The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How to push back against Trump’s propaganda machine

Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway makes remarks at the U.S. Capitol on April 7. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of Italian studies and history at New York University, is writing “Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall.” Follow her on Twitter: @ruthbenghiat.

Earlier this week, President Trump gave an interview to two correspondents at the Hill. The interviewers served him softball questions and plenty of adulation. His claim that his attacks on the FBI could one day be seen as the “crowning achievement” of his presidency was widely repeated, often uncritically, in the media.

We have seen this before. Since taking office, Trump has set up an information apparatus that presents him and his loyalists as the only arbiters of truth and that labels critics as partisan purveyors of falsity.

It is time to push back against this propaganda machine, using the lessons of authoritarian states past and present. Too many of us are unwittingly helping the adversary to meet his goals of delegitimizing American democracy.

While Trump’s been unable so far to fulfill his wish to curb press freedoms, the feedback loop he has established with Fox News and his skillful use of propaganda techniques — such as repeating simple messages and slogans to peddle an alternate reality and mobilize people against your enemies — have had their effects. Hate crimes are up against his target groups, including the press. Trust in the media is down, and a growing number of Republicans think some state control is warranted. Exposés of Trump’s use of executive power to doctor the truth — the news that he ordered the National Park Service to make the crowd look bigger in photographs of his inauguration being the latest example — don’t merit the outrage they should.

This is intentional. Trump and his allies know that making the pursuit of truth and justice dangerous and exhausting is crucial to taking democracies in an authoritarian direction. Yet, there are ways we can contain, rather than assist, this rightward shift in political culture.

First, media outlets should stop amplifying the messages of anti-democratic operatives whose job is to destroy notions of truth and sow confusion so that we may better accept the Trump administration’s version of reality. This means far fewer invitations to Kellyanne Conway and other proven liars whose job is to expose more Americans to fabrications and dissimulations. The gains of occasionally seeing these individuals exposed in their untruths are offset by the opportunities they have to imprint their falsehoods on millions through interviews seen in offices, doctors’ waiting rooms, airports and homes filled with children.

The case of Stephen K. Bannon is particularly vexing. This dangerous subversive who has been open about his desire to undermine our democracy is a prime beneficiary of the right’s strategy of claiming the media is “biased” so that some outlets, put on the defensive, seek a kind of “neutrality” that creates more space for right-wing points of view. Returning from time abroad, Bannon decided it was the moment to refurbish his reputation, and the American media obliged him with prime-time marquee interviews (CNN, MSNBC) and even an invitation (later rescinded) to speak at the New Yorker Festival. Those who justify this as bridge-building must not realize that Bannon’s bridge runs only one way: His interest in appearing in public is to convert more Americans to the global right’s causes. Given the coverage his views have already gotten, why should we help his crusade further?

This is not an invitation to censorship. (The ideas of the American right receive ample circulation, as is proper in a democracy.) This is about being smart and thinking carefully about what exactly will be achieved by giving people such as Bannon and Conway additional media coverage. No one who has lived in an authoritarian state has looked back and wished its propagandists had gotten more media coverage during the crucial window of transition from liberal democracy to something else — which is potentially our situation right now.

Second, we can decline to serve as the unpaid laborers of Trump’s personality cult and his factory of falsehoods and threats by retweeting him. Paraphrase him, reply to him, but don’t give his messages a whole new audience by reproducing them in their entirety. News outlets have adopted this questionable habit, but we don’t have to follow suit. Why make him feel powerful and influential by responding en masse as soon as he tweets? “I’m the only one that matters,” says Trump. Don’t appear to agree by making your own social media feed all about him.

Third, both the media and individual social media users instead might give greater exposure to those working to save the rule of law and empower our institutions to work effectively to counter the threats we face today. This means broadening the focus from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his investigation to the work of bipartisan organizations such as Stand Up America and Protect Democracy and to the many unsung heroes who organize protests, file briefs and put careers on hold to advocate for democracy.

It is time to stop playing Trump’s games, which are designed to give him and his backers even more power and influence. As the 2018 midterm elections approach, it’s imperative to find another path.