Radicalization in America

Stacey Lynn Schulman
10 min readJan 10, 2021

The Consequences of Effective Frequency

Licensed from iStock by Getty images

It’s hard to imagine that there can be an image more disturbing than those we have seen over the past few days depicting fractures in the foundation of our way of life. America — and the many freedoms that it has afforded people from all cultures, faiths, and orientations for centuries — is under assault. What makes this threat most frightening is that it is not coming from foreign interests, but from our own, radicalized citizenry. How we got here has a lot to do with principals of propaganda, established practices in advertising effectiveness and the polarization and isolation of our people through the expansion of digital media. Words matter — especially when they are repeated.

As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I was a media and communications major, studying the power of mass media and the role of propaganda in the evolution of fascist movements in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. In those days, radio and television — the most pervasive of mass media vehicles — were seen as powerful forces for good … and evil, not unlike the debate we currently engage in around social media. But in a relatively peaceful time (late 1980’s), the greatest concerns were about the impact on youth of violent film scenes or overly sexualized images. Only the more esoteric scholars like Marshall McLuhan (Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man) and Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death), with whom I studied as a graduate student at NYU, pushed for deeper analyses and warnings of how media and society can intersect and engage in an entirely new ecology.

The free press, on the other hand, was America’s great triumph, offering a beacon to the world on the power of journalism to hold both governments and corporations accountable for any transgressions that upset the balance of political and capitalistic forces. Newspaper and broadcast journalists were highly regarded in this reality, applying high standards to their reporting, requiring credible sources that could be corroborated, and demanding unimpeachable evidence before printing or broadcasting their findings to the public. This public trust was protected by our country’s forefathers in the Constitution in its very first amendment (alongside the right to peaceably assemble) and continues to be an important check on the excesses of power-hungry leadership and profit-hungry corporations in a free society. And so, it is with a heavy heart, that I, like many Americans, find myself reeling in a country that is suffering today from a systematic effort to radicalize its citizenry using the same principals made famous by Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, while also gutting the public trust in the journalistic institutions that were set up as the very safeguard to protect us. In effect, our mass media has been weaponized against us.

Today, as news organizations report on how the President is responding to his Twitter account being permanently suspended and tech companies are dropping access to social platforms like “parler” from their app catalogs, the nation is really grappling with the power of social media to communicate with and mobilize a base of supporters. Social media, the perfect marriage of mass reach and word-of-mouth, is an optimal vehicle for propaganda, but it’s really only part of a total strategy that has included media co-option, public rallies and, importantly, rhetoric, that leans heavily on memorable and repetitive phrases and calls-to-action. Let’s review Hitler’s basic Principals of Propaganda, informed by Goebbel’s work, to see how they mirror what we’ve been witnessing over the past 5 years of modern-day “Trumpism”:

Goebbel’s Tenets of Propaganda in the Context of Modern-Day Trumpism

Goebbel’s Tenets of Propaganda in the Context of Modern-Day Trumpism

As a media scholar, it would be unfair of me not to also consider the conditions under which Trumpism has been able to blossom in the United States. As content channels have exploded and life has become more digital, media exposure has become more individual and messages more targeted. The rise of cable television in the 1980’s and 1990’s provided for news networks with a point-of-view (namely CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News Network). More news presentation than investigative journalism, these channels provide a steady diet of biased analysis in their reporting, allowing viewers to choose a news service that fits with their particular world view. The only problem with this is that an unbalanced media diet of only a singular point-of-view removes the possibility of objectivity over time. Notably, local broadcast news (not cable) is considered in many consumer polls to be the least biased, largely because they deliver basic information — traffic, weather, sports — to communities without the spectre of opinion.

Digital media today (apps, websites, social) offer an even more narrow path to content consumption, allowing us to delve deeply into content we like, teach algorithms to serve us with similar content, and ultimately limit our choices by virtue of mathematical corralling. As citizens we believe we are exercising “choice” over an unlimited selection set, but over the course of time, we are in actuality offered choices among similar options, reinforcing a world view and de-sensitizing ourselves from even trying to understand anything or anyone other than our own tribe. The isolation that is forged by continuous use of digital media as a communication tool also strips us of the more human consequences and rewards of physical interaction, making us less sensitive to others that we can easily label without actually “facing.” There are no consequences to verbally assaulting an avatar, no tears in breaking up over a text message. Hence, it is no wonder we find ourselves in a time of partisan politics and extremist groups. Add to this the advancements of technology that provide for “deep fakes” — imagery and video that appear authentic but have been manipulated to fool an audience into believing an individual has actually spoken certain words, behaved in certain ways or fraternized with certain individuals — and we have a tinder box just waiting to be lit. Absent media literacy, a dis-gruntled and under-educated republic is ripe for radicalization.

With all of this as context, I return to the events of the last several months to explore this idea that the combination of propagandistic rhetoric and accessibility/shareability of media have ultimately led us to this critical moment.

In the professional media world we’ve always understood “effective frequency” to mean having your audience or target market hear or see your message three or more times in order to influence memorability and evoke a response. Even before the general election had taken place, Trump began to sow the seeds of an insurance policy against his potential loss at the polls by introducing doubt into the security of the election process. As early as May 2020, Trump began tweeting that the practice of mail-in voting would yield “the greatest rigged election in history,” correctly fearing that Democratic voters would participate in large numbers with a mail-in option and diminish his chances for re-election. As we got closer to the election, multiple lawsuits were brought in several states to attempt to either limit the use of mail-in ballots or the time in which mail-in ballots could be accepted. And, of course, since the election there have been no fewer than 95 lawsuits filed in 14 states and the District of Columbia, challenging the results. How successful was the “rigged election” rhetoric? One day after the election, a “Stop the Steal” Facebook group opened a page and amassed 320,000 followers before it was shut down by Facebook one day later on November 5th. Between Election Day and last Wednesday, the day of the insurrection, the President, his family members, lawyers and close allies posted on Twitter more than 200 times about election fraud. In turn, those posts were retweeted nearly 3.5 million times and liked more than 9 million times. As of today, if you type “rigged election” into a Google search, you’ll find 64.1 million results. Clearly, frequency has been effectively achieved, but to what end? Here’s where the parallels to media and advertising end, and a clear, systematic approach to propaganda begin.

Of most concern, obviously, is the kind of rhetoric that incites violence. Arguably, the Trump base is generally highly energized and motivated to action. As the weeks post-election began to slip away and the lawsuits proved unsuccessful, the rhetoric evolved from a plaintive anthem using words like ‘rigged’, ‘unfair’, and ‘dishonest’ to a more revolutionary cry meant to mobilize the base to fight. “Stop the Steal” was just the beginning. By December 19th, after the electoral college met, Trump tweeted at 1:42am that it was “statistically impossible” for him to have lost the presidential election and that there would be a “big protest in DC” on January 6th. “Be there, will be wild!”

Within hours, Kylie Jane Kremer, the founder of the Stop the Steal Facebook group, re-tweeted the President’s comments and added “the cavalry is coming, Mr. President!” Trump, in turn, retweeted her post, adding, “A great honor!” With the call to action in place, thousands of online groups on multiple platforms began mobilizing to descend on Washington, D.C. on January 6th.

By early January, Republican lawmakers were seizing on the momentum, reacting to lost court battles with even more incendiary rhetoric to right-wing news outlets like Newsmax, “basically, in effect, the ruling would be that you got to go to the streets and be as violent as Antifa,” said Louie Gohmert, a Republican representative from Texas. And Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, rallied a crowd ahead of the Georgia runoff elections on January 1st, likening the Republicans in attendance to Revolutionary War fighters, “the men and women that are gathered here are just like the patriots gathered at Bunker Hill, the patriots at Valley Forge, the men and women gathered here and across the great state of Georgia are fighting for the United States of America.” He ended by claiming, “We will not go quietly into the night. We will defend liberty. And we are going to win.” Battle rhetoric was all over the Trump campaign’s fundraising letters on January 3rd, calling for donors to “step up to the front lines of this nasty battle”, asking outright, “will you fight for your Country?” and claiming that, “in 3 days we will CRUSH the Radical Left.”

And, finally, there was the trifecta on January 6th:

· As the warm-up act to his father’s speech, Don Jr. provoked the crowd, claiming, “If you’re gonna be the zero and not the hero, we’re coming for you and we’re going to have a good time doing it!”

· Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer suggests to the crowd that they engage “trial by combat

· President Trump leads the crowd to their next and final act, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong … I know everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building.”

Although Trump himself did not walk with the crowd to the Capitol, he was arguably still impacting their behavior from the safety of the White House. Investigators and journalists on the scene have been able to piece together and connect the timing of events, demonstrating how Trump was tweeting in real time, as the attack was ongoing:

Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2021

Almost within minutes, the mob inside of the Capitol began chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” as they flooded through the halls. A noose had been erected outside the Capitol building and several individuals photographed among the mob carried temporary zip cuffs, suggesting that the crowd intended to either take hostages, or worse, conduct executions. In the moment, it is understandable how both the crowd became caught up in the energy of the assault and the legislators inside the Capitol building clearly feared for their safety.

In the days that have followed the insurrection at the Capitol, much has already been written, unearthed and processed — and there will be much more to come in our highly mediated society. My own attempt to process and understand what has happened, what is happening, is unfolding as I’m sure it is for many of you. Perhaps the writing of this piece is part of my processing, and hopefully it may help some of you in turn. For this moment, in the research I’ve been able to find, and in my training and practice in the media industry, there is a clear pattern of incendiary rhetoric that can be documented and an artful use of propaganda at play, whether intentional or not. For those who haven’t been abiding the lessons of history, it’s not too late to get educated, raise your awareness and share your perspectives with others. The players in Wednesday’s insurrection will ultimately be made to answer for their parts in this attack on our republic, but the harder work will come as we try to repair a broken nation from these ashes. Leaning in to the grievances of those who have been radicalized in our society is the work of our incoming administration. “Inclusiveness” and “color-blindness” are not palliatives for this group, so getting to the heart of their hurt will be important if we are to find a way to unite. Just as important, though, will be a willingness to challenge ourselves to ask tough questions about the kind of society we truly want to be, and there will not be simple answers. There is a lot to unpack from the events of the last few years. Open debate is needed about the role and rules around digital technology in our society; the importance of fundamental education, critical thinking and media literacy skills; and our commitment to the human side of our existence including the relationships we have with our neighbors and family members who may hold very different views from our own. At stake is the vibrance of our belief in the liberty and justice we trust in for all.



Stacey Lynn Schulman

Media Ecologist. Top 10 Billboard Jazz Vocalist. Evangelist for "Keeping it Human." Visit hihumaninsight.com for insights, asisjazz.com for inspiration.