Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What do liberals mean by "Russian" propaganda?

Eric Boehlert at Media Matters warns that Trump has moved "from lies to authoritarian-style propaganda", and hints darkly at connections to Russia:
Increasingly, this White House’s propaganda operation looks like an authoritarian one found in other countries, such as Russia...like Russia’s president, Trump has a built-in media infrastructure that will obediently echo his lies and present them as news.
If this critique of a media that obediently echoes the president's lies sounds familiar, it's because Boehlert wrote an entire book about it - more than ten years ago. In Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over For Bush, Boehlert insisted that
the compliant press repeated almost every administration claim...that virtually every one of those claims turned out to be false only added to the media's malpractice. (209)
Reading through Lapdogs in 2017, his critique of Bush sounds awfully like his critique of Trump. Today, for instance, Boehlert writes that Trump
staged a faux bill-signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House...The whole event was just Kabuki theater.
And here's what he was writing about Bush in 2003:
The entire press conference performance was a farce - the staging, the seating, the questions, the order, the answers...the calculated kabuki press conference [was] stage-managed by the White House... (207)
Almost to the letter, Boehlert is rehearsing the same media critique he's written about for years: Republicans are waging a propaganda campaign. They are lying a lot - or in the parlance of elite liberal media, they are gaslighting / spinning / promoting fake news / building an alternative reality. They are staging elaborate press spectacles, repeating slogans, and using other standard PR tricks. A conservative media infrastructure is disseminating and signal-boosting all of this, and they are being abetted by a credulous and unduly submissive mainstream media.

The Russian connection

In fact, when you read through Boehlert's writing on the media, only one thing has really changed: the connection to Russia. For instance, when Trump stages a kabuki bill-signing, Boehlert pointedly quotes Mike Mariani in Vanity Fair:
Trump’s team is finding ways to shrewdly approximate [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s capacity to shape narratives and create alternative realities...
There is nothing like this in Lapdogs, or in any of Boehlert's writing about Bush - even when the Bush administration stages its own kabuki press-conferences, and relies on its own politically friendly media infrastructure. No suggestion that Russia invented "authoritarian propaganda", or that these tactics are evidence of some kind of connection to the Kremlin. Just the opposite - in one remarkable passage, Boehlert actually connects Bush to anti-Russian propaganda:
...the bureau, anxious to play up Cold War fears, interviewed defectors from Russia but sometimes fabricated the details of their tales. "So the whole concept of fact checking was moot," said Heidenry. "They created their own facts." (143)
It's possible that this "fake news" approach to propaganda is still distinctly Russian in nature - perhaps it was originally invented by Soviet Russia, and then co-opted by Bush-era cold warriors, and then reclaimed by Putin's Russia, and now it's being mimicked by Trump.

But there's also a less complicated explanation: as Jacques Ellul put it in his seminal work Propaganda, "Propaganda as a phenomenon is essentially the same in China or the Soviet Union or the United States or Algeria." There is nothing historically, tactically, or conceptually Russian about the Trump administration's lies, and there is zero insight to be gained in making comparisons between the two, or suggesting that one is inspired by the other. When liberals like Boehlert do this, it's not because they've studied the Russians - it's because they studied Republicans, and learned just how useful it is "to play up Cold War fears".