James Nelson

I have written previously about the existence of the authoritarian playbook. It is the template for totalitarian power, control, and cultism that has been and is being followed by every fascist, authoritarian and dictator, commencing with Mussolini and on through Hitler, Franco, Gaddafi, Pinochet, Mobutu, Berlusconi, Erdoğan, Putin, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi, Orbán, and Donald Trump.[i] (Indeed, Trump is openly planning to become America’s dictator if he wins election in 2024.)[ii]

A critical component of the authoritarian’s playbook involves not only the disparagement, elimination, or control of the free press, but also the use of propaganda. The latter is my focus here.

Propaganda is a communication strategy designed to: obtain attention management through repetition, sow confusion and uncertainty, discourage critical thinking, instill loyalty and fear, motivate the masses to carry out the purveyor’s agenda of nationalization and persecution, and persuade the recipients that reality is whatever the cult leader says it is.

While the authoritarians’ purpose and message have remained the same throughout modern history, propagandists have used the technology of their times to convey their communications.[iii] For example, Mussolini used newsreels, while Trump has used Twitter and now uses his “Truth Social” account to propagandize.[iv]

More, to this point, “deep faking” generative artificial intelligence is set to be a chief tool of propagandists in the 2024 elections. Campaign staffs are already being trained to use it. And, unfortunately, there is presently no regulation of or disclaimers required when this sort of propaganda is utilized.[v]  Worse, given the science-denying, win-at-any-cost mentality of Congress--along with many state legislatures controlled by extremist partisans--it is unlikely that any government regulation of this technology will be forthcoming soon.

The big AI platforms—Google, Meta, Amazon--may self-regulate, but how that will factor, if at all, into the propaganda that will be a prominent feature the 2024 campaigns is, at best, an open question.[vi]

Knowing what propaganda is, is one thing, but recognizing how it is used is essential for critical analysis and decision making.  For example, the new state social studies standards for African American history, civics and government, American history and economics approved by the Florida Board of Education on July 19th [vii] are little more than propaganda. These teaching standards are designed to “educate” students to view America’s history of enslavement as something that it was not—i.e., a system that offered personal benefits to the enslaved people and that was simply one of a variety of labor systems practiced globally that did not involve racism or violence.

Quite to the contrary, America’s history of enslavement was, in fact, violent and racist; it was not just a sort of benevolent division of labor embraced by our nation’s white, Christian, male founders and one grounded in principles of liberty and equality—which is the alternate reality that the Florida Board wants students to believe.

In her book, Strongmen, Ruth Ben-Chat provides a historical and exhaustive discussion of how propaganda has been and is being used by authoritarians:[viii]  I have attempted to summarize here the author’s main points, and include with those some from other sources.

The authoritarian uses various forms of propaganda to:

  • leverage his cult of virility (hyper masculinity and machoism) and to depict himself as the nation’s savior, its protector;
  • justify the use of force against “enemies of the state,” defined as those who dare question his miracle-working powers;
  • market himself and his country to attract tourists and foreign capital;
  • mobilize all forms of media to drip-feed slogans and ways of thinking so that his admirers will see him as authentic and will feel a personal connection to him;
  • stabilize his rule so as to legitimize his authority;
  • discredit the press (recall that, according to Trump, the press is the enemy of the people[ix]);
  • invest heavily in the manipulation, falsification, and concealment of information;
  • build his lies and falsehoods around a grain of truth, (e.g., linking immigration (the grain) to higher crime rates and terrorism (the falsehood));
  • disappear people and their knowledge which conflicts with his ideologies;
  • deny science when that impedes his ability to plunder his nation’s resources and to generate personal profits;
  • promote a “state” religion, join the religion’s prelates in that effort, and coopt the religion as justification for his agenda and ideology;
  • censor—or ban or blacklist—publications critical of him or not in line with his rule and ideologies;
  • punish anyone or any critic that does not praise him enough;
  • coopt the poor and talented—i.e., buy loyalty-- by putting them on state payrolls or require loyalty oaths of his staff and appointees to do the same;
  • establish a personality cult to embody himself as his country’s national destiny;
  • whip up the emotions of his followers at rallies and public events—largely by scapegoating, telling his base what they want to hear, and assuring them that he will make their enemies his and will punish those accordingly;
  • portray himself as the victim of the press and of those who would hold him to account for his misdeeds; muzzle journalists critical of him or his rule;
  • make public spectacles of his enemies by humiliation, demonization, and degradation;
  • mix rallies, censorship, and personality cults to stay in power;
  • make misogynist, xenophobic, racist, sexist, or homophobic comments—i.e., create an outrage or saddle his enemies with opprobrium—so as to shift media and public attention away from his own incompetence and corruption; (witness the GOP’s current war on LGBTQIA+ and trans people);
  • deny licenses to media outlets and bribe, sue, or otherwise threaten to or actually cause financial ruin of opposition media;
  • label opposition news as fake news not worthy of trust or belief;
  • use social media platforms to target enemies, spread hate speech, conspiracy theories and lies;
  • create alternate facts and truths, and create confusion through disinformation and misinformation;
  • instill fear that if he is not elected or if he is deposed the country will fall into ruin.
  • instill hope and trust that he, alone, will save the country from ruin;

In short, the authoritarian’s goal is to use all forms of propaganda to obtain and retain power.  Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, said of his craft that “In propaganda, as in love, anything is permissible which is successful.”

And, that is a central truth of propaganda—if deceit works, use it!  Propaganda is the blood that courses through, that informs, and that energizes the authoritarian’s ideology and agenda; it is the currency which buys the masses who will genuflect at the cult leader’s altar, the masses that will idolize him, the masses that will hate and resent his enemies as their own.

As a result of the authoritarian’s propaganda his followers cannot distinguish between fact and fiction, cannot distinguish between true and false. Their hearts and minds will follow—him; him; always and only him.

That is how the authoritarian births totalitarianism.

And, that is how he kills democracy!

James Nelson is a retired Montana Supreme Court Justice.

[i] See, generally, Strongmen, Mussolini to the Present, Ruth Ben-Chiat, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 2021 (referred to as Strongmen).

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/17/us/politics/trump-plans-2025.html; https://prospect.org/politics/2023-07-18-donald-trump-plotting-make-himself-dictator/; https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2022/01/donald-trump-mike-pence-2020-overturned;

[iii] Strongmen, pp.92-93

[iv] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-threatening-video-b2379372.html

[v]See:https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2023-07-07/artificial-intelligence-brings-nightmare-scenario-to-2024-presidential-campaign-analysts; https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/misleading-ai-generated-content-a-top-concern-among-state-election-officials-for-2024; https://www.reuters.com/world/us/deepfaking-it-americas-2024-election-collides-with-ai-boom-2023-05-30/; https://www.politico.com/news/2023/06/18/campaigns-ai-2024-00102463

[vi]See:https://www.datanami.com/2023/04/17/self-regulation-is-the-standard-in-ai-for-now/; https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2023/jul/21/ai-ethics-guidelines-google-meta-amazon

[vii] https://www.fldoe.org/core/fileparse.php/20653/urlt/6-4.pdf

[viii] Strongmen, Chapter Five, Propaganda.

[ix] The Enemy of the People, Jim Acosta, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2019.