Propaganda Beyond Trump

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“The significant revolution of modern times is not industrial or economic or political but the revolution which is taking place in the art of creating consent among the governed.”

Edward Bernays, PR’s Godfather

Propaganda existed long before Donald Trump, and it will continue after Trump. Although invented by the Catholic Church as Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (1622), propaganda really took off with World War I (1914-1918). Germany used propaganda to sent thousands of young men to slaughter and to be slaughtered for Kaiser and fatherland. Propaganda then became a bad word.

Given its negative connotations, propagandists tried to find new terminology and came up with public relations. Public relations is propaganda under another name: propaganda equals public relations. Both are one and the same. Both use the same activities, the same rationalizations to legitimize these activities, and was conducted by the same people. Donald Trump is just one of the latest grand-masters of propaganda.

Experts on public relations (née propaganda) believe that it started with the Publicity Bureau of Boston in 1900. From the beginning, propaganda or public relations was used to battle May Day rallies and discredit workers. The 1890s these rallies were the largest collective demonstrations the USA had ever seen. Corporate American was sacred of the power that collective workers held, and corporate bosses perceived it as a threat to their organizations. As a response, they employed public relations experts to shape and manipulate public opinion in their favour.

PR textbooks began to spring up everywhere but preferred to use the term “mould” rather than “manipulate” for obvious reasons. In the midst of the propaganda/public relations revival, three men emerged as the Godfathers of American PR. The first, Ivy L. Lee, also known as Poison Ivy, used PR to restore Rockefeller’s “good” name after the Ludlow Massacre. This was the same Poison Ivy who later he worked for German Nazis. PR’s second Godfather is Edward Bernays, who called himself a public relations counsellor and turned the practice into a recognized profession. Lastly, war propagandist Scott Cutlip, perhaps the most intelligent PR mind of the time, documented the events and routines that defined public relations.

Critics of propaganda and public relations, Habermas, Marcuse, Chomsky, focused on public relations’ manipulative character, deception, and trickery. When the Frankfurt School’s Horkheimer and Adorno saw the power of The Culture Industry and Mass Deception, the Frankfurt School’s Hotel Abyss opened its doors. The pessimistic period of the Frankfurt School had started. Adorno and Horkheimer were asphyxiated by what they saw: capitalism had won the ideological battle. The working class was defeated in Italian and German by fascism and in the Soviet Union by Stalinism. Workers were incorporated into capitalism via a massive propaganda apparatus (USA). Workers were trapped and there was no way out.

Marcuse added to the pessimism that brought on by public relations by arguing that societies had become one-dimensional. Thatcher called it TINA: there is no alternative. Herman and Chomsky argued that US capitalism manufactures consent. However, Habermas found a possible solution in Communicative Action where he outlined a critical theory of modernity that explained sociopathologies and the need to coordinate action socially via communication.

Still, it remains an obvious point that PR and propaganda do lie. And so does Donald Trump. Nevertheless, the key to understanding propaganda aren’t Trump’s Twitter posts but propaganda’s ability to shape human beings – soul and spirit – into supporting capitalism. PR sees the world as the relationship between capitalism, its corporations (PR’s paymasters) – clients as PR prefers – and democratic society.

The goal of PR is to sustain corporate growth (PR-talk). For PR, democracy is something that can get in the way of achieving their goal of supporting corporate capitalism. PR’s attitude to democracy is best described as: for better or worse, the public can vote, and this is unlikely to change. This separates propaganda from marketing. For marketing, democracy is mostly irrelevant. For PR, it is to adjust a voting public to the goal of sustaining corporate capitalism. For propaganda, it largely does not matter if you vote for Donald Trump or Joe Biden, as long as you show affirmation to corporate capitalism. Capitalism counts and it is not a clown marching in front of an election spectacle.

By contrast, marketing focuses on individual products. PR does not. Propaganda does not aim to alter a person’s relationship with a particular product. Advertising aims to increase consumption of a particular product. By contrast, it is PR’s job to make sure that there are consumers in the first place. For marketing, cooperative workers are irrelevant. For PR, it is imperative to incorporate workers and their trade unions into capitalism’s institutions.

PR believes that if the public accepts its place, people will vote properly. In the “Age of PR” and corporate media: this is precisely what we see with Trump (USA), Johnson (GB), Morrison (Australia), Bolsonaro (Brazil), Merkel (Germany), Modi (India), the list goes on. PR wants the public to spontaneously generate a desired conduct on particular issues to sustain the corporations. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009 is a case in point. Bankers who created the crisis received taxpayer’s money while those who paid the taxes where evicted from their homes – too big to fail was PR’s motto perhaps because it translated into too big to jail.

This is just one case in which propaganda had achieved its goal. Propaganda is about creating the kind of public that are positively predisposed to the conduct corporations want. Beyond that, it has also produced a cooperative labour force that votes in sympathy with business even though big business despise the public as explained by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s The Public be Damned!

As Poison Ivy once said, the people are inclined to fool themselves. More recently, this became known as What’s the Matter with Kansas. Early on, PR understood, and so does Donald Trump that the people are not moved by the mind; they are moved by sentiment. For Trump, it is a mostly racist sentiment. Like Trump, PR knows that human nature is readily subject to modification. PR itself always avoids the proper word, manipulation. Ever since Solomon Asch’s experiments, we know how easy it is to influence and manipulate people. It is getting worse.

The public that the propagandists created allowed the illusion of a free liberal subject. The free individual is a cover used by PR for its propagandistic activities. PR wants a public that is susceptible to a kind of invisible guidance controlled by the invisible rulers of PR. They control the destinies of millions. These are PR’s own words! Rarely, even PR spills the beans. Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of propaganda has been to make people believe that they have a free choice – a choice between Pepsi and Coke, a choice between Trump and Biden.

Much of this is part of PR’s long-held believe that without the proper management of the underclass, corporate capitalism is not possible. PR believes that this underclass, and in fact, the working class, as a whole, is governed by a primitive mind. Still, the mind of the working class can – potentially – be rather dangerous for the ruling elite.

Modernity’s first shock came with the French Revolution and what PR and our school textbooks now call the Reign of Terror. A few of those among the elite, who had exploited, starved, raped, and tortured peasants for centuries, lost their heads. For the elite, it was as traumatic as the Russian Revolution. Ever since these events, corporate capitalism, corporate media, and PR have – on the whole – made sure that this does not happen again – with success.

As the working class still poses a potential threat, PR’s job is never done as long as capitalism continues. Propaganda will never die out. Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos. Propaganda has indeed become the power behind the throne, stabilizing capitalism.

To sum up, propaganda and public relations are American inventions brought to the fore to sustain capitalism through ideological means. It won over Soviet state propaganda stabilizing Stalinism, and it won over Nazi propaganda stabilizing Germany’s Hitler regime. The one left standing is capitalism and its formidable and now global public relations machine.

Being a capitalist country par excellence, propaganda had to be a constant force in American life, acting proactively to build public corporations need. Not only that, but it has also exported its way of life into almost every corner of the globe. PR has been so successful that it even has learned how to use liberals for its purpose. This is for three reasons:

  1. Our much-acclaimed liberals are unable to recognize the threat public relations poses because their assumptions about power, knowledge, and the nature of the subject blinker them and prevent them from recognizing and critiquing propaganda’s most pernicious effects.
  2. If propaganda is misunderstood as free speech, it is protected as a fundamental right in liberalism;
  3. What many liberal critiques produce, whatever their intentions, is actually an understanding that ultimately protects propaganda rather than grasping it, critiquing it, and displacing it.

Those who seek to understand propaganda and public relations, might like to realize that passing off a lie as truth, in and of itself, is no success for propagandists. This is a minor victory that might have some entertainment value – just like Donald Trump. PR’s henchmen always want something different. Propagandists are not focused on a battle to prove things true or false. This is the system stabilizing bread-&-butter issue of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardia, etc. What they do is largely irrelevant for propaganda and PR. What is relevant to PR is sustaining corporate capitalism.

Even on the term “corporation”, PR has worked its magic. Hence, a corporation is no longer a profit-maximizing corporation but a multiplicity of faces, taken on to appeal to the different target publics; a corporation is a series of brands interconnected at a point beyond the public eye, each leaf of which is psychologically honed to produce the “proper conduct” in the targeted publics.

For PR, this “proper conduct” always means to accept democracy and capitalism with its confinements set by the system and ideologically justified by propaganda. Whether voting Republican or Democrat, what is relevant is to see the system of capitalism and democracy as the only game in town. Put bluntly, the aim of PR is domination – not democracy. Still, democracy is only important to PR and propaganda as a cover in its eternal quest for domination. PR will work with democracy if need be. Simultaneously, PR can very well do without democracy. From Poison Ivy’s work for Adolf Hitler and PR firms like Hill & Knowlton, Burson-Marsteller, Bell Pottinger, etc. PR never had any qualms to work neo-fascist butcher regimes like Pinochet’s Chile and others.

Cory Wimberly’s How Propaganda Became Public Relations is published by Routledge.