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Lesson 581 Words Matter

Yes, words really do matter... especially when they show a consistency over an entire lifetime. Sometimes they establish integrity and reliability. And sometimes they warn us of a potential tyrant.

Trump always substituted lies for his lack of knowledge. His language was always self-centered. His constant demand for loyalty was never reciprocal. His attacks on the news media were frequent. He made personal attacks on adversaries, even on his most loyal staff. He discriminated against minorities in many ways, and made it clear he preferred the white majority. Following his success hosting reality TV, he easily adapted and used entertainment-driven babble at his campaign rallies.

More recently he attacked people like John McCain and the Pope, apparently to make the point that he could get away with it much as he bragged about shooting someone in the street. He used words and references that encouraged white supremacists to feel empowered. He used outlandish daily tweets to get attention, dominate headlines, and create chaos. Before the election, he gutted the mail service and attacked mail-in ballots even though they had been used successfully for a long time. He charged that the election would be rigged by the Democrats, and tried to make it difficult for black people to vote. After he lost the election, he claimed it was stolen from him and continued to do so long after his claims were denied by the courts. He never lost his followers through all this, proving that repeated lies begin to sound true. As a last resort he challenged his followers to come to Washington to help him take their nation back. He ordered those who showed up to go the Capitol and did not call them off when the mob got out of control.

Most who participated in the siege were adamant that the election was stolen from Trump and that it could be overturned. Some thought it would give their career a boost if Trump won again in 2024. And it’s difficult to know what members of conspiracy groups, individual extremists, and militant militias were really thinking. Did they have something much bigger in mind for themselves? Only time will tell.

The combination of social media dynamics with Trump’s deceitful words and bombastic shouts have resulted in a tragic loss of truth. Make no mistake, the rule of law requires knowing the truth about everything… and so does democracy. Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, and all other autocracies, have already lost it. Now we must do whatever it takes to reject the possibility of an autocracy and save our sacred democracy.

Social media empowers extremists

Hopes that these new tools would make society work better quickly melted away. Instead, lies, conspiracies, and personal attacks, became commonplace. Too many people no longer trusted experts, became confused about facts, and began to rely on information sources that reinforced what they wanted to believe.

What’s more, social media enabled a reality TV show host without character or ethics to become president… and to turn his long-demonstrated autocratic methods into a very large cult following. He told us both in words and deeds exactly who he was… but too many chose to ignore it.

Traditional news organizations, committed to finding and reporting truth, quickly found their influence declining. Some saw opportunities for commercial success. As a result, many television networks turned their anchors into stars, reduced hard news content, added more commercials, and increased “happy talk” segments. All this, while white supremacists and anarchists were using social media to become leaders inside their own violence-prone tribes.

Other news organization found commercial success by becoming a mouthpiece for a president whose tweeted rants helped increase their ratings. Ambitious politicians also were finding that weaponizing social media could be a pathway to satisfying their thirst for power. Former Republican leaders found the president’s autocracy preferences acceptable… especially when it put them close to power.

At the same time, foreign governments were using the Internet to disrupt societies and influence elections. Tragically, the U.S. President and others found that they could use this to their advantage. So Russia and other foreign governments began to increase efforts to generate confusion and social division… as well as to support the election of their favorite candidate.

Dictators love the Internet. We learned this with vivid clarity from a seditious attack on the U.S. Capitol… incited by the U.S. President, supported by his base, and led by known anarchists and Republicans who were willing to trade their dignity for visions of taking over control of the country.

In general, communication became so difficult in this social media-shaped and information-saturated world that we cannot count on journalists and other media professionals to advance our democratic republic for us. Rather, we must rely on public service-driven political leaders and their supporters to do that. Our next president therefore has a huge challenge ahead… and he will need all the help from us he can get.

With Trump’s recent erratic behavior, it is very important to examine why his following remains so high. My investigation suggests five reasons:

  1. Trump’s early base were people angry with the extreme polarization in Washington. They had needs that were not being addressed, and quickly supported a person who promised to fix them. When he did not, they stayed loyal because his rallies continued to be entertaining, they didn’t see an easy political alternative, and destroying the bureaucracy in Washington always was appealing to them.
  2. There were also those people who said they liked his policies but hated his tactics. They benefited personally from a strong stock market, enjoyed Trump’s tax breaks, and possibly were associated with businesses that benefited from massive degulation.
  3. Still others saw career advances for themseves simply by pledging loyalty. Being close to power was thrilling for them, and the idea of being part of an autocracy was of no personal concern.
  4. Republicans in Congress quickly climbed onboard because they were like-minded. They represented far right districts at home and feared becoming the focus of Trump’s tweets. They were also worried about the violence of some Trump supporters. Therefore, it was not difficult to overlook his cruelty and the chaos produced by his daily tweets.
  5. Some have also found a strong racism dimension to Trump’s success. His obvious racism attracted other racists. But just as important, mainstream white people very likely let previously surpressed worries about minorities changing their neighborhoods effect their voting. And with job priorities and other benefits appearing to favor minorities, their voting also could have been influenced by feelings of resentment.

So here are two big questions about the future: Does Trump’s huge following indicate that he could get elected again as America’s first dictator? Or is it more likely that with this base of voters already in place, another control-obsessed politician who is more experienced in government, knows American history, understands international issues, sees no need for outspoken experts, and is still fairly likable, could get elected in 2024?

This much is very clear: Democracy post-Trump is not a sure thing… even in America.

President Biden’s goal must be to overwhelm whatever noise others are releasing to disrupt his program agenda. Here is a proposed White House media organizing scheme for Biden to consider:

  1. Identity messaging. A small number of identity message points should be ready immediately to use as a part of speeches and official statements… beginning with “individual freedom, human rights, and equal justice.” Whatever is decided at the outset, however, can be fine-tuned or reshaped based on community focus-group outcomes.
  2. Community focus-groups. Professionally facilitated focus-groups should be held in targeted communities around the country to review branding message points, clarify issues, and identify needed actions. Opinion leaders should be selected to participate from civic, political, law enforcement, and social service organizations. Reports from these groups should be made public and used to fine-tune or modify the branding points.
  3. Media monitoring. A small group should be selected from the communication and media staff to monitor how mainstream reporters and social media platforms are describing the White House. They should circulate their findings to the full staff everyday, along with their recommendations if responses seem required.
  4. White House press conferences. Daily press conferences should be restored, with regular appearances from the President, cabinet members, and government agency heads. Truth and transparency must guide every statement.
  5. Social media team. A special team of social media experts should be formed to constantly bombard and dominate the media landscape with carefully shaped identity-reinforcing messages.
  6. Journalist relationships. Building relationships with key news reporters and TV anchors should be in the job descriptions of the senior communication and media professionals in the White House. This should include get-acquainted lunches… followed by occasional telephone “off-the-record” conversations.
  7. Integrated marketing task-force. A high-level communication and marketing monitoring task-force should be established with White House cabinet and government agency representation. This kind of group should meet regularly to evaluate the effectiveness of current branding messages, anticipate crises and issues, and brainstorm needed new strategic initiatives.

Important questions remain: Will Trump’s “twitter-noise” and vindictiveness harm Biden’s overall support? What will be the consequences between now and January 20th? Will mainstream journalists continue to report Trump antics as important news?

Strong institutions inside and outside government are the foundation of democracies. They provide essential stability when democracies are threatened. Thus, most wannabe autocrats gut their government institutions of experts first, and then attack the major external ones in ways that make them struggle to survive. Autocrats believe they should make all decisions, at home and abroad.

People who want to study issues, policies, and ways to use their findings, find their way into government institutions, such as the FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, and many more. They become the nation’s expert public service professionals. Others find leadership roles outside government in universities, thinktanks, nonprofits, charities, associations, etc. They provide stability in the American democratic system.

Our country has been going through a brutal attack on its’ democracy. Much damage to government institutions has been done. The state department, defense department, FBI, CIA have all been gutted. Outside government, higher education effectiveness is under fire, for-profit colleges are being supported with tax dollars, and nonprofits everywhere are fighting for their very survival.

A new White House will need to build more than a state-of-the-art communication and media unit. It will also need to rebuild the decimated government institutions and empower them to begin advising, and acting where needed. It will also need to reestablish proper verbal and financial support for America’s vital nongovernment public service institutions.

In addition to gutting essential institutions, the legitimacy of the recent election has also been under attack… clearly with building a family-run autocracy in mind. Many conservative republicans either are imagining benefits for themselves, or are in fear for their safety if they criticize. As a result, we have an entire political party appearing to support a wannabe dictatorship… a situation which would destroy our democracy.

The future danger goes far beyond the continuing noise of disgruntled politicians. The real danger is that our next wannabe dictator will know more American history, be more knowledgeable of foreign policy issues and challenges, and already have followers that will happily provide loyalty to a royal family. To protect ourselves, the best insurance policy we can buy is to build back all those critically important governmental and nongovernmental institutions.

In this 24/7 cable news-dominated world, people everywhere are concluding that America’s democratic-republic experiment is simply not working. And the President’s recent erratic behavior is adding to that perception.

The current chaos must indeed be music to the ears of Russian, North Korean, Chinese, and Iranian autocrats who have been using social media to disrupt everyone’s confidence in America’s political system. Right now we are definitely vulnerable to both violent and cyber attacks… inside and outside our country.

Up until recently the simple “idea of America” has functioned as our promise that the country’s political leaders will always champion equal opportunity, justice, and human rights for everyone. Although their methods were not always uniformly effective, overall we have been able to demonstrate that like-minded allies working together will gradually be able to make the world more peaceful. The current White House, however, will be leaving our founder’s “democratic-republic” badly fractured.

To fix the damage, President Biden’s new communication team will need to have strategic and brand identity messages ready on day-one to rebuild national unity and reestablish world leadership. These identity messages must guide all official speeches and statements, and undergird all daily releases. And in order to dominate daily news headlines, this team will need to include a group of top-of-their-game Internet and social media professionals.

Some have criticized Obama’s book as being too long, and this is only Volume I. Another criticism has been that he goes on and on with too much detail about decisions that were made before and after his election. But I must say I am finding that detail fascinating and informative.

I am only half way through, but I am already learning how important it is for a president to know much of the nation’s history; have a deep knowledge of domestic and foreign policy issues; choose only top experts for key positions; be willing to read and study critical briefing books every day; and be ready to put in the 12 to 16 hour days it takes to lead a nation.

In ancient Greece Plato proposed that “philosopher kings” were needed to lead governments. He was concerned that incompetent politicians might be chosen for high office. The same concern existed in early America. Ben Franklin famously said “you have a republic if you can keep it.” He hoped this “republic” would be able to prevent the wrong person from winning the presidency. But in 2016 we got a reality TV show host… and he certainly was no philosopher king.

We painfully learned that in today’s social media climate our American republic would not be able to prevent a poorly prepared, self-serving, wannabe autocrat from winning the presidency. We also found out that this self-promoter would know very little about his country’s history, its domestic and foreign policy issues, and would show no interest in learning about these things on the job.

We also learned that a surprising number of people would join his cause. Some felt their needs had been overlooked by government and would soon become his “base.” Poorly prepared people would eagerly join his staff and offer their loyalty simply to be close to power. As selfish, divisive and hostile behaviors grew, fear of what he might do would keep them in line. Thankfully, the first potential dictatorship in American history recently unraveled.

Therefore, I heartily recommend Obama’s, A Promised Land. It is a complete lesson on just how much public service inspired expertise and experienced teamwork is absolutely necessary to lead a unique democratic republic like America.

When truth dies… trust does too. And when this happens… there is no longer a normally functioning society.

When digital technology and social media enlarged the way television changed social and human behavior, the scene was set for a reality TV performer to be able to dominate public and news media attention.

People in rural areas and small towns were going through job losses and personal crises that were being ignored in Washington… while political parties were obsessed with fighting each other. This new media revolution made it easy for a TV performer to make promises to this lost audience that he would not keep… except for one: He will like them, if they will like and remain loyal to him. So he held rallies designed to entertain, which very soon included outrageous exaggerations, making up lies, assaulting people who disagreed, and engaging in opponent name-calling. Soon much of this also evolved into crazy conspiracy theories which appealed to those seeking a cult-like experience.

This is the kind of situation that spills into populism… which promises to make “all your problems go away.” And populism produces autocrats who purge experts from government and replace them with family members and unqualified but loyal friends. Guardrails to block this were never put in place in the United States. Until Trump, public service was what attracted people to government. Now we are dealing with the consequences.

Only a public service motivated leader, who always tells the truth and finds honest solutions to people’s problems, can regain the public’s trust and end the divisions that are tearing our country apart.

I yearn for an experienced White House. I also yearn for a resurgence of public service professionals leading and serving institutions, inside and outside government. A country is only as strong as its’ institutions.

When I was a student at American University in the 1960’s, public service was a profession offering decently paid career opportunities, including a measure of prestige. The U.S. Foreign Service, the FBI, the CIA, the state department, and many more, were attractive places to make a lifetime career. I met many of these impressive professionals in AU classrooms, and went to visit them on the job.

So here are my thoughts:

  1. The famous words of Ben Franklin ring loud right now, “You have a republic if you can keep it.” In light of this digital technology world, if the electoral college is to function as Franklin imagined, very serious guardrails must be added.
  2. Polarized parties in Washington failed to meet the needs of hurting people. A new White House must find ways to listen, and respond to those needs.
  3. The new White House must recruit experienced talent into a revived public service. Think-tanks, consultancies, and many international organizations in Washington abound with talent.
  4. Working together, these professionals must go to work to plan a final assault on the pandemic, infrastructure projects that create jobs, preserve regulations that protect health and the environment, create climate change initiatives; expand new energy jobs that gradually reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and improve healthcare so that it really works for everyone.
  5. With a more professional public service, a smaller and more efficient government should be possible. That can now become a legitimate bipartisan goal.
  6. The American president can once again build a cabinet of experienced experts, with clearly delegated responsibilities.
  7. The American people should now have a president who will read daily reports, will not spend every weekend playing golf, will not send out cruel and self-serving tweets, and will never use his office to enrich himself and his family.
  8. There must never again be an American president who is more comfortable in the company of dictators, than longtime allies.

Working across the aisle is the only way to truly govern. We now will have a White House that knows how to do that!

Lesson 572 Fake Media

Traditional journalists report both sides of every issue.   

But the challenge for reporters today is to separate lies, cruelty, chaos, and self-serving claims, from truth and facts. It has become virtually impossible to report only truth, and still report both sides.

The fact is, media revolutions have completely changed journalism. 

Early thinkers assumed that new media technology would bring people together and increase understanding. But the opposite is what happened. Differences became magnified, anger was amplified, and a peaceful global village became a distant dream. 

The Internet also produced an illusion of personal invisibility.

It became possible to be cruel and remain distant. And it enabled autocrats to form choirs of supporters and give them only emotional satisfaction. 

Chaos is becoming unbearable for most of us, and many in the political party most responsible for this mess have been ducking responsibility by saying, “We love his policies, but hate his politics.”

Today we have an entire population trying to deal with an out-of-control pandemic, huge numbers out of work, growing food lines, and a culture filled with increasingly-confusing fake media.

The biggest danger of all is that we have a president who is playing only to the emotions of his base, and is totally focused on forming an autocracy with unqualified family members and loyalists ready to carry out his daily whims.

Simply put, we must do whatever it takes to save our incredible democracy.