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Propaganda Works. More Democrats Should Use It

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg poses for photographs with supporters during his campaign launch of "Mike for Black America" on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg poses for photographs with supporters during his campaign launch of "Mike for Black America" on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Whatever you think about former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, his massive advertising push has been effective enough to vault him onto the debate stage this week, and into the thick of the race for the Democratic nomination.

The tenor of Bloomberg’s ads has also been striking. He’s decided to troll Trump, by taking aim not just at his policies, but his weight, his disrespect for the military, his misogyny and his cheating.

Trump, obviously, has been using provocative tactics since he first announced his candidacy. And with the pressures of the impeachment behind him, he’s sure to use the same playbook in 2020: racial demagoguery, misogyny, fraudulent promises, an open reliance on foreign interference, and, of course, a deluge of digital advertising targeted at specific audiences.

Bloomberg’s surge has affirmed the need for Democrats to show that they can, and should, punch back against Trump

This time around, Trump will have the full power of incumbency behind him, along with a media all-too-willing to fall for his distractions and amplify his rhetoric.

To defeat Trump at the ballot box, Democrats will need to face three ugly truths that Bloomberg seems to have grasped: 1) Propaganda works; 2) They should use it; 3) Micro-targeting is essential.

I don’t mean that Democrats should resort to blatant lies or conspiracy theories, as the Trump campaign does. It does mean that they need to start churning out ads that hit voters where they live: in their emotions, not their intellect.

Indulge me here as I play the role of creative director. Here are three potential advertisements that illustrate the approach I’m proposing Democrats take.

Title: “This American Carnage”

In this Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, students gather at an event at Pine Trails Park for the victims of the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
In this Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, students gather at an event at Pine Trails Park for the victims of the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Image: Victims of mass shootings, both children and adults, footage of shooters with assault rifles. In short: a collage of carnage, quick cut together.

Atmospheric noise: Gunshots, sirens, wailing survivors, Trump intoning the phrase “This American carnage” from his inaugural speech.

Voice over [deep, ominous male baritone]: For the last four years, it’s been open season on innocent Americans. Men with machine guns have turned our churches and malls, our clubs and concerts, into killing fields. The murderers seem to have one thing in common … they love Donald Trump.

Final image: The van of domestic terrorist Cesar Sayoc, plastered with pro-Trump images, and the manifesto of the El Paso killer, with his praise of Trump highlighted.

Targeted demographic: Voters in communities that have endured mass shootings.

Here’s another idea.

Title: “Is This What We’ve Become?”

In this Feb. 19, 2019 file photo, children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Florida. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
In this Feb. 19, 2019 file photo, children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Florida. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Images: Footage of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers tearing panic-stricken children from their parents, migrant children crammed into cages, looking confused and distraught.

Atmospheric noises: Children and parents weeping, officers yelling, Trump saying of Mexicans “they’re rapists.”

Voiceover [a quavering maternal voice]: The Trump regime has abducted more than 5,000 children from their parents, some of them barely a year old. Dozens have been sexually abused in U.S. custody, all of them have been traumatized. Seven children have died. Where is this leading? Is this what we’ve become?

Final Image: Nazis abducting Jewish children from their parents and marching them into concentration camps; Japanese children in internment camps.

Targeted demographic: Latinx voters

And one final concept.

Title: “After the Flood”

In this June 19, 2019 file photo, a postal worker returns to their truck parked on a flooded street in Miami caused by high tides. Flooding due to climate change-related sea level rising pose substantial economic risks to Florida. (/Ellis Rua/AP)
In this June 19, 2019 file photo, a postal worker returns to their truck parked on a flooded street in Miami caused by high tides. Flooding due to climate change-related sea level rising pose substantial economic risks to Florida. (/Ellis Rua/AP)

Images: Entire communities decimated by fire or flooding, homes underwater, survivors fleeing in panic, glaciers plummeting into the sea.

Atmospheric noises: An official voice calling for evacuation, first responders barking orders, victims shouting amid howling winds and roaring fire.

Voiceover [sober male voice]: For decades, scientists have warned us that climate change is the single greatest threat to our species. Trump and his friends in the fossil fuel industry call it a hoax. I guess they don’t watch the news. If you don’t act now, your children and grandchildren will pay a horrible price.

Final image: A time-lapse map showing rising sea levels swallowing up our eastern seaboard dissolving into the image of a single family, with children, trapped on a rooftop amid rising waters.

Targeted demographic: Voters in coastal communities such as Florida and North Carolina; young voters.

The same techniques could be used to highlight the rise of white nationalism (“Some Very Fine People”), Trump’s eerie acquiescence to Russia (“With You, All Roads Lead to Putin”), Trump’s disrespect for military families and heroes (“Captain Bone Spurs Likes People That Weren’t Captured”), and so on.

To be clear, the Democratic nominee can and should focus on policy — climate change, health care, immigration, tax reform, income inequality — and should exhort our media to do the same. But in the digital world, where Americans spend more and more of their time and attention, Democrats also need a more visceral approach.

There are certainly legitimate questions about whether a billionaire with centrist policies is the right candidate to galvanize the Democratic base. But there’s also no doubt that Bloomberg’s surge has affirmed the need for Democrats to show that they can, and should, punch back against Trump, who is — like all bullies — nothing more than a weakling in disguise.

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Related:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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