How to Read Trump’s War Against the Media: Reflections from the Media Wars in Turkey

Istanbul.

It is “business-as-usual” in the United States. We borrow this phrase from the Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929). Although Veblen’s prolific thoughts on what he once termed ‘statecraft’ have been largely overlooked, we suggest his ideas are as profound and valuable for the human condition today as a century ago. Our political analysis of the situation in the U.S. under the new presidency of Mr. Trump offers some predictions how future experiences of the American people might unfold based on nearly fifteen years of ‘statecraft’ and the use of media in our neck of the woods, Turkey.

While the reader might couch a bias that a democracy like America has nothing in common with the regimes that have taken root in our part of the world, you might be in for a bit of a surprise. We find the harsh rhetoric Mr. Trump hurls at U.S. mainstream media strikingly similar to what we have witnessed in Turkey over the last fifteen years. Do our jailed Turkish journalists ring any bells?

Let’s be clear. Mr. Trump’s speaking style and business prowess, for us, exposes the machinations of alleged American democracy in the raw. Americans are living a Veblenian moment, so to speak, with Mr. Trump as the ‘strong hand’ in power. No longer the need for a wolf in sheep’s clothing like the gentrified, choreographed presidents of yesteryear, Mr. Trump harks back to the great men who built America; Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, and the renowned speculator-financier J. P. Morgan. Gentlemen of the ‘vested interests’ they grew out of nothing—pilfering from the working class and each other every step of the way—to evolve into “absentee landlords” of their era. America’s cultural inheritance was and continues to be that of business enterprise: a cumulative causation of expansionist land-grabbing and land-speculating across the great American landscape and beyond. American democracy, born from the divine right to ‘speculate’ as “Captains of Finance” more so than “Captains of Industry” evolved into what Veblen saw as stock market capitalism. Although ‘God’ may ‘Bless America’, it is businessmen and businesswomen, in fact, who hold the most sacred posts in their odd “business civilization.”

We now turn to our subject—the media. For any political leader of any nation to be successful s/he requires powerful, supportive and far-reaching media to gain consent over the populace. Perhaps it is now the right moment in history to reconsider Herman and Chomsky’s (1994) ‘Propaganda Model’ outlined in Manufacturing Consent. neoliberalturkeyAmerican-style ‘democracy’ is reliant on ‘one-voice’ media. In the U.S. case, key mainstream media outlets—in particular The New York Times and Washington Post—set the agenda, disseminate and distribute a daily media diet to the public. The majority of other media outlets mostly copy their news locally and internationally. And so it is with mainstream television media outlets like CNN international, as one example. In Herman and Chomsky’s analysis, the mainstream media utilizes elites, key policy makers, academics, professionals, celebrities and the like (20%) to which Veblen refers as the ‘national establishment’ to set the agenda and disseminate ruling class ideas to the masses (80%). The twenty percent must sing from the same hymn sheet to secure hegemony over the masses.

Antonio Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony confirms the dominant class must possess a clear-cut ideology in order to coerce the working class to adopt its values in ‘maintaining the State’ through force and consent, or the use of Veblen’s terms, force and fraud.

The ‘normal’ exercise of hegemony on the now classical terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterized by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent. Indeed, the attempt is always made to ensure that force will appear to be based on the consent of the majority, expressed by the so-called organs of public opinion — newspapers and associations — which, therefore, in certain situations, are artificially multiplied. Between consent and force stands corruption/fraud… (Antonio Gramsci, Selections From The Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Quinton Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart 1971: 80n49)

The masses need to be told, vis-à-vis ‘one-voice’ media, what rules of conduct they must follow.

Returning to Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model, some contention is allowed in the public sphere, which they call ‘flak’ to give the impression there is freedom of speech in American democracy. However, under normal circumstances, it is not in the best business interest of media conglomerates to permit too much ‘flak’ to infiltrate the daily agenda because such dissident voices would either upset the hegemonic order and/or tarnish the ‘one-voice’ of ‘National Establishment’ required to legitimize the U.S. as the heralded democratic, dominant player on the world stage. Thus, too much and relentless ‘flak’ may lead to a disorder in the order necessary to manufacture the consent of the masses. The Propaganda Model functions, if and only if, the majority of the vested interests along with the masses have a common stake or benefit from the same ‘going concern’ [business corporation(s)].

From a Veblenian perspective, William Dugger (2000) in Reclaiming Evolution defines mutual benefits of a going concern as ‘harmony of interests.’ For example, ‘business corporations, labor unions, regulatory agencies, courts, governments, churches, political parties and schools’ all have a stake in ensuring business (going concern) runs smoothly (p. 34). Failure to do so would mean failure for all, including for employees. Even though all do not benefit equally, success of the going concern (corporations) be it in a community or a nation, matters!

Competition between local and global corporate firms may cultivate ‘mutual interests’ and/or ‘conflicting interests’ driven by new technologies—a crucial point that Dugger also emphasizes. Technology may unite or disrupt the harmony. For example, Industry 4.0 ignites disruption while offering some new potentials for establishing mutuality of interests; corporations that relocate overseas for cheaper labor is another. New technologies of social media may also fortify or disrupt the ‘one-voice’ of mainstream media. On the disruptive side, Harold Innis even went so far as to claim new communication technologies trigger immense social upheaval, even revolutions and wars.

In the U.S. case there seems to be an obvious disharmony within the state and civil society endangering the ‘harmony of interests’ for ‘the nation’ to function. Again, this disruption is, to a large extent, technology-driven. The most visible symptoms of this discord can be detected in the contradictions residing in, as well as deriving from, the going concerns of fossil fuel extraction firms and the big automakers GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler versus the ‘going concerns’ of Google and Tesla cars and green-energy corporate firms; the going concerns of mainstream media conglomerates versus the going concerns of social media corporations Apple, Google and Facebook. Whether all such contradictions are antagonistic or not, the question that presses itself on a daily basis is which of these ‘going concerns’ will win the day and set the agenda of the new national establishment.

Leaving aside the subtleties involved, the conflicts we referred to in the previous paragraph have seemingly boiled down to two polar ideological axes within the currently disrupted national establishment of the U.S. These are globalism and patriotism. To be more specific, these are neoliberal globalism versus neoconservative patriotism. The two sides act like sports teams; “But Democracy is Not a Team Sport, as it was well pointed out in a recent Counter Punch article (Kristine Mattis, January 24, 2017). Turning to the election in the U.S., corporations who bet on Mrs. Clinton (Democrat vested interests and their respective speculators and stockholders) now use their supportive media outlets CNN, ABC, MSNBC to disrepute Mr. Trump’s ‘patriotism’ (Republican vested interests and their respective speculators and stockholders) who exercise their voice on FOX and to some extent internationally on Russia Today (RT) which at least indirectly takes side with Mr. Trump by broadcasting news and opinions seriously critical of Obama and Clinton. To this, we must add Mr. Trump’s obsession with Twitter is perhaps because of his limited sway over mainstream media outlets presently under the control of neoliberal globalists.

Our next article will explore this contention further by way of examples. For now, we suggest these two streams of highly contentious ‘newspeak’—each as inherently flawed as the other—far exceed the level of permissible ‘flak’ tolerated in the Herman and Chomsky Propaganda Model. Opposing media mouths fuel the media war in the U.S. (see Counter Punch article “The Deep State v. Trump”, Paul Street, January 25, 2017). Meanwhile any discussion about legitimate democratic demands for the working class in America continues to be stifled by the harsh rhetoric spewing from the two teams. As with our Turkish experience, the split in the U.S. national establishment is becoming evermore visible by the day.

We now turn to our Turkish experience. To introduce our predicament, we give a brief summary of twentieth century Turkey. Out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, came the modern secular republic founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his peers. To overcome sharp religious and ethnic divisions stoked in the late nineteenth century Ottoman Empire by colonial British and French interventions, Mustafa Kemal and his peers took a wise, pragmatic decision to establish the Turkish republic on the principle of laïcité modeled from the French, whereby religion and ethnicity take a backseat. Through print capitalism, Republicans established a ‘one-voice’ media. Turkish-owned media outlets, particularly following WWII, supported the build up of large family-based secular firms. Republican laïc media discourse played a dominant role in the political and public sphere until 12 September 1980 when a military coup marked a distinct shift toward neoliberalism in Turkey and more liberal attitudes toward religion.

Meanwhile, across Anatolia, a new business elite was gaining ground. These conservative vested interests gradually developed their business prowess such that by the twenty-first century they would be well poised to tackle the republican establishment. The 1990s was a period of contentious coalition governments. Once the Turkish public was thoroughly fed-up with multi-party political wrangling—incidentally following a near fifty percent devaluation of the Turkish lira in 2001—in 2002 they voted the AK party (Justice and Development Party) to power. Prime Minister Erdoğan became the spokesperson for the ‘going concern’ of green-capital (green meaning Islamic) or ‘Anatolian Tigers’ as they have sometimes been called. Over the last fifteen years we have witnessed, through force and consent for hegemonic power, the gradual rise of the Islamists. Thus, in the Turkish case, Secularists and Islamists represent the split in the dominant ruling class or the national establishment.

From the outset, the AKP and their respective vested interests promised to re-democratize Turkey from its former military-skewed past. For the most part, the masses welcomed what they perceived would be a positive change under AKP governance. Yet, old order Republicans remained skeptical and concerned that the AKP would Islamize Turkish politics and institutions, which the AKP has indeed increasingly done so, particularly since 2006.

So how did AKP conservative Islamists—coupled with their re-democratization project for Turkey—gain a voice in the secular-dominant republican media outlets that staunchly supported the older vested interests of secular republicans? It should be noted that in the 1990s joint ventures between local and global media conglomerates stepped up pace in Turkey. What position would these foreign media conglomerates take toward AKP conservatives? Our upcoming article will highlight our Turkish experience and juxtapose it with the current disharmony of interests of the going concern in the U.S.   We promise you the parallels are rather remarkable.

Anita Oğurlu holds a Ph.D. in Humanities & Cultural Studies from Birkbeck (University of London). She co-authored “The Laic-Islamist Schism in the Turkish Dominant Class and the Media” with Ahmet Öncü in The Neoliberal Landscape and the Rise of Islamist Capital in Turkey, edited by Neşecan Balkan, Erol Balkan and Ahmet Öncü (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015). Oğurlu has done extensive research on economy and culture in interwar period Germany, Britain, France and Turkey vis-à-vis a specific focus on autobiographical authors from that period. Email: ogurlu14@gmail.com 

Ahmet Öncü is Professor of Sociology in the School of Management at Sabancı University in Istanbul. Most recently he co-edited Absentee Ownership and its Discontents: Critical Essays on the Legacy of Thorstein Veblen with Michael Hudson (ISLET, 2016); and The Neoliberal Landscape and the Rise of Islamist Capital in Turkey with Neşecan Balkan and Erol Balkan (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015). In the aftermath of the Gezi Revolt he reinterpreted capitalist modernization in Turkey and its contradictions in “Turkish Capitalist Modernity and the Gezi Revolt” (Journal of Historical Sociology 27:2:151-176, 2014). Email: aoncu@sabanciuniv.edu

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