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Politics Is Religion: From Antifa to the Cult of Trump

Groups are manipulated by emotional phrases, provocative symbols, and “glittering generalities.” Propagandists pit us against one another.

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The role of religion in the ancient world was to govern, to reflect the will of the Gods often personified in Kings and Emperors. Religion appeals to a higher authority. Humans need a power greater than the State.

In the modern world, that power is the voice of the people. The battle against authoritarianism is the central struggle of humankind. From the ancient world to recent protest movements, the right to govern ourselves is at the center of humanity’s quest for freedom, justice, and equality.

We are not in the midst of an ideological conflict between Socialism and Capitalism. The problem of evil existed long before Capitalism. The primary conflict is between authoritarianism and democracy. Capitalism may be a problem but attempts to counter it are often undermined by authoritarian leadership. The solution to the problem of oppression begins with democracy. 

Ideology, like theology, is often used to control and manipulate people. We have true believers in ideology and cults of personality. Cults are not limited to religion. There are self-help, business, and political cults, too.

Many people worship their political leaders and believe everything they say. They are willing to believe false things and are easily influenced by political propaganda. We are, in fact, all under the influence of propaganda.

French Philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote that propaganda “gives us assurances equivalent to those formally given us by religion.” It offers us a simple and clear, albeit false, explanation of the world. We actually need propaganda to help make the chaotic world intelligible to us.

Propaganda is everywhere. Advertising, political messaging, publicity, public relations, and some media, news, and entertainment are all forms of propaganda. There is a fine line between education and propaganda because the education system has been so often used to disseminate propaganda. Even professors and institutions of higher learning disseminate propaganda.

Propaganda can be defined as the systematic dissemination of information designed to influence people’s opinions, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Many people associate propaganda with false and nefarious materials, but propaganda can also be used for good. Propaganda is good or bad depending upon the intentions of the propagandist. An anti-smoking campaign, for example, is benevolent whereas Fascist propaganda is evil.

Political propaganda includes Nationalist and Far-Right propaganda, corporate and establishment propaganda, third party propaganda, and foreign and anti-American propaganda. It’s important to be critical toward the information we receive even when it comes from sources we trust. Just because something is new or popular doesn’t mean it’s right.

Propaganda often contains at least some truth. It can be convincing and there is often a process of indoctrination. Propagandists use half-truths and provocative language and images to trigger our emotions and to get us to accept what they are telling us and to behave as they want us to. They also appeal to our prejudices and opinions to get us to go that one step further than we would otherwise go in our thinking, attitudes, and behaviors.

We easily see how propaganda influences our opponents, but we often fail to see how we are under its influence. It’s easy to recognize that Nazis are under the influence of propaganda. This is not to say that we are no better than Nazis. That would be ridiculous. Instead, we are surrounded by propaganda and cannot help but be influenced by it.

The propaganda directed toward us is, of course, more subtle and intellectual, but this only makes it more believable and effective. It’s important to be skeptical about what we hear in the media or from our friends and leaders because we often fail to consider the propagandist's intentions. Many people don’t have the time or ability to critically examine propaganda.

Some, for example, argue that nonviolence doesn’t work. This disinformation, probably disseminated into Hong Kong by China, convinced Andy Chan, a leader of the Hong Kong protests, to resort to more violent tactics. He forgot that nonviolence is a response to the failure and futility of violence. We need public support and shouldn’t take it for granted or risk losing it. Soon afterward the Hong Kong protests died down. Public support became more tepid with the increase in violence. 

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Those shooting or running over protestors are under the influence of propaganda. Those who vandalize and burn public buildings or who hurl rocks and water bottles at police think they are fighting Fascism. They don’t believe they are hijacking the movement’s message and giving the opposition fodder to set the public against us. They don’t care that they are featured mostly on conservative news media and in Trump’s campaign advertisements. They are being used to rally Trump’s base and set the public against us. Liberal networks are largely ignoring the violence and vandalism in places like Portland, Oregon because they know it doesn’t help their cause. Violence, vandalism, and arson make people angry at the protestors.

We know that domestic and foreign propaganda is being disseminated to both the Left and the Right. This is evidenced by the Mueller report and the reports of United States intelligence agencies. We also know that propagandists intend to cause conflict and division. It’s important to identify divisive disinformation and to recognize when we are being manipulated. We need to learn about propaganda so we can defend ourselves.

Propagandists use labels to demonize their opponents. The Right describes Progressives as “Christian Hating Socialists” while the Left calls Evangelicals “Christian Nationalists.” While there may be some truth to these labels, the propagandist only wants us to yell at each other and call one another names. They know that if the election becomes about Christianity, the American public will side with Christians.

Groups are manipulated by emotional phrases, provocative symbols, and “glittering generalities.” Propagandists pit us against one another. They set “Christian Hating Socialists” against “Christian Nazis,” Progressives against Neoliberals, and White Supremacists against Antifa, for example. There is truth to all of these labels, but they also are used to cause division and conflict.

Foreign propagandists like Vladimir Putin, for example, use the label “Neoliberal” to set up a two-pronged attack on Liberal democracy. On the right, President Trump and Right-wing news media disseminate propaganda demonizing liberals, while on the Left foreign and socialist propagandists demonize “Neoliberals.” In this way, they launch attacks on Democratic candidates from both the Left and the Right.

There may be a Neoliberal program, but when one looks closely at it, it conforms more to the Republican platform than it does the Democrats. The label “Neoliberal” implies that we are engaged in an ideological struggle between Socialism and Capitalism. One has to accept this ideological premise to even understand the label.

The intellectual content behind the label “Neoliberal” is lost when it is used to defame Liberal candidates. At best it serves to identify candidates who do not support progressive policies or who are not Socialists. This means that the vast majority of candidates running for public office can be described as “Neoliberals.” As a result, the label “Neoliberal” is misused to undermine Democratic candidates.

Anti-American and foreign propaganda undermine liberal democracy by causing us to lose faith in our democratic institutions. Propagandists disseminate disinformation saying the United States does not have real democracy. The implication is that our democracy is not worth fighting for. It’s not worth defending the Constitution because the United States is an evil empire. We need to tear down the whole system and rebuild it anew. Unfortunately, that new system is going to be just another domination system like Authoritarianism, or Capitalism if you prefer, if it is not a democracy.

The Far Right foments hatred and violence and spreads disinformation while Marxists create divisive slogans and domination systems that categorize people and put them in their places. Everyone, for example, wants to be against racism, but that doesn’t mean that the antiracist books and programs being rolled out right now are any good. There must be room for criticism. The doctrines and ideologies of critical race studies and intersectionality are, of course, also propaganda.

We are true believers in political dogma. To be “woke” is not to believe in certain things. It’s to be aware of what’s going on, how we are being manipulated, and when we are uninformed or mistaken.

We must be critical of ideology, political messaging, and the news media. Question your leaders regardless of their rank and political persuasion. Stand up for what you think and believe even when it’s unpopular. Be authentic, think for yourself, and be aware that our leaders often appeal to our prejudices and predispositions to influence our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

the election

Ideology is the theology of politics. Politics, like religion, can be used to divide us. Religion, like politics, is about building community and learning to live with one another―or not.

Rich Procida