For some years now, I’ve been morbidly fascinated by the political dark arts -- especially the very dark art of disinformation: the systematic creation and dissemination of false narratives designed to discredit your opponents and/or drive undecided audiences away from their cause.
The difference between disinformation and just plain lying is in the scope of the enterprise: A lie is intended to conceal a specific truth (e.g. "I did not have sex with that woman"). Disinformation, on the other hand, is aimed at constructing an entire alternative reality -- one in which the truth can find no foothold because it conflicts just not with a specific falsehood, but with the entire fabric of the false reality that has been created. It puts the "big" in big lie, in other words.
These basic disinformation techniques were first pioneered by the totalitarian movements of the 1930s, such as the [GODWIN REDACTION] and the Soviet KGB, but they’ve been brought to their full fruition by the modern advertising, public relations and political consulting industries. Proving once again that what communism can do, capitalism can do better.
One of the things that’s always impressed me about the modern conservative movement -- going back to when Newt Gringrich drew up his list of buzz words to be relentlessly associated with liberals ("corrupt," "degenerate," "depraved," etc.) -- has been the movement’s enthusiastic embrace of propaganda techniques developed by the same political regimes it claims to oppose with its life’s breath.
I guess they’re trying to proving that what totalitarians can do, modern conservatives can also do better.
Karl Rove’s White House was, in many ways, the Olympian ideal of a disinformation operation -- a propaganda achievement that will probably never be topped, at least in American politics (God willing). But it looks as if the House Republicans are giving it the old college try.
Thus the rather amazing press conference Minority Whip Eric Cantor held earlier today, in which the Virginia Republican in effect accused the Democrats of inciting violence against all those innocent teabaggers out there who are simply expressing their sacred constitutional right to spit on black people and fax pictures of hangman’s nooses to their elected representatives.
Others, such as Daily Kos’s Jed Lewison, have already noted the Rovian philosophy behind Cantor’s press conference -- i.e. "the best defense is a good offense." But what’s going on here is actually a good deal more subtle (as in, KGB-style subtle) than that.
The specific disinformation technique in play is one I call "mirror image" (or, when I’m in a Star Trek mood, "Spock with a beard"). It consists of charging the opposing side (i.e. the enemies of the people) with doing exactly what you yourself have been accused of doing, typically with a hell of a lot more justification.
"Mirror image" was Rove’s standard response on those relatively rare occasions when the Bush White House seemed to be losing control of the media narrative.
Thus, when Richard Clarke blew the whistle on the Bush White House sleepwalking past the CIA’s warnings about Al Qaeda in the summer of 2001, the White House quickly constructed a competing story line in which Clarke himself was the official responsible for flubbing the response.
Likewise, when the Democrats began making noises in early 2004 about using Bush’s somewhat, er, questionable, accounts of his National Guard service against him, the Republicans quickly rolled out counterclaims that John Kerry had lied about his war record.
But the example I recall most clearly came during the Valerie Plame investigation, when Fox News suddenly tried to argue that Rove was the aggrieved whistleblower, and Joe Wilson and his wife where the sleazy insiders who had leaked classified information:
Rove warned [a reporter] away from the idea that Wilson's trip had been authorized by CIA Director George Tenet or Vice President Dick Cheney. "He gave proper guidance to a reporter who got disinformation in a leak" meant to assign responsibility to Cheney, former Bush aide Ed Rogers told FOX News.
As I wrote at the time: "This is starting to resemble that famous Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk winds up in a parallel universe where the Federation, not the Klingons, are the evil barbarians and Spock has a nasty beard." Thus my nickname for the technique -- and the title of this diary.
I want to take a closer look at what Rep. Cantor actually said this morning. I’ll skip the gratuitous reference to his own religion (because we already know how much HCR supporters loathe the Jews), as well as his tardy revelation that a bullet was shot through the window of his campaign office two days ago (which is a completely accurate description of the incident, other than the fact that it wasn’t his campaign office, but rather a building in which a couple of his campaign consultants have offices -- and their windows weren’t the ones that were shot -- plus the fact that bullet had a downward trajectory, which means it was either a stray shot that happened to land in that particular window, or Rep. Cantor’s consultants were targeted by a sniper in a helicopter who decided to attack at 1 a.m. in the morning, when the building was completely empty, and who still couldn’t figure which window to shoot. And, of course, the alleged window shooting happened after the Democrats had won their big HCR victory -- which I suppose goes to show that those evil communists weren’t satisfied with destroying American constitutional liberty; they also wanted BLOOD.)
Anyway, if you ignore the utter nonsense of his specific allegations (which, of course, is what disinformation campaigns are all about) Cantor’s statement was brilliantly crafted –- evil, but nonetheless brilliant. This is the passage that really caught my eye:
DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine in particular are dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting that these incidents be used as a political weapon. Security threats against members of Congress is not a partisan issue, and they should never be treated that way. To use such threats as political weapons is reprehensible. I'm not naive enough to think that letters, statements, or press releases will prevent anyone disturbed enough to commit violence from acting. But I do know that such letters, statements and press releases can very easily fan the flames by ratcheting up the rhetoric. Some will only inflame these situations to dangerous levels.
Considered as a rational argument, this is, of course, absurd -- bordering on incoherent. "I’m not naïve enough to think that letters, statements, or press releases will prevent anyone disturbed enough to commit violence from acting." What the fuck was that supposed to mean?
The correct answer is that it wasn’t supposed to mean anything. This isn’t about meaning. The real message of the statement is in the specific words and phrases Cantor uses -- and then repeats: "threats used as political weapons," "ratcheting up the rhetoric," "fanning the flames," "fan the flames," "inflame."
These are the sound bites Cantor’s operatives hope will make the evening news tonight. Why? Because they turn reality upside down. In Cantor’s alternate universe, it’s the Democrats who are using "threats" as "weapons," "ratcheting up the rhetoric" to "dangerous levels," and "fanning the flames" of violence.
The idea is to string those phrases together in such a way as to verbally associate the Democrats with the very same conduct the Republicans are actually guilty of (i.e. incitement) without ever making the accusation directly.
What makes this particular example so cunning are the specific words used. Liberals complain that conservative protestors have worn guns to teabagger rallies, or waved signs warning that if "Brown can’t stop this, a Browning can"? Well, now the Democrats also have been accused of using "weapons." Has the RNC stepped over the line by showing Nancy Pelosi burning in a sea of fire? Well, the Democrats are also "fanning the flames." Did the GOP House members encourage their followers to think of themselves as a revolutionary army by waving "Don’t Tread on Me" flags from the House balcony during the HCR vote? Well, the Democrats are also "ratcheting up the rhetoric."
This is pretty sophisticated stuff -- way beyond what I would expect from your typical hack GOP congressman. Which does make me wonder who’s writing Cantor’s stuff these days (Step on out from behind the curtain, Karl: We can see you.)
The basic objective of all this, as I wrote way back when, is very simple:
The goal is to confront the public with two sides hurling identical charges at each other -- the better to convince them that it's just another partisan mudfight and who the hell knows . . . anyway.
In that sense, the "mirror image" technique is a like a bomber scattering chaff behind it to try to fool enemy radar or deflect a heat-seeking missile from the real target. As I said, it’s one of the tricks Rove would use when Team Bush lost the news cycle, which suggests the past few days of coverage of the Great Teabagger Freakout have done some real damage –- or at least, that the Rovian high command thinks it has done some damage.
Will the ploy work this time? I don’t think so, or if so, only to a limited degree. The material may have been brilliant, but the performance sucked –- even Cantor couldn’t make himself sound like he actually believed it. Sure, Fox News is ready (as always) to take the baton and run with it, but I think the mainstream corporate media deadheads, brain dead as they may be, have finally picked up on the scam.
On the other hand, the headline from that Atlantic blogpost I linked to earlier suggests I may be the one who's brain dead here:
Cantor Accuses Democrats of Using Threats, Violence to Score Points
Perhaps that was written strictly tongue in cheek, but I doubt it.
You know, for the disinformation professional who wrote Cantor’s statement, it must be tough to craft such a masterpiece of the art, only to realize you’ve thrown your very best pearls down before a pack of journalistic swine.
Update 3/26/10, 1:45 am ET:
The goal is to confront the public with two sides hurling identical charges at each other -- the better to convince them that it's just another partisan mudfight and who the hell knows...anyway.
The New York Times, tonight:
Accusations Fly Between Parties Over Threats and Vandalism
Eric Cantor, in my imagination:
"Mission accomplished, baby. Mission accomplished."