By the summer of 1991, Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic had gained control over the country’s mass media, Television, in particular, began reporting that Orthodox Serbs were under threat from Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats. The propaganda grew more intense. Within months the most brutal, bloodthirsty conflict in Europe since World War II had broken out.
There is something of the Godwin’s law about talking of the break-up of Yugoslavia. The slaughter at Srebrenica, the siege of Sarajevo, is so extreme, so sui generis that it couldn’t possibly have anything to say about our own, far more civilised, world.
But travelling around the US for the past week or so, the early days of the Balkan war sprung to mind more than once. When I arrived in my cheap motel on the outskirts of Parkersburg, West Virginia I flicked on the TV. The first station was Fox News. An anchor was explaining that Obama was dividing the country.
The previous day another Fox presenter blithely declared that Clinton should be impeached. The next morning, in another motel, I watched a bizarre two-way interview in which a Iranian Christian explained that Hillary Clinton was “plotting” to bring in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees because they would vote Democratic.
Propaganda works. That – in a nutshell – is why almost half the population of the wealthiest country in the history of the human civilisation is going to vote for Donald Trump.
Hillary Clinton should hold on to win on Tuesday, but rhetorically Trump has won this election. Even those intending to vote Democrat complain that there are too many immigrants, that America needs to be “great again”, that Clinton herself is corrupt.
“Myth has overtaken reality. What started with Trump’s birtherism has spawned a political project – which he is now calling a ‘movement’ – in which truth is thoroughly post-modern. I read it on a website has become a rallying cry, particularly on the new-fascist alt-right.”
Hillary is crooked. Washington is a cesspool. Putin is a decent skin. Why? Because Fox News and countless other outlets on TV, radio, and in print say so.
Myth has overtaken reality. What started with Trump’s birtherism has spawned a political project – which he is now calling a ‘movement’ – in which truth is thoroughly post-modern. I read it on a website has become a rallying cry, particularly on the new-fascist alt-right.
A message, even one based on falsehoods, needs a receptive audience. The dominant narrative of this election has been that Trump has tapped into the anger and alienation of white working class voters who have suffered at the butt end of hyper-financialised capitalism. The Rustbelt is literally that. Hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs migrate to China, Mexico or some “other” place.
There is truth to this. In Youngstown, Ohio, I met communities devastated by de-industrialisation and drugs. The once stolidly self-sufficient city centre has been reduced to a ghost town, save the occasional alcoholic or addict hustling outside the fine early 20th century public buildings.
But the death of the American Dream is only part of the story. In rural Ohio, I drove for days past lush, well-kept fields filled with corn. Most the houses were huge, with two and three new cars in the driveway. Many had “Trump/Pence” signs in their freshly mowed lawns.
“Make America Great Again.” When did it stop being great for White America? Was it when a black man was elected president? Or when census figures showed that whites will be a minority in the not too distant future? Was it when a female commander in chief became a very real prospect?
Trump’s support, of course, is largest among white men. The less education you have, the more likely you are to vote for the republican nominee. Among whites without a college degrees Trump leads Clinton by 57 to 25.
But there is more to this than just economics. The median income of a Trump voter in the primaries was north of $70,000. Trump is tapping into a deeper existential angst, even if he doesn’t always realise it.
Trump is a propagandaists dream. A tabula rasa unhindered by a moral compass, but with an innate understanding – gleamed from decades of working the media – of what the average Joe wants to hear. Trump – and Fox News – has effectively weaponised white ethnic identity in America. And in doing so he has set the political agenda for the foreseeable future, even if he loses.
“There is more to this than just economics. The median income of a Trump voter in the primaries was north of $70,000. Trump is tapping into a deeper existential angst, even if he doesn’t always realise it.”
What’s striking about America right now is that those who should be angry – blacks, Latinos, millennials who little prospect of owning a home or a pension-paying job – are largely ambivalent. I have lost count of the number of twenty-somethings that have told me that they dislike Trump but won’t vote for Hillary. When I ask why they mutter about emails, insiders and lobbyists.
And that’s true, to a fashion. Clinton is a product of a dynastic, professionalised politics that is corroding our faith in democracy. But few, if any, ever mention Trump’s deeply worrying links with Moscow, or his misogynism.
Ironically, many Americans seem to place too much faith in their established order. Trump cannot do much damage, they carefully explain to me, because of the checks and balances in the systems. Congress and the House. Separation of powers. The supreme court.
But this democratic malleability is largely illusory. Ever since the Cold War power has coalesced around the White House. Obama ruled larger by executive orders. Yes, he often did this with noble intentions – on healthcare, environmental regulation – but would a president Trump, or another in that mold, be so patrician? When I express these fears to liberal American friends, they smile and metaphorically pat me on the head. “That’ll wont happen”. Maybe not, but it could.
WB Yeats is too readily adduced to explain the political chaos of recent years. But as an Irishman who grew up learning The Second Coming by rote, I find the poem keeps recurring as I drove across America. Two lines in particular are stuck in my head: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
In a bar in Washington on Friday night, I met an articulate young African American working as an intern in a DC think tank. Growing up in Virginia, his home had been daubed with racist graffiti.
He was drinking with two white guys, both of whom were voting for Trump. I asked how he felt about his friends supporting a candidate who talks about Mexicans as sub humans and wants to ban Muslim immigration. “It’s awful,” he said. “These are supposed to be my friends.”
Dividing people on ethnicity in not new. It has happened in the US before, just as it happened in Yugoslavia twenty-five years ago. But the scale and sophistication of what is going on in America – and potential outcome – is new, and frighteningly so.