“Ideas are weapons,” Max Lerner wrote in 1939. “Big sweeping ideas like racism, individualism, Nazism, communism, democracy—are in possession of [people]. They possess us as evil spirits were once said to have entered into witches and possessed them and made them do their bidding. Under the spell of these ideas, a madness seems to sweep over a people, like an engulfing sea that sweeps away the dikes that rationality has painfully and prayerfully built against it over the centuries.”
It might seem like we fall under the spell of ideas suddenly, but that’s not at all how it works. Propagandists and manipulators work very hard to bewitch us. In fact, it’s so hard to get people to adopt new ideas that in the early twentieth century, the propaganda industry was invented to lead the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.”
Academic persuasion experts know that persuasion is hard because people typically aren’t “open” to being persuaded. We’re unlikely to be persuaded about a topic both when we’re very interested in it (because we already have an opinion about it) or when we’re not very interested in it at all (because we don’t want to think about it long enough to form an opinion about it).
It’s hard to get people to accept new ideas because new ideas are cognitively taxing. People are generally “cognitive misers”—our brains are busy doing other things. Most people avoid situations where mental effort is required to process new ideas, which means that they reject those ideas without giving them much thought at all.
But clearly people are seized by ideas—how? To overcome our natural inclination to reject new ideas, propagandists and manipulators have developed well-worn strategies. Edward Bernays (a propagandist for propaganda) built a career on getting people to accept new ideas—and he was very effective at it. Modern propaganda strategies are built on what Bernays figured out about how to manipulate the public mind.
Three related concepts help to explain how propaganda works to bewitch us into accepting new ideas:
First, each of us walks around with a unique set of “attitudes” and with varying levels of commitment to those attitudes. “Social judgment theory” explains that we filter new information or ideas through our unique Latitude of Acceptance (what we find acceptable), Latitude of Rejection (what we find rejectable), and Latitude of Non-commitment (what we find neither acceptable nor rejectable). You’re most likely to accept a new idea when it seems to fall within your Latitude of Acceptance and reject it when it doesn’t.
Second, a similar idea works at the societal level, where it’s called the “Overton Window of Political Possibilities,” developed by conservative think tanker Joe Overton. Think tanks aren't really so much about “thinking” as they are about pushing some rich person’s agenda into the public sphere. Overton realized that no matter how much pressure he put on politicians, his success depended on what the politician thought their constituents preferred—that narrow window constrained what was “within the realm of the politically possible at any time.” Overton’s solution was to move the “window” of possibility to include their preferred policies, making (in Milton’s Friedman’s words) “the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”
Third, ideas that make it into an individual’s Latitude of Acceptance and a society’s Overton Window of possibilities become “normalized.” Normalization is when an unthinkable, abhorrent practice (bussing helpless migrants to Washington, DC, for example) is placed in a new context where it’s seen less as abhorrent and more like common sense. Once ideas become normalized, they become a part of a society’s disciplinary apparatus (believing in and acting according to the “norms” of a society are required for good standing within that society; failure to believe or act according to the norms is punished in some way).
Propagandists and manipulators of all kinds try to bewitch the public into accepting their ideas, normalizing their preferred ideas and policies into society. As I explained in my book about Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, white supremacists embraced Trump because they thought he’d be useful to “move the Overton Window” about race relations in the United States. “Trump is a fascist icon,” wrote one poster I quoted from the racist Vanguard News Network message board, “Trump represents America’s racism. Trump is the candidate of angry White men. Push this line, f*ck whatever Trump’s actual positions are. Make it so a Trump presidency is a symbolic victory for White racists.”
The white supremacists decided that they would use Trump as a “wedge” (stooge) to move the Overton Window. Like other propagandists and manipulators, the white supremacists used well-calculated tactics: first, they used repetition. The “familiarity effect” makes it so that the more often you hear an idea, the more comfortable you get with it and the more you like it. The white supremacists flooded social media with their racist Trump content, they created memes, and they targeted Trump’s Twitter account to get him to retweet their content (he did).
Second, they used anchoring. They connected their racist content to high-profile people, institutions, and other ideas that people already accept (Trump, Republican Party, police, military). The anchor provides a “heuristic cue” that the idea is acceptable or good, which is an indirect route to persuasion. They anchored to Trump by wearing his red MAGA hats in public and talking about race issues with anyone who expressed support for Trump, they flooded Trump’s online accounts with replies, and they insinuated themselves into Trump’s orbit by adopting or creating memes (like “Deplorables”) and circulating and amplifying them, among other tactics.
The white supremacists were very successful at using their strategies to boost support for Trump and using Trump’s victory to foment racial violence in the United States. They moved the window and normalized Trump as a fascist icon.
It takes a lot of effort to get people to adopt new ideas, but propagandists know that repetition and anchoring should work to make their new idea feel more like an old idea. Propagandists and manipulators know that using ideas as weapons gives them the power to possess the public and make it do their bidding.