Originally published on Facebook on Nov. 23, 2020.
re: This wandering conversation we’re all having about what to think about the 73.8 million people who voted for Trump this month despite four years of mayhem. And I’m going to keep it simple.
It’s the propaganda, stupid.
Are Trump voters more or less X than Biden voters? And for X you are free to substitute whatever variable you wish: White, aged, religious, evangelical, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, wealthy, blue collar, rural, Southern, paranoid, angry, educated, uneducated, authoritarian. Whatever. You pick a variable, and from that variable you can argue for whatever interpretation appeals to you.
Those are the trees. This is the forest: The erroneous beliefs held by those 73.8 million Americans didn’t sprout organically. They were deliberately planted and methodically tended over the course of decades — by professional propagandists.
Propaganda is more than telling people political lies. When done well, it’s much more like basic marketing. You repeat messages that provoke strong, predictable emotional reactions in your intended audience, and then you activate those emotions whenever you want to motivate your audience to do whatever you intended all along. Simple.
Most propaganda, like most marketing, takes place on the second, third and fourth levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Level 2. Security and Safety; Level 3. Belonging and Love; Level 4. Esteem (prestige and accomplishment). Of these three levels of motivation, Level Two is the most powerful, because it’s the most basic.
That’s why Fox News prioritizes stories about riots, and crime, and illegal immigrants, and terrorists, and vague conspiracies. Each of these topics — no matter how rare or contrived the actual threat might be — activates its audience in a predictable way. It makes them anxious. That’s why modern Republican politics is marketed more or less like a home security system.
The difference? ADT shows you images of generic, menacing criminals. Right-wing media is more specific about who those bad guys are: They’re all the “others” who want to overturn everything good in the world and replace it with something bad.
Black criminals and welfare cheats. LGBTQ activists demanding “special rights.” “Hordes” of illegal immigrants who want to steal American jobs and rape American women. Muslim terrorists who hate Western Civilization. Feminists who hate men. Black Lives Matter protesters who hate White people. Politically correct Social Justice Warriors who hate tradition. Socialists who hate freedom. Atheists who hate God. Liberals who hate America. Elites who look down on regular folks. Antifa, deliberately mispronounced.
In a word: Them. And in this case, “them” is quite literally us.
Do I absolve the propagandized of responsibility for believing Trumpist nonsense? Of course not. That’s condescending.
Do we need to spend more time “understanding them?” That’s silly. We don’t need to ponder 73.9 million individual mis-informed attitudes. We need to confront a multi-billion-dollar, cross-platform right-wing propaganda industry at a moment when America’s legitimate free press is reeling from a decade of staggering setbacks. And if your solution to that problem forfeits our First Amendment, I’m not interested.
I’ve spent most of my life in the South, which means I’ve always lived among White people who believe all sorts of horrible nonsense. But they weren’t born that way. They learned it at home, from parents living with their own traumas. They learned it at churches that preached more hellfire than redemption. They learned it at school, where textbooks approved by the Daughters of the Confederacy taught whitewashed racist fantasy as history.
Are these people somehow innately worse than other groups of people? I don’t know, and on some level I really don’t care. What I do know is that there’s an electronic firehose of sophisticated propaganda that’s been blasting hateful bullshit into their faces since Day One.
So yes, Trump voters are a problem. But they aren’t THE problem.