Revisiting Bernays’ Propaganda in the Age of Trumpism and Post-Truth

The past eighteen months can be characterized by wildly variable political expectations, forcing many to search the depths of their consciences for explanations of the domestic and global emesis of id that embraces aspects of racism, misogyny, and even fascism. The rise of Trump in the United States and various nationalist parties across Europe demands that we examine the causes and processes that enabled it. Enhancing this demand is the shifting analysis following the U.S. election. Much of the pundit class is ignoring previous campaign analysis, instead attributing Trump’s success to external influence and opponent mistakes. Surely there is a grain of truth to these statements, but there is no sound reason for abandoning previous observations that Trump taps an anger that evolved out of the 2010 Tea Party movement. Although Tea Party members are firmly entrenched in the Republican Party and revile Trump, their candidates could not shake the “establishment” label hurled by Trump supporters. What, then, is this force that provided Trump with a swift consolidation of power in a political party hostile towards him, and at the same time guaranteed an overwhelming flame-out for recent political darlings? A return to the Edward Bernays 1928 classic, Propaganda, provides much insight into the process.

Bernays defines propaganda as “the mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale.” The word dates back to the 17th century, when the Vatican’s Office for the Propagation of the Faith (Congregatio de propaganda fide) was established to oversee the Church’s missionary efforts. Until the Great War, the term’s meaning remained benign, but with the aggressive psychological tactics employed on the American and British people to maintain support of the military effort against Germany, it gained the negative connotation it still holds today. Bernays worked in the war effort with Walter Lippman and emerged as one of many practitioners who believed that the future of business and commerce relied upon the scientific use of propaganda to shape consumer attitudes. The book is thus both an attempt to reform the word and also an argument for why his corporate clients should engage his services. While he was wildly successful with the latter goal, he failed with the former.

At the core of Bernays’ work is the distinction between the individual and the group mind. Both are resident within each of us, and they operate independently of one another. The individual mind projects what we recognize as the self; the group mind penetrates myriad networks of interests that define our social being, ranging from book preferences to attitudes about labor unions. While specific individuals may share interests in one network, they may be opposed in other networks. It is not unusual for a person to join a network that is contrary to her individual interests. This is typically referred to as cognitive dissonance.

The sheer complexity of information assaulting the group mind necessitates the acceptance of what Bernays refers to as the invisible government. The members of this government — small and often unknown, even to each other — are responsible for shaping expectations of the group mind. The invisible government is not evil or conspiratorial, nor is it threatened by the knowledge of its existence. It is merely a mechanism of conferring credibility, prioritizing needs and wants, and shortening the process of selecting goods that will improve our lives. It falls to a few select individuals “because of the expense of manipulating the social machinery which controls the opinions and habits of the masses.” Whether we seek to purchase a fifth of vodka or a book on Atlantic history, we first filter the possibilities through early adopters, celebrities, thought champions, and product experts.

The propagandist, also referred to by Bernays as the public relations counsel, employs the invisible government to shape the group mind so that the goods and services offered are what the customer desires. There are various ways of achieving this, which Bernays touts in the book (remember, the book itself is propaganda for his firm.) While the archaic method involves repeatedly asserting a direct message[1], such as “Buy X for good health!”, by the 1920s a more scientific approach was advocated. The propagandist undertakes a study of customer needs and beliefs, and then executes a campaign to address the drives which might underlie the acceptance of a product. For example, instead of telling customers to buy product X to relieve stress, a campaign to set expectations of stress-free living makes the customer want to buy product X. This campaign employs members of the invisible government as well as public thought champions.

Bernays believed that checks on this process exist: customers react negatively to fabrications and dishonest propaganda. The professional public relations counsel demonstrates integrity in order to build credibility and maintain acceptance of the consuming public. Methods and messages lose effectiveness if they fail to satisfy the group mind.

Although Propaganda addresses product consumption, Bernays recognized its value in politics. Indeed, he found it ironic the original champion of the practice lagged so far behind in the precision and skill business had achieved. He devoted a chapter to entreating politicians to adopt the scientific methods of modern public relations in order to effectively engage the body politic. From page 119:

In actual fact, [molding the mind of voters] can be done only by meeting the conditions of the public mind, by creating circumstances which set up trains of thought, by dramatizing personalities, by establishing contact with the group leaders who control the opinions of the public.

Bernays realized that tapping into the networks of influence was infinitely more effective than “pressing the flesh”, making stump speeches, and kissing babies. The successful politician recognizes the desire of a network and offers the product that satisfies the voter’s need.

Which brings us back to Trump, his unfathomable behavior, his unflappability, and his success despite being profoundly unprepared for the task at hand. To understand his achievement we must examine the networks of influence he utilized to ascend to power. Were these networks available to Trump’s rivals? How were Trump’s tactics more effective than up-and-comers like Marco Rubio, or proven gubernatorial candidates like John Kasich?

The first step that Bernays prescribes is to create a need or expectation in the customer (in this case the voter.) This is not something Trump did himself, but he correctly identified it. The American Right has received a consistent narrative of “reverse oppression” across multiple media. For over two decades right-wing media has relentlessly “othered” liberal and non-white members of society. The breakdown of the social order, reverse racism, job loss, and faithlessness have been attributed to “coastal elites” and immigrants. Homosexuals are recruiting children in bathrooms. Liberal humanities professors are teaching young adults to hate their nation. These are not propaganda strategies to invoke direct action, instead they are designed to create a feeling of siege, a notion that what was once a position of wealth and power is now ephemeral. Despite the fact that individuals live in affluent, white suburbs (or other homogenous enclaves), their group mind is wracked with anxiety about losing everything at any moment.

Looking at Fox News (cable news on the Left has tried to copy but without the same success), it is obvious the opinion personalities highlighted during the evening hours are the network’s thought leaders, nurturing and shaping the prized networks of influence. “Real news” is relegated to the daytime hours when the audiences are smaller. Unleashing O’Reilly and Hannity with their fear-mongering and message of imminent social destruction helped form the network of influence that has driven the Republican Party (until recently the GOP considered Fox News a mouthpiece.)

One important factor that is different from politics in the days of Propaganda is the lack of overlap. Bernays spoke of myriad networks all overlapping. Today, ideological isolation is more pronounced than at any time perhaps since the Civil War (I will yield to constructive criticism on that judgment.) These silos of belief make it harder for people to find some common ground, even if it isn’t the topic under discussion. The idea that we might interact with a wide variety of people based on social contacts, church affiliation, work experience, or recreational endeavors seems less credible today than it did in Bernays time[2].

By the time Trump takes the idea of candidacy seriously, the infrastructure is already in place. It is important to give him credit for realizing it’s potential; no one else seemed to. “Gaffes” like calling Mexicans rapists or accusing the Chinese of fabricating climate change actually fueled his popularity, not because individuals accepted the veracity of these claims, but because a group mind had been conditioned to be satisfied by the slaying of these demons. Trump’s GOP rivals who tried to navigate a more responsible path were quickly vanquished, because there was no network of influence they could utilize. Their message didn’t resonate; they were irrelevant.

Those in today’s invisible government have eschewed integrity for power. Click To Tweet

Trump is a current crisis, one that Bernays did envision, albeit indirectly. The consummate professional, Bernays believed that integrity is the hallmark of the public relations counsel. He practice what he preached, dropping large tobacco clients when it became clear that smoking was harmful to consumers (long before the Surgeon General’s report.) And in fairness, he did believe that communists were a threat in Guatemala when he orchestrated the public relations campaign that encouraged lawmakers to support the CIA coup. He cautions politicians in Propaganda to be honest, lest the public punish them (page 113.) It appears that we are now in uncharted waters. The notion of Trumpism as “post-truth”, with the employment of “alternative facts” to present a fictional narrative, demonstrates that those in today’s invisible government have eschewed integrity for power.

Trumpism presents the United States with a seemingly overwhelming set of obstacles, which may destroy the republic or take decades to repair. We must accept the asymmetrical political networks of influence that divide our body politic and spread a false narrative (alternative facts.) Our group mind is reliant on propaganda to filter and coordinate the overwhelming number of social signals that are presented to us each day, yet the only thing separating us from the responsible assimilation of information and misdirection by influential people is the integrity of those shaping the message. Propaganda is our drinking water, and we rely on the invisible government not to poison it. This is not to say that we can fight propaganda by appealing to the individual mind; Hillary Clinton made a strategic error by focusing on policy and how it appeals to the voter. We cannot separate ourselves from the group mind; it is a facet of our personality unaffected by awareness or education. Those opposing Trump can only formulate their own group narrative, one that is more effective than the current one. Ultimately we can only campaign against corrupted networks and champion those that provide honest influence (as opposed to those that align with our ideology.) Finally, working to re-establish the myriad overlapping networks that Bernays described in 1928 may help people reconnect at the civic level, tearing down the ideological silos that separate us.

Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. New York: Ig Publishing, 2005.

[1] For an interesting read and discussion about cumulative advantage, see Roger L. Martin’s post in Harvard Business Review, “How the Attacks on Trump Reinforce His Strategy.”

[2] I realize I have stepped in a large pile of goop here. For the purpose of this essay, we do not need to discuss the race and sex segregation of the 1920s. I only wish to assert that Bernays’ suggestion of ideological interaction is less likely today.