An Unfortunate Guide to Manipulation in the New American Wasteland

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There are all kinds of beginnings. Mediocre and miraculous and generally shitty. This is one of those. It’s probably the shitty one. I have literally been paralyzed from writing much of anything for a long time. The political climate of the previous 18 months left me so befuddled that writing seemed an impossible luxury. I am basically a droid constructed for dissemination now bereft of voice, left to kind of shamble around the New American Wasteland gesticulating wildly while devoid of context.

The coffer was empty, creatively and metaphorically. I haven’t been paid by a publication since September of 2016. Luckily, outdoor writers get paid in jelly beans, so I’ve lost a shit-ton of weight. Anyway, this article is probably going to suck. Choppy. Meandering. Hacky. And yet. The joints have been oiled once more. This is my beginning.

Let’s talk about something that is not “beginning.” It’s been stuck in my craw for months now, especially since some state assembly folks in California are right now chomping at the bit to fashion new laws in order to keep us stupid folk on the up and up. Fake news. As Politico recently noted, fake news has been churning up the dirge since the printing press was invented in 1439.  Surely, War of the Worlds-type broadcasts are unlikely to cause Ecuadorean mass hysteria any time soon. However, a void of truthfulness and thoughtfulness yawns wide in our present time, a deep bucket from which us stupid folk feast upon partisan chum.

Both Democrats and Republicans share responsibility for the dissemination of rampant spin and myth, as well as internet writers lacking any semblance of moral insight or personal ethics. These rabble rousers for hire lurch about our digital society as more poachers than journalists, feeding upon the weak and eager in a wasteland far too vast to safeguard. Even the so-called “Mainstream Media” can’t escape the perils of at least fake-ish news. Ironically, many news mills share something in common with most of our esteemed politicians. They work on the assumption that their readers/constituents are too lazy, dumb and apathetic to question their motives and reasoning. They operate within the principle, rightly so, that we can’t dump the Cheetos from our mitts to write an op-ed or make a congressional call.

In any case, this shitty rant isn’t about fake news. Our problems do not stem from that vast pool of calumny. Probably never have.

Articles have been written, especially a riveting piece by Lauren Duca in Teen Vogue, about the modern gaslighting of America by Donald Trump and his gang of propagandists (all politicians hire them…let’s call them what they are). Gaslighting, as I’m sure we all know by now, is the manipulation of events and situations in order to cause a feeling of insanity in another person. We’ve definitely got a gaslighty sort of vibe humming in America right now. Magical thinking in every political riff on the tube, it seems, donkeys and elephants alike. Duca’s article resonates deeply, no doubt. Yet…I don’t quite buy that’s what’s at play deep within the bowels of Trump Tower.

Alright, fuck it. Let’s talk about Donald Trump. *High fives* Trump, in my estimation, is neither astute nor inventive enough to gaslight America. Gaslighting demands a deep and long-term plan carried out patiently and with diligence in order to arrive at a future destination. Trump, as I think most folks would admit, sorta lacks patience. And restraint…Trumpian Restraint is not running into the middle of 5th Ave and shooting a hipster in the face. Although on his way to his 71st birthday, he leaps from outrage to outrage, a petulant brat Tweeting grievances you could set a watch to. He neither remembers yesterday’s forgeries nor foresees the mendacities to come. Gaslighting isn’t perversely headlining the Birther Movement on NBC morning shows for years (shame, NBC). No; gaslighting takes planning, discipline and months of calm silence and observation. But, he’s got something else up his sleeve equally efficient and much more ancient.

*

I once worked as a counsellor at an alternative high school/prison, trying to help and mentor but mostly pulling guard duty for 14-22 year old kids adjudicated of crimes ranging from gangbanging and arson to attempted murder and rape. Although the most grueling time of my life, I learned one important lesson. I learned how to spot manipulation. Raw, visceral and especially casual manipulation.

Most often, a troubling portion of the youth I worked with employed a brand of manipulation meant to highlight my flaws and especially my fears, which were legion for the first number of weeks at the facility. They demanded conversation in their rooms (kind of like a dorm room with impenetrable windows) rather than in the huge common area, a tactic meant to put me on their turf. A tactic meant to weaken my position of power. They almost always feigned ignorance, or “played dumb,” when confronted with a failed obligation or shirked duty, a ploy meant to both confuse and lead me to take on or forgive their prescribed duties. They also assumed a stance of victimhood so extreme that I thought I’d never encounter it again. Well… They imagined health scares, affected physical weakness when it suited them or knitted together a vast assault by employees, teachers and fellow students/inmates. Simply stated, they utilized a manipulating, guilt-baiting tactic meant to serve their agendas at the cost of anyone in their way. The list goes on. I eventually quit because I couldn’t handle it, but not before I graduated with a master’s degree in manipulation.

Negative psychological manipulation is a tool employed by hustlers, sociopaths and damn near anyone else who lacks human empathy while lusting for power above purpose. It’s a type of societal influence intended to pervert the beliefs and behavior of others by way of deceitful and serpentine gambits. It is the cudgel of the disingenuous. The Swiss Army Knife of the bully. The trade-in-stock of power-hungry sociopaths.

Although Trump lacks the mental acuity necessary to gaslight an entire nation, he and his propagandists deal heavily in psychological manipulation. They twist obvious truths into meandrous vagrancies until actuality is lost so deeply in a labyrinth of no design that finding one’s way to daylight becomes the challenge rather than focusing on what was ever true in the first place. He’s not aiming for insanity; why worry about causing lunacy in a lot he believes already dim-witted (hence his “5th Ave” statement and many others)? His goal is to bury veracity so deeply in obfuscation and nonsense that worrying about the truth becomes secondary to the visceral anxiety of worrying over how you got into the labyrinth in the first place.

This manipulation of facts and accuracy involves neither foresight nor meditation. Don Quixote charged at windmills with little more than a vision of his own making needling into his brain like a weed’s root system. So it is with Trump. His vast solipsism holds him hostage to such a degree that he believes a challenge to his worldview is a literal fracturing of his id and insanely inflated self-image. Thus, in crisis mode, he pulls a card from the deep bullying ethos and activates a rampage of demagogic manipulation aimed at obliterating the seed of truth. His mental gesticulations become louder and more profound the further they get from the truth until the only defense left for us stupid folk is forearms raised before forehead, an attitude meant to take the knife anywhere other than directly in the kisser. It’s the beserker attack of the coward, the master manipulator. It’s the onslaught of the broken egoist who demands you take the risks and the bruises so he never has to. Indeed, the propaganda machine revving to a fever pitch, our gilded President-Elect sits aloft the New York skyline Tweeting grievances largely imagined and rarely factual as regular Americans the nation over confer a phalanx of protection in the streets below.

Trump is a prime example of a master propagandist who, while on stage, incites his unfortunately tagged “deplorables” and, when off stage, celebrates and marvels at the manic frenzy his exhortation has triggered. Unlike the master propagandists of the recent past, from Fredrich Engels to Joseph McCarthy, Trump seems to not exhibit the unending zealotry usually necessitated to cobble together a populist movement (it’s up for debate if these historical propagandists exhibited any true core zealotry). Really, what sets him aside as a unique propagandist is his deft hand at manipulating the modern, minute-to-minute fluidity of the news cycle, hands churning away on Twitter in an effort to daze the public from a constant onslaught of negative media (usually of his own making).

Behind Trump, always eager to enter the fray, stands his army of spinning influencers, from Steve Bannon to the almost transcendentally “doublethinking” Kelly Anne Conway (another example of a master propagandist for hire who exhibits not exactly zealotry but an intense devotion to doing her job as instructed; one might assume she could spin equally masterfully for the NFL or McCracken’s Removable Partial Prosthodontics). Surely, a legion more work in the shadows in order to keep Trump’s manipulation empire functioning in tandem with his ever-evolving perceived slights, grudges and victimhood.

Undeniably, Trump skillfully employs his own imagined victimization as an endearment to his masses. A billionaire real estate tycoon living aloft in a gold-flecked paradise finding allies in lower-middle class, uneducated white men only adds to the notion of the gaslighting of America, as it’s logically insurmountable to fully square that romance. However, by exploiting the propaganda of his public relations squads, his own victim-centric furor and a general political cynicism run amok, Trump steps into a sweet spot of manipulating millions upon millions of breathless apostles. He provides a target to which they may guide their rage and disenfranchisement. During the primaries/election they gathered in the thousands to celebrate the launching of their “movement” because victimization in isolation is an uncomfortable place to exist. Trump’s offered a salve to this disquietude.

Trump fashions his manipulating message through a lens of “nefarious” news brokers, thus placing himself squarely as a victim of media bias. In the real world, good journalism is no friend of politicians, instead taking them to task and challenging their world views. As Mark Crispin Miller writes, “…the investigative journalist is the propagandist’s natural enemy, as the former serves the public interest, while the latter tends to work against it.” But Trump cannot abide this truth and still retain the manipulation of the masses upon which he relies. He cannot be held accountable for his actions and concurrently demand the visage of the victim unfairly attacked from a battalion of pointy-headed intellectuals. And so he marches on, a man unfairly questioned for his Tweets, an iconoclast queried for his scuttling of our institutions. A regular fella unfairly challenged while simply trying to Make America Great Again…after 70 fantastically affluent years devoid of public service but rife with endless litigation, infidelity, conspiracy theory and victimization.

No, Donald Trump isn’t setting the lights to flicker in the hallways of the nation as us stupid folk wail in horror at our receding scruples. It’s not that delicate. The plan just isn’t that intricate. The Donald is just another in a long, unceasing line of manipulating propagandists hucking wares from a tinker’s cart brimming with populist, demagogic bullshit.

*

So, how can a nation more than half-full of anxious wasteland dwellers defeat such an adroit and vainglorious manipulator? I don’t altogether know. I only know what I learned in those cold dormitories trying to counsel kids who’d made terrible decisions. Yes, it calcified me in some ways. This new American Wasteland will calcify many more of us. Nonetheless, I have some advice, which I desperately whisper to myself during these unsettling pre-election days.

Violently reject reticence. Silence in the face of manipulation equals not only abdication but permission. Fight back in whatever small way available to you. I’m doing it in a stupid, no account blog. And speak up, fer chrissakes. Never let the manipulator rant without rejoinder. Challenge that which smells funky.

Relentlessly criticize the manipulator. Alpha males (in this case) grow visibly uncomfortable when faced with aspersions and brickbats. Find Trump’s faults and transgressions and tirelessly needle them, in as truthful and candid a way as possible. Never acquiesce in your appraisals. Keep up a constant commentary of diagnostic disassembly.

Demand truth above all else, of Trump, the party of your choice, the media, et al. Propaganda, in its very essence, is a squirming line of disinformation meant to entangle and mislead. Do not allow it. Demand straight answers and demand them loud. Your telephone is connected to every congressional office in the United States. Use it to exact as simple a truth as is available.

Penultimately, we must continually replenish our psychic, intellectual and communal gas tanks. Visit with neighbors, friends and strangers. Learn from them as much as you can. Yes, I’ve been called a “libtard…trying to destroy America from the inside out” and much, much worse. I’m not made of glass and neither are you. Stay calm and keep bouncing ideas around. Seek to build community where the digital and political landscape covets disjointed acrimony. Speak politely and without antipathy to those who disagree with you (yes, I see the irony; I don’t consider Trump a part of any politeness rubric). That tactic doesn’t make you weak. It makes you a sympathetic human. My father didn’t offer up many nuggets of wisdom, but he did say one thing time and again when I felt frustrated or enraged as a young man. “Kill them with kindness,” he’d say, pulling a sip of beer. “It doesn’t mean you lose the battle.”

And fight. If the ‘60s taught us nothing more, grassroots movements – passionate and resolute – reap enormous fruit of modest seed. Don Quixote ushered in the end of the chivalrous era with his delirious death. But we’re not the ones jousting at windmills. We see clearly and without delusion. We’re the ones ready to charge. And our target, as much as we’d hope otherwise, stands directly in front of us.

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3 Comments

Charlotte

Great stuff. Thanks for the insights on manipulation.

Funny you should mention War of the Worlds. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my grandmother, and one of my favorite stories my dad told about her. The night of that broadcast, my father, then 18, was listening to the radio in the kitchen with growing alarm. My grandmother, OTOH, finally slammed down her mending, stormed across the room, and snapped the radio off, saying “What a load of bullshit!”

She may have been what we’d consider a typical Trump voter – an uneducated farmer’s wife. But she’d lived through the Depression and didn’t suffer fools gladly. I think she would have seen Trump for exactly what he is, and called him out for it. I intend to carry on that battle not only for myself, my family and my country, but for her, and for her sons, who fought facism in Europe. The fight continues. No bullshit.

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Dave McAllister

Wow, Charlotte, what a badass story. Your mom and mine would have gotten along like gangsters. Suffering fools lightly…Saint Paul, Republicans would be wise to remember, spoke truthfully…

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Andrew Chebuhar

You make some great points about how Trump is a master manipulator. But how can what Engels did compare to Joseph Mccarthy? Engels was just an analyst and theorist. He might be right about some things and wrong about others. But how was he a master manipulator?

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