By Penny Smith

Edward Bernays, Propaganda. New York, 1928.

Yep, that’s right, this is a book originally published in 1928, but it continues to be in print, because the message is so prescient. I had heard about it, read summaries, but hadn’t read the whole thing until this past week.

Bernays is a name all politically inclined Americans should know. He was chosen one of the 100 most influential people in the 20th-century (Life magazine) and, at his death, was proclaimed “the father of public relations.” However, a more accurate description can be divined from the title of his biography: The Father of Spin. Republican tacticians are all familiar with the words of Bernays.

Member of an immigrant family, Bernays graduated from Cornell with a degree in agriculture. However, he sought a career in journalism, writing first for the National Nurseryman. He worked for a time as a press agent for New York celebrities, then was hired, at the start of World War I, to work for the Committee on Public Information. It was there he encountered Walter Lippman, who became a lifelong influence, and the idea of manipulating mass opinion on a grand scale. Bernays never looked back. Psychological warfare could translate, he believed, into domestic persuasion.

Propaganda is a distillation of some of the lessons learned and applied after the war. Here, for those of you who are stout of heart, is how he begins:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country.

We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is the logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.

No squeamishness there, only full transparency. We’re ruled by a group of people we don’t know, operating behind a Harry Potter cloak of invisibility. There’s a democracy, but little freedom. Now on a grand philosophical scale, I can attest to some truth in such an assertion, but in the more mundane world of the day-to-day in which most of us live, it’s an open invitation to a life I don’t much want.

Consider some of his observations and see if they don’t conjure up Fox News and the Tea Party:

  •  human desires are the steam which makes the social machine work.
  •  the business man and advertising man is realizing that he must not discard entirely the methods of Barnum in reaching the public.
  •  no serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group of leaders in whom it believes … it is composed of the inherited prejudices and symbols and clichés and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders.
  •  political campaigns today are all sideshows, all honors, all bombast, glitter and speeches.
  •  the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts, it has impulses, habits and emotions. In making up its mind, its first impulse is usually to follow the example of a trusted leader
  •  when the example of the leader is not at hand and the herd must think for itself, it does so by means of clichés, pat words or images which stand for a whole group of ideas or experiences.

Bernays’ Propaganda is all about messaging. Once he convinces you that we are but multiple puppets of a small group of message-makers, he then takes you on a tour of how those leaders can message effectively. We become a Manchurian Nation, brainwashed, because that is the only way a complex, multi-dimensional society can function.

And that’s a good thing, Bernays contends. He’s convinced that the ethical code to which all manipulators “surely” subscribe will mean that they will manipulate us only in ways that are for our own good and, incidentally, for commercial profit. And the guy is persuasive, if only because so much of what he recommends can be found in the successful American Tobacco Company’s attacks on tobacco critics and the campaigns of oil refiners on climate change claimers.

Donald Trump is a master of P.T. Barnum bunkum. He sees the world in terms of products and customers; his task is to sell himself, the Trump Brand. He does a pretty good job of selling, too – understanding the appeal of mass media, of mass meetings, of repeated and simple messaging, of association and symbols.

He knows how to discredit competing message machines (fake news organizations), competing messengers (lying Democrats), and competing messages (it’s “a witch hunt,” not an investigation!). The man runs a pretty good circus. There are reasons he periodically schedules mass love-ins with his most ardent followers, even though we are not in the midst of a campaign season: (1) lots of free publicity and coverage watched by loyal minions unable to travel to the event; (2) re-stir and thus restore emotions, particularly fears; (3) show how big and enthusiastic the bandwagon is those viewers can join; (4) promote a controlled message; and (5) divert attention from something potentially important to his rally, to the hubbub, the hue and cry, the greatest show on earth. There’s a whole lot The Donald doesn’t know, but he knows enough Bernays to be in office.

Do we know enough Bernays to vote him out? I’m not sure.