Combating Propaganda: A Case Study

Other than naming the methods of propaganda that we are being exposed to, it is important to think about how to combat them. As the authors of a Rand study on the Russian propaganda model demonstrated, simply calling out the “firehose of falsehoods” isn’t enough.

As a case study, we could examine the one person who has been able to effectively silence Donald Trump: Michelle Obama. For example, while he viciously attacked almost every speaker at the Democratic Convention in 2016, here is what he had to say about about her speech: “”I thought her delivery was excellent,” he said. “I thought she did a very good job. I liked her speech.”

Is it because Michelle Obama went soft on Trump? Hardly.

While she never mentioned his name, Michelle made her feelings about Trump eminently clear. But before we get to how she did that, it is helpful to remember that she framed her entire speech around what we teach our children.

That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight, how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith.

How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country.

How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level.

Do you see what she did there? In the context of what we teach our children, she called out birtherism, hateful language, cruelty, and bullying. There was no doubt whose behavior she was referring to. After saying that we don’t stoop to their (i.e., Trump’s) level, she uttered the words so many people have criticized: “When they go low, we go high.” Given the context, that was never meant as a statement about avoiding the fight, but that how we fight matters.

Michelle wasn’t done drawing a contrast with Trump. Next came this:

And when I think about the kind of president that I want for my girls and all our children…I want someone with the proven strength to persevere, someone who knows this job and takes it seriously, someone who understands that the issues a president faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters.

Because when you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military in your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady and measured and well-informed.

I want a president with a record of public service, someone whose life’s work shows our children that we don’t chase fame and fortune for ourselves, we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed…

I want a president who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters, a president who truly believes in the vision that our Founders put forth all those years ago that we are all created equal, each a beloved part of the great American story.

Once again, without ever saying his name, she addressed all of the ways that Donald Trump was unfit for office, not by attacking him, but by articulating the common vision of what we want for our children. Then she told her own story of America, mounting a direct challenge to MAGA.

That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.

And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn…

So, look, so don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on earth!

I’m not going to claim to know all of the reasons why Michelle Obama seems to be the only person who can effectively silence Donald Trump. But what I can tell you is that during her speech at the Democratic Convention, she didn’t step away from the fight. She clearly identified all of the ways that Trump is unfit for office. To do so, she didn’t sink to his level of bullying attacks and never once mentioned his name. Instead, she articulated a contrasting vision about who we want to be as Americans—for our children.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.