The art of political assassination

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Tom Orren has a chat to his old mate "RM", who explains the art of political assassination, 21st century style.

(Cartoon by Bruce Keogh / keoghcartoons.com.au)

I’VE GOT THIS MATE I talk with. His initials are RM but I can’t tell you his real name because he doesn’t want this to get around, however, I can tell you that; he’s right into politics, he’s keen on current events and he’s as cunning as a shithouse rat. Anyway, we were chatting the other day and he was telling me how easy it would be to assassinate someone in politics. “ASSASSINATE?” I repeated, in capital letters with a question mark while making little quotation marks in the air. “Yeah,” he replied with a hint of glint in his eye, “It’s easy. All you have to do is know some basic principles.”

Principle 1: Political Assassination

He began to explain. “The first thing you need to realize is that, in a democracy, political assassination simply means losing an election. You don’t actually have to kill anyone ‒ not like in the good old days ‒ you only have to make sure that your target doesn’t get re-elected. You can’t be a little bit pregnant and you can’t be a ‘little bit’ thrown out of office,” he said, “it’s all or nothing.”

I nodded in agreement. “So, whether you lose by 1% or a landslide, you’ve still been assassinated right?”

“You’re pretty smart,” he said.

Principle 2: Democracy

Principle two was that not everyone has to vote against the person you want to assassinate, only 51% of them, otherwise known as the majority. Then, after adding, “that reduces your workload by almost half,” he sat back looking quite pleased with himself. “But it gets even better,” he beamed as he sprang back forward, “because you don’t even have to convince 51% of them. You only have to convince the 5% or 10% who are likely to change who they voted for last time, the swinging voters.

“What… so all of a sudden your job is only about one tenth of what it was…”

“You’re not just smart mate, you might even be a genius.” He went on, “now, when it comes to swinging voters, there are two kinds. About half of them – the thinking half - will listen to everything that’s said in a campaign and they’ll carefully weigh it all up before making their decision. Then there’s the other half. They have so little knowledge of politics that they think laissez-faire capitalism is a shopping mall somewhere in Washington D.C. Also, they tend to be a little on the self-centred side, so their only real concern is what’s in it for them. If you want to get this mob to vote someone out of office, all you have to do is make them think there’s some tangible benefit for them in voting for the other guy… not that they know what tangible means.”

“So… you’re telling me that most non-thinking, swinging voters are pretty gullible?” I asked.

“I think I’m going to have to call you ‘G’ for short, got it in one!”

Principle 3: Emotion

The third principle RM told me about was that there are only two factors that influence how people vote; emotion and information, emotion being by far the most important. “Now, as emotions go,” he said, leaning back with his fingers steepled, “there are only two; hope and fear. And of these, fear is by far the easiest for manipulating people. And, as luck would have it, the more malleable swinging voters out there are also pretty easy to scare, so if you want to assassinate someone, you just have to tell them that something terrible will happen if they vote for your target. What’s more, most of them have pretty short attention spans, so there’s very little danger of anyone convincing them otherwise… they tend to turn off as soon as anyone starts explaining anything. As an added bonus, you can usually win them over with a few simple catch-cries, the simpler the better really, that way they can still read them if the sound is turned down.”

“Ignoring hope and focusing on fear,” he expounded, “reduces the task of assassinating your target by a further 50%. You don’t have waste time making ‘your guy’ look good, you just have to make your target look bad. And, as an added bonus, you might even end up scaring a few of the more normal voters out there. Most people are genetically programmed to avoid fear, you know.”

Principle 4: Information

“Now while emotion is a pretty powerful motivator, information still plays an important role in a voter’s decision,” said RM,” and while democracy is supposed to give power to the people, to take advantage of it, they need reliable information about who to vote for. So the real power lies with the people who provide that information. Whoever controls it, controls how people feel, what they think and who they’ll vote for and that’s where newspapers come in handy. At the moment, anyway, newspapers are the prime source of information for most voters and even though swinging voters don’t read much, they do catch the radio and morning TV shows from time to time, and all of those get their information from the morning newspapers. So, whoever controls the newspapers, determines what information voters get ‒ and don’t get ‒ as well as the type of emotion it conveys.”

He continued. “Information comes in many forms but only some of it is true, and if you want to assassinate someone, it’s always best to tread lightly around the truth. It has a habit of coming back to bite you. Having said that, if you say it often enough, it may as well be true. But the best information to use is opinion. That way, you can say pretty much whatever you like and no one can hold you to account. After all, everyone has the right to their own opinion. That’s how that story about Barrack Obama’s birth certificate got started in America. One day, someone said they believed it and, with a little help from the media, Chinese whispers did the rest.”

“To get as much assassination bang for your buck as you can, you’ve got to give people as much negative information about your target as you can. It makes them look unlikeable. My favourite was during the Medicare debate in America, when this old guy got up at a rally and announced that, under Obamacare, everyone who turned 60 would have to undergo a ‘pre-death’ interview. Everyone thought Obama was going to tell them when they had to die. Brilliant! Total nonsense, but it ran for weeks in the lead up to the congressional elections and helped the Republicans win a majority. And because it was just some old fart, the Republicans didn’t take any flak for it… but they still took the benefit.”

Now you might be tempted to think that most people would be too smart to fall for these kinds of tricks, or that they’d never accept false (or half-false) information as true, but when I put that to RM, he simply reminded me of Principle two; you don’t have to convince everyone, only the most gullible 5%. “It’s like watching a sleight-of-hand artist at work,” he explained, “even if you know what they’re doing, they manipulate you so well that they can rob you blind while you’re watching.”

Principle 5: Information flexibility

The next principle was that information is flexible…”pretty darned flexible,” I think, were RM’s actual words. Consumers of news are like computers,” he explained. “You can put whatever data you like into them and they treat it all as if it were true. Words in newspapers are just random bits of information – verbal data if you like – that are constantly being fed into reader’s minds. Most people don’t have time to sort it all out so journalists can write pretty well whatever they like and plenty of people will just accept it.”

At this point he took a short pause to run a handkerchief across his now moist, bottom lip, but he was soon back in the swing of things. I hadn’t seen him like this before, he appeared to be turning a funny shade of purple but the weird thing was that, if anything, it made him look even more alive.

“Then there’s principle six,” he sprayed, once more patting his lips. “My personal favourite.”

Principle 6: No right and wrong

“Listen carefully,” he said, lowering his voice as if someone might be listening, “Never forget what I’m about to tell you, it’s pure gold. In politics, there is no such thing as right or wrong, only good or bad.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, “isn’t right good and wrong bad?”

“Perish the thought,” he said shaking his head. “You can make anything look good or bad depending on how you talk about it. If you want to make right look bad or wrong look good, you just use the 3 Ds.”

“The 3Ds?” I asked, puzzled.

“Yeah, the 3Ds: dismissal, doubt and displacement.”

“Let’s say the politician you’re targeting says something ‘good’ and you want to make it look ‘bad’. The first thing you do is dismiss it… ignore it. You either ignore it completely or, if you can’t, you just dismiss it as unimportant. For instance, have you ever noticed how the newspapers can make better than expected employment figures look either good or bad? If they just report them as a fact, it makes them look good, but if they want to make them look bad, they just add a comment like, ‘…but economists warn that they are likely to worsen in the next quarter,’ and, suddenly, everyone thinks they’re going to lose their job.

“The same applies if your ‘guy’ does something really bad ‒ or stupid ‒ you just dismiss it. You say it’s a minor hiccup or that it makes them look more human. There have even been times when a Federal Judge has come out and accused a politician of manipulating an investigation but, if it’s ignored long enough, people just forget about it.”

“Oh shivers,” he added, “I nearly forgot humiliation. It is just as easy to dismiss something – or someone – if you humiliate them and, if you make it funny enough, you can always claim it was satire. That ‘Hogan’s Hero’ front page on the Daily Telegraph a while back was a classic. It took a nothing story and turned it into a front-page masterpiece in humiliation. Totally brilliant! They talked about it non-stop on the radio and TV… even people who should have known better. Heck, some people are still talking about it now! And even if they’re only talking about it only to criticise the Daily Telegraph, the humiliation still works. In fact, if you do a good enough job with humiliation, you can get other people to do your work for you. There’s not a journo alive who doesn’t like cracking a funny at someone else’s expense. Remember Germaine Greer getting a big laugh by telling Julia Gillard she had a big arse? She thought it was Christmas… cos her’s is twice as big.”

“Doubt is even easier. You just have to find some expert who disagrees with what your target says. There’s always some expert who’ll disagree with anything. It doesn’t matter if there are a hundred or a thousand of them who think otherwise, just one will create doubt in people’s minds. I mean, just look at global warming. The same goes if your candidate says something stupid. There’ll always be someone, with some kind of credibility, who’ll find something good to say about them… even if it’s someone from their own family.”

“And if you can’t find an expert, you can always ask Joe Blow in the street. People just love a Joe Blow, street interview – it’s earthy - and they love nothing better than jumping on the same bandwagon. All you need is three people to disagree with someone and you can make it look as if the whole world’s against them. And, if you want to appear objective, you can always throw in someone who disagrees. They’ll just look like the odd one out… and nobody wants to be the odd one out, do they?”

“So what’s displacement then?” I enquired. He answered with a question of his own: “What’s the best way to get all the air out of a bottle?”

“I don’t know, heat it up or something… suck it out with a pump maybe?” I suggested.

“You’re slipping,” said RM, “the easiest way is to fill it up with something else… water… anything. It forces the air out for you.”

“What, so when something good happens to your target, or your guy does something bad, you just fill in the space it would have taken up in the news with something else?” I offered.

“Welcome back Genius!” he gushed. “That’s exactly right. You just squeeze it out… simple as that! Editors have to make decisions like that all the time. It’s purely commercial, of course [wink]. They’ve got limited space and unlimited stories to fill it with, so they can’t write about every little thing that happens, can they? Sometimes there’s not even enough room to write about some of the big things — wink, wink, nudge, nudge…”

“But surely, you can’t tell editors what to do, can you?”

“Not on your nelly G,” said RM moving his arms back and forth as if he were waving down a truck, “you just employ people who think the same way as you do. Then they make their own decisions… if they know what’s good for them. Mwa ha, Mwa ha ha, Mwa ha ha ha ha!”


Principle 7: Bad News weighs more than good news.

When he finally stopped laughing, he leant forward and, in an unerring voice, uttered “Principle seven, bad news weighs ten times more than good news.” he allowed a look of self-satisfaction to wash across his face. If I hadn’t known better, I could have sworn he was drunk.

“What the hell does that mean?” I enquired.

“Bad news is any kind of information with even the slightest negative tone to it,” he replied, “anything from a good humoured mock to a full on accusation of corruption. Sometimes it can be as little as a single negative sentence, or even a single word, in an otherwise positive story. Either way, it sticks like ink to newspaper.

“They did this experiment once,” he pointed out, becoming ever more animated. “They had all these people do character assessments of fictional people. One of them – let’s call him Kevin – was described as an ex-crim, a drug dealer and a thief. Then, after all the others had been described, the experimenter apologized and said they’d made a terrible mistake with Kevin’s description. He was actually a bank teller, a committed father, a devoted husband and a volunteer in his local community. Then they asked the subjects to list all the people who’d been described in order of trustworthiness and guess who came out last? Go on genius, guess…”

“Kevin?” I offered, feeling like a kid who’d just been asked to calculate two plus two in front of the class.

“Bingo!” he exclaimed. “There is definitely a genius in this room somewhere? They showed that negative news is ten times stronger than positive news, so for every one negative thing you say about a person, they have to do ten good things to make up for it. The more negative things you say, the less hope they have of counteracting them. It can be anything, a complaint about their cat, a negative comment from a make-up artist on Facebook… anything! If you drop enough of them, not even Jesus Christ would stand a chance. In fact, how do think they got him? Whenever human beings hear something negative about a person, they recoil from them like an anemone being touched. That’s why malicious gossip is so good at assassinating people. I’m not making this stuff up you know, it’s actual Science!”

I tried to sum up. “So, if you want to ‘assassinate’ a politician these days, all you’ve got to do is convince the most gullible 5% of the population to vote for someone else… and all that takes is feeding them lots of scary, negative or humiliating information about the person you’re trying to assassinate. And, as insurance, you can also make them think that something terrible will happen if your target gets in.”

“Are you sure your name isn’t Einstein?” he gushed, almost proudly, and then, to finish off our little conversation, he quoted his 4th favourite American President of all time (after Bush 1, Bush 2, and Nixon)… Abraham Lincoln. “You don’t have to fool all the people all the time, you just have to fool some of the people some of the time.”

“RM,” I said, “you’re the bloody genius!”


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