It's Past Time for Dems to Get Serious About Propaganda

[Content Note: References to sexual assault]

One of the major stories this election was "fake news," or more properly, propaganda. The latest round of revelations on the Russia investigations reveals a probe into whether Breitbart, InfoWars, and other American conservative propaganda sites were actively assisting Russian bots and operatives. This, on top of Ben Shreckinger's terrific piece at Politico, World War Meme, offers a frightening look into how twisted and intense the coordinated propaganda efforts against Hillary Clinton really were.

4¢han's Gamergaters received open support from Breitbart as they spread vicious hate against Clinton and her supporters, driving us underground via the harassment they've perfected from years of anti-feminist harassment. Their propaganda network—memes made by 4¢han, spread across social media, repeated at Breitbart and by hundreds of Russian-linked fake news sites—may not have been sophisticated, but it provided repetition and enlargement, powerful propaganda weapons that make sure no one escapes the barrage of negative narratives.

And yet, it's striking to me how little of this seems to be seeping into the postmortems of 2016 and the discussions of rebuilding the Democratic party. The influence of Russian and conservative propaganda, along with James Comey's FBI investigation were problems, is acknowledged. But the "real" is constantly defined as Hillary was a "terrible," candidate, a "flawed" candidate, etc. If only we'd nominated somebody else, anybody else—Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders! BernieWouldaWon! The problem is the corrupt, out-of-touch, wealthy Democratic Party, and so on, and so forth.

The fantasy that Clinton was a terrible candidate masks the reality that she was actually a very good candidate. One whom propaganda managed to almost totally destroy.

And it will happen with the next very good candidate too.

"Better candidates" won't solve this.

Now, that is not to deny mis-steps from the Clinton campaign—and there were some, though not the kind that sink elections. That is not to deny that Clinton's policies didn't please everyone—but no candidate I have ever voted for has done that. And it's most certainly not to deny the role that misogyny played in making people willing to believe the propaganda, nor to deny the Democrats have a very thin bench, and need to work hard to identify strong new candidates for the national as well as state and local scenes.

But consider what Liss was saying to me earlier (and which I share with her permission):

The thing about Hillary Clinton that everyone fucking ignores is that all those investigations which were used to create the illusion of corruption ALL FOUND that she had done nothing wrong. They were partisan witch hunts that turned up nothing. Which absolutely hurt her, but also made her the most thoroughly vetted candidate in history. They didn't turn up anything "new" on her during the entire 18 month campaign.

We aren't going to get a candidate like that again. Not one who is so well-vetted. Not one who is so clean. Not one who is so well-known. Think of how well-known and well-vetted she was, and what propaganda was STILL able to do to her. Now imagine what they can do to someone with legit skeletons in their closet who doesn't have the global recognition she has.

This is new territory, and yet the American left generally, so far as I can see, is reluctant to face this reality.

To be clear: The Republican Smear Machine is nothing new. And it's helpful to remember that they don't shy away at making shit up, nor at attacking strengths in order to turn them into weaknesses. The despicable purple Band-aids used to mock John Kerry's war wounds and the smears against the Clinton Foundation (despite its financial transparency) are two examples. But the intense coordination of the GOP smears with propaganda outlets, Russian bots and trolls, and the Gamergate meme element is something new. I doubt the GOP would have come up with the notion that Hillary Clinton was a predator of children without the 4¢han gang, who, according to the Politico story, made up the pizza-Hillary-child-predator attacks because they themselves call child p0rnography "cheese pizza."

The perfect candidate will not save us. Because, remember the goal: It's not just to defeat a candidate, but to weaken him or her. For the Russians, it's to weaken faith in the democratic process itself.

Consider this: If Clinton had managed to pull it out somehow, think how the propaganda could have been parlayed into a "cloud of doubt." The GOP were already planning to press forward with their FBI investigations. She'd have been dealing with child p0rn accusations and other rumors designed to make her not just disliked, but utterly despised, demonized, discredited, much as Obama was for 8 years on the far right. The Tea Party would have been galvanized again.

As it was, how many people stayed home or voted 3rd Party because "they were the same"? That, in itself, is a Russian triumph: Managing to convince American voters that a lifelong public servant with a solid record of helping women and children was the same as a multiple-bankruptcy real estate developer/reality star whose past—by his own confession—is littered with harassment and assault.

Consider the claim that BernieWouldaWon. This is based on many things, but there's a base assumption that he wasn't "flawed" or "tarnished" or whatever word we are using today. That Clinton's "flaws" brought her down.

Now, let's grant that Sanders, or any other Hypothetical Perfect Dem, has not been the target of GOP lies for a quarter century. That helps.

But let's also recognize that Sanders enjoyed an easy primary. For all the claims of how vicious the Clinton campaign was, the fact is that they remembered the rule: Never harm a primary opponent so badly it will wound them in the general. The GOP would have no such compunction—nor would the Russians, the propaganda "news," or the meme-makers.

And yes, they would have had plenty of material. Remember, the goal isn't just to defeat the Democrat. It's to discredit him or her and democracy itself.

Don't believe me? Okay. Let's play Bernie Woulda Been Flawed. How would that go down? Well, here's a few samples.

1. Bernie the Liar. "Bernie Sanders Has a Secret!" the Politico headline blared. The story revealed that for years, Sanders misinformed the public about his son's mother. She was not his first wife, as claimed, but another woman, to whom Sanders was never married. This was such a deep secret, in fact, that Sanders went to great lengths in his 1996 campaign against Susan Sweetser to condemn her using a private eye to investigate his background—without ever revealing what it was he didn't want her to use against him. Not until the Politico article did Sanders associates go on the record confirming the deception.

Now to you or I, this is pretty mild stuff, a personal decision undertaken, no doubt, to shield his son from social ostracism—even in "liberal" Vermont in the 1970s, people could be cruel. But let's run this through the troll factory and GOP smear machine, and voila—what did he have to hide? Why did he hide it so long? If he can't tell the truth about that, what else is he lying about?

And remember: It doesn't matter that Trump lies every time his mouth opens. The point is to discredit the Dem, and if it's something very personal, so much the better. (I remember when a president was impeached for lying about sex, so.) Imagine if Bernie Sanders lost his reputation for unvarnished truth-telling, no matter how unfairly. How would that hamper his campaign?

2. Bernie the Creepy Sex Freak. Remember that conservatives don't care much about consent, but they do care about sexual law-and-order. I've written before about Sanders' essays, but I was criticizing them from a feminist perspective. Imagine what the GOP would do with rape fantasies and an essay encouraging a 15 year old girls to "forget" what her mothers taught and "give herself" to her boyfriend. There's plenty of stuff in Sanders' essays that hasn't aged so well, but the pre-AIDS Sexual Revolution writings could easily be turned into a roaring fire of nasty claims about him, personally. In that atmosphere, throw in innocent things—like the time that Sanders brought three African American children to live with him for the summer in his Vermont "sugar shack"—and, well, you see where the meme makers would go.

And no, it doesn't matter that Trump is an actual sexual abuser. Somehow Bill's adultery was held against Hillary. Sanders would somehow be painted as worse, "twisted," etc.

3. Sanders the Stalinist. Hey, remember that time that Sanders spent a summer at a kibbutz founded by Stalinists? How about his love for the Sandinastas and Fidel Castro? His visit to Nicaragua? His Soviet honeymoon?

I don't think I have to work very hard to convince you what the propaganda machine would have made of all that, plus whatever weird and out-of-context quotes could be mined from his very own public access television show.

4. Jane Sanders, or, Bernie's College Plan is Terrible. Generally speaking, people on the left have a better understanding than the right of the fact that spouses are individual and different people. That's never bothered the right, who coined "Billary" as a slur. As far as I know, Jane Sanders did not play a role in formulating Bernie's college policies, which mostly concerned public universities anyway. But the idea is to smear, so her time as Burlington College's president would be fair game to them. And Jane Sanders, unfairly or not, received blame for the financial disaster that forced the college's closure in 2016. The allegation that she used her status as a Senator's wife to keep a big loan from being properly scrutinized is, frankly, pretty big. Does it have anything to do with Sanders' college plans? Nope. But I can guarantee that this would have been used to discredit Sanders' famous free college plan as unworkable, unethical, un-whatever. Every controversy related to Jane's presidency would be scrutinized and taken in the worst possible faith, whether the firing of a popular professor or charges of nepotism. To be frank, I'm glad the family didn't go through that. But it's not too difficult to see how that might have blown up.

5. Sanders the Racist Nativist. Now this one probably seems ludicrous when compared with Trump, openly bragging about an anti-Mexican wall. But bothsiderism is a potent tool for propaganda, so expect that Bernie's interview with Lou Dobbs (auto-plays at link) about the 2007 immigration reform bill that he voted to defeat would have been used against him. Then there's the pro-Minuteman militia vote. The reality is, Sanders' history on issues related to immigration is complicated. But all the opposition wants to do is to depress Hispanic support for Sanders. If he can be painted as a hypocrite, as not worthy of Hispanic support, then the smear factory can hope to depress that turnout, just as the World War Meme-ers pushed Hillary Clinton's "superpredator" comment to younger Black voters over and over, hoping to depress her support. The propaganda game is defeat by a thousand small losses. Remember, Bernie had a problem getting enthusiasm from large blocs of African American and Hispanic voters to begin with―his race problem is real. It would not take much GOP nudging to make it an even bigger problem.

6. Sanders and Trump are Just the Same, but Maybe Bernie's Worse. What? This is outrageous! How could anyone think that? I dunno… How did anyone think that about Clinton and Trump? But here we would have two shouty older white men on stage yelling at each other. How hard would it be to focus on that, not what they were saying? It wasn't too hard to drum up hate for Hillary Clinton because of her laugh, her smile, her shimmy. And you want change? Sooner or later someone was bound to discover that Bernie has been in Washington since 1990. That his first "real job" (as defined by the propagandist) was as mayor of Burlington. That he is, in fact, a career politician. And off we go, until outsider Bernie Sanders has been deftly transformed into the ultimate insider, and Trump is the only "real" choice for change.

I could go on, but frankly this is depressing as hell, and the point has been made. And remember: I haven't even factored in the mistakes that every campaign makes on the trail, whatever unfortunate misspeaking Jeff Weaver or Bernie himself might make. What might be revealed in a hack of the Sanders campaign? It doesn't matter if it doesn't reveal much at all—neither did the Podesta emails. I can guarantee, it would have been breathlessly reported as whatever scandal the Russians wanted it to be.

And it would be repeated over and over and over, until doubts and shadows were raised in the minds of the neutral or "soft" supporters. "Sure, Bernie's great, but what about his emails?"

But let's say Sanders won, somehow. But oh, by now, he would be flawed, so terribly, terribly flawed. And we'd need a Congressional investigation into his emails and his taxes and Burlington College's closure and whatever else would be needed to make sure his agenda stalled on the runway. Because that was always the plan if Clinton won: Make her weak, untrustworthy, someone everyone expects to lie, someone Americans can't trust.

Now let's play the game with Elizabeth Warren. Cory Booker. Kamala Harris. And whomever else might run in 2020. Now let's remember that the Russians also meddled in House races in 2016. And let's think about 2018.

We are never, ever, going to have the perfect candidate who can withstand the new propaganda hurricane without a conscious and comprehensive strategy to counter it. Yes, recruit new people, yes reach out, yes, do whatever reality-based reforms need to be undertaken. But this propaganda demands to be taken seriously, like yesterday. It should be regarded as a voter-suppression tactic, and an election-tampering tactic. Pretending that the Democrats lost the presidency primarily due to Hillary Clinton's "flaws" is a fantasy our democracy cannot afford.

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