The political Spin Doctors of our age seem all-powerful and untouchable. They are tasked with presenting one side of a story and, if possible, making the other side appear ludicrous. They are known in Britain as Masters of the Dark Arts and in America, are classed under the innocent moniker of public relations experts. Perhaps the British version is more true to form, as this role is not only one filled with devious practitioners but is archaic in its historical principles.
History is written by the victor, but more rightly, history is written by the PR people of the victor, and only if the said victor has enough to pay the fee.
This Machiavellian calling has shaped our nations. The narratives and stories we believe are, in many cases, not the correct form of fact, but rather a packaged version, suitable for soundbites and ease of consumption. The fruits of these spin doctors are evident yet ephemeral, and unless we are aware of their actions, it is all but impossible to discern the actual truth.
As the author and historian Stuart Ewen wrote:
“The history of PR is… a history of a battle for what is reality and how people will see and understand reality.”
When Donald Trump won the 2016 election, that very night, the wheels were put in motion: Trump was in league with Putin, and the Russians had stolen the election. This myth has become so pervasive that even today, after the Mueller report, after countless investigations, and even as the FBI are exposed as partisan investigators skirting close (if not beyond) the law, many still believe the initial tale. When all evidence runs to the contrary, it is still the spin that persists.
Remember, when House Democrats sought to impeach the president, they did not use the Russiagate angle. And now we see these Masters of the Dark Arts preparing the next big hoax: The Red Mirage.
We have been given an apparently earnest warning: while Donald Trump may appear to win by a landslide on election night, the mail-in ballots will show that Joe Biden handily won once the final votes are counted. This could be many, many weeks later. Naturally, a lot of people assume that Democrat operatives will take this extra time to cheat and create the necessary number of additional ballots for victory. It is a possibility, though a slim one. There is a more likely Red Mirage narrative, though. If President Trump wins a second term, the votes that were either not sent in on time or were lost will be used to question the legitimacy of his next four years in the White House.
In 2016, unhappy losers said Trump was an illegitimate president because of the Russian “collusion” allegation; from 2021 onwards, he will be deemed illegitimate because of the ballot confusion that will – with absolute certainty – arise.
And who is it who will sell this idea to the American public? The spin doctors. In 1984, The New York Times wrote:
“A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won’t be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates.”
This was the first printed word on spin doctors, so called – presumably – because they “spin” a yarn. But the actual act of pushing a narrative through well-chosen words and deeds is as old as history itself. Perhaps one of the most effective exercises in spin came about during Hernan Cortés’ conquest of the Aztec world from 1519.
Cortés and Moctezuma
It has become fashionable of late to minimize the actions of Cortés and his band of 500 men in their wars against the Maya and Aztec people. Those who decry every facet of empire building and colonialism have tried to rewrite history, suggesting that the natives were not as brutal or bloodthirsty as the incredibly well-documented expedition portrays. It is only within the last couple of years that those who were once so vociferous in such assertions are quietly backpedaling. Now that archeologists have discovered skull racks and mass graves of sacrificed unfortunates, it seems that the writings of the time may have even understated the horror that took place in that civilization.
This is not to say that Cortés and his men were not themselves brutal. These were hard men, soldiers, intent on plunder and conquest. It is a truth that sometimes, there are no good guys and bad guys in a story. Sometimes, everyone is bad.
What has this to do with spin? Well, here we have some questions. How was it possible for a small group of soldiers – around 400 – to defeat a Mayan army of 40,000? And how did it come to be that the leader of the Aztecs, Moctezuma, a man who could bring half a million fearless warriors to the field, not manage to stop Cortés from entering his fabled city and bringing the population to its knees?
There is a naïve school of thought that puts it down to superior weaponry, but this is highly unlikely. While it gave Cortés a significant advantage in some situations, when warriors of such huge numbers throw themselves into battle, it would have been impossible to withstand. Cortés was able to achieve what he did because of careful spin that he used to create both fear and loyalty. And it all started because of a convenient story.
The people of the region believed in gods. Originally they worshipped a god of peace, Quetzalcoatl, who was chased from their shores by the god of war, Hummingbird. He vowed to return in what’s known as a Reed One Year – coincidentally the year the Spanish landed. The legends told that Quetzalcoatl – who was white-skinned and had a full beard, would return on ships that needed no paddles and would bring an end to human sacrifice, overthrowing the blood-hungry Hummingbird. Presumably, this would include the downfall of those who worshipped in blood sacrifice.
When Cortés arrived, he could not know that the people would think he was the human embodiment of Quetzalcoatl, nor of the power such a story would have. It wasn’t until a slave was presented to him, Malinche – nowadays known as Dona Marina. She was a young woman of likely noble birth and education, sold into slavery, and presented as a gift to the newcomers. Still, her knowledge of the country and her language skills made her a more valuable asset than any at the time could have imagined.
It is thought that she told Cortés of the legends of Quetzalcoatl, and how to use it to his advantage. It seems that she even encouraged him only half to deny his godhood when asked, thus making all he encountered wary. It was a combination of carefully crafted spin and half-truths that cowed many challengers and allowed him to build alliances with many of the non-Aztec people. It didn’t hurt that Moctezuma was a ruthless killer of thousands and enslaver of more.
By using this narrative, Cortés gained where he should have lost, became stronger when he should have been made weak. And eventually, it led him straight into the path of Moctezuma.
So many people have tried to dissect the first encounter between Moctezuma and Cortés. In recent years, the idea that the Aztec leader was using a “polite” form of noble speech, which was the opposite of its stated words to imply that he did not see the Spaniard as a God. But this ignores many crucial facts. First, Malinche was an educated woman who spoke many languages fluently; how would she have not known the Aztec dialect patterns when she was translating every word?
Second, again, with credit to Malinche, when Moctezuma asked point-blank if Cortés was a god, he responded, “no.” Strange right? Unless you know that Aztecs regarded gods as tricksters and that denying his godliness was exactly, precisely what a God would answer.
There is a multitude of other reasons why it is more likely that Moctezuma believed the legends rather than the modern interpretation that he was speaking in the form of opposites. Still, perhaps the most convincing argument is that he was treated like a god when in the famed Aztec city. Why else would a foreign invader who was nothing but a man, be welcomed into the city, given the most lavish rooms in the palace, and then be left alone enough to prepare for seizing power from the throne?
All that Cortés achieved, rightly or wrongly, was made possible by quiet words and subtle spin. He was opportunistic, he said the right words at the right time, he dropped hints and innuendo, and it won him an empire.
When we think about the spin doctors of today, are they too not using quiet words and subtle spin, hints, sly references, and even outright lies, all to seize power? Perhaps we think the world is too sophisticated to fall for political half-truths, and if so, we are precisely the target audience.
Cortés did not fool Malinche; she did not think him a god. She saw him as a way of ending a culture that reveled in cannabilism, slavery, and human sacrifice, and Cortés was happy to be used as it tied in with his ambitions of gold and conquest.
Look to our politics, examine each statement, and the motivations of those who utter them. Are they the words of honest souls or the carefully packaged spin, designed by experts to play on your deepest fears or hopes, and to use the conditioning of your entire life to turn you into a tool for their paymasters’ ends?
Read more from Mark Angelides.