Election 2016

Trump Campaign Leaders Made Movies Comparable to Nazi Propaganda

Breitbart called campaign CEO Steve Bannon the "Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement"—for good reason.

Photo Credit: Screen shot: Battle for America / Citizens United Productions

From before he officially began his campaign for president, Donald Trump hinged his political strategy on his ability to evoke fear in the American people, typically through lies and racism, and to entice just about every news channel into spreading his falsehoods free of charge. After nearly eight years of a black Democratic president who has faced an obstructionist Congress at a time when international terrorism was growing, Trump realized that 2016 was his year to pounce.

Trump, a well-known real estate tycoon and media personality who built up his image over decades, had done plenty to stoke the fires of racism in backlash against President Barack Obama, whose U.S. citizenship he has endlessly called into question. And he knew his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, was marred by several scandals packaged by Republican politicians and flogged continuously by right-wing news outlets and mainstream media.

Doing what he’s always done best—lying, bullying and committing fraud—Trump mobilized millions of angry, fearful white people to stand by his side. But his plan to win the presidency, entirely a media campaign, didn’t just feature his own antics and manipulation of a docile mainstream media. Ultimately, he determined that it required an alliance with some of most extreme right-wing propagandists in America.

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Early on, Trump courted the far right, retweeting posts from the Twitter accounts of white supremacists. He also received support from some he apparently didn’t court, winning praise from the likes of former KKK leader David Duke, and even made the California ballot as the nominee of a racist political party.

Seeing how Steve Bannon had crafted Breitbart News, the right-wing website he ran, into a hub for young white nationalists (the “alt-right”) to bat around conspiracy theories, Trump tapped Bannon on August 17 to be his campaign CEO. As executive chairman of Breitbart, Bannon published deceptive and manufactured stories to aid the right wing, and in the presidential campaign treated his media company as a surrogate for Trump.

On September 1, Trump chose David Bossie, president and chairman of the right-wing nonprofit Citizens United, as his deputy campaign manager. Bossie has produced 25 films with Citizens United Productions. Some of these films feature Bannon as writer, director and executive producer.

It was Bossie’s group whose name came to define the unlimited flow of corporate and union cash into elections, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2010 case Citizens United brought against the Federal Election Commission. At issue was an anti-Clinton Citizens United production called Hillary: The Movie, which the FEC had deemed a campaign advertisement subject to regulation based on campaign finance law. (The movie was produced for airing in the 2008 presidential election, when many expected Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee.) Now Bossie has joined Bannon, his longtime teammate, to run Trump’s campaign of lies and fear-mongering against Clinton.

According to the Washington Post, Bossie’s job in Trump World is “crafting attacks against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, mining past controversies involving her and former president Bill Clinton, and cultivating Trump’s bond with conservative activists.” Bossie has hounded the Clintons for decades, beginning in the early 1990s, when he dug up dirt about Bill Clinton when he was still governor of Arkansas. A few years later, U.S. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) hired Bossie to investigate Clinton’s 1996 campaign fundraising, a post he was later forced to resign. Bossie went on to write a book that blamed the Clinton administration for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and to produce Hillary: The Movie with Citizens United. This year, the group sued the State Department for emails and other records of those who served as aides to Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state. Bossie is taking a leave of absence from Citizens United during the campaign, and also retiring from the Defeat Crooked Hillary super PAC, which he founded this June.

Bossie and Trump are no strangers; in 2014, Trump’s foundation donated $100,000 to the Citizens United Foundation, the same year that the group filed a lawsuit against New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who was suing Trump over the fraudulent practices of Trump University.

Some have wagered that Trump, along with Bannon and former Fox News chief Roger Ailes, is planning a new, post-election media empire, which could help his brand whether he wins or loses. Some think Trump doesn’t want to win the election, but the hiring of Bannon and Bossie may show that Trump, one of the world’s loudest egomaniacs, thinks he deserves the White House and knows the only way to win it is through propaganda that reinforces his giant mountain of fabrications, conspiracies, racism and sexism.

The late Andrew Breitbart, founder of the website Bannon went on to lead, called Bannon the “Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement”—a reference to the infamous creator of Nazi propaganda films. While insisting to a Wall Street Journal reporter in 2011 that his work isn’t propaganda, Bannon went on to cite Riefenstahl among his main influences, along with Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and progressive documentarian Michael Moore.

Ivana Trump, the candidate’s first wife, told Vanity Fair in 1990 that her husband kept a copy of Adolf Hitler’s My New Order, a collection of speeches that display the Nazi dictator’s exceptional ability to manipulate reality, in a cabinet near his bed. “Perhaps his possession of Hitler’s speeches merely indicates an interest in Hitler’s genius at propaganda,” mused Marie Brenner, author of the article.

The Nazi regime produced a massive amount of propaganda; it had an entire Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, headed by Joseph Goebbels. A central technique of Nazi propagandists, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, was to cast Jews as outsiders and dangerous enemies of the Reich, “‘subhuman’ creatures infiltrating Aryan society.”

Karen Elizabeth Price, a filmmaker who teaches courses on documentary film at Duke University, told AlterNet via email that “most successful propaganda films appeal to something that already exists in the viewer—perhaps only as a feeling or germ of an idea—and help to ‘fill in the blanks.’” After Germany had to concede territories and accept blame for World War I and then was hit by the Great Depression, people felt wounded and demoralized. In Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which some regard as the greatest propaganda film of all time, “a solution to that despair is presented in the form of a patriotic savior [in this case, Adolf Hitler] already hard at work, promising to restore Germany to its former power and glory,” said Price.

To explore, in the context of propaganda-making, the kinds of election narratives we’re getting from Trump and his latest campaign roster, I suffered my way through three movies produced by Citizens United: Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration (2006), which had Bannon and Bossie as executive producers; Battle for America (2010), with Bannon as writer, director and producer and Bossie as executive producer; and Occupy Unmasked (2012), written and directed by Bannon with Bossie as executive producer and featuring Andrew Breitbart.

All three Bannon/Bossie films center on an enemy, either “illegal” immigrants, “radical liberals” (a category that in these films includes Obama and the Clintons), or the Occupy Wall Street protesters. To exaggerate the danger of these purported enemies and garner support for those the movies present as America’s defenders, each film uses various propaganda techniques including omissions, juxtaposition, false associations, deceptively edited footage, stereotyping and repetition, all to appeal to viewers’ fear and prejudice. In two of them, the film’s heroes are framed as battling a corrupt or inept political establishment.

‘Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration’

The purpose of “Border War” is clearly to cast undocumented immigrants as threats to American citizens. The film, from 2006, takes us to Nogales, Arizona (a town on the Mexican border), and Southern California, following five characters, four of whom have antipathy for undocumented immigrants: a border patrol agent whose parents emigrated legally from Mexico; a congressman who wrote a bill to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border and station guards all along it; a woman whose husband, a sheriff’s deputy, was killed by an undocumented immigrant he had stopped; a Mexican-American woman who was molested by undocumented immigrants and whose nephew was killed by one. In an attempt to feign balance, also included is an organizer for immigration reform who founded a group that provides water and food to immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The selection of these subjects alone makes clear the film is hardly a documentary but more a selective argument against undocumented immigrants. From the beginning, border crossers are depicted as dangerous; an early scene contains footage of the aftermath of a shootout between “rival gangs of coyotes,” or people whom aspiring immigrants pay to shepherd them across the border. Blood pools beneath a dead trafficker, wrecked cars lie in ditches, and U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth refers to those involved in the incident as “illegals,” while threatening music underscores his comments.

Throughout the film, efforts to brand undocumented immigrants as criminals abound. A ranch owner near the border recounts many undocumented immigrants leaving trash, which he says cattle eat and die from, on his land. Once some migrants “butchered a young calf,” he says. A woman says her hospital in Douglass, Arizona, closed because it lost money treating undocumented immigrants who couldn’t pay. A news broadcast details a drug-smuggling tunnel that runs from Agua Prieta, Mexico to Douglass, Arizona.

Lupe Moreno, whose nephew was killed by an undocumented immigrant, is part of a group called Minuteman, a cadre of vigilante border patrollers labeled a “nativist extremist group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The film doesn’t bother to explain much about the group because if they did, they’d have to acknowledge its disturbing history and ties to neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

One scene shows competing rallies, one in favor of rights for the undocumented and another for strict immigration enforcement. At the latter rally, Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist, who was running for Congress at the time, spoke. In an interview there, Gilchrist claims that at the other rally, “[t]here’s not one American flag out there;” however, he says that in the pro-immigrant demonstration, a “communist flag” and an anarchist flag flew. Gilchrist was running for office as a member of the American Independent Party, the segregationist party of George Wallace. This party, based in California, has actually put Trump on the presidential ballot in that state this year.

On his 2006 campaign website, Gilchrist claimed, “Although some [illegal immigrants from Mexico] presumably have good intentions, at least twenty percent (20%) of southern border-crossers are known criminals, drug dealers, sex traffickers, and gang lords.”

Chris Simcox, Minuteman co-founder, makes an appearance. He’s now in jail for child molestation.

Footage of protesters with bandanas covering their faces appears, some wearing all black, some yelling at mounted police, over brooding music that pervades the film.

“We are in a battle right now,” says Moreno. “We’re in a battle for this nation.”

Moreno met with Trump last year, and Breitbart News was happy to spread the word. Unsurprisingly, Gilchrist endorsed Trump in 2015.

The film features many interviews but few facts. In one of the only scenes to include a statistic, an unidentified agent from California’s Los Angeles County tells a crowd gathered for what appears to be a law enforcement memorial for a sheriff’s deputy shot to death by an undocumented immigrant: “There are 801,000 situations where people have been murdered in the state of California.” It’s unclear what kind of situations he’s talking about and over what period of time, but even so, that’s an insanely high figure for any record of murders in the state. Then he says: “Add up the other border states, now we’re up to 3,000.” If perchance he multiplied the real stat for California by 100,000, Citizens United didn’t bother to clarify or fix his error.

No journalists or researchers were interviewed for “Border War.” Ten years after the film was made, the anti-establishment and “law-and-order candidate” Trump has made a promise to build that wall a signature talking point.

‘Battle for America’

“Battle for America,” a 2010 ode to the then-nascent Tea Party, is more overtly propagandistic than “Border War.” The film devotes 30 minutes to establishing the enemy (the “radical left,” purportedly led by Obama), another 20 minutes to the nation’s problems (ostensibly caused by America’s impending “European socialist model,” the poor economy and international relations and terror threats) and the final half hour to the celebrated bravery of Tea Party activists and the crucial 2010 elections. It’s all narrated by a host of right-wing ideologues including Dick Morris (also host of “Hillary: The Movie”), Lou Dobbs, Ann Coulter and founding Breitbart News editor Michael Flynn.

“We’re being asked to choose right now whether or not the United States is going to continue to be a culture of free enterprise envisioned by our founding fathers or whether or not we’re choosing a new culture, a European-style culture of social democracy,” says Arthur Brooks, president of the Koch brothers-funded American Enterprise Institute.

Employing a repetitive, synthesized and dramatic orchestral score and a remarkable amount of stock footage, the film often flutters between what Bannon and Bossie see as good and evil: for instance, footage of Muslims praying as former Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) warns of “terrorists out there that want to kill us,” then the Statue of Liberty; a Palestinian rally and 9/11 wreckage followed by images of the flowing American flag and U.S. troops on the march.

The movie doesn’t hold back from race-baiting, often showing clips of black people characterized as having bad intentions. Besides Obama, the film depicts as the enemy New York Rep. Charlie Rangel, California Rep. Maxine Waters, Michigan Rep. John Conyers, South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson (“a radical if there ever was one,” says Morris), activist Van Jones—and even Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates (shown having a beer with Obama, Joe Biden and the police sergeant who arrested him at his own home). There’s even a clip of a young black woman rejoicing at Obama’s inauguration; it’s clear that the filmmakers do not intend the viewer to share in her jubilation.

Listing the many problems they have with America under Obama, the far-right narrators bemoan what they claim is Americans’ dependence on government, the failed stimulus and the president’s purported “apology tour”—replete with footage of burning flags; Muslims in traditional dress; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then president of Iran; the socialist Hugo Chávez, then president of Venezuela; and aged video of Fascist troops marching in perfect synchrony. Amidst the sea of mostly unrelated footage, the hosts make absurd claims; for example, one asserts that expanding Medicaid would “move primary care into the emergency room,” when the reality is just the opposite.

In the final third of the film, Bannon lauds the Tea Party, introducing uplifting, trumpet-heavy music and shots of seemingly all-white Tea Party rallies where so-called patriots smile, cheer and wave flags, characterized as standing against socialism and fighting for freedom. In the last segment, “How We Win,” the music shifts, and Newt Gingrich, Dobbs, Coulter and others talk about “an unchecked, unstopped, unlimited Obama radicalism” and how “the last, best hope of the world is at stake” in the 2010 elections, over images of the doomed Titanic, burning forests and collapsing icebergs. Only the Tea Party patriots can save America, “where freedom can flourish,” by voting for liberty-loving conservatives.

In her analysis of Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” Price noted that “perhaps most critically, Germany’s comeback is portrayed as well underway; the viewer need only jump aboard. What is being said implicitly is that there is no alternative.” In “Battle for America,” Bannon and Bossie follow the same formula, positing the Tea Party movement as the bandwagon to jump on. But the formula isn’t the only thing about the film that carries echoes of Goebbels: a researcher and counsel for the film was white nationalist Robert Vandervoort.

‘Occupy Unmasked’

Just two years after making a film lionizing the “grassroots” Tea Party, Bannon and Bossie made a hit piece on another protest movement, this one composed of people concerned about income inequality and angry at the big banks that wrecked the global economy.

Naturally, the propaganda duo resorted to its go-to method when making “Occupy Unmasked”: depicting a war between a vicious enemy and strong, patriotic Americans. It’s a brash film with one obvious goal: to discredit the Occupy Wall Street movement and thus prevent conservatives from caring about the country’s massive wealth disparity.

The film opens with a succession of TV news clips about the national debt, splicing selected segments together over a suspenseful soundtrack in order to dramatize the “debt crisis.” We see an image of Obama with the words “an organizer” floating next to him. Liberals, as in “Battle for America,” are labeled as radicals ready to destroy America as we know it. In fact, the movie has three acts, named after Bannon’s characterization of strategies in Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” a guide for community organizers hailed by the left and scorned by the right. (Ironically, however, Tea Party organizer Dick Armey and other conservatives used some of Alinsky’s tactics.) Bannon frames Occupy as an anarchist group—even the “a” in “Occupy Unmasked” is the anarchist symbol—representing “the organized left,” which is said to be set on securing government handouts.

The late Breitbart himself is the narrator, establishing this war as “the battle for the soul of America.”

“Occupy Unmasked,” like Bannon and Bossie’s other films, uses strange, unrelated footage, often involving people of color, and sets up black people as a representation of evil. While defaming Occupy in an extended opening of the film, they intersperse news clips and footage of protesters with unrelated clips of a dark-skinned snake charmer, all while splicing in clips of “radicals” including Van Jones (“of the far left group, Color of Change”), Princeton professor Cornel West and actor Whoopi Goldberg.

Next comes another common propaganda tactic: using anecdotes to make a general argument. Bannon shows an interview with one Occupy protester who mentions drugs; he extrapolates that the Occupiers only wanted to “create their own Woodstock” with widespread drug use and sex. One woman says that sexual assault occurred, so Bannon portrays Occupy campers as a mob of rapists. “There’s raping and there’s pillaging and there’s pooping,” spouts Breitbart.

While “black bloc” anarchists were a presence at Occupy, they by no means represented the movement as a whole, and progressives criticized them. But Bannon shows countless clips of protesters wearing all black and covering their faces, clashing with police, committing vandalism or marching while holding black flags. Breitbart says the protesters are socialists who want to overthrow the government and create tension with the police.

No one interviewed on camera is a nonpartisan journalist or researcher, yet Bannon and Bossie present their commentators as authorities, failing to disclose their ties to Breitbart News. Pam Key, who worked at Glenn Beck’s The Blaze (she now writes for Breitbart News) and is known for making misleading videos, says, “These people have set off a powder keg, and what is gonna happen, nobody knows … It has the potential of becoming incredibly violent.” She claims Occupiers planned their violence “in tents at night with drugs and weapons.”

Other guests include Mandy Nagy, known online as Liberty Chick, who was a writer and researcher for Breitbart News; Brandon Darby, who once served as an informant for the FBI on left-wing protesters (he now manages Breitbart’s Texas vertical); Christian Hartsock, a Breitbart columnist who has worked with James O’Keefe on misleading sting videos against ACORN and teachers’ unions; and David Horowitz, an author and speaker whom the Southern Poverty Law Center considers an anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim extremist and who frequently writes for Breitbart.

Breitbart himself takes aim at the very concept of community organizing, painting it as the dark province of bad people. “Community organizing is not the American people getting together to help your next door neighbor put food into the cupboard,” he fumes. “Community organiz[ers] are radicals, anarchists, socialists, communists, public sector unions who are hell-bent on a nihilistic destruction of everything that people in American care for.”

In the second segment, “The Issue Is Never the Issue,” Darby and Horowitz relate Occupy to communism and socialism as the movie shows a flurry of clips of Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, the Black Panthers—and images of dead and starving people. “People who were in the left, like the Panthers, could be killers, and they would be protected by the rest of the left,” states Horowitz.

The film then plunges into full-on conspiracy theories, claiming there was a “secret council” leading Occupy that no one knew about; that Hillary Clinton and Obama are out to destroy America because of the “direct line” from Alinsky to both of them.

The finale, featuring a mix of cliché Hollywood orchestral film music and electronically produced industrial metal, somehow ratchets up the alleged danger of Occupy, even throwing in scenes of Greek protesters hurling bombs in Athens, because, hey, why not? “There’s definitely a massive desire to sort of bring the violence of Europe over to America,” claims Key.

Unlike many propaganda films, this one doesn’t offer a glimpse of an America freed from evil, or a distinct entity that will fight them and win, except perhaps Breitbart himself, shown yelling at protesters, “Behave yourself!” and “Stop raping people!”

Now, Bannon and Bossie, this estimable pair of propaganda purveyors, are Trump’s best hope in his deceptive media campaign. Trump’s campaign ads, as well as the conspiracy theories he and his surrogates peddle, would seem to bear their imprint.

What an alliance: A candidate—the original birther, known for creating baseless conspiracy theories, as well as business fraud, pay-to-play politics and using his “charitable” foundation stocked with other people’s money to pay off his company’s court settlements—and the masterminds behind some of the nation’s most shameless far-right propaganda. They’re all working together to put a sociopath in the White House.

Alex Kotch is an independent investigative journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter at @alexkotch.