*Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read more of her work at Lucid.
By Ruth Ben-Ghiat
"President Donald Trump has always fought for us. He puts the American people above corrupt interests. For that reason alone, the powerful will never stop coming for him," tweeted Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) of the news that the Manhattan DA's office had issued an indictment of Donald Trump. "A majority of Americans know Alvin Bragg's witch hunt is a politically motivated prosecution. I continue to stand with President Trump as he has always stood with us."
Count on Gaetz, a keeper of the Trump personality cult, to parrot the propaganda points Republican media and political elites are deploying as the indictment and dozens of felony counts shift their information warfare machine into emergency mode.
There is the cult leader as a heroic figure who risks everything as he fights for the nation —an image Trump has cultivated for years.
There are the cherished slogans about Trump's victimization ("witch hunt," "coming for him"), updated with new adversaries (Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, who was unknown to most Trump followers and Fox consumers until the other day). And there is the declaration of personal loyalty to the leader, which is an essential cult ritual in such situations.
Gaetz isn't the only Trump sycophant called to perform right now. A new CNN poll finds that 58% of Americans (and 21% of Republicans) approve of Trump's indictment in connection with money paid to silence Stormy Daniels from speaking about her relationship with Trump as the 2016 election neared (the poll does not reflect news that Bragg’s office is charging Trump with 34 felony counts for falsification of business records).
The fact that many GOP voters approve of the indictment means propaganda will acquire more importance within the GOP's efforts to discredit Biden’s presidency and cover up their leader's crimes. That's where the talking points come in.
Propaganda works through repetition: the same messages and slogans are disseminated with small variations. Over time people come to accept the lies as reality and the slogans as aspirations. While Republicans don't have the monopoly on messaging that Fascist states enjoyed, they make sure that propagandist-politicians like Gaetz share agreed-upon talking points with their constituencies and media ecosystem.
Propaganda also seeks to change the way people think and feel, imprinting associations (Jews=corruption; Blacks=danger, Alvin Bragg=socialist/George Soros puppet/animal) that can prompt actions. When the threat is imminent, as with Bragg's indictment of Trump, the skilled propagandist will associate the target with multiple hate triggers. Trump's now-deleted Truth Social post of himself with a baseball bat next to Bragg's picture is in this vein.
Trump worked with Fox and Republican lawmakers and operatives to destroy public trust in any institution that could expose his corruption (the press, judges, prosecutors, investigators, and others of "the deep state") and transfer that trust onto his person. A worldview emerged that sees any setback to the leader's fortunes as the product of nefarious external forces rigging the system against him.
This is how Trump and his allies pulled off one of the most spectacular scams of the early 21st century, convincing tens of millions that he and not President Joe Biden won the 2020 election. This fiction now serves as the foundation for the edifice of lies being constructed to shift the perception of this indictment, the felony counts, and any future Trump prosecutions.
Let's look at a few of the propaganda points that will feature as the legal proceedings unfold.
"Witch Hunt": The pre-printed WITCH HUNT signs the Trump campaign passed out to attendees of the Waco, TX rally were a clue. Trump's media manipulation of the indictment will bolster his claim that he is a uniquely persecuted individual. Victimhood evokes powerful emotions (anger, protectiveness), which is why George Santos, Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, and many other Republican lawmakers have echoed Trump's characterization of the indictment as a witch hunt. Trump’s foiled desire to appear in handcuffs during legal proceedings was meant to cultivate this "hunted man” profile.
"Political Persecution": The claim that the Manhattan DA's indictment is part of a larger politically-motivated harassment of Trump connects to the idea that Democrats are the real authoritarians. This notion of Democrats as a threat to freedom has been popularized by Ben Shapiro and many far-right commentators.
In this telling, the theft of the 2020 election was an act of autocratic aggression; thus Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called Biden's inauguration an “overthrow." The Texas GOP’s 2022 party platform validated this narrative, referring to Biden as an "illegitimate" president.
Those same Democrats then supposedly weaponized the federal government against patriots who stood up for freedom on Jan. 6. Now they seek to use the justice system to destroy Trump so he will not prevail in his presidential campaign (link to the "election interference" slogan)
The adaptability of this unfolding narrative, in which one heinous injustice builds on others, is a secret of its appeal. As with all conspiracy theories, each act of the enemy confirms the bias instilled by previous propaganda points.
Republicans and Fox have managed to create a seamless and satisfying explanatory frame for the period Nov. 2020 to the present. When Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH) refers to the indictment as “a direct assault on the tens of millions of Americans who support [Trump]” he conjures this larger narrative.
Whatever happens with Trump's indictment and dozens of felony charges, look for these propaganda points to be increasingly translated into action. That might mean organized or rogue acts of violence meant to "avenge" Trump or "garbage politics" such as bogus investigations that distract from Biden's accomplishments and keep the Republican voter base engaged.
Propaganda is never just words, and it goes beyond lying. It is a system of organizing belief so people come to see the world in ways that benefit the leader and his party.
Understanding how propaganda works is crucial to exposing Republican maneuvers to protect Trump and their own reputations in the weeks and months to come.