“What is the narrative today?” is the essential question for anyone who pays attention to the news. Mainstream media, it is no surprise, is almost entirely engaged in propaganda-level spin or outright lies. The degree to which the term “wag the dog”—an act of creating an event to distract from an actual scandal and truth—applies to events in our age of social media censorship and domination is overwhelming. It doesn’t take much to create a lie or even a truthful distraction, which destroys people’s focus on a central issue.
In the 1997 film, “Wag the Dog,” director Barry Levinson and playwright David Mamet (along with screenwriter, Hilary Henkin) create a comedy of political errors that need to be corrected to ensure a presidential reelection. In the film, the president is caught making sexual advances toward an underage girl in the Oval Office, mere weeks before the election. A presidential aide and her team hire Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) to create a distraction from the sex scandal. They land on a made-up war with Albania. Brean knows that this deception has to be a team effort in filming a war, so he seeks out the best in the business: Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman).
The president’s team bristles at the idea that the United States would go to war in order to cover up the sex scandal, but Brean assures them that it’s not an actual war he’s starting “but an appearance of war.” With a few special effects from the master of movie production, Motss, the team successfully creates a two-week “war,” which ensures the president’s reelection.
Any diversion must have an emotional appeal, otherwise nobody will believe or care about it. Brean and Motss indirectly involve an unsuspecting public that participates in the charade. They find an ex-military officer, who is supposedly left behind in Albania, “discarded like an old shoe,” and “return” him as the hero. Motss even hires a famous country-folk singer, Johnny Dean (Willie Nelson) to record the song, “Old Shoe,” as the chorus belting out clichés about American freedom and togetherness, similar to other collective, musically vapid and saccharine efforts we have recently seen during the Olympics.
The funny thing is . . . it all works! The emotion takes over and the illusion is successfully completed. People rally behind this soldier and hero (who in reality is an ex-convict, played by Woody Harrelson), and begin to hang shoes on the trees and power lines in solidarity with an essentially fictitious character. Brean even brings in real-life Albanians, such as Albanian-American actor Jim Belushi, to comment on the awful events happening in Albania. Part of the mission is to encourage the public’s participation in the illusion, and to prey on the common man’s disorientation and naïvete to secure the votes the incumbent president needs for reelection.
The comedic aspect of the film is part of the illusion. We laugh because it’s funny and absurd, yet we seem to forget that the creators of this lie are exploiting the reality of suffering, justice, heroism, and honor. All of these aspects of life are treated by the political magicians cynically, without regard for real honor or justice. They are pulling the levers of the propaganda machine. For them, authentic morality has no place in the sphere of politics, only the appearance of it.
Brean assumes he has the control of the entire situation until Motss lets his pride get in the way. He wants credit for his brilliant cinematic execution, but Brean knows that is impossible. The magic trick cannot be revealed, and the stage curtain must remain closed. For Motss, death is inevitable.
Today, we are living in an enlarged and exaggerated version of Levinson’s film. The political analysis we’ve been accustomed to doesn’t apply anymore. Aesthetic appearances dominate the screens of unreality; yet many of those political pretenses were shattered by Donald Trump’s actions.
Today, many bad actors are revealed (despite the fact that actual justice never arrives), and no matter how hard the propaganda machine of the current regime tries to hide intentions or create diversions, the truth finds its way out. But what is the result of it?
Absurdity reigns and the authoritarians sometimes audibly reveal their totalitarian desires, and this itself causes disbelief and disorientation. But we have to ask whether such power-hungry revelations are themselves moments of wagging the dog? At the very least, the distractions that are created on a daily basis are transparent and recognized as diversions, even if we are not aware of the entire picture.
Consider the case of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who announced his resignation Tuesday in the wake of a damning report documenting his history of sexual harassment. Given his penchant for authoritarianism, he is one of the most disliked state governors (California Governor Gavin Newsom and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer are now in stiff competition to assume the top spot). Cuomo’s appalling decision first to place COVID-infected elderly patients in nursing homes and then to fudge the number of nursing-home deaths should have been reason enough for his ouster. People rightfully want justice. But his malfeasance in the face of a public health crisis isn’t the proximate cause of his resignation. Everyone knows that party members protect their own, but when the grasp for power becomes an obsession, loyalties quickly disappear.
Regardless of the real reason for Cuomo’s departure from the governor’s mansion, political analysis today demands we go underneath an appearance of reality and seek out whether we are being fed propaganda. We can’t lose focus, and we cannot constantly react to events. Rather, we have to act and reorient the discourse to reveal the absurdity and incompetence of the current ruling class.