Streetwise Professor

November 16, 2016

Lie Swarms

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 8:40 pm

If you get your “information” through Twitter, mainline print/online publications, or the netwits, you probably think that Trump’s newly appointed chief strategist Steve Bannon is the love child of Nathan Bedford Forrest* and Leni Riefenstahl. Racist. Anti-Semite. Master propagandist.

One should always be suspicious of such tendentious portraits, and that suspicion is especially warranted here. Spengler (David P. Goldman) wrote a furious and effective rebuttal of the attacks on Bannon which is worth a read, but do yourself a favor and read the man in his own words–and not the clip quotes attributed to him by his enemies on the left and among the #NeverTrump right. (One should be doubly suspicious when such disparate groups unite in an attack.)

In that 2014 speech and interview, Bannon comes off as bright, thoughtful, and articulate. Certainly he has strong views, but they are not the noxious brew that his attackers attribute to him. His main sensibility is religious. As for anti-Semitism, note that he stresses the Judeo-Christian tradition. He believes in capitalism, but he is not a “hard” libertarian or Objectivist. His brand of capitalism is of the Smith-Hayek-Friedman variety. He decries the devolution of capitalism in corporatism and crony capitalism. He attacks bailouts. He is stridently anti-jihadist. He is also a believer in national and cultural identity, and obviously a critic of globalism.

He spoke about Putin before Putin became a devil figure in the US campaign. His is a nuanced view. On the one hand, he slams Putin as a kleptocrat and ruler of an illegitimate form of capitalism–state capitalism. He also notes Putin’s deviousness and recognizes the threat he poses. But he does not exaggerate that threat, and appreciates that Putin has struck a chord among Russians by appealing to their patriotism and cultural identity.

He also discussed what is now referred to as the alt-right before it became a thing in the popular mind. He frankly admits that opposition movements like the Tea Party inevitably attract fringe elements, but believes in the end that these fringes don’t define these movements: they are free riders not drivers, and will eventually “boil off.” He is not uncritical of the European populist movements: “With all the baggage that those groups bring — and trust me, a lot of them bring a lot of baggage, both ethnically and racially — but we think that will all be worked through with time.” He draws distinctions between movements like UKIP or the Tea Party and continental European nationalist parties and groups, finding the latter more tinged with racism and anti-Semitism.

Reading the talk, and you will have an understanding of how Trump won. One of his key strategists had a very clear understanding of the discontent of the non-elites. He is genuinely sympathetic to the people that the left alternately scorns and claims to represent. All in all, Bannon clearly is not the man his enemies portray him to be. Methinks that the fury of their attacks reflects a deep fear that he is indeed a discerning thinker and able political strategist–and information warrior.

Spengler said that the attacks on Bannon are an example of the Big Lie. I take issue with that. What we are seeing with Bannon, and have seen and are seeing with Trump, is something different: it is the Lie Swarm.

The Big Lie is an effective propaganda tactic in a centralized, vertical media system dominated by a small number–and in totalitarian systems, basically one–of information channels. Radio or television with a small number of national stations either directly controlled by the state, or subject to substantial state pressure (e.g., the US in the days of the Fairness Doctrine). To oversimplify only a little: one message, one medium.

In the modern fractured information environment, with a proliferation of outlets and social media that allows free access to millions, coordinating on a single message is far more difficult in such a diffuse and fragmented system. But this technology is perfectly suited for unleashing a swarm of half-truths and lies that forms what can best be described as an emergent order. It is not consciously designed by anyone, but without central coordination design it does exhibit order and synergistic behaviors.

One swarm tactic that is becoming increasingly common is Six Degrees of Hitler/Putin/The KKK/etc. Target A has some connection to B who has some connection to C who has a connection with D who said something that could be interpreted as being vaguely fascist . . . so Hitler!

In some respects, it is harder to fight the Lie Swarm than it is the Big Lie in a society where there the media is not rigidly controlled. A single lie can be rebutted if the target of the lie has the ability to make the case and the access to enough eyeballs and ears to do so. It is almost impossible to swat every lie in the swarm, especially since the lies change and mutate from day to day, and since whenever you are in a position of rebutting a lie you tend to draw attention to it. But unrebutted lies are often as treated as facts, so if you don’t kill them all some damage is done.

Bannon, and especially Trump, are primary targets of the Lie Swarm, especially since Trump had the temerity to actually prevail in the election. Don’t get me wrong–there is much about Trump to criticize. But there has been a kind of Gresham’s Law at work here: the bad criticism has driven out the good. Screeching “racist!” “Anti-Semite!” “Fascist!” on the basis of the most twisted and biased interpretation of the flimsiest evidence has overwhelmed substantive argument.

And the Swarm really hasn’t figured out that their attack will do little to get Trump supporters to change their minds. If anything, it will do the opposite, because the “deplorables” know that they are being attacked and smeared as much as Bannon and Trump. Furthermore, the Swarm seems hell-bent on living out Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. Hillary’s whole campaign was based on personal attacks on Trump and his supporters, and she enlisted the Swarm in this endeavor.

And it backfired stupendously. Why should they expect that doubling down on it will work any better?

So I have mixed thoughts about this. On the one hand, the Lie Swarm’s infestation of the current public discourse is disgraceful and dispiriting. On the other hand, it has proved a spectacular failure in achieving its objective, so if they want to double down on it, why stop one’s enemies when they are making a mistake?

* For those not familiar with Civil War or Reconstruction history, Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. (It is beyond doubt that he was prominent in the KKK, but some dispute whether he was the Grand Wizard.) He also happened to be probably the only true military genius of the Civil War, in which he rose from private to Lieutenant General and earned (ironically) the sobriquet “Wizard of the Saddle.”

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  1. I simply assume that virtually every accusation of anti-semitism is baseless. With the charge of racism my view is different. I suspect that all are true because practically everyone is racist – under one definition or another of that word – if you judge them by their actions. Only a fool would judge them by their words.

    Comment by dearieme — November 17, 2016 @ 6:27 am

  2. Correction: there is one easily identified population of whom the accusation of anti-semitism is likely to be overwhelmingly true. The Dems want to admit ever more of that population into the US, Trump wants not to. So ……

    Comment by dearieme — November 17, 2016 @ 6:30 am

  3. It is probably of interest that Scott Alexander (who previously endorsed anybody-but-Trump in the election) recently made a long blog post saying Trump wasn’t racist either. I think it is worthwhile reading for everyone, supporter or opponent:

    I do not live in the US but find him a troubling man. It remains to be seen what he will do when president.

    Comment by Person_XYZ — November 17, 2016 @ 7:19 am

  4. Very interesting.

    I’m not so sure that swarm is the right analogy; it implies there is a single objective/ target.

    How about clouds of midges, midges that bite? Bites not enough to tear away flesh but irritating enough to make one’s skin itch, perpetually and relentlessly.

    Comment by Simple Simon — November 17, 2016 @ 9:03 am

  5. @Simple Simon–Actually the mental image I had in mind was something like a cloud of gnats or midges. Fairly described as a swarm. But we are thinking along the same lines.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 17, 2016 @ 9:08 am

  6. The mental image I have is of an enormous, steaming pile. I’ll leave you to form a mental picture of what the pile comprises.

    Comment by Green As Grass — November 17, 2016 @ 1:07 pm

  7. I would call it a lie frenzy, as in feeding frenzy, sharks and the like.

    Comment by John Stamp — November 17, 2016 @ 2:06 pm

  8. Where ever the left screams about Race. You can be darn sure, it’s more about them being a racist than anyone else.

    Comment by Dustoff — November 17, 2016 @ 2:28 pm

  9. OOPS

    When ever

    Comment by Dustoff — November 17, 2016 @ 2:28 pm

  10. I simply do not trust the major media anymore – the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, for example.

    In my view, they have undermined their trustworthiness by their own hands.

    Comment by Gary D. — November 17, 2016 @ 2:30 pm

  11. While i may not agree with some of what Mr. Bannon proposes, its fairly easy to understand that he has shown no inklings of the racist the media has set him out to be. Nor is he anti-semitic. but remember, from the left’s perspective, if you disagree with them, you have to be [insert bad thing here].

    Comment by JeffreyL — November 17, 2016 @ 4:42 pm

  12. In every case involving public figures that I have been involved in during my legal career, the mainstream media narrative about the case has been wrong. The challenge in our age is to sift through the garbage to uncover the useful analysis. We live amidst much noise and little wisdom.

    Comment by Tom Kirkendall — November 17, 2016 @ 6:01 pm

  13. The “lie swarm” is described similarly by Laird Wilcox in the “Protocols of Ritual Defamation- How values, opinions and beliefs are controlled in democratic societies” and Univ. of Notre Dame’s Edward Hammer who observes “stigmatization is one of the most oppressive, inhumane forms of punishment any group of human beings can inflict on one of its members…a form of social control a civilized society will use rarely and only with the greatest care.”

    Comment by Pat Moffitt — November 17, 2016 @ 8:19 pm

  14. How are we supposed to read this with the crap background?

    Comment by stan — November 17, 2016 @ 9:38 pm

  15. Don’t know much about Bannon but are you implying that Trump is not a racist ? So , are we supposed to discount is long and actually consistent racist behaviour and comments ? The mainstream media may be a lot of things but it is a stretch to minimise Trump’s obvious flaws.

    The fact is that USA has elected another leader with very deep character and capability issues and even USA cannot live with 20 years of bad leadership without serious consequences

    Comment by Dhruv — November 18, 2016 @ 12:59 am

  16. Cheer up, Stan; at least it’s not the loathsome white on black.

    Comment by dearieme — November 18, 2016 @ 6:55 am

  17. Nice article – I like the swarm idea.

    One quibble: “Uncle Al” didn’t say it – it’s from the AA big book circa 1935. A clanger like this detracts from overall credibility.

    Comment by Paul Murphy — November 18, 2016 @ 10:42 am


    Comment by LL — November 18, 2016 @ 11:17 am

  19. “Hadn’t it been for the white men, no one in the world still would not know that all humans are equal, women have rights and racism is disgusting”

    (c) Paul Shechtman

    Comment by LL — November 18, 2016 @ 11:24 am

  20. “An anti-Semite used to mean a man who hated Jews. Now it means a man who is hated by Jews.”

    ― Joseph Sobran

    Comment by Henry Barth — November 19, 2016 @ 10:45 am

  21. […] Lots of scorn, slurs and insults directed at Trump’s appointment of his chief advisor, Steve Bannon. The invective is so pervasive and intense, it exemplifies a new phenomenon in the global village: the Lie Swarm.  From the Streetwise Professor (here) […]

    Pingback by Trump Revolution World Outlook | Science Matters — November 19, 2016 @ 11:09 am

  22. I hope Bannon is even half right and the Marxists that hijacked the Democratic Party end up in the political wilderness for the next fifty years.

    When the left squeals like a stuck pig you know you are doing the right thing.

    Comment by Tom — November 19, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

  23. The Russians have a metaphor for someone who knows the difference between UKIP and the National Front–it roughly translates as a connoisseur of shit.

    Comment by aaa — November 19, 2016 @ 7:48 pm

  24. […] target Hanson is, not only did they smear his first pick Bannon with ridiculous lies, but as well, keep reporting that the people are suffering unless President-elect Trump adopts their views.  My favorite is […]

    Pingback by Let’s Talk Turkey: Free Speech in an Autocratic Era | | Reclaim DC — November 20, 2016 @ 3:09 am

  25. […] Lots of scorn, slurs and insults directed at Trump’s appointment of his chief advisor, Steve Bannon. The invective is so pervasive and intense, it exemplifies a new phenomenon in the global village: the Lie Swarm.  From the Streetwise Professor (here) […]

    Pingback by Populist Wave Rolls Into Finland | Science Matters — April 15, 2019 @ 5:50 pm

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