Trump's pandemic propaganda comes straight from Putin playbook

the fog of unknowability

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Trump's commitment to creating confusion with lies and contradictions continues unabated during the national health crisis. Recently he has:

- Claimed one hundred thousand coronavirus deaths in the United States should be deemed a success.

- Accused hospital workers of stealing much-needed surgical masks.

- Lied about recorded statements he had made days earlier about the pandemic.

- Mistreated reporters who asked factual questions about the government's criminally inadequate response to the coronavirus.

- Told governors on a conference call that he hadn't heard complaints about a lack of coronavirus tests.

- Offered false hope about an unproven covid-19 cure.

It's all part of White House's pattern of sending mixed and conflicting pandemic messages, often from multiple sources. It's exactly what the federal government should not be doing at a time of a national health crisis, according to guidelines established by the Center for Disease Prevention, which urges leaders to be consistent, transparent, and accurate. Trump has effectively ordered a stand down for the virus invasion, dangerously downplayed the public health risk ("I think it's going to work out fine"), and relentlessly praised his own performance. ("We’ve done a phenomenal job on this.")

In response, lots of journalists ask with genuine astonishment, 'Why is he undermining scientists? Why is he knowingly misleading the public during the pandemic?' Because the plan is to create a nonstop loop of puzzlement to the point where it's not possible to understand what Trump's policy is and what direction the federal government is going. All the while attacking the news media in order to create confusion about the facts. (Today, nearly eight-in-ten Republicans think the press is exaggerating the covid-19 risks.)



This authoritarian approach is foreign to America, and specifically to American presidents, all of whom before Trump would've considered it unthinkable to place the population in jeopardy during a national health emergency, and to then lie about it everyday. For longtime Kremlin watchers though, what Trump is doing, and what he's being doing since Inauguration Day 2017, looks quite familiar — he's using the Vladimir Putin playbook, and what observers in Moscow have called the "fog of unknowability."

The fog is a particularly pernicious form of state-backed propaganda, and Putin has been practicing it for years on the Russian press. Trump now borrows heavily. “Trump’s team is finding ways to shrewdly approximate  Putin’s capacity to shape narratives and create alternative realities,” noted Mike Mariani in Vanity Fair, back in 2017. “Specious narratives, conspiracy theories, and indeed fake news have been part of Russia’s geopolitical playbook for more than half a century.”

Mariani added:

Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who has studied Russian propaganda for years, sees major similarities between Putin’s and Trump’s approaches. “Create chaos in the system, such that you don’t know what is the truth or not the truth,” he says. The Kremlin does this by flooding television and digital media with biased coverage and wanton spin. The Trump administration has discovered something equally effective: lying to reporters and publicly attacking critics are like tossing grenades into the media eco-system….Once this quagmire—in which truth and lies are knotted up and nothing is incontrovertible—is established, the final aim comes into view. “You don’t even know what is real information anymore, and without that, no one can hold you accountable,” Watts says.

This week in the Washington Post, Putin critic Garry Kasparov noted, "Like most dictatorships, Putin’s regime lies constantly, even when it doesn’t have to. Trump’s tendency to echo autocratic rhetoric is well-established, and the pandemic is no exception."

The American press, though, has trouble dealing with, and identifying, this brand of propaganda. Instead of an honest debate about Trump's radical and dangerous behavior, we get coverage that suggests Trump is merely disorganized and mercurial, with the assumption that that, of course, he wants to protect Americans.

"There are signs that he does not fully understand the stakes nor is willing to relegate his own interests in favor of the common good," CNN noted this week. Fact: Every indication suggests Trump does understand the stakes. He just doesn't care.

According to the press in recent days, Trump has "changed his tone," "veered," "sowed confusion," and offered up "conflicted narratives." That's the simplistic, naïve interpretation. That's assuming Trump functions like a typical leader and actually wants to help prevent widespread deaths, and that he mourns our collective loss. Instead, Trump's lack of empathy for the dead in recent weeks represents a hallmark of how authoritarians communicate in public — lives are not valued, and there's no reason to extol the dead. 

American journalists should heed the warning of Kremlin watchers if they want to truly understand what's unfolding today.



Read more about the similarities between Trump and Putin’s propaganda in Garry Kasparov’s excellent Post column, “Russia claims it has covid-19 under control. The facade is cracking”:

Trump’s callousness about potential victims of the pandemic has been jarring, even by this president’s standards. A crisis means difficult choices, impossible decisions that must still be made. But valuing every life — including the elderly, the weak, the vulnerable — is one of the signal traits that distinguish democracies from dictatorships.


John Prine, "Angel from Montgomery"

One of the few pieces of good news this week was the cautious update on singer/songwriter John Prine's covid-19 condition. He has stabilized for now.

Thankfully, Prine remains an American treasure. A Kentucky-born mail carrier, Prine emerged from the Chicago folk scene in the late 1960's with his twisted trademark view of the world ("Dear Abby"). Prine sings his odes to the workingman and to everyday life in quirky, unhurried style that gives his brilliant songwriting added texture and realism.

"Angel from Montgomery" is probably Prine’s most famous and lasting offering. Many people likely know it via Bonnie Raitt's gorgeous rendering, or Susan Tedeschi's.

Get well, John.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go