Move Fast and Break Things: Authoritarian Politics, Digital Technology, and Trump’s Disruptive Heart of Darkness
November 2, 2019
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 (we can leave aside for the moment the irony that this defense comes from the man who has effectively destroyed journalism). 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 of the sort that many among the alienated in Middle America find compelling, 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 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.
The future 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 Sinaloa. The dark web purveyors of child pornography and fentanyl. The white nationalists who frequent 8chan. 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 these 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. Each of these groups has selectively, but very effectively, incorporated futuristic digital assets that either barely or benignly touch most of us in our everyday lives. Consider the following:
Mexican Cartels – To move their drugs, the Mexican cartels have relied upon encrypted communication networks, GPS signal jamming, surveillance cameras, robotic submarines and drones, and advanced military-grade weaponry.
ISIS – Like some primeval arboreal mycelium network, at the peak of its power in 2016 ISIS had fully organized nearly every major social, video, messaging, and encrypted chat app and service in existence at the time into a digital communications network that extended its reach globally while being almost impossible to map or contain.
Child Pornography – Bitcoin and Tor powered Video, “the world’s largest dark web child porn marketplace,” which allowed subscribers around the world to upload and access more than 200,000 videos of children, toddlers, and infants (in 2018, technology companies reported more than 45 million instances where pedophiles shared sexual images of children, mostly via encrypted messaging platforms and networks). As a remarkable report from NY Times journalists reveals, the problem has become metastatic online, partly because the major digital platforms have not focused resources, and technologies they already possess to attack the problem.
White Nationalists – The most lethal notions and calls to action of white nationalists have circulated globally on the unmoderated 8chan message board, with Facebook live-streaming having emerged as a preferred venue for publicizing mass shootings. In their growing use of live-streams, child pornographers and white nationalists are borrowing from the ISIS playbook, which pioneered this sort of real-time mayhem, but it would be accurate to emphasize the parallels between these behaviors and video game live-streams on Twitch.
The spirit of these criminalized, jihadist, sexualized, and racist technology deployments is no different than the reality television, anarcho-authoritarian spirit of the Trump digital reelection campaign, which, with its weirdly Bacchanalian message of disruption, has flourished amidst the flux, confusion, and chaos of online discourse because it is entirely unblinkered by Enlightenment norms of truth, civility, decency, and respect that in these digital times have leadened the step and narrowed the vision of the Democratic Party establishment.
The Underbelly of the Overstory
Consider three perspectives on the crisis of our time. Each discloses the structural limitations of the procedural, constitutional politics of the post-Enlightenment liberal nation-state.
Overleap – If Enlightenment ideals and institutions have no purchase with any of these groups, they can easily leverage what economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron termed “the advantages of backwardness,” which in this case would suggest that the detached or peripheral organizations can “overleap” the buttressed and embedded norms, commitments, and constraints of “the present” by adopting the emerging technologies of the future to pursue their own “illiberal” ends.
Overlap – We benefit from pondering etymological “overlap” between the verbs “disrupt” and “irrupt,” with both of course rooted in the noun/verb “rupture.” While irrupt denotes a violent and forcible invasion, sometimes just “into,” but often with the implication of “from the depths” or “from below,” disrupt implies a more generalized or diffuse disturbance, a “throwing off kilter.” This overlap helps us to appreciate the the stylistic and tactical similarities of irruptive rogue communities of the damned and dispossessed and opportunistic and disruptive authoritarian political movements and regimes.
Overlay – In grappling with the architecture of these communities of the disaffected – what Brad Parscale has called, with reference to Trump’s political base, the “lost, forgotten people of America” and what Steve Bannon has referred to as his “hobbits” – we must confront what one might term the “overlay,” the idea that we may think we merely live in an abstract present, but that we in fact inhabit layers, that “the past” and “the future” are always with us, whether we acknowledge them or not in our daily meanderings through life.
This “underbelly of the overstory” discloses the nonlinear complexity of the “layers” of past, present, and future. The laws and institutions of the nation-state, for example, did not eliminate pre-national parcelized and tribal loyalties – what we might call the layer of “culture.” Nation-state laws and institutions instead constituted a new sedimentary and political layer that compressed and fractured those more traditional loyalties. Today we might call this compressed and fractured layer “illiberalism.”
Authoritarian Power Tools
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 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.