After two decades of independent activism, John Stauber founded and ran the Center for Media and Democracy and its newsmagazine PRWatch in 1993, retiring from CMD in 2009. He is the co-author of six books on the propaganda industry including three bestsellers: Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! (1995), Trust Us We’re Experts! (2001) and Weapons of Mass Deception (2003).
Mohsen Abdelmoumen: In your book coauthored with Sheldon Rampton “Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry”, you make a statement without concession on lobbying and democracy. In your opinion, can we evoke a democracy with a hegemony of lobbies? Do not you think that it is rather about a plutocracy?
John Stauber: That book, my first of six for the Center for Media and Democracy, is my tour de force. It exposes how modern propaganda is conducted in the United States by public relations (PR) professionals whose job is to protect the powerful and their corporate wealth from democracy.
The USA is indeed an oligarchy, a plutocracy, and the situation is much worse today than when I wrote my book in 1995. The super-rich whose interests lie with Wall Street, the global corporations, and what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, own and control both the Democrat and the Republican parties and their candidates. This shared monopoly prevents any anti-oligarchy party from emerging effectively to compete, under their rigged laws at the state level for establishing and funding national political parties.
The richest dump billions into both major Parties, their candidates and the election process, so if you are not a millionaire yourself or clearly supporting the policies of the wealthy, you have very little chance of success or of even being heard politically in the US. The corporate media is the recipient of the lions share of this money which they get for selling the TV ads that the candidates and the special interest groups run; they are not interested in deeply criticizing or reforming a lucrative process that fills their own corporate coffers. It’s a hell of a system, a total fraud on democracy, painted up to look like democracy.
In your opinion, is not the American presidential election a joke, when we know that the favourite candidate from the beginning is supported by Wall Street, Neocons, industrialists, AIPAC, etc.?
Indeed the system that chooses and elects the American president is a farce, bought and paid for by the wealthy and the interests you mention. This is why even in an election year as controversial as this one, most Americans will not vote. The majority of Americans have lost faith in what has become a charade that betrays their interests. The rise of both progressive populism via Bernie Sanders, and a nativist fascism via Trump and his takeover of the Republicans, screams loudly about just how foul and corrupt and simply weird the USA’s political system has become. There is a great, angry frustration with the political establishment, and many white voters especially are willing to cast a nihilistic vote for a racist, misogynist, narcissist who inherited his wealth and gained notoriety as a reality TV star.
Does not the election to the presidency of a militarist as Hillary Clinton constitute a threat to the world?
The election of either Clinton or Trump threatens the world simply because of the dominance of the American empire and their commitment to it. Hillary is a proven militarist, which is why so many of the GOP neocons, who led what I call the Weapons of Mass Deception campaign that lied America into attacking Iraq, are choosing her over Trump. They know she will fully fund and expand the American empire at all costs to the American taxpayers and people of the world who suffer under America’s militarism. Hillary played an important role in the Iraq propaganda campaign led by Bush, Cheney and the neocons. Before naming her Secretary of State, Obama made it clear he would not investigate or hold anyone responsible for that grand and worsening bipartisan disaster.
Those who wrote the scenario of this presidential election are they not inspired by the French election of 2002, with Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jacques Chirac, both coming from the same system, where we saw the crushing victory of Chirac? Are we going to witness Clinton’s same landslide victory against Trump?
I don’t think that the nationalists who control the USA’s two party oligarchy are looking abroad for inspiration. They are believers in American exceptionalism and empire, and write their own scripts as they go along, as the neocons did with their Project for the New American Century. The rise of Trump within the Republican Party is a shocking phenomenon, because he defeated 15 others and the entire GOP establishment to seize the party for himself and his rabid reactionary grassroots voters. No one in either party or the news media gave Trump any chance to win the nomination, but he did, while breaking about every rule thought to exist in American politics except one – have lots of money. It is very possible that the smug attitude of the Democrats and the corporate media will backfire and that Clinton, who like Trump is disliked by a majority of voters, will lose to him. It is certainly possible this year, when Trump has already accomplished the impossible.
Won’t Clinton’s victory in the presidential election be a victory of the oligarchy, the coronation of the plutocracy by democratic tools?
The oligarchy is already crowned, already firmly in control. If Trump wins, they will begrudgingly accommodate one of their own class, however ignorant, narcissistic and offensive they find him. But much of the Republican oligarchy, such as the neocons, the Koch brothers and the Bush family, have indicated they prefer Hillary. In essence, the oligarchy wins no matter which party holds office, because the super rich own both parties. That is the brilliance of the bogus two-party system, it is really one oligarchy party with two wings, and both the Democrat and Republican wings support the military empire and the expansion of corporate power.
Doesn’t Bernie Sanders serve just as a kind of “trial horse” for Hillary Clinton?
I have said since he announced as a Democrat that this is a movie we have seen many times before, where a Jesse Jackson, or a Jerry Brown, or a Howard Dean, excite the liberal base, borrow the rhetoric of revolutionary change, create a populist left momentum, and then capitulate to embrace the winning mainstream Democrat at their convention, appealing to followers to do the same. Perhaps if Bernie Sanders had understood a year ago the level of excitement and support he would generate, he would have done things differently. But ultimately he will prove a shepherd for the Democrats, a pied piper, rounding up the lost leftist sheep, and it should be especially easy this year with Trump as the Republican nominee opposed by everyone from him to the Kochs to the neocons to the Bush family. But yes, soon the Feel The Bern movement will morph into the anti-fascist Anybody But Trump coalition.
We are witnessing a very poor debate whose only stake seems to be the replacement of a black president by a woman. Is this not one more manipulation?
You are rather certain that Hillary will follow Obama, and while that is a good bet, the bizarre, unprecedented rise of Donald Trump might surprise everyone and land him in the White House. Obama succeeded because he was anti-Bush and he was not in the Senate when Clinton cast her damaging vote to help Bush attack Iraq. That gave him his greatest electoral edge, he could campaign as having been against the war on Iraq. The fact that he was African American inspired many who were, as I was, quite happy to see that someone other than a rich white man could actually be elected president. However, Obama has proved to be a massive fraud and a disappointment. Even before his taking the oath of office, he made it clear that there would be no investigation of the propaganda and lies that led America to attack Iraq. Biden, Kerry and Clinton, key players in his Administration, helped lead America into war. Blame the neocons for it, but blame those Democrats too.
Hillary will certainly parlay being the first woman president into millions of votes, and she will be running against a misogynist. But again, most American don’t even vote, and those that do are voting against the candidate they dislike most. So all bets are off at this early stage as to whether a Black president will now give way to America’s first female president, or whether Trump will be America’s first Billionaire TV Star president.
As a writer and progressive journalist, what is the reason, in your opinion, for the powerlessness of the progressive movement in the US and in the world?
Here in the United States the progressive movement has never been able to see that the Democratic Party is the enemy and the grand co-opter and destroyer of fundamental change. Bernie Sanders says he is fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party, but it has no soul, it sold out to the super rich long ago. Bill and Hillary Clinton put the final nail into its remnant of progressivism when in the 1980s they and their pro-corporate Democratic Leadership Council made their Party a model of Republicanism, opening it to corporate donations, serving corporate interests blatantly, and making it almost impossible for a candidate like Sanders to beat a rigged system and win the Democratic nomination.
I wrote a piece for CounterPunch in March, 2013, explaining how after the failure of Al Gore in 2000, a group of super rich Democrats called the Democracy Alliance arose to fund the sort of liberal front groups, lobbies and think tanks that the Republicans had developed over the previous two decades. Hillary supporter George Soros and others in the DA, including some big unions, poured money into these organizations, and they collaborated with liberal lobbyists in DC as well as with the new « netroots » online force for the Democrats, MoveOn. MoveOn played a crucial role in transforming the anti-war movement that arose during the Bush years into a movement to elect Democrats in 2006 – 2008, completely co-opting that energy and leaving the US peace movement impotent and irrelevant today.
The professional progressive movement is now wholly owned by the liberal oligarchs; its leaders are bright, young and well rewarded, and there is absolutely no real desire to do anything but co-opt grassroots progressives into choosing Democrats over Republicans every two years. The Feel The Bern movement shows that if Bernie Sanders had the courage to break with the Democrats and form a new party or run as a Green, 2016 is a rare year when he could have great success. But instead he and the rest of these professional progressives stay within the Democratic Party, thinking that one day they will control it. It’s a delusion and a failure of vision, but their own rewards and salaries are nice, and they live within their own echo chamber of liberal propaganda from The Nation to The New York Times that reinforces their failure to confront the liberal oligarchy in the name of being realistic.
You do not call for violent revolution. Do you think that it is possible to defeat the big capital, the Neocons, the military-industrial complex, with a peaceful revolution?
Nothing would please the US establishment more, or lead more quickly to a full police state supported by a majority of Americans, than some sort of left wing political violence. We saw in the 1960s and 1970s how the FBI under Nixon and Hoover encouraged violent protests, planted provocateurs, infiltrated the anti-war, Black Power and other movements with thousands of paid FBI informers, and destroyed it. The American Left never recovered and what was called the New Left died. The American people are easily frightened and quick to give up liberties if it appears that armed extremists are threatening their safety. Anyone advocating violent revolution for the United States is a lunatic or worse.
Your writings call for an awakening against lobbies and other capitalist and imperialist domination forces and we notice a derision and despair that call for a better world where all hopes are allowed. How do you explain this Gramscian dialectic?
I am not a hopeful person, I do not believe that revolution is likely, nor that a revolution would necessarily produce and sustain something better. Humanity is deeply flawed, self-destructive, and seems doomed in this century by greed to poison itself and destroy the Earth’s biosphere with its love of corporate consumerism and the resulting toxins and wastes. People everywhere show their willingness to follow nationalist or religious leaders into horrific wars with catastrophic results. The likelihood of nuclear war stays high; it’s a large miracle there has not been a nuclear attack since Nagasaki, but the access to weapons of mass destruction continues to spread. Under Obama, the US and NATO are pursuing a New Cold War against Russia and China that is insanely dangerous.
Can typical people organize together around the world from the ground up to create and sustain a revolutionary society that is just, democratic and peaceful, given the control that corporate capitalism has over our lives and minds and governments? We are completely enveloped by the corporate propaganda system from the moment of our birth on, and it allows the oligarchy to control our minds and lives from cradle to grave, in seamless invisible fashion, via marketing, advertising and public relations, reinforced by the news media. Few are able to admit and see this, which is why I organized PRWatch and CMD in 1993 and co-authored my six books.
The word “lie” often comes up in your writing. Do you think that the United States will survive to their lies, such as the war in Iraq?
The Cold War journalist Izzy Stone said, “All governments are run by liars, nothing they say should be believed.” This is also true of corporate government, the few hundred global companies that dominate the world’s economy and dictate to and through the world’s governments. The United States is very adept at failing to admit, much less confront, its lies. The myth of American Exceptionalism is embraced and promoted by the bipartisan oligarchy and the media, and so we see that there is no real examination of the horrendous crimes and blunders of the government, from the war of genocide waged on Vietnam, to the illegal and devastating attack on Iraq that has led to ISIS, to the massive economic failure of 2008 where no one was held accountable and the fundamental problems never repaired. So, no, in both the short term and certainly the longer term, these lies and self-deceptions undermine and destroy the fabric of American society. The rise of Trumpism is very much a result of the deceptions that have been foisted on Americans, but it is a reactionary and destructive response, of course, that again is based on this myth of exceptionalism and aims to make America again « great ».
You are the founder of the Center for Media and Democracy. What is the role of this center?
I founded CMD in 1993 to publish my news magazine PRWatch revealing how the business of public relations functions to thwart democracy and maintain the power and control of the rich and their corporations. I also wanted to show how western governments use PR to control their citizens, and how corporate media is an echo chamber for both corporate and government propaganda. I ran CMD until 2009, but then stepped down, feeling that I had taken its mission as far as I could after co-authoring six books through the Center. I am now pursuing more personal interests neglected for all my decades as an activist and author. I am no longer writing books or running an organization, and glad of it. CMD continues under new leadership, but it has become much like other US progressive think tanks, part of the Democratic Party’s liberal echo chamber. It has done some important work since I left in confronting and exposing ALEC, a brilliant rightwing operation that allows corporations to draft and write laws at the state level in the United States. CMD’s web address is www.PRWatch.org.
This interview originally appeared on Algérie Résistance.