An outspoken free press is one of the great obstacles to demagogues, who prefer simplistic propaganda to open public debate. The Trump government exemplifies this maxim. It loathes both honest reportage and critical opinion, it seeks to brand uncomfortable truths as lies, and through making direct contact with its audience it tries to evade the filters of fact-checking and sceptical assessment. Whether or not Trump and his entourage understand this, these moves propel them ineluctably into the realm of history’s past masters of political propaganda and the repression of dissent.
Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary, press conference, White House, 21 January 2017
‘Good evening. Thank you guys for coming. I know our first official press briefing is going to be on Monday, but I wanted to give you a few updates on the President’s activities. But before I get to the news of the day, I think I’d like to discuss a little bit of the coverage of the last 24 hours.
‘Yesterday, at a time when our nation and the world was watching the peaceful transition of power and, as the President said, the transition and the balance of power from Washington to the citizens of the United States, some members of the media were engaged in deliberately false reporting …
‘[P]hotographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way, in one particular tweet, to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the National Mall … No one had numbers, because the National Park Service, which controls the National Mall, does not put any out … We do know a few things, so let’s go through the facts. We know that from the platform where the President was sworn in, to 4th Street, it holds about 250,000 people. From 4th Street to the media tent is about another 220,000. And from the media tent to the Washington Monument, another 250,000 people. All of this space was full when the President took the Oath of Office. We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama’s last inaugural. This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.’
Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, Berlin Sportpalast, 10 February 1933
‘Before this meeting opens, I would like to make a few remarks. To begin with, I would like to take issue with a series of attacks by the Berlin press, which does not want to see me being broadcast by the entire German radio network, because what I have to say is too insignificant, too trivial and too mendacious to be brought to the attention of the whole world.
‘This evening you are witnessing by eye and ear a mass event of a scope that has no precedent in Germany, probably in the whole world. I think it would be not be saying too much to assert that this evening at least twenty million people in Germany and beyond Germany’s borders will be listening to the speech of Reich chancellor Adolf Hitler. In Berlin alone, in addition to this great mass demonstration in the Sportpalast, ten large loudspeakers have been installed in public places. And already literally walls of people are assembling at these loudspeakers, and at least 500,000 or 600,00 members of the public who will hear this speech are standing by these loudspeakers’.
Sean Spicer, White House press conference, 21 January 2017
‘The President is committed to unifying our country, and that was the focus of his inaugural address. This kind of dishonesty in the media, the challenging — that bringing about our nation together is making it more difficult. There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable. And I’m here to tell you that it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable, as well. The American people deserve better. And as long as he serves as the messenger for this incredible movement, he will take his message directly to the American people where his focus will always be’.
Joseph Goebbels, Berlin Sportpalast speech, 10 February 1933
‘One has to govern well, and alongside good government conduct good propaganda. The one belongs with the other … If the Jewish press still thinks it can intimidate the National Socialist movement with veiled threats, if they think they can evade our emergency decrees, they should watch out! One day our patience will run out, and then the Jews will find their impudent, lying traps plugged….
‘That is what I wanted to settle with the opposition press and the opposition parties. That is what I wanted to say to you personally across the German broadcasting system and its millions of listeners’.
Stephen Bannon, reported in the New York Times, 26 January 2017
‘The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while. I want you to quote this. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States’.
Jane Caplan is Emeritus Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and Emeritus Marjorie Walter Goodhart Professor of European History at Bryn Mawr College. She is a leading historian of Nazi Germany and the history of the documentation of individual identity. Professor Caplan was involved in establishing one of Britain’s first university courses in women’s studies. She is also an editor of History Workshop Journal.