The news emanating from Washington and other global power centers these days is fantastic beyond anything fiction could invent — high-stakes showdowns, brinkmanship and folly, tectonic political shifts. Try to appreciate for a moment the gravity of President Trump tweeting trial balloons about firing Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller as the investigation closes in, and understand that the craven Republican leadership in Congress will bow to the dictates of scorched-earth partisanship and enable Trump to emerge unscathed. If you’re not too shellshocked, try to process that a Cambridge University researcher who accepted Russian government grants obtained access to the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million American users, which were then turned over to a British firm that harvested the data to create psychographic profiles for political campaign targeting. Understand that Robert Mercer, the US hedge-fund billionaire conservative political donor, financed the research to the tune of $15 million, and deployed the micro-targeting tool first for Ted Cruz during the Republican primary and then for Trump in the 2016 general election. Try to wrap your head around the fact that the ascendance of Trump’s white nationalist politics was turbocharged by international Big Data with ties to the Russian government and unwitting collusion from liberal Silicon Valley’s digital panopticon — that is, Facebook.
Any thinking person must be experiencing vertigo by now. Trump is a clown, and a tool of the plutocracy. The priorities of major donors like Mercer, the Koch brothers and Art Pope, who developed the financial infrastructure of the modern GOP, might be an extreme libertarian vision of slashing social services, eliminating regulations and reducing taxes for the wealthy, but clearly they have to genuflect before Trump. It was only because Trump was wildly popular with Republican primary voters that Mercer was forced to swing his resources from Cruz, his initial favorite. In a way, Trump is the inevitable consequence of the Republican Party’s abandonment of the social contract: Pull out the supports that provide stability for middle-class Americans, and it’s no surprise that party’s older and overwhelmingly white base turns to resentment over race, religion, immigration and guns to make sense of their feelings of dislocation.
Of course, we don’t know exactly how the Trump campaign used the psychometrics created from fraudulently harvested Facebook profiles to craft micro-targeted appeals to voters. That’s the sinister beauty of micro-targeting: Only the recipient or people who share ideological assumptions and character traits are likely to see the message, making it difficult if not impossible to expose or challenge misinformation. Cynical election messaging that exploits deep-seated fear to drive up negatives on an opponent is nothing new. The Willie Horton ad by the 1988 campaign of the first President Bush and Sen. Jesse Helms’ “White Hands” ad in 1992 are examples of Republican candidates successfully exploiting fears about “black” crime or black challenges to white economic dominance. The difference is that then the ads were broadcast on national television, allowing public debate on their content.
The ability of a populist demagogue like Trump to manipulate voters through micro-targeted fear messaging is symptomatic of a deterioration in liberal democracy that has been underway for some time now. Yascha Mounk argues in his new book, The People versus Democracy, that three factors undergirding liberal democracy have come under increasing strain: a shared consensus based on the gatekeeping role of a relatively small number of newspapers and broadcast networks, broadly-shared economic growth and relative economic equality, and social homogeneity. Those who care about preserving liberal democracy — or just defending marginalized communities against white nationalism and other strains of bigotry — need to figure out quickly what to do about the rise of authoritarianism.
Deteriorating faith in the ability of government to protect Americans’ freedoms is reflected in a Monmouth University Poll released on Monday that found that 74 percent of Americans across all races and partisan affiliations believe that “a group of unelected government and military officials” — a Deep State — “secretly manipulate or direct national policy.”
There are few issues where Americans are more irreconcilably divided than gun control, and if the movement gains political traction then democratic governance is likely to be sorely tested. Notably, the Monmouth University poll found that NRA members are almost twice as likely to believe in the existence of a Deep State operation in Washington DC as the general population.
We don’t live in the same reality anymore. The right-wing trolls accusing the Parkland students of being “crisis actors” perpetrating a hoax are only the most extreme example of the inversion of reality that frustrates prospects for constructively addressing the crisis.
One example is an essay recently posted on the website of the far-right Oath Keepers militia by Second Amendment extremist David Codrea.
Assailing the upcoming March for Our Lives, Codrea went after Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student David Hogg, attempting to portray him as a tool of a totalitarian conspiracy as opposed to a survivor of gun violence speaking from authentic, lived experience.
“To minimize the role of the totalitarian lobby’s newest citizen disarmament rock star to that of ‘survivor’ is to mask the well-organized, well-funded and well-connected interests bankrolling the March for Our Lives,” Codrea wrote.
Incredibly, for Codrea and other far-right gun absolutists, the blood is on the hands of Hogg and former Attorney General Eric Holder — another bogeyman of the far right — not the NRA.
“They want — they need — vulnerable school children,” Codrea wrote. “They want our guns. And they want men with guns in the employ of the powers behind them to execute their demands, even if it means more bloodbaths.”
We’re still operating under the assumption that we can have a reasoned debate and pull the extremists back to the center. But where is the center? Would we even recognize it if we saw it?