I just read an NPR interview with journalist McKay Coppins (thank you Lex Alexander), where the topic was what Trump and his campaign will do to win this fall. It covers the waterfront pretty well, with serial focus on the powers of incumbency, preparations for a multi-pronged disinformation campaign, and social media advertising as a campaign/ratf*cking tool.
But when it touched on what interviewer Terry Gross called “censorship by noise,” I recognized that what she was describing is not only the same thing described by Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon (“flood the zone with shit”), but a cribbed facet of a far more sophisticated concept developed by Vladislov Surkov, the architect of Vladimir Putin’s Hall of Mirrors Russian empire. Surkov calls his approach “non-linear warfare.”
To introduce you to this idea — and to ground it in the Soviet society from which it emerged — I’ve transcribed passages from two films by documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis.
The Soviet Union became a society where everyone knew that what their leaders said was not real, because they could see with their own eyes that the economy was falling apart. But everyone had to play along and pretend that it was real, because no one could imagine any alternative.
One Soviet writer called it ‘hypernormalisation:’ You were so much a part of the system that it was impossible to see beyond it. The fakeness was ‘hypernormal.’
— Adam Curtis, BBC documentary “Hypernormalisation,” 2016
(Surkov) came originally from the avante garde art world, and those who have followed his career say that what Surkov has done is to import ideas from conceptual art into the very heart of politics. His aim is to undermine people’s perception of the world, so they never know what is really happening.
Surkov changed Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of political theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups: From neo-Nazi skinheads, to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.
But the key thing was that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing. Which meant that no one was sure what was real, and what was fake. As one journalist put it, “It’s a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.” A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable, because it is indefinable.
This is exactly what Surkov is alleged to have done in the Ukraine (six years ago). In typical fashion, as the war began, Surkov published a story about something he called “non-linear war.” A war where you never know what the enemy are really up to — or even who they are.
The underlying aim, Surkov says, is not to win the war, but to create a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control.
— Adam Curtis, BBC Documentary “Oh Dear II,” 2014.
Why talk about Surkov? Because while London-based Cambridge Analytica certainly built “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool” for the 2016 elections in the UK and the USA, most of our focus on 2016 election interference has been on the foreign source of the interference and whether or not Trump “colluded” with it. We still haven’t come to grips with the nature of the interference, which means we should anticipate conservative SuperPAC-funded troll farms in St. Petersburg, Fla., instead of merely Kremlin-run troll farms in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Unlike Putin, Trump is an easily distracted idiot, and none of the people from his 2016 campaign — not even Bannon — can match the dark genius of a Surkov. Yet Trump’s dysfunctional, eternally collapsing psyche seems preternaturally suited to this sort of campaign. It is, all by itself, a sort of chaos vortex, now hyper-amplified by mass media and the trappings of power. Putin needed an amoral conceptual artist to destabilize and overwhelm public perception. Trump needs only to wake up and unleash his 5 a.m. id on Twitter.
Unlike Putin’s previously demoralized post-Soviet society, that may not be enough to sneak Trump past the American electorate a second time. He’ll have to get back to something approaching 46 percent of the popular vote to win re-election (he has recently surged back to 42 percent approval), and that will only work if there’s a Libertarian option, plus a third-party challenger to divert Democratic votes on the left, a la Jill Stein.
So we should anticipate a Democrat mounting a third party run, too. We should anticipate engineered crises abroad — not one, but several. We should anticipate invisible micro-targeting campaigns aimed at depressing Democratic turnout, but also Trump rallies in which the insanity is cranked up to 11. Basically, we should anticipate wave after wave of chaos.
What should we do in response? Well, nobody pays me to advise on such things, so all caveats on free advice apply to what I’m about to say. But here goes: Whether the Democrats pick a nominee from the center or the left, the 2020 election is all about voter turnout. Ours needs to be up, and theirs needs to be down.
Trump won in 2016 by depressing and suppressing our voters. How do we withstand the messages aimed at keeping us divided, angry, mistrusting, depressed, and away from the polls on election day 2020? By whatever means necessary. I have no insight into that psychology.
But here’s the point: We need to turn Trump’s bespoke voter-discouragement strategy into a social media firehouse pointed right back at Trump voters. Not with lies or distortions, mind you, but with the same — perfectly legal at the moment — micro-targeting techniques that worked for him last time.
In other words: MICROTARGET THE TEA-TOTAL FUCK OUT OF TRUMP VOTERS WITH NONSTOP VOTER-DISCOURAGEMENT MESSAGES. It’s not enough to defend against Surkov’s chaos. We have to take the fight to the enemy.
Why? Because Trump’s GOP is a minority of the electorate, so they need every single one of these people to show up the polls. We don’t need them to vote with us. We just need a few more of them to stay home. And yes, negative politics are distasteful, but when it comes to Trump, there’s no need to tart up the truth.
So let’s pester conservative women with Facebook reminders about the President’s history of rape, sexual assault, adultery, and sexism. Pound the 30 percent of the Hispanic population that votes Republican with pictures of immigrant brown kids in cages. Put white evangelical criticism of Trump in front of white evangelical Christians who haven’t seen those words repeated on Fox News. Remind those mythical “moderate free-market fiscal conservatives” about Trump’s trade wars and budget deficits.
Don’t appeal to them. Depress the fuck out of them! Make them feel bad about voting for him last time.
What about the stunts they’ll pull, like sending troops to the border in 2018? I suppose I’m moderately less concerned about this than others. There are public opinion risks involved in Trump’s abuses of power — remember, American voters didn’t grow up in an overtly hypernormal Soviet system. There may yet be limits to our cognitive dissonance.
Surkov would counsel Trump to distort our reality so that no one is sure what’s true, and Fox is all on board for that. But here’s the truth, and it won’t change: They can’t win without cheating, because we outnumber them by millions.
Which means they’re going to cheat. Plain and simple. Plan accordingly.
We can still beat them, of course — but it might not be pretty. So get your mind right, y’all. Shit is about to get weird.