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  • Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin

Why Does Anyone Believe Donald Trump? The Trump/Putin Culture, Disinformation, and Propaganda Operation Explained

By Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin


This is Part 1 of a series detailing the problem when one-third of the electorate and a majority of Republicans have disengaged from news, information, facts, evidence, and reasonable political discourse.

Part 2 “How to Win the Culture War and the 2024 Election” describes a possible solution to this problem.

Spoiler: Both parts are a lot about hats.



Early in 2017, we had the opportunity to share our thoughts on the 2016 election with the incoming Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez. Because we were not surprised by Trump’s 2016 victory, we had a head start on our analysis of the Democrats’ loss. We were advising Democrats to stop talking about the economy as a series of statistics and poll-tested economic policies and understand the economic pain of the American heartland marked by hollowed-out factory towns and farm foreclosures. Our recommendation was to prioritize infrastructure, innovation, education, and job training to bring manufacturing and other good jobs to the middle of America especially the battleground “Blue Wall” states. Perez asked good questions but at the conclusion of the meeting he turned the conversation to the question on his mind, “I just want to understand what it is about those damn hats?”


Perez understood that in the 2016 election, (Trump’s) culture had eaten (the Democrats’) strategy for breakfast. Trump had used cultural signals of masculinity, strength, bullying, and lies, and a shifting set of “us” versus “them” narratives, to take control of the Grand Old Party (GOP) from what had been considered a Bush family dynasty to win the Republican nomination, and then added to the Republican base enough independent, unaligned, and former Democratic voters to achieve a narrow victory in the 2016 general election. Perez wanted to understand how Trump did it and how the hats fit in? We did not have a good answer to his question then, but we have not since stopped thinking about it.

What neither we nor Chairman Perez understood then was the degree to which Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were facing a new adversary in the 2016 election, an alliance of the most aggressive and divisive Republican political operatives, with the most effective propaganda methods under the direction of Vladimir Putin and the Russian intelligence and disinformation services. Based on the research we did for our 2022 book, Divided We Fall, Why Consensus Matters and subsequently, we now understand the sophistication of the cultural communications employed in the 2016 campaign that continued throughout Trump’s term in office and the 2020 reelection campaign, into the “Stop the Steal” conspiracy, and now into the 2024 campaign. Trump did not start the “Culture War”, but he has exploited every division and conflict within the American body politic to secure the attention, and ultimately the loyalty, of his followers.


Through constant repetition of deliberately cruel and deliberately false messages Trump has earned a loyal following – roughly one-third of all American voters and a majority of Republican voters – that believe only what Trump tells them to believe as “truth,” and actively tune out information that contradicts the misinformation, propaganda, and falsehoods. One-third of the American electorate believes what Trump says because they have followed his appeals to wall themselves off from facts and opinions, reason and evidence coming from their family and friends, all media, and any authorities.  


Trumpism is not as much a political philosophy as it is a language. Trump’s slogans, his attacks on the media, his nicknames for his opponents, and distorted reality charges of his adversaries’ corruption reach his followers through the media channels he directly controls. Any contrary information is labeled “fake news.” Climate science, is labeled “a hoax.” During a global pandemic, the advice of experts in public health and medicine from the CDC and NIH is contradicted with advice from internet memes. The MAGA faithful learn the language and practice his arguments in chatrooms on Truth Social and Telegram, and deeper underground online meetups for the likeminded and hostile. In doing so they are not debating the arguments made by Trumps critics in politics and the media, they are practicing ignorance and intolerance, and they are inoculating themselves and other MAGA faithful from any information that contradicts the Trump alternative reality.


Trump’s MAGA movement has redefined conservatism, not as a political philosophy with aims and objectives, but simply as opposition to every Democratic policy objective and every group in the Democratic coalition. Ronald Reagan, building on a foundation of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, redefined conservatism to mean fiscal responsibility, free trade economics, “family values” and personal responsibility, and a robust foreign policy in defense of western democracies against authoritarian dictatorships like Russia, China, and North Korea. All of these positions have been abandoned or repudiated by Trump. Family values and personal responsibility is being represented by a twice divorced adulterer, seeking immunity to avoid responsibility for multiple allegations of improper behavior. Fiscal conservatism has been replaced by absolutism on tax rates and large deficits. The Reagan-Bush-Cheney “peace through strength” neo-conservatism has been labeled “warmongering” and replaced with appeasement for Vladimir Putin’s expansionist aggression.


To a large degree, conservativism no longer has any political meaning in America in 2024 other than support for whatever Trump says he wants, and opposition to anything liberals want. MAGA means opposition to multiculturalism, anti-racism, inclusion and acceptance of diversity, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, gender equality, and reproductive rights. MAGA means school-like bullying for anyone who is different by disability, race, religion, country of origin, gender identification, anyone held out as an authority like Anthony Fauci, and any liberal hero, or heroine, especially strong women like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.  


The Lying Is the Point, The Cruelty Is the Point

With the assistance of Vladimir Putin’s disinformation machinery, and borrowing techniques pioneered by the world’s most notorious totalitarian regimes, Trump has been relentlessly pressing a propaganda assault through the right-wing “news” echo chamber and his own social media channels.  The propaganda has more than these ten principal elements:


1)     Haters gonna hate: Trump launched his initial 2016 campaign with a message to anyone who hated any group, that he hated them just as much, or more. If you did not like Mexican immigrants, Muslims who might be terrorists, Women with opinions, Jews in control of the media, African American mayors of crime ridden cities, Liberals and Communists, and truly the list goes on and on, Trump would say something so politically incorrect as to shock liberal commentators in the news media -- the group he hated most of all.

2)     Good ones and bad ones: Trump chooses his words carefully to criticize the bad members of any category, while allowing that some are good and would be welcome members of MAGA. In announcing his campaign in 2012 Trump criticized Mexican immigrants as drug runners, criminals, and rapists while allowing that “some of them, I assume, are good people.” The exceptions to nearly every rule allow women, African American, and immigrant MAGA supporters permission to forget or ignore his swipes at their own group while being attracted to the vitriol aimed at other groups.

3)     “Fake News”: One of the most potent propaganda tools is the planting of false stories into the public discourse, and Special Council Robert Mueller investigated and charged 13 Russians agents working in the Internet Research Agency with breaking US law to plant thousands of manufactured false stories on American social media news feeds to help Trump win the close 2016 election. But when this activity was labeled “fake news” by traditional media, an even more powerful propaganda tool was relabeled. Trump charged that all of the American media was “fake news” instructing his supporters to stop reading newspapers, watching cable television (even FOX News when they informed their viewers that Joe Biden won the 2020 election) and tune into NewsMax, and One American News (OAN). Trump created “Truth Social” when Twitter factchecked his posts and then removed his account. (Trump ally Elon Musk has since purchased Twitter and restored the account.)  

4)     Everyone Lies: Trump constantly accuses the media of lying but this is just one example of a broad pattern of accusations. Trump has accused Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, nearly every Democrat, and many Republicans, who have raised a point of disagreement with any of Trump’s false statements. Nearly everyone who has ever testified against Trump in any of his civil, criminal, or impeachment trials has been called a liar. This includes many women alleging improper or adulterous relationships, former business associates and lawyers, and many government officials in the State Department, and the White House.

5)     Question authority: Trump repeatedly works to delegitimize the government, the Constitution, elections, the rule of law, law enforcement, the courts and perhaps most ominously many leaders of the US military. Republicans have been campaigning against the government since Ronald Reagan declared it to be the problem rather than the solution to problems, but the imagined nefariousness of a “deep state” of unelected federal employees enforcing laws, regulating business and individuals, and injecting vaccines into our bloodstreams, creates a license to replace the entire non-political Civil Service with political MAGA loyalists in any second Trump term. But the effort is broader than just delegitimizing government employees who present evidence of Trump’s mistakes and misdeeds, Trump has relentlessly sought to undermine any authority and all expertise by attacking universities, research laboratories, and anyone who presents information in contradiction to his false messages.    

6)     Blaming elites for American carnage: Trump’s inaugural address blamed Washington elites for enriching themselves “while the people have borne the cost” and “rusted-out factories [are] scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” This was part of a broader message to divide Americans by economic class and geography, but mostly it is an effort to divide Americans by culture. Trump country is being defined in the red counties outside the big cities, where people listen to country music, attend church, hunt, and join the military. Trump’s opponents live in major cities like Washington, New York, San Francisco, Hollywood, and Portland Oregon, where in Trump’s telling, they make all the money, think they run the world and tell people what to do, where “radical socialists” build protest encampments, burn and loot stores, and hate Trump and normal Americans.

7)     Expressions of disgust: Trump frequently uses the word “disgusting” against his targets, referring to (often female) body parts and bodily fluids. Trump’s opponents come from dirty countries or US cities described as rat-infested. After launching the 2016 campaign with chants of “build the wall” immigrants more recently have been described as “poisoning the blood” of America.

8)     The big lie loyalty tests. By telling too many lies to count, Trump is not merely creating an alternate reality, he is creating a loyalty test to bind other Republican leaders, and conservative news sources like Fox News, to the MAGA movement. Just as criminal gangs require new recruits to break laws, commit violence or murder, Trump requires his supporters to sacrifice their credibility outside the MAGA world by endorsing his whoppers, and this in turn spreads the misinformation among the MAGA faithful. The message to Republican elected officials at any level is simple, you are either in, all the way in, or you are out, and you will be called a RINO and face a well-funded primary challenge.

9)     Normalizing violence: From his early support for police violence against detained suspects, to his use of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters as agent provocateurs at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 (the “hostages” whom he now proudly salutes at the start of every campaign rally), to images of a hog-tied President Biden in a recent Trump campaign ad, Trump is deliberately raising fears of more widespread violence following the 2024 election. Trump also uses violent language and imagery in statements when talking about policies as when his campaign explained his prediction that there would be a bloodbath if he fails to win this election as expressing concern for automobile sales declining.

10)  The Trump Bible: The more recent intertwining of violent imagery with messianic, apocalyptic, prophecies of the “storm” and the “end times” further raises the threat level. By selling his own Bible printed with the Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance, Trump is openly courting support from the Christian Nationalist movement seeking to violate the separation of church and state guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution and establish the USA as a Christian nation and deify Trump as their leader and prophet.   


All of this adds up to a sustained campaign against democracy, the truth, and the rule of law. The through line of these propaganda messages is for followers to trust Trump, and only Trump, to tell them what to fear, who to hate, and when to fight. As Trump said on May 1 (May Day) in Freedland Michigan, “2024 is our final battle. With you at my side we will demolish the deep state. We will expel the warmongers from our government. We will drive out the globalists. We will cast out the communists, Marxists, and fascists. We will throw off the sick political class that hates our country. We will rout out the fake news media. We will drain the swamp.” On the same day, in response to a question by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about whether he will accept the results of the 2024 election, Trump answered “If everything’s honest, I will gladly accept the results … If it’s not you have to fight for the right of our country.”


Those Damn Hats:

And so, what about “those damn hats” to answer Tom Perez’s question. In 2016 Democrats could understand hats were part of a branding campaign, showing support for the candidate, and raising campaign contributions, but we now understand the hats support the culture, propaganda, and loyalty campaign on many of these levels.


The hats make a statement about masculinity, elitism, class, and geography. In a major city, in 2016 this style of baseball cap was only fashionable among elites when they were headed to a baseball game or a golf course. You would rarely see a television anchorman, lawyer, politician, banker, or Wall Street trader wearing this sort of cap with a business suit, as has become Trump’s sartorial signature. But if you went to a NASCAR race, a shopping mall, or a PTA meeting in a non-urban setting throughout America you would, and still do, see this style of cap showing support for a NASCAR team, a tractor manufacturer, seed supply company, a rifle club, or a military or paramilitary unit on most of the men and some of the women. They sell them at nearly every truck-stop and convenience store un rural America. It is not a Stetson cowboy hat, that was the style of J. R. Ewing on “Dallas,” and a symbol of the Bush family campaigns Trump was then defeating for control of the Republican Party in the 2016 primaries.


By 2024, the red MAGA hat is now most importantly a symbol of loyalty, and humiliation when given to his defeated primary foes. Trump’s message to any Republican who has ever uttered a cross word, or spoken the truth about him, is a threat of political career assassination – the list is long and growing -- but all can be forgiven for any that choose to repent and put on a red MAGA hat when the cameras are rolling.    


The red MAGA hat, like the brown shirts of the German National Socialist Party in 1938, is becoming a uniform that signals loyalty to a man, and a movement. It identifies the wearer with the growing group of “us” that are committed to standing up to the ever shifting “them.” The red MAGA hat defines a collective commitment to a shared set of “truths,” beliefs, and a shared narrative about past and current wrongs. Trump has immunized his supporters against any truth that would contradict his lies and is redefining strength and masculinity as a culture of imperviousness to contradictory facts and opinion of friends and family members, and authorities and information sources that are vilified corrupt and fake.


Many Americans remember the days after the 2016 victory as the time when Trump made the liberals cry, and this was the greatest political moment of their lives. Trump promises a return to that elation, and retribution and punishment for MAGA’s enemies. The Red MAGA hat represents a collective commitment to fight for this outcome through political participation, and for many paring the hat with camouflage and paramilitary fashions, to fight beyond the bounds of political conflict with lies, political fraud, rejection of the rule of law, threats, and other means up to and including violence.


The fact that one-third of American voters, and a majority Republican voters now view themselves as full members of the MAGA Republican Party is a stunning achievement for the Trump/Putin propaganda campaign, and an ongoing severe threat to American democracy, whether Trump wins or loses the 2024 election. Of course, everything would be worse if Trump wins and is empowered to block his federal criminal trials and seek retribution on his enemies. But Trump’s takeover of the GOP is a problem in-and-of-itself that will continue to disrupt politics and government well into the future. American politics is being stretched to the breaking point, but it has not yet broken. The House and Senate passed, and President Biden signed, a bill funding military aid to Ukraine over the objections of Putin, Trump, and many extreme MAGA Republicans, and there is still an election to be won.


The fact that one-third of American voters, and a majority Republican voters now view themselves as full members of the MAGA Republican Party creates a political opportunity for those who want to see American democracy win the next election, because two-thirds of Americans have not chosen to live in the MAGA disinformation walled garden. Trump and Biden are currently tied in head-to-head polling which, in round numbers, means one-in-six voters (50% - 33% = 17% | Trump’s share of the 100% vote minus MAGA’s share) who are not in the MAGA propaganda zone, but are now telling pollsters they would vote for Trump if the election were held today. These are the voters whose minds need to be changed by November.


Our answer to how best to do this, Part 2 “How to Win the Culture War and the 2024 Election,” will be coming soon.


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