AP / Paul Sancya / NAS Pensacola

Propaganda, the President, and the ‘Reopen’ Protesters

The military’s nostalgic WWII-style posters urge face masks and national unity, but they’re not reaching Trump and his disbelieving followers.

Here we are, once again watching TV images of extreme-right militia dudes kitted up with AR-15s and Sig Sauers, ill-fitting tactical vests, wraparound sunglasses, goatees, and Hawaiian “Boogaloo” shirts. Usually they’re rallying for the Second Amendment, or the Confederate flag, or white power, or protesting against the latest thing that they feel is impinging on their right to be idiotic, and vowing to defend themselves from the next King George. Or Abraham Lincoln. 

This week, they brought their guns to Lansing, Michigan, where they pledged allegiance to President Donald Trump while protesting the government’s (any government, pick a government) mandate that — *squints* — humans should stay socially distant and wear personal protective equipment until the global pandemic passes us by. They rose up against the tyranny of face masks. 

Meanwhile, the actual U.S. military that Trump commands has been promoting a very different kind of aesthetic and rules. Across the country, military units have been posting World War II-style propaganda posters to social media feeds, urging Americans to wear face masks, wash hands, stay home, and stay alive. They bring the patriotic gusto, and they’re great. Naval Air Station Pensacola tweeted several recently, like this WWII image of a radio operator over the caption “Stay Healthy! Stay in the Fight! #sinkcovid19.” The text of the tweet says, “Together, we can #sinkcovid19  Practice physical distancing, wear a face covering when physical distancing cannot be maintained, wash your hands regularly and stay home if you don't fell (sic) well.” Another says, “Be a Marine and fight COVID 19 by washing your hands regularly and practicing good social distancing. #sinkcovid19.” More examples are here, here, here, and here

This play on propaganda is a wonderful way to connect Americans to a bygone era where everyone truly was in the fight. Modern examples first appeared on World War I posters in London. Alas, WWI-style national unity has been virtually absent in recent times; even the 9/11 attacks directly affected only a relatively small part of the population. COVID-19 threatens us all. But unlike 100 years ago, the nation is not pulling together against the common foe. There’s one glaring reason why. In the few weeks we’ve been fighting back the virus, America’s partisans and modern-day political propagandists haven’t missed a beat. They are trying to tear us apart. 

Everything is politics, we know that. Even medicine is not immune; witness the partisan battles over healthcare, reproduction, and vaccinations. But the fact that Americans so quickly decamped to their right-and-left positions over how to fight a global pandemic — something most of us know zero about — reveals just how primed this nation is for internal division and conflict. It’s alarming, and it is now considered a national security threat. It’s not just the left complaining about the right, either. 

“I’m a libertarian-leaning conservative and have contributed to the Washington Examiner, the Federalist and the now-defunct Weekly Standard. I believe in the principles of limited government and in the exploration of political ideas that more traditional, often left-of-center news sources don’t,” Max Diamond wrote in the Washington Post. “But In this grave moment, conservative media has failed: More than just being out of sync with experts, much of conservative media has viewed this pandemic through an excessively partisan lens, and often seems to care more about how it impacts politics than people’s lives.” 

Partisans on the left and right have drawn lines all over the place, trying to score political points over the president’s response, the source of the virus, travel bans, business closures, federal vs. state government responses, science, treatments, the president’s publicity, and even the military.  

This week’s images out of Michigan are compelling. Some feel these relatively tiny groups of protestors played the media like a fiddle and got way, way too much air time. Then again, it’s not every day that armed militia “storm” — or, if you prefer, walk peacefully and lawfully, with police escort, into — a state capitol building. But the event made for great news photography, and great propaganda. We will remember the out-of-shape, preening Americans shouting their spittle into the faces of law enforcement officers wearing anti-COVID masks to protect everyone involved. And that’s the point.

These protestors are the physical manifestations of a right-wing propaganda war dating almost to WWII. But decades spent building out an “alternative” media with alternative facts has grown into something that is now out of the control of the mainstream conservative movement. Aided by the internet and right-wing media, far-right followers obediently line up to support whatever President Donald Trump has most recently said — science, history, and the Republican Party’s traditional platform be damned. 

This year, they’ve echoed Trump’s protracted pooh-poohing of SARS-CoV-19, even as public-health experts sounded alarms about the impending pandemic. When his blasé response drew criticism, they retweeted his statement that it was all another Democratic “hoax.” They gleefully parroted him parroting them in calling it the “Chinese virus.” They stood with him when he vilified the World Health Organization. They even ingested disinfectant when he suggested it. They go to the barricades to defend his latest words, and Michigan is this week’s barricade. 

Trump fuels it. The president who declared in 2018 that he attacks the press “so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you,” facilitates his own propaganda like no predecessor. He tried to stack the White House press briefing room in his favor, slipping in partisan propagandists from far-right outlets like Breitbart, OANN, and Newsmax, which sent Trump’s own former spokesman, Sean Spicer. He calls on them for softball questions when he’s done insulting legitimate White House reporters as “fake news.” 

Trump threatened to end the daily sessions when mainstream press cried foul, but never did, saying that through them he can speak around the media and directly to Americans. His opponents have called upon the networks to stop airing — at least live and unedited — what they argue have largely been  campaign rallies shot through with dangerous lies. By mid-April, Trump was simply showing up to the press briefing room with his own propaganda reel of clips and praise for himself. News outlets stopped showing Trump’s daily briefings live, but only for a while.  

Twitter remains an open conduit for the president. Two weeks ago, after Trump saw how right-wing anti-lockdown protests were angering the left, he tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and several other states. During the morning shows on Friday, he tweeted that Michigan’s Democratic governor should “give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.” Observers quickly noted the echo of “very fine people,” Trump’s 2017 defense of the white-power marchers in Charlottesville, Va.

There is some good news. Two weeks ago, a study revealed that while Americans are hyper-consuming local and national news during the lockdown, partisan media pages have flatlined. The New York Times created some good data visuals of our changing news consumption habits

And we can hope that instead of heeding modern-day pamphleteers, the black beret-wearing protestors in Michigan will start to heed the messages of the actual Green Berets they idolize — like the 10th Special Forces Group, who urge their fellow citizens to wash your hands, stand apart, and “do your part to flatten the curve.” 

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