America died on Nov. 8, 2016.
In electing the nation’s first sociopathic game show host as president of the most important and powerful nation on Earth, voters demonstrated they no longer ascribe to the principles and values that have made America a beacon of democracy.
Like so many, I was shocked by the election’s outcome, and I found myself asking, “How did this embarrassment happen?”
As a public relations professional in higher education, I have been around smart, educated people almost my entire professional life. I think that is why I missed the racial hatred, fear and xenophobia that were the catalysts for uneducated white Americans in small towns across the country who secured victory for a demagogue who promised to put white people like them back on top and in charge.
Looking back, I now know I had a glimpse at this while sitting in an airport last year. Two middle-aged white guys across from me were having a wide-ranging discussion that eventually got to politics.
“You know,” the one guy said, “every time Obama gives a speech on TV there is a ‘Muslim’ flag in the background.”
The other guy shook his head in agreement, and they were off on a rant about how the president was secretly aiding a Muslim takeover of the U.S. Hilarious, I thought to myself. I dismissed the conversation and those guys as conspiracy-theory nutjobs.
But I now reflect on that insane conversation as illustrative of the impact and danger of propaganda. Because the election of a man who took deceit, distortion and malevolence to a historic level in the presidential campaign was a textbook study in the use of that powerful communications tool.
The assault on President Barack Obama leading up to the election was fueled by propaganda, a deliberate attempt to mislead and conceal the facts. The Trump campaign strategy focused always on repeating over and over untruths and exaggerations about his opponents while trumpeting outrageous claims and plans that would never survive careful scrutiny. Trump and his minions knew all too well that a good number of Americans followed public affairs and international issues only through Fox News, the greatest propaganda arm any right-wing presidential candidate can have. Fox News was the springboard for their winning campaign propaganda strategy.
Combine the vitriol, lies and distortions that have been central to Fox News’ ratings success with social media channels where like-thinking people can daily convince each other of the validity of their views and propaganda can prevail.
As we enter an extended period in which it will obviously be the tool of choice over truth and information, what can thoughtful, intelligent Americans do about it?
First off, we must demand the truth. We must challenge our elected officials as never before to be transparent, to deal in facts, to be unfailingly ethical and honest in their communication.
Second, we must resist the anti-intellectual wave that is cresting across America. Propagandists want and need citizens who are ill-informed, uneducated and pliable. More and better education is crucial, but so is inquisitiveness, a desire to learn, to get the facts and to do thoughtful and meticulous analysis.
And third, perhaps most important for the future of our democracy, is the need for us to protect freedom of the press at all costs. Propagandists would have Americans believe the country’s mainstream news media are biased, laying the foundation for a society in which truth can’t be trusted. Unchecked by objective reporting and analysis, propaganda is a fearful, dangerous and sometimes lethal weapon.
The threat of propaganda is real, and destroying its influence will require vigilance, courage and commitment. The death of America has me in mourning, but I am prepared to work for its resurrection. I hope the millions of Americans who are able to separate facts from illusion will, too.