The next few weeks will be interesting to watch.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
3 years ago

“Trump seems to be hoping that the forces driving America apart are so strong he can further fuel them, then ride them to victory ” or at least into confusion.”

The above statement is false, hogwash even. I agree with the premise of the essay in that America has been held together by an overarching mythology being that of ‘The Great Melting Pot’, But his characterizations of the two campaigns are WAY off. Since the 1960’s the Left /Democrats have been promoting ‘multi-culturalism’, the underlying premise of which was that you didn’t really need to assimilate to be an ‘American’. The good impulse to that movement was to appreciate everyone’s uniqueness, but over the years it careened off the road to become a cesspit of ‘political correctness’ and ‘identity politics’. People voted for Trump because they were tired of the Left’s constant support of this movement versus striving for an ‘American’ first electorate. They were tired of hyphenating ethnicities, ie. African-America, Latino-American, etc. Folks voted for Trump because they crave a togetherness, an Americanness which Trump has fostered and promoted. Even today, folks who support Trump usually have posted an American flag out front go their houses, afraid of the vitriole from the rabid Left, who feel more than comfortable placing Biden/Harris signs outside. New immigrants ‘get it’ – and are more supportive of Trump than might be expected. I for one, was rather stunned when my housecleaner (a legal Ecuadorian) announced she was voting for Trump and was trying to get her friends to do likewise. It is very exciting that they are not being pulled into the Left’s ‘divisiveness’. Their desire to become a part of the Melting Pot, to be an ‘American’ is palpable. The Left is missing this entirely.

Jonathan Barker
Jonathan Barker
3 years ago

Golly gosh!
Seems like well reasoned balanced essay to me.
But then again it seems to me that the Orange Haired Behemoth is actually a reverse Midas character. Instead of gold everything that he touches turns into that brown smelly stuff

Meanwhile I saw a headline stating that the Orange Haired miracle worker has now promised to put a woman on the Moon, and send an astronaut to Mars. Never mind that America’s infrastructure is crumbling. And its water supply system is in parlous state requiring billions of dollars to fix it.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

Are you not familiar with the economic ideas of Leibniz as championed by Lyndon LaRouche? Even if eventually you find you do not agree with his ideas, and you have to hold your nose and overlook his weird cult and troubled life, they are worth learning about in order to understand why nationalists, who in other ways do not look beyond a country’s own borders, look to the space race to provide the catalyst for improving educational standards and boosting manufacturing etc.

Jonathan Barker
Jonathan Barker
3 years ago

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves To Death Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business Neil Postman described the situation as it was in 1985.

Meanwhile 35 years later the situation is much much worse by many degrees with the Orange Haired Behemoth being the consummate manipulative showman/huckster and life long professional grifter too.

The modern dreadfully sane everyman of consumer society is a propagandized individual, participating in a “culture” of illusions, both secular and so called religious.
At present, a “culture” of total war, a “culture” of death is ruling, while the people are engrossed in self-destructive consumerism.
The power of industry and money has actually become senior to the power of governments, and is now controlling the entire world.

Under the control of Larry (the) Fink Blackrock alone controls 6.5 trillion dollars of economic power.