Reading Karl Rove's false characterization of Barack Obama as an elitist -- "the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette, that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by," I thought that Mr. Rove would have made a good Communist. Let me explain.
Some years ago, shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, I had the pleasure of attending a dinner party in London with the well-known Soviet era historian Isaiah Berlin. I had lived in Poland, covering the Solidarity movement for Newsweek, and the conversation soon turned to the Soviet Union and the surprisingly rapid deterioration of the Communist system. Mr. Berlin was quite old -- this was a few years before his death -- and he spoke in a whisper, so that even though I was seated next to him, I had to lean over very closely to hear him. He said that in his opinion there was only one great achievement of the Soviet Union: Public Relations. "Because they convinced some of the best minds of that generation that something bad was good," he said.
Mr. Rove has clearly followed that playbook, though in this case, he has reversed the order. He would have us believe that something good is bad. The strategy is simply to take the truth and turn it 180 degrees so that you attack your opponent for the exact opposite of what he stands for. Its power rests on its bold simplicity -- because what is said is so clearly and so outrageously opposed to the truth, people can't believe you would risk such an obvious lie. But you state it with authority, as if it were true, and your cynical faith in the gullibility of the public assures you it will be believed, at least by some people.
This tactic -- which Nazi propaganda called "The Big Lie" -- was also used successfully by several generations of communist governments in the Soviet Bloc. When I first arrived in Poland I was schooled in detecting and dissecting this technique by several anti-communist dissidents. I couldn't understand how the government could get away with public accusations that could be clearly proven untrue. But my more experienced Polish friends soon explained this to me. "They know that once something is said publicly, no matter how outrageous the claim, there will always be some people who will believe it." said my friend Ewa Zadrzynska then a reporter for the communist journal Politka. "This is their method of thought manipulation and it is surprisingly effective."
The Swiftboat Veterens found this policy worked. In the last election, they took the excellent military record of John Kerry and claimed his heroism was actually cowardice. Outrageous, one might say. No one would believe it. But apparently thought manipulation works as well here as it did in the Soviet Bloc -- throw in out-and-out lies, a dash of conspiracy theory and a general distrust of the media and you have cooked a stew of misinformation that helped defeat the Democratic candidate in 2004.
And now you have this silly claim that Barack Obama, the first black candidate for President, the son of an abandoned single mother who, for some part of his childhood, was forced to live on food stamps, the community organizer and even-tempered seeker of justice is, of all things, an "elitist." The man known for his accessibility and likeability, the man least likely to "stand against the wall making snide comments about everyone who passes by" is accused of doing it and by whom? By the very man who imagines it because he and his cronies are precisely the types to do it. How does he get away with this?
Well, maybe this time he won't. Maybe this time, we Americans will be smarter than we were four years ago. Maybe we will refuse to allow ourselves to be so grossly manipulated. Maybe we will realize that this claim of Barack Obama being an "elitist" is a cynical ploy aimed at giving people who don't want to elect a black man a more socially acceptable reason to vote against him.
But there is hope. Even in communist Poland, the state told so many bald-faced lies that it lost all credibility -- in fact it had a negative credibility. A taxi driver asked my husband and I, shortly after our arrival, if it was true that New York (during the crime-filled late 1970's) was really one of the safest cities in the world. We hesitated. "We love New York and it has many things to recommend it," we said, "but we can't really say that a low crime rate is one of them. Why do you think that?"
"Well," answered, the taxi driver. "Our government tells us every day that New York is a dangerous, crime-ridden city, so I know the opposite must be true."
In this case, even when the government told the truth, the public had been conditioned not to believe anything it said. If the Republican propaganda machine isn't careful, it risks the same fate.