Move Fast and Break Things: Authoritarian Politics, Digital Technology, and Trump’s Disruptive Heart of Darkness
November 3, 2019
Move Fast and Break Things: Authoritarian Politics, Digital Technology, and Trump’s Disruptive Heart of Darkness
The recent, much-discussed NY Times article about Trump presidential campaign digital ad spending, entitled Trump Campaign Floods Web With Ads, Raking In Cash as Democrats Struggle, displays in gory detail the stakes for Progressives and Democrats (and normal not-unhinged people) in the great battle, unfolding in real time before our eyes, for the soul and future of America (and the world).
The depressing purpose of the Times article, of course, was to contrast Republican Party fundraising and outreach virtuosity and Democratic Party fundraising and outreach ineptitude; a morality play about two strategic visions, one from the future and one from that nebulous zone of time where political consultants reside; ingloriously casting a spotlight on the caviling caution of the Democratic Party establishment, which with its serene and unyielding faith in television advertising and corporate brand management, apparently based on a literal reading of the Proctor & Gamble public relations playbook, seems to have learned nothing from the 2016 election.
However, the article also specifically left me pondering the hand-in-glove affinity between Trump’s endless (reelection) war and Facebook’s (limitless) advertising model, which has been further accentuated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent efforts to promote his company’s “free speech” defense of the political advertising it sells. This affinity discloses worrisome structural compatibilities between primitive and corrupt populist authoritarian movements and the tools and opportunities for seizing and holding power made available by the emerging nexus of social media, Big Data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.
The Politics of Breaking Things
It is now well-established that Trump would not have been elected President in 2016 were it not for the stealth impact of hyper-targeted and inflammatory Facebook ad campaigns in swing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The contributions to this digital psy-ops strategy of the now-shuttered Cambridge Analytica political consulting firm have been well-documented. Cambridge Analytica shenanigans, we are now learning, however, may have been more effect than cause. The Times article emphasizes how the 2016 Trump campaign appreciated from the outset the strategic political value of a broad array of existing digital marketing and advertising tools, particularly Facebook’s own native, and extremely powerful, targeted advertising algorithms.
Another must-read Times article, published only months after Trump took office in 2017, entitled White House Echoes Tech: ‘Move Fast and Break Things’, quite brilliantly captures the zeitgeist of the Trump campaign from its earliest days, which explicitly channeled and repackaged for political use the most prescient insights of Silicon Valley technology entrepreneurs. As with many threads concerning the chaos of our times, this one leads us back to political arsonist and aspiring Rasputin, Steve Bannon.
As the 2017 Times article recounts, Steve Bannon met with Republican National Committee leadership shortly after Trump corralled the party’s nomination for president and asked Bannon himself to run the national campaign against Hillary Clinton. Bannon quickly disabused the RNC establishment of any notion that they might coopt or control the campaign’s insurrectionary spirit and tactics. The Trump campaign, he said, would remain small, mobile, and decentralized. The campaign would deploy quickly, iterate constantly, never stop learning, never stop attacking. Bannon invoked the founding ethos of Facebook. “Your job is to move fast and break things,” he said. “Figure out what needs doing, and then just do it. Don’t wait for permission.”
Bannon’s methods externalized, codified, and canonized Trump’s disruptive heart of darkness: categorically obliterating norms, conventions, and intermediaries; directly touching, energizing, and inflaming the passions of his political base. During the campaign, Jared Kushner (of all people) engaged video game entrepreneur Gabriel Leydon to absorb insights about making addictive digital content for political campaigns. First-person shooter and driver games typically locate drama and excitement in fragmented, recursive, emotionally depleted, and apocalyptic story lines, herding individuals into flat, single-dimension corrals that are nonetheless powerfully resonant emotionally. While the connections even now may not be evident to most people, Bannon even at the time clearly appreciated the crossover appeal for his Trump voters of gamer sensibilities: Cross-pollination between Gamergate and Bannon’s Breitbart had been no accident.
As the 2017 Times article tells us, at its peak, the Trump campaign iterated through 60,000 micro-targeted online advertisements daily to, essentially, game the outcome of the election. And of course Trump himself, the embodiment of disruption, possessed a style and disposition uniquely suited to the institutional subversion and disintermediating mayhem Facebook itself had pioneered and upon which its digital advertising model depended. As one senior campaign official declared, “politics as practiced by Mr. Trump was part of a revolution that started in technology and was now spreading to other industries and governments around the world.”
I Come from the Future
Almost by definition, successful technology entrepreneurs are visionaries. Most humans, blinkered by necessity, look straight ahead to see where they’re going. Technology polymaths, however, possess that spark of insight that allows them to see around corners. With his outsized mobility plans and schemes, for example (“ludicrous speed” Teslas, Boring Machines, Mars colonization), Elon Musk can seem like a man arriving from the future.
In the digital age, certainly, with an accelerating pace of change aligned with Moore’s Law, the most harebrained ideas (for those among us who think in straight lines) can within a matter of years fundamentally alter the textures and landscapes of our world. Consider three ideas “from the future” I first encountered 20 years ago:
- In the late 1990s, a Hewlett Packard engineer described to me material deposition technologies that would a decade hence power 3D printing.
- Around the same time, a young software engineer told me that statistically speaking, there was no such thing in baseball as “clutch” hitting, prefiguring the data-driven assumptions captured some five years later in Moneyball.
- Finally, a Microsoft executive in 1998 introduced me to XML, the markup language designed to tag and structure digital content that helped to launch the era of Big Data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.
At that time, I literally could not fathom what any of these people were talking about. The ideas attached to these technologies had never existed. And yet only years later, each arguably powered digital revolutions transforming global institutions and behavior.
The point being that most of us filter “reality” through assumptions about how the world works that prioritize continuity and linearity. We live in complexity but require simplicity. The world is three-dimensional but we only see in two dimensions. Most of us are not cognitively programmed to imagine or plan for alternative futures that might in any sigificant way deviate from the tangible details, circumstances, and patterns of the present.
In the decades following World War II, American economists and political scientists developed a framework for thinking about history’s trajectory called modernization theory, a quintessentially liberal idea that all paths to the future led through the developmental model of the United States, with synchronized progress across parallel political, economic, educational, and technological tracks. Modernization theorists preached that free elections, capitalist enterprise, higher education, and engineering sophistication would together lift any nation into a stable and prosperous future.
The naivete of modernization theory is of course now obvious, and truly its dangerous technocratic silliness was always palpable to many people who think about these things. But the idea of a linear path from past to present to future remained a comfortable and convenient perspective for American elites in positions of power, even when confronted with the drumbeat of disastrous foreign policy outcomes to which this perspective contributed (starting with the war in Vietnam and extending to nearly every conflict in the Middle East). While modernization theory had been thoroughly discredited by the 1990s, survivals of the modernization paradigm morphed into what we now call neoliberalism and globalization.
Modernization theory collapsed past, present, and future into a blandly homogenous, smoothly unfurling “eternal present.” The future, however, is by definition disjunctive with the present (otherwise, it would remain part of the present). And one of the weird consequences of this disjunctive quality of the future is that those who most decisively and ruthlessly discern its meaning and claim its assets and hasten its arrival often seem to have themselves arrived from the distant past, “foreign” actors irrupting from beneath us, from psychic depths we barely knew existed.
Consider the radical jihadists of ISIS. The murderous drug lords of Sinaola. The Dark Web purveyors of child pornography and fentanyl. The white nationalists of 8Chan and Qanon. Consider also the grifting, quasi-fascist populists (Trump, Putin, Orban, Balsonero, Duarte) who comfortably surf and agitate these dark corners of our minds. What these shadowy movements and organizations share with revanchist, authoritarian political leaders is an opportunistic contempt for Enlightenment premises of political liberalism and an eagerness to exploit its vulnerabilities. The darkness of the past is what they purposively bring with them. Institutional and psychic disruption is what they live for (perhaps even more than settled power and wealth).
Phrased slightly differently, the “present” has no hold upon these groups and movements. The “present” is what they want to obliterate. For these reasons, they more clearly and immediately grasp the vast potential of tools and technologies “from the future” to serve their instrumental ends, to turbocharge the divide-and-conquer, reap-and-sow, seduce-and-surveil strategies on which their power rests.
And so we see, for example, the use by the drug cartels of encrypted communication networks, GPS signal jamming, surveillance cameras, drones, and advanced military-grade weaponry.
2 points here – equivalence of disrupt and irrupt? (we have always seen this before) / Gershenkron
Gershenkron – advantages of backwardness (Clayton Christianson)
live in layers – past and future both always been there
Authoritarian Power Tools
The timing differential between the adoption and
One recalls the political excitement surrounding widespread use of digital communications and social media during the Arab Spring of 2011 – with popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and other Arab, South Asian, and African nations led by a new “Facebook generation” heralding a new era of digital democracy. The authoritarian backlash began almost immediately – with cascading levels of mayhem ensuing that of course spawned the massive exodus of refugees toward Europe and the United States.
The Times article also reinforced my sense that the digital revolution has so altered the political landscape that we must abandon almost entirely the liberal Enlightenment predicates of politics upon which we have relied for the past 250 years of our history as a nation – the ideals of open discourse and vigorous debate as the breath mint of freedom upon the dragon’s breath of tradition and authority; the spoken and written word as reliable currencies of exchange in an open marketplace of ideas; the autonomous individual as a cogitating machine, balancing rooted interest in what is and optimistic expectancy about what might be.
PERMANENT POLITICS – AUTHORITARIAN MINDSET – ABOUT POWER – REACTIVITY – BREXIT GUY – NEW YORKER ARTICLE
Following his inauguration, Donald Trump’s first acts as president were to launch his 2020 reelection campaign and appoint Brad Parscale, the digital director of his 2016 campaign, as its chairman, signaling from the outset a maximalist extension of the sophisticated and divisive digital advertising campaign that vaulted Trump to the presidency in 2016.
The Trump team has spent the past three years building out its web operation. As a sign of its priorities, the 2016 digital director, Brad Parscale, is now leading the entire campaign. He is at the helm of what experts described as a sophisticated digital marketing effort, one that befits a relentlessly self-promoting candidate who honed his image, and broadcast it into national consciousness, on reality television.
The campaign under Mr. Parscale is focused on pushing its product — Mr. Trump — by churning out targeted ads, aggressively testing the content and collecting data to further refine its messages. It is selling hats, shirts and other gear, a strategy that yields yet more data, along with cash and, of course, walking campaign billboards.
The Trump campaign, she said, “is like a supercar racing a little Volkswagen Bug.”
Far more than any other platform, Facebook is the focus for digital campaign spending, and it is in many ways even friendlier turf for Mr. Trump’s campaign than in 2016.
Since then, many younger, more liberal users have abandoned the platform in favor of Instagram, Snapchat and various private messaging apps, while older users — the type most likely to vote Republican — are still flocking to Facebook in droves. People over 65 now make up Facebook’s fastest-growing population in the United States, doubling their use of the platform since 2011, according to Gallup.
Facebook also favors the kind of emotionally charged content that Mr. Trump’s campaign has proved adept at creating. Campaigns buy Facebook ads through an automated auction system, with each ad receiving an “engagement rate ranking” based on its predicted likelihood of being clicked, shared or commented on. The divisive themes of Mr. Trump’s campaign tend to generate more engagement than Democrats’ calmer, more policy-focused appeals. Often, the more incendiary the campaign, the further its dollars go.
An internal Facebook report written after the 2016 election noted that both the Trump and Clinton campaigns spent heavily on Facebook — $44 million for Mr. Trump versus $28 million for Hillary Clinton. “But Trump’s FB campaigns were more complex,” the memo said, and were better at using Facebook to bring in donations and find new voters. For instance, roughly 84 percent of the Trump ads focused on getting voters to take an action, such as donating, the report said. Only about half of Mrs. Clinton’s did.
At the same time, the Trump campaign sought to tailor its ads more precisely to specific voters, the report said, with a typical Trump message targeted at 2.5 million people, compared with eight million for the Clinton campaign. And the Trump team simply made more unique ads — 5.9 million versus 66,000.
“We were making hundreds of thousands” of variations on similar ads, Mr. Parscale told “60 Minutes” last year. “Changing language, words, colors.”