U of I Fascism Historian On "Fake News" & Falsehoods

Feb 21, 2017

Manipulation of the truth has long been a tool commonly used by political leaders throughout the Western world, says Peter Fritzsche, a history professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

President Donald Trump and his administration have a reputation for falsehoods, exaggeration and spreading conspiracy theories, something that's drawn the attention of the mainstream media. Meanwhile President Trump claims it's the mainstream media that can't get its facts straight. He's even gone so far as to say the "fake news media" is an "enemy of the American People." While many agree "fake news" has become an increasingly meaningful problem, not all buy into the spin President Trump has put on it, of course. Professor Fritzsche, who has researched and written about Nazi Germany, fascism, memory and more joined us to try and make sense of it all in a historical context:

Fritzsche's most recent book is titled An Iron Wind: Europe Under HitlerHe's currently working on a book about Hitler's first 100 days in office. He says while lies as political tools aren't new - what stands out about President Trump's first weeks in office so far "... is the sheer audacity of the willingness to manipulate public opinion."

"We're much more alert to the dangers of a democracy - the division of powers is not a mechanism, it's a metaphor. People have to believe in it for it to work. And we see now there are all sorts of reasons to be unsure about the strength of basic institutions." -Fritzsche

Fritzsche suggests that many Trump supporters are wary of mainstream media because it hasn't served them adequately, and they buy into Trump's Right-wing Populist ideology that the establishment overall has left them behind. "Populism is a classic anti-establishment movement that is against big economic entities like Wall Street or even big unions, speaks for 'the little man' - feels that the little man has been cheated to and lied to by the establishment, and part of the establishment is the press." Thus, large segments of society are primed to believe "fake news" that supports what they already believe, says Fritzsche.

Rumors and the dismissal of actual news have also been important in shaping narratives throughout history says Fritzsche. "Take the Holocaust, that was (initially) seen as just a replay of the atrocity propaganda from World War I. And it took a long time  ... for people to really understand the comprehensive nature of what the Nazis were up to. Holocaust denial has existed since 1945, but it existed at the time because people could just not believe it."

As to modern times - Fritzsche says, "A series of surprising, but in retrospect somewhat logical or explicable events, whether we talk about Brexit in June 2016 or Trump's rise across the year, changed the way we now think about: political events, the strength of Democracy, the credibility of news and its consumers ... and so things have become darker - because Trump's election has tied all these separate events together." Fritzsche says as a result, a Right-wing Populist current throughout the Western world and beyond has become clear. What significant changes to Democratic systems it might ultimately lead to -- that's the part we have yet to find out.

 Fritzsche is part of the "Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies" initiative at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign which brings together experts from a variety of fields who research "history, literature, memory, and artistic representation of genocide and trauma."