Sean McFate was an infantry officer in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and then, in 2004 as a private military contractor, was tasked to prevent a genocide in Burundi. After he left his career as a “door kicker,” he finished his graduate work at Harvard and got a Ph.D. in international relations at the London School of Economics. Now he teaches senior military and governmental officers strategy at Georgetown and the National Defense University.
McFate could be accused of being a “globalist” in the same way that George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Charlie Beckwith, the founder of Delta Force, could be called “globalists” — meaning that only ostriches, the dangerously naive and Russian propagandists want the U.S. to stay out of international affairs.
In his latest book, “The New Rules of War,” McFate argues that uncreative, stuck-in-the-past, conventional thinking has prevented the United States military from decisively winning its wars since 1945, and so he offers strategists 10 new rules of war to follow to advance our national security.
Rule No. 5 is “The best weapons do not fire bullets.” These weapons refer to propaganda and disinformation campaigns. Throughout our history, the United States has been no stranger to dishing out and being on the receiving end of propaganda. However because of our democratic values, most U.S. military strategists aren’t all that good at propaganda.
But some politicians are.
McFate summarizes the efficacy of Rule No. 5 as follows: “The best weapons do not fire bullets ... [they] weaponize influence. … Shaping people’s perceptions of reality is more powerful than mobilizing a carrier strike group. It can topple governments, undermine national unity, and weaken resolve in wars.”
The average American adult has a busy job, demanding family responsibilities and community service commitments. Therefore, they can be forgiven for not having the time to diligently and critically think about whether or not some of the information they’re consuming is propaganda. On the other hand, our Founding Fathers realized that the integrity of a republic depended on the quality of its citizens’ virtue, education and logical reasoning.
In the era of social media, especially Twitter, it is hard to determine which has had a more negative effect on our citizens’ logical reasoning — our adversaries’ propaganda or our president’s Twitter habits. The reason why it’s hard to make this determination is because President Donald Trump often retweets our adversaries’ propaganda.
Everyone agrees — including Trump himself — that Trump can masterfully shape his base’s perceptions of reality. The best example is this: Trump is a failed casino-owning, tax-return hiding, draft dodger who convinced his base that a Vietnam veteran who earned two awards for valor and served Republican and Democratic presidents alike was not only an illegitimate agent of a shadowy “Deep State” controlled by “globalists” — but the real criminal during a “witch hunt.”
It is truly remarkable that a reality TV star turned politician successfully used this narrative to shape his supporters’ perceptions of reality throughout Robert Mueller’s investigation. Propaganda is indeed more powerful than carrier strike group.
The New York Times recently published an article “reviewing each of [Trump’s] more than 11,000 tweets and the hundreds of accounts he has retweeted, tracking the ways he is exposed to information and replicating what he is likely to see on the platform.” It’s to be expected that Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other hostile intelligence agencies would direct their propaganda at Trump, and they have. However, what’s not expected is that Trump retweets some of it.
According to the Times’ analysis, which could be verified by anyone taking the time to do the same analysis because the Times used publicly available information, Trump has retweeted conspiracy theories from the fringiest of right-wing fringe groups, propaganda created by neo-Nazis, and stories created by Russian intelligence operatives whose fake accounts have now been banned by Twitter. Twitter has banned dozens of additional accounts that created propaganda retweeted by Trump.
Stop for a moment and let the reality of this sink in: President Trump spreads Russian and neo-Nazi propaganda.
It’s not clear if he does this knowingly or unknowingly but, as stated earlier, Trump himself brags about his ability to shape people’s reality. But what’s shaping his?
To make matters worse, Max Boot, a former Republican, argues that Trump’s spreading of disinformation, whether it’s created by Trump or someone else, is abetted by many of Trump’s supporters.
In October, Boot wrote this in The Washington Post: “The rise of irrationality on the right is a deeply disturbing development that goes hand in hand with the right’s embrace of Trump’s authoritarianism.”
The good news is there are signs that such irrationality is getting checked.
According to a recent Fox News poll, which Sean Hannity said couldn’t possibly be true, 53% of Americans think Trump should be impeached and 49% think he should be impeached and removed. Surprisingly, 57% of those opposing impeachment said nothing could change their minds.
Fox News accurately pointed out that this means about 25% of Americans’ minds are incapable of change based on new information. This mindset is called “irrational” and “illogical,” which the Founding Fathers warned was a grave threat to a republic.
McFate is right that propaganda is a more powerful weapon than bullets. However, he recommends that we direct propaganda at our adversaries, not at ourselves.
Consider what it says about our president that he spreads Russian and neo-Nazi propaganda. If he’s spreading it unwittingly, then he needs to be removed from office for abuse of power and dereliction of duty.
If he’s spreading it wittingly, then he needs to be removed from office for those reasons — and additional high crimes and misdemeanors.
Bryan T. Stinchfield, Ph.D., is a former Army officer who served in the U.S. intelligence community. He is an associate professor in the business, organizations and society department at Franklin & Marshall College.