Trump’s Major Strasser Moment

Are you one of those people who cannot imagine Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln in the same frame? Your propaganda shot has arrived.

Lisa Van Dusen

May 4, 2020

The proverb, “A picture is worth a thousand words” has been most reliably attributed to Syracuse Post-Standard editor Tess Flanders, who reportedly used it while handling a piece about a meeting of the city’s Advertising Men’s Club in 1911. “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words,” Flanders presumably barked on deadline at a guy who’d filed 900 words too many.

It was, predictably and ironically, later appropriated by ad man Fred R. Barnard and has also been credited to everyone from Tolstoy to Confucius. In the realm of propaganda, especially propaganda produced by those who believe words are cheap and like to curate their messaging to go global, it is gospel.

I never devoted much thought to propaganda until I started researching its forms, tactics and post-internet nuances to better understand what I was consuming on an hourly basis while covering Trumpian politics, the way you’d Google the nutritional forensics after eating a dodgy jambalaya.

In one of the most ludicrous psychological warfare moments so far from a new world order president weaponized to shock, destabilize and divide his own people, Donald Trump took part in a Fox News virtual town hall Sunday staged at the foot of the iconic Daniel Chester French statue of Abraham Lincoln that is the architectural centrepiece and spiritual heart of the Lincoln Memorial.

As an example of the visual propaganda technique known as “transfer” — whereby the characteristics and properties of one being or element are visually juxtaposed with another to evoke positive or negative associations, the visual of Donald Trump propagandizing with his own propaganda organ against the jarringly disconsonant backdrop of the giant who ended the Civil War, abolished slavery and is widely viewed as among America’s most morally judicious, politically courageous presidents was a grotesque propaganda trifecta.

The most interesting thing about Sunday’s stunt was not the shock value — Trump has effectively neutralized his own usefulness as a shock delivery system through hourly repetition, a fact that hasn’t stopped him from trying — but the tactical purpose. The most outrageous and therefore viral content cargo of the piece was the reiteration of a claim he made last June that he’d been treated worse than Lincoln, a president murdered by a man who was, by all accounts, a much better actor than Trump.

Which leaves visual propaganda as the operational purpose of the endeavour. And while the absurd propaganda disseminated by Trump and his associates daily might have you believe it was an exercise in transfer aimed at associating the current incumbent with the positive qualities of Abraham Lincoln, every single thing he has said and done since occupying the Oval Office belies the opposite.

As a propaganda weapon of mass destruction, Donald Trump has specialized in the classic propaganda techniques of: misinformation (see 16,000 lies served); exaggeration (see crowd size fixation, among others); agenda monopolization (see hourly dumpster-fire diversions); manipulation (see White House press corps captive to whatever bollocks-of-the-day headline is on the menu); fearmongering (constant both behaviourally and substantively…see injecting disinfectant as COVID-19 treatment, among others); gaslighting (see “I think we’ve done a great job” on COVID-19 response) and cult of personality (ludicrous as a proposition but rationalized by that other classic propaganda technique, the “firehose of falsehood”) in order to achieve the propaganda goals of degradation (America as an imperilled democracy and geopolitical joke), demoralization (a nation of people in a perpetual state of “WTF?!”) and conquest (coming soon: “Democracy produced this nightmare, we’d better replace it!”). Donald Trump doesn’t want to remind you of Abraham Lincoln, if he did, he’d have dropped a different money quote. He wants you to despair at the depths to which America has sunk. It’s what he’s there for.

The Lincoln Memorial isn’t just another pile of marble in the archipelago of monuments along the National Mall. It contains the engraved Gettysburg and second inaugural addresses, read aloud and in unison by millions of strangers who’ve stood side by side to pay their respects to some of the most powerful words in the English language. It represents the soul of American democracy in ways the Jefferson Memorial does not. Jefferson, for all his brilliance, owned slaves and Lincoln freed them. It is the memorial where, on spring afternoons, you can meet busloads of African-American schoolkids absorbing the spirit of another slain hero before or after they’ve visited the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. It is the place King chose to deliver his indictment — and appeal to the better angels — of America. The top of its steps, with that view over the reflecting pool to the Washington Monument and the Capitol beyond, is the favourite spot in Washington of so many people, including me. Its rear terrace overlooking the Potomac has become a sunset make-out spot for young couples, which humanizes its imposing Greek Revival coolness in a way I’ve always thought would have met the approval of the man who said, “Every man’s happiness is his own responsibility.”

That combination Sunday, that juxtaposition of the monumentally sacred and relentlessly profane, evoked the moment in the film Casablanca when Major Strasser says to Rick Blaine, “Are you one of those people who cannot imagine the Germans in their beloved Paris?” The visual cognitive dissonance of Donald Trump using Abraham Lincoln as a propaganda backdrop during a mortal crisis at what is effectively a national shrine is not entirely comparable to the indelible images of Hitler and his phalanx at the Eiffel Tower or of stormtroopers parading up the Champs-Élysées.

For one thing, Trump and the interests he serves haven’t declared victory yet.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.