In 1935, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist and promoter of violence, gave a speech at the Annual conference of the Nazi Party in which he took issue with an anonymous writer of an English newspaper who compared National Socialism to Bolshevism and identified their commonalities. The commonalities included attacks on the media, literature, and the intelligentsia, as well as the mass display of arms by their respective members. Goebbels emphasized the differences between the two regimes, attacking Jewish-led communism as the “world’s greatest enemy” while promoting the virtues of Nazism. He further emphasized that Bolshevism was a Jewish-led threat to the world. In retrospect the world knows that Nazism was a fascist regime grounded in scientific racism, antisemitism, and authoritarianism that caused WWII and killed millions of people, including the state-sponsored murder of 6 million Jews.
In his speech Goebbels used what today are well worn rhetorical techniques such as disparaging communism, emphasizing its injustices and failures, and casting it as an amoral regime led by political maniacs who made up atrocity stories about the Third Reich in order to bring about its downfall. In contrast, he cast National Socialism as believing in God, warning Europe of the threat of communism, knowing how to cope with the Jewish-led communist movement, and saving Western civilization. In simplistic terms, he cast National Socialism as good and communism as evil. These are standard rhetorical techniques used by authoritarian regimes, and there is little question that the author against whom Goebbels railed was correct.
We have seen similar techniques used in recent times by Trump (2016-present) and by Putin. Trump and his followers in the “Grand Ole Party” have attacked the press, promoted anti-intellectual views, disparaged critics, censored public education, promoted public violence and displayed arms, and scapegoated Latino and Asian immigrants as menaces that threaten America. All of these taken together have engendered what is termed a crisis in American Democracy. A central factor that has contributed to the present crisis is propaganda.
Similar tactics were used by Putin to justify the invasion of Ukraine. He claimed Ukraine was infested with neo-nazis and had to be “denazified.” He also asserted that far-right nationalism in Ukraine had given rise to Russophobia and that Russia was forced to invade. Following the invasion, as protests against the invasion arose, he cracked down on independent media and banned any rhetoric that called the “special military operation” an invasion. Thousands of anti-war protestors have been arrested and organizers threatened. All of these actions are “legitimized” by propaganda.
Propaganda is the technique of using biased views, symbols, and selective information to manipulate public opinion in the pursuit of an agenda. It is suggestive, appeals to sentiments, and intensifies attitudes toward a particular purpose with the aim of closing off other options. In today’s political environment it is sometimes called political gaslighting. As with all political and social movements there are many threads or sub-movements that are brought together by a charismatic leader. Such is the case with what has come to be known as Trumpism, which has brought together different political groups under a conservative nationalist agenda. But what are the purposes of the propaganda that is undermining American Democracy under Trumpism? There are many, but an obvious one is the installation of Donald Trump as the authoritarian leader of the nation. Another is to openly restore a racial hierarchy with White Americans at the apex. Still another is the establishment of a theocracy as envisioned by radical Evangelicals who desire a Christian nation.
To achieve any of these visions for the nation a multitude of activities and messages are used by their respective adherents. These include scapegoating immigrants, promoting anti-government sentiments, politicizing the use of masks and vaccines to secure public safety and control the pandemic, claims of a fraudulent 2020 election, and voter suppression policies, among others. More recently, steps to censor public education have been taken as an extension of the Trump Administration’s attack on diversity training. It started as an attack on Critical Race Theory but has expanded to censoring library holdings in public schools.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a framework that examines institutionalized racial dimensions and practices in the nation’s major institutions. Some of these were highlighted in the recent trials of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd; Kyle Rittenhouse, the self-appointed guardian of private property in Kenosha, Wisconsin, charged with reckless and intentional homicide in the deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and the shooting of Gaige Grosskreutz; and that of Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan, convicted of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. The arguments presented by the attorneys and the judges in those trials reveal major differences in how they view our system of criminal justice. Those are not the issues highlighted by attackers of CRT who tend to distort its contents in their propaganda.
They present CRT to the public as a Marxist ideology rather than a legal theoretical framework developed by academic theorists. Presenters at a Goldwater Institute event on Critical Race Theory, for example, distort CRT for political purposes. These are Jonathan Butcher, a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute, and Kevin Jackson, CEO of Educational Excellence and conservative syndicated radio host of the Kevin Jackson Show, who are introduced as experts. Butcher says CRT is a “theory, it’s a world view, a philosophy, a way of seeing public and private life...through the lens of race. And so…everything can be explained by…what it means for your skin color and your racial identity. [CRT] is coming home through the backpacks and in homework assignments.” He goes on to say that proponents of CRT are trying to change culture and are being discriminatory. He further implies that intersectionality, a concept that emphasizes the interconnectedness of social categories and the overlapping of systems of discrimination, is part of the problem yet fails to provide a meaningful critique.
Jackson claims that CRT is used to divide and conquer Americans through identity politics and to attack the “humanity of people to just live their lives as individuals, because at the end of the day I don’t think most people care if their drycleaner is black or gay.” He goes on to say that CRT proponents do not accept that “we are judging people by the content of their character” and implies that it is problematic that we are still having a discussion about race, because “CRT doesn’t believe in meritocracy.” Both of these two so-called experts want us to believe that the United States is no longer a country steeped in systemic racism, but they are not the only ones. Others include writers such as Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and Pedro L. Gonzalez, associate editor at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, a conservative publication by the Charlemagne Institute, a non-profit organization that seeks to protect and promote Western civilization, and assistant editor of American Greatness, a blog that features conservative writers on American politics. He also hosts Contra, a conservative podcast. Mike was born in Cuba and Pedro in Spain. Both, like Butcher and Jackson, are pseudo experts on CRT and seemingly intentionally distort what it is.
Mike Gonzalez defines CRT as a movement and claims that it has impacted all of American life and drives decision-making on the basis of race. Much like Goebbels incessantly attacks Jews, Mike, who sometimes writes with Butcher, incessantly claims that CRT is a Marxist-grounded theory that seeks to overturn American society by portraying everyday life in terms of systemic racism. He opposes the Federal Government’s use of racial categories (as in the census) and its support of diversity training, while supporting parental review of curricular resources in schools, local control of student discipline, and the use of punitive measures to protect free speech on public college campuses.
Pedro Gonzalez, who identifies as a pro-White minority, claims that CRT is an anti-White perspective that declares Whites to be the ‘cancer of human history’. Instead, he asserts that liberals are the cancer. Like most people, he wrongly uses the term “ethnics” to denote non-Whites, not realizing that all people are ethnic. He makes the strange statement that “CRT often comes wrapped in the crimson bow of Christian theology and ethics” without providing any evidence or source for it. On his Twitter account he claims that the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 was not an insurrection but a historical event that is being used as a pretext to crack down on establishment opposition. He further claims that Whites suffer ungrateful foreigners despite being the ones who built, maintained, and defended this country “that their ancestors built, maintained, and defended before them.”
Propaganda is at the center of the crisis in American Democracy. Communications technology, initially thought to promote democratic participation, has become the vehicle by which the uninformed are motivated to engage in irrational anti-democratic behaviors that noted scholars believe are taking the country toward fascism. Goebbels would have loved living in these times.