For leaders like Trump and Putin, telling big lies isn’t about persuasion — it’s about power.
He’s crisscrossing Europe because he believes it’s a bellwether for the United States. The scary thing is he could be right.
MILAN — Italy is a political laboratory. During the Cold War, the question was whether the United States could keep the Communists from power. Then Italy produced Silvio Berlusconi and scandal-ridden showman politics long before the United States elected Donald Trump. Now, on the eve of European Parliament elections likely to result in a rightist lurch, it has an anti-immigrant, populist government whose strongman, Matteo Salvini, known to his followers as “the Captain,” is the Continent’s most seductive exponent of the new illiberalism.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, has been close to Salvini for a while. That’s no surprise. Bannon is the foremost theorist and propagator of the global nationalist, anti-establishment backlash. He’s Trotsky to the Populist International. He sensed the disease eating at Western democracies — a globalized elite’s abandonment of the working class and the hinterland — before anyone. He spurred a revolt to make the invisible citizen visible and to save Western manufacturing jobs from what he calls the Chinese “totalitarian economic hegemon.”
Now Bannon is crisscrossing Europe ahead of the elections, held Thursday through next Sunday. He’s in Berlin one day, Paris the next. As he explained during several recent conversations and a meeting in New York, he believes that “Europe is six months to a year ahead of the United States on everything.” As with Brexit’s foreshadowing of Trump’s election, a victory for the right in Europe “will energize our base for 2020.” The notion of Wisconsin galvanized by Brussels may seem far-fetched, but then so did a President Trump.
Polls indicate that Salvini’s League party, transformed from a northern secessionist movement into the national face of the xenophobic right, will get over 30 percent of the Italian vote, up from 6.2 percent in 2014. Anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic parties look set to make the greatest gains, taking as many as 35 percent of the seats in Parliament, which influences European Union policy for more than a half-billion people. In France, Marine Le Pen’s nationalists are running neck-and-neck with President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-Europe party. In Britain, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party has leapt ahead of the center-right and center-left.
Salvini, whose party formed a government a year ago with the out-with-the-old-order Five Star Movement, is a central figure in this shift. The coalition buried mainstream parties. He is, Bannon told me, “the most important guy on the stage right now — he’s charismatic, plain-spoken, and he understands the machinery of government. His rallies are as intense as Trump’s. Italy is the center of politics — a country that has embraced nationalism against globalism, shattered the stereotypes, blown past the old paradigm of left and right.”
For all the upheaval, I found Italy intact, still tempering transactional modernity with humanity, still finding in beauty consolation for dysfunction. The new right has learned from the past. It does not disappear people. It does not do mass militarization. It’s subtler.
- It scapegoats migrants,
- instills fear,
- glorifies an illusory past (what the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “retrotopia”),
- exalts machismo,
- mocks do-gooder liberalism and
- turns the angry drumbeat of social media into its hypnotic minute-by-minute mass rally.
Salvini, the suave savior, is everywhere other than in his interior minister’s office at Rome’s Viminale Palace. He’s out at rallies or at the local cafe in his trademark blue “Italia” sweatshirt. He’s at village fairs and conventions. He’s posting on Facebook up to 30 times a day to his 3.7 million followers, more than any other European politician. (Macron has 2.6 million followers.) He’s burnishing the profile of the tough young pol (he’s 46) who
- keeps migrants out,
- loosens gun laws,
- brandishes a sniper rifle and
- winks at Fascism —
all leavened with Mr.-Nice-Guy images of him sipping espresso or a Barolo.
His domination of the headlines is relentless. When, during my visit, a woman was gang raped near Viterbo, his call for “chemical castration” of the perpetrators led the news cycle for 24 hours. Like Trump, he’s a master of saying the unsayable to drown out the rest.
“I find Salvini repugnant, but he seems to have an incredible grip on society,” Nathalie Tocci, the director of Italy’s Institute of International Relations, told me. No wonder then that the European far-right has chosen Milan for its big pre-election rally, bringing together Salvini, Le Pen, Jörg Meuthen of the Alternative for Germany party and many other rightist figures.
A nationalist tide is still rising. “We need to mobilize,” Bannon told me. “This is not an era of persuasion, it’s an era of mobilization. People now move in tribes. Persuasion is highly overrated.”
Bannon gives the impression of a man trying vainly to keep up with the intergalactic speed of his thoughts. Ideas cascade. He offered me a snap dissection of American politics: blue-collar families were suckers: their sons and daughters went off to die in unwon wars; their equity evaporated with the 2008 meltdown, destroyed by “financial weapons of mass destruction”; their jobs migrated to China. All that was needed was somebody to adopt a new vernacular, say to heck with all that, and promise to stop “unlimited illegal immigration” and restore American greatness. His name was Trump. The rest is history.
In Europe, Bannon said, the backlash brew included several of these same factors. The “centralized government of Europe” and its austerity measures, uncontrolled immigration and the sense of people in the provinces that they were “disposable” produced the Salvini phenomenon and its look-alikes across the Continent.
“In Macron’s vision of a United States of Europe, Italy is South Carolina to France’s North Carolina,” Bannon told me. “But Italy wants to be Italy. It does not want to be South Carolina. The European Union has to be a union of nations.”
The fact is Italy is Italy, unmistakably so, with its high unemployment, stagnation, archaic public administration and chasm between the prosperous north (which Salvini’s League once wanted to turn into a secessionist state called Padania) and the southern Mezzogiorno. Salvini’s coalition has done nothing to solve these problems even as it has
- demonized immigrants,
- attacked an independent judiciary and
- extolled an “Italians first” nation.
A federal Europe remains a chimera, even if the euro crisis revealed the need for budgetary integration. Bannon’s vision of Brussels bureaucrats devouring national identity for breakfast is largely a straw-man argument, useful for making the European Union the focus of all 21st-century angst.
The union has delivered peace and stability. It’s the great miracle of the second half of the 20th century; no miracle ever marketed itself so badly. It has also suffered from ideological exhaustion, remoteness, division and the failure to agree on an effective shared immigration policy — opening the way for Salvini’s salvos to hit home in a country that is the first stop for many African migrants.
Salvini grew up in Milan in a middle-class family, dropped out of university, joined the League in its early days in the 1990s and was shaped by years working at Radio Padania where he would listen to Italians’ gripes. “What he heard was complaints about immigrants, Europe, the rich,” Emanuele Fiano, a center-left parliamentarian, told me. “He’s run with that and is now borderline dangerous.”
The danger is not exit from the European Union — the government has come to its senses over that — or some Fascist reincarnation. It’s what Fabrizio Barca, a former minister for territorial cohesion, called the “Orbanization of the country,” in a reference to Viktor Orban, the right-wing Hungarian leader. In other words, insidious domination through the evisceration of independent checks and balances, leading Salvini to the kind of stranglehold on power enjoyed by Orban (with a pat on the back from Trump) or by Vladimir Putin. “The European Union has been ineffective against Orban,” Barca noted. Worse, it has been feckless.
Another threat, as in Trump’s United States, is of moral collapse. “I am not a Fascist but. …” is a phrase increasingly heard in Italy, with some positive judgment on Mussolini to round off the sentence. Salvini, in the judgment of Claudio Gatti, whose book “The Demons of Salvini” was just published in Italian, is “post-Fascist” — he refines many of its methods for a 21st-century audience.
Barca told me the abandonment of rural areas — the closing of small hospitals, marginal train lines, high schools — lay behind Salvini’s rise. Almost 65 percent of Italian land and perhaps 25 percent of its population have been affected by these cuts. “Rural areas and the peripheries, the places where people feel like nobody, are home to the League and Five Star,” he said. To the people there, Salvini declares: I will defend you. He does not offer a dream. He offers protection — mainly against the concocted threat of migrants, whose numbers were in fact plummeting before he took office because of an agreement reached with Libya.
The great task before the parties of the center-left and center-right that will most likely be battered in this election is to reconnect. They must restore a sense of recognition to the forgotten of globalization. Pedro Sánchez, the socialist Spanish prime minister, just won an important electoral victory after pushing through a 22 percent rise in the minimum wage, the largest in Spain in 40 years. There’s a lesson there. The nationalist backlash is powerful, but pro-European liberal sentiment is still stronger. If European elections feel more important, it’s also because European identity is growing.
As for the curiously prescient Italian political laboratory, Bannon is investing in it. He’s established an “Academy for the Judeo-Christian West” in a 13th-century monastery outside Rome. Its courses, he told me, will include “history, aesthetics and just plain instruction in how to get stuff done, including facing up to pressure, mock TV interviews with someone from CNN or The Guardian ripping your face off.”
Bannon described himself as an admirer of George Soros — “his methods, not his ideology” — and the way Soros had built up “cadres” throughout Europe. The monastery is the nationalist response to Soros’s liberalism. There’s a war of ideas going on in Italy and the United States. To shun the fight is to lose it. I am firmly in the liberal camp, but to win it helps to know and strive to understand one’s adversary.
And a backlash against liberals — a backlash that most liberals don’t seem to realize they’re causing — is going to get President Trump re-elected.
People often vote against things instead of voting for them: against ideas, candidates and parties. Democrats, like Republicans, appreciate this whenever they portray their opponents as negatively as possible. But members of political tribes seem to have trouble recognizing that they, too, can push people away and energize them to vote for the other side. Nowhere is this more on display today than in liberal control of the commanding heights of American culture.
.. Liberals dominate the entertainment industry, many of the most influential news sources and America’s universities. This means that people with progressive leanings are everywhere in the public eye — and are also on the college campuses attended by many people’s children or grandkids. These platforms come with a lot of power to express values, confer credibility and celebrity and start national conversations that others really can’t ignore.
But this makes liberals feel more powerful than they are. Or, more accurately, this kind of power is double-edged. Liberals often don’t realize how provocative or inflammatory they can be. In exercising their power, they regularly not only persuade and attract but also annoy and repel.
In fact, liberals may be more effective at causing resentment than in getting people to come their way. I’m not talking about the possibility that jokes at the 2011 correspondents’ association dinner may have pushed Mr. Trump to run for president to begin with. I mean that the “army of comedy” that Michael Moore thought would bring Mr. Trump down will instead be what builds him up in the minds of millions of voters.
.. Some liberals have gotten far out ahead of their fellow Americans but are nonetheless quick to criticize those who haven’t caught up with them.
.. Liberals denounce “cultural appropriation” without, in many cases, doing the work of persuading people that there is anything wrong with, say, a teenager not of Chinese descent wearing a Chinese-style dress to prom or eating at a burrito cart run by two non-Latino women.
.. Pressing a political view from the Oscar stage, declaring a conservative campus speaker unacceptable, flatly categorizing huge segments of the country as misguided — these reveal a tremendous intellectual and moral self-confidence that smacks of superiority. It’s one thing to police your own language and a very different one to police other people’s. The former can set an example. The latter is domineering.
.. This judgmental tendency became stronger during the administration of President Barack Obama, though not necessarily because of anything Mr. Obama did. Feeling increasingly emboldened, liberals were more convinced than ever that conservatives were their intellectual and even moral inferiors.
.. college campuses — which many take to be what a world run by liberals would look like — seemed increasingly intolerant of free inquiry.
.. It was during these years that the University of California included the phrase “America is the land of opportunity” on a list of discouraged microaggressions.
.. Champions of inclusion can watch what they say and explain what they’re doing without presuming to regulate what words come out of other people’s mouths. Campus activists can allow invited visitors to speak and then, after that event, hold a teach-in discussing what they disagree with. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that states had to allow same-sex marriage, the fight, in some quarters, turned to pizza places unwilling to cater such weddings. Maybe don’t pick that fight?
.. Liberals can act as if they’re not so certain — and maybe actually not be so certain — that bigotry motivates people who disagree with them on issues like immigration.
.. Without sacrificing their principles, liberals can come across as more respectful of others. Self-righteousness is rarely attractive, and even more rarely rewarded.
.. many liberals seem primed to write off nearly half the country as irredeemable.
.. But it is an unjustified leap to conclude that anyone who supports him in any way is racist, just as it would be a leap to say that anyone who supported Hillary Clinton was racist because she once made veiled references to “superpredators.”
Liberals are trapped in a self-reinforcing cycle. When they use their positions in American culture to lecture, judge and disdain, they push more people into an opposing coalition that liberals are increasingly prone to think of as deplorable. That only validates their own worst prejudices about the other America.
In modern Russia, the administration is comfortable using lies to muddle their people. If you push out several completely contradictory stories, the truth becomes buried, or at least discredited along with the other clearly untrue stories. If you make an effort to shed doubt on the news outlets, NGOs, and individuals who use facts to show when a statement is demonstrably untrue then it becomes harder for people to settle on one single statement as being true, in amongst a series of statements that are not. People are naturally inclined to trust authority, so when the government makes an official statement it carries weight against an individual or single news outlet.
This approach was perfected under Communism, especially Stalinism. At various points, whilst millions were starving, industry and the economy were collapsing, even up to the denial and then underplaying of the Chernobyl disaster, the government would state that reality was one way, when it was really the complete opposite. Audacious lies are harder to deal with than small ones.
.. Currently, when the Russian government denies something that is demonstrably true, or makes a statement that can be proven not to be true, there can be a number of reasons why they do this.
1. Telling a lie because you believe it
Putin is notoriously cut off from the world. He does not use the Internet, and receives very short briefings from a close circle of people around him. Those people are unlikely to want to upset him, or contradict him. Being surrounded by people who depend on your favour to remain in position, or even remain alive, means you increasingly get less and less real information. It becomes an extreme version of the echo chambers we’re all becoming trapped in by Social Media algorithms.
.. under Stalin the KGB was brilliant at collecting intelligence, but useless at analysing it. When people reported intelligence that was counter to the world view of Stalin, they generally ended up dead. So increasingly the intelligence was edited, or mis-interpreted to support the existing set of beliefs of the leader.
So it is possible, and some pundits suggest this, that Putin actually believes the world view the Russian government expresses through its propaganda, much as Stalin’s Russia really believed the country was riddled with foreign spies, and was at constant threat of invasion — assumptions that history have shown us were completely wrong.
With Trump we have to consider some assumptions. He has been rich and powerful for a long time. Therefore, he is likely to have been surrounded by yes-men who only enforce his world view and opinions rather than challenging them. He does not brush shoulders with reality on a daily basis, living the life of a billionaire. He also does not read, and watches a very narrow spectrum of media. Now he is President he is even more cut off from the world, and instead of taking advantage of a state machinery that could leave him amongst the best informed people in the world, he has eschewed Intelligence briefings, and other input from independent sources.
.. It would be fair to say that Trump is not highly educated, well read, or particularly well informed. This applies to most of his Cabinet, which is noticeably unqualified and poorly educated.
.. On top of this many of them are religious fundamentalists, which clouds their interpretation of facts with an ideology that is not open to challenges. The same applied to Stalinist Russia, when the Communist ideology came before facts and could over-rule them.
2. Telling a lie aimed only at your core constituency
Another way to interpret Trump’s lies are to conclude that he knows they are not true, and he knows we know they are not true, but that they are not aimed at us.
When the Russian government claims, for example, that it is clear a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down the MH17 passenger plane over Ukraine, it’s possible they know that we know this is not true. But the lie was told to foreign media like the BBC so that it can be played back to their own people in Russia and used to undermine reports of evidence that it was a Russian army missile that brought the plane down. They don’t care that we know it isn’t true, because the message is not for us. It is for their own people, and for those confused enough to have their belief in the official investigation findings undermined by a bare faced lie.
In effect, the messages are broadcast to everyone, but only one specific audience matters.
.. So with Trump, when he says the New York Times is failing, he may not care that we all know that is a blatant lie — factually not true. He could just be speaking to his core voters, whom he knows will not see any counter argument and may believe him. It is important to him that they don’t trust any media that will criticise him.
.. The same applies to his claim that Obama tapped his phones. He may know that most people will realise this is nonsense. But that core of people who only get news from Breitbart, and believe the conspiracies, will also believe this one about Obama. That in turn helps him undermine any findings in the future from investigations into his links with Russia.
If he can undermine the media that will broadcast this, and sew seeds of a conspiracy against him, he can blur any negative news about his links with Russia.
.. If this means his Tweeting is just aimed at securing that base of core voters, his Twitter feed seems slightly less insane.
.. he is able to take advantage of the echo chamber of the Trump constituency.
.. They are not trying to convince anyone new to get behind their narrative, they are just securing the narrative amongst those who already follow them.
3. Telling lies to undermine Truth
Kasaparov summed it up well in this Tweet:
“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
Once truth is an undermined currency, as the Soviet Union proved, people give up caring altogether. People knew things were not true, but knowing that made no difference, and saying so was dangerous, so they stopped engaging with truth or facts.
The liberal media and Democrat politicians are talking about reaching the point where Trump’s core voters, the white working class, realise he has conned them. It is assumed that once they lose their healthcare, do not gain jobs, and see the Swamp ever more swamp-like, they will rebel and vote against him.
.. But if Trump can ensure they do not believe facts shared by the media, and do believe lies propagated by him and his supporters, then they may never realise they were conned, and may not that see things are not as good as promised. Or they will believe it is outside forces, not Trump. Blaming Obama for everything is laying the ground for that
.. In Russia, the government blames America, the EU, NATO, Russian liberals, or any other outside force for the demise of their economy, the loss of civil liberties, and indeed anything bad. Putin and the Administration are never to blame.
.. Trump will say that unemployment is up, even when data shows it is down. He will claim any success as his, and will blame China, Obama, the Democrats, or others for any failures. If that does not work, he will just rubbish any news that undermines him.
.. a natural skill of his, or whether it is a clever strategy of his advisors
.. the people around him are already skilled in manipulation of the truth. Paul Manafort advised former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych
.. Manafort will have become very well versed in Russian style manipulation of Truth through this work and will have taught Trump these lessons when he was his advisor. Then
Bannon ran Breitbart, which makes a business of manipulating the truth, and outright lying.
.. If within a few years a large swathe of the country either believes the Trump messaging, or does not trust the mainstream media, or thinks the Democrats are evil and corrupt, or just does not know what is true or not anymore, then Trump stands a chance of a second term regardless of how his first term goes.
.. To survive: read Russian novels like Master and Margherita
.. When you hear Trump lie, pause to ask yourself which type of lie it might be.