I saw this coming two years ago.
In the early days of Donald Trump’s campaign for the US presidency, the bellicose billionaire benefited from the sudden surge in immigration from the war-torn Mid-East.
By the time Trump delivered the infamous opening salvo (you know, the “they’re bringing drugs, they’re rapists” speech) of what would ultimately become a successful bid for the White House, it was readily apparent that Russia was about to step into Syria’s then four-year-old civil war.
Qassem Soleimani, a shadowy Iranian general known in intelligence circles as one of the most dangerous men on the planet (and the closest thing you’ll find to a real-life version of Kevin Spacey’s Keyser Söze) had recently visited Syria and hinted at “surprises” that could soon change the course of the conflict. Sure enough, in late September, 2015, the Russians began flying combat sorties from Latakia.
Moscow’s involvement exacerbated an already horrific scenario. As the Kremlin’s Sukhois tore apart Assad’s rivals and Hezbollah pushed towards Aleppo, everyday Syrians poured into Western Europe via the so-called “Balkan route.” That touched off border battles between Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and Austria, all of which were inundated with refugees en route to the German promised land where Angela Merkel had pledged to keep the doors open to those fleeing violence.
Before long, the Right-wing blogosphere was abuzz with reports of crimes committed by “out of control” Muslim refugees who, to let Breitbart and its progeny tell it, were running amok, raping and pillaging Viking-style all thanks to Angela Merkel and her “misguided” open door policy.
The attacks in Paris only served to validate that narrative – the Friday night massacre orchestrated by Abdelhamid Abaaoud at the behest of the Islamic State was pitched as confirmatory evidence of the fiction being promulgated in the dark corners of the far-Right web.
All of this provided the perfect backdrop against which to cast America’s immigrant “problem.” It was also an ideal setup for anyone seeking to capitalize politically off the fears (irrational or otherwise) of the electorate. Just like that, populism was resurgent. The drumbeat of nationalism grew louder. Brexit became reality. Donald Trump became President. And, in the final act of the first populist play, Steve Bannon – the man whose media outlet perpetuated the entire narrative from the beginning – was named Chief Strategist to the leader of the (previously) free world.
Coming full circle, when I say “I saw this coming two years ago,” what I mean is that as I watched all of this unfold, it was clear that Bannon’s false narrative had a shot at becoming gospel to large numbers of people – the truth about Muslim immigrants be damned.
The bigoted, xenophobic message was popping up everywhere you turned – even before the Paris attacks. It got so ridiculous at one point that multiple alt-Right websites started running screengrabs of conduct guidelines posted at public swimming pools in Western Europe and citing them as evidence that there was an epidemic of poolside ass-grabbing by Muslim men on European women. Seriously. That’s not hyperbole. Look it up.
Fast forward to today and nearly half of the American public (and a large percentage of the European electorate) is completely enthralled with this same false narrative. Real news is now fake news to many voters. That’s a hilariously ironic twist. When the real news tried to reclaim the narrative by pointing out the fact that sites like Breitbart were in fact fake news (literally), Bannon simply turned the tables. He branded the real news fake. Suddenly, the people who coined the term “fake news” were seeing their own stories branded as “fake” by the very same fake news outlets they were trying to combat. Bannon – with the help of his “useful idiot” Donald Trump – had succeeded in ushering in a post-truth reality.
Americans have seen this dynamic unfold before. In the tobacco industry. While that may seem like a trivial example given the gravity of the political crisis the Western world faces, it’s actually a rather apt comparison.
With that in mind, consider the following from the FT’s Tim Harford…
Just before Christmas 1953, the bosses of America’s leading tobacco companies met John Hill, the founder and chief executive of one of America’s leading public relations firms, Hill & Knowlton. Despite the impressive surroundings — the Plaza Hotel, overlooking Central Park in New York — the mood was one of crisis.
Scientists were publishing solid evidence of a link between smoking and cancer. From the viewpoint of Big Tobacco, more worrying was that the world’s most read publication, The Reader’s Digest, had already reported on this evidence in a 1952 article, “Cancer by the Carton”. The journalist Alistair Cooke, writing in 1954, predicted that the publication of the next big scientific study into smoking and cancer might finish off the industry.
It did not. PR guru John Hill had a plan — and the plan, with hindsight, proved tremendously effective. Despite the fact that its product was addictive and deadly, the tobacco industry was able to fend off regulation, litigation and the idea in the minds of many smokers that its products were fatal for decades.
So successful was Big Tobacco in postponing that day of reckoning that their tactics have been widely imitated ever since. They have also inspired a thriving corner of academia exploring how the trick was achieved. In 1995, Robert Proctor, a historian at Stanford University who has studied the tobacco case closely, coined the word “agnotology”. This is the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced; the entire field was started by Proctor’s observation of the tobacco industry. The facts about smoking — indisputable facts, from unquestionable sources — did not carry the day. The indisputable facts were disputed. The unquestionable sources were questioned. Facts, it turns out, are important, but facts are not enough to win this kind of argument.
Agnotology has never been more important. “We live in a golden age of ignorance,” says Proctor today. “And Trump and Brexit are part of that.”
In the UK’s EU referendum, the Leave side pushed the false claim that the UK sent £350m a week to the EU. It is hard to think of a previous example in modern western politics of a campaign leading with a transparent untruth, maintaining it when refuted by independent experts, and going on to triumph anyway. That performance was soon to be eclipsed by Donald Trump, who offered wave upon shameless wave of demonstrable falsehood, only to be rewarded with the presidency. The Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” the word of 2016. Facts just didn’t seem to matter any more.
We need some agreement about facts or the situation is hopeless. And yet: will this sudden focus on facts actually lead to a more informed electorate, better decisions, a renewed respect for the truth? The history of tobacco suggests not. The link between cigarettes and cancer was supported by the world’s leading medical scientists and, in 1964, the US surgeon general himself. The story was covered by well-trained journalists committed to the values of objectivity. Yet the tobacco lobbyists ran rings round them.
In the 1950s and 1960s, journalists had an excuse for their stumbles: the tobacco industry’s tactics were clever, complex and new. First, the industry appeared to engage, promising high-quality research into the issue. The public were assured that the best people were on the case. The second stage was to complicate the question and sow doubt: lung cancer might have any number of causes, after all. And wasn’t lung cancer, not cigarettes, what really mattered? Stage three was to undermine serious research and expertise. Autopsy reports would be dismissed as anecdotal, epidemiological work as merely statistical, and animal studies as irrelevant. Finally came normalisation: the industry would point out that the tobacco-cancer story was stale news. Couldn’t journalists find something new and interesting to say?
Such tactics are now well documented — and researchers have carefully examined the psychological tendencies they exploited. So we should be able to spot their re-emergence on the political battlefield.
“It’s as if the president’s team were using the tobacco industry’s playbook,” says Jon Christensen, a journalist turned professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who wrote a notable study in 2008 of the way the tobacco industry tugged on the strings of journalistic tradition.
One infamous internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, typed up in the summer of 1969, sets out the thinking very clearly: “Doubt is our product.” Why? Because doubt “is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.” Big Tobacco’s mantra: keep the controversy alive.
Doubt is usually not hard to produce, and facts alone aren’t enough to dispel it. We should have learnt this lesson already; now we’re going to have to learn it all over again.