Recently, I watched the eye-opening 2018 documentary entitled “The Brainwashing of My Dad,” by Jen Senko. It traces the transformation of her father, Frank, “from being a friendly, happy, non-political Democrat, to being an angry, mean person who I no longer recognized, starting in the 1990s, when he became a radical, right-wing bigot, who vehemently denied facts.”
In the video, Senko made special reference to a 2017 book, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America,” by Nancy MacLean. MacLean narrates how “influential rich white men in the Jim Crow South … for six decades systematically recruited like-minded men … to fundamentally alter the roots of democratic governance, and to disempower the majority.”
To do this, they developed a set of tactics to reshape the way Americans think about their country. These tactics are listed below, including an example of each one.
1. Lie and skew — keep repeating a lie, and people will believe it. Example: “Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.” It has been proven that Iraq had no such weapons; now they’ve shifted to denying the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism.
2. Create confusion and doubt — disseminate misinformation to get people riled up. Example: “Write-in voting is corrupted and climate change is not real.” Both of these have been proven to be wrong.
3. Blame and divide — confuse people about who is really to blame for something. Example: “Most of our taxes go to support lazy people on welfare.” This, too, is false: our taxes support programs that benefit ALL of us.
4. Brand and label — paint the opposition with a broad and negative brush. Example: “Progressives are dangerous people who promote ‘fake news,’ like CNN and MSNBC.” In reality, both CNN and MSNBC do research and check their facts before airing their content
5. Language and framing — use terms that favor your side and denigrate opposing views. Example: “The ‘death tax’ kills the rich and leads to a government takeover.” Again this is not true; tax revenue benefits us all, supporting programs like infrastructure, research, science, and technology.
6. Fear-mongering — keep people fearful and they won’t be able to think rationally or see the truth. Example: “It’s them against us.” Sadly, fear-mongering is a dangerous spiral that clouds the truth.
7. Bully and shame — make opponents seem weak and stupid. Examples: Media hosts accusing their guests of presenting “fake news” while hindering them from sharing their own view on an issue and the evidence that supports it. This halts helpful dialog.
8. Get in people’s faces — confront and challenge your opponents. Example: TV and radio hosts constantly shouting at invited guests in angry and indignant tones. There is no civility any more.
9. Non-verbal manipulation — use a carnival effect of sight and sound to impress viewers. Example: Media sources using high-tech presentations and animated gestures along with distorted substance or facts. This method hides the truth.
10. Denial — constantly blame others. Example: “Everything bad in our country is President Obama’s or Hillary Clinton’s fault.” The current administration denies any blame for climate change, the dire COVID-19 situation, domestic insecurity, election interference, racial injustice. etc.
In the end, Senko’s father realized that he had been terribly misguided and blinded by following radical right propaganda. But this only happened after he suffered a medical condition that placed him in the hospital for a week. While he was away, his wife and daughter deleted all of his emails from right-wing propaganda sites and reprogrammed his TV remote to give him a more diverse selection of news sources. He soon realized that he had been brainwashed and began to denounce the fallacies of the very sources that he had previously believed.
In the end, he “returned to being the humane, sane man he had been known and loved for being.”
Our country deserves better. We must demand truth and transparency, scientific evidence, and reliable sources of information, not just “I heard it on Fox.” We need less gerrymandering of voting districts, which benefits a few and hurts many. We must have fair elections and access for all, especially during this pandemic.
We must insist on holding elected officials accountable — no one should be above the law. We must maintain the three separate branches of our government and insist that each remain separate and abide by their oath to the Constitution, not to special interests. We must discourage outside intervention in our elections. We must see all citizens as worthy of respect and life, and we must promote racial equality.
We should be uniting these United States of America, not dividing against each other. “United we stand, divided we fall.” We are too good of a country to allow ourselves to fall. Our discourse should not be about “us against them,” but rather we should all work together, making our collective lives, our country, and the world the hopeful and respected beacon that it once was and should be again.
Let us all resolve to work together, in a spirit of transparency, honesty, civility, and compassion to make that happen.
(Martha Tillinger lives in Allegany.)