How the System Got Trumped: Cambridge Analytica’s Electoral Psyops Campaign

Poster for “Trumping Democracy.”

Available from Cinema Libre Studios, “Trumping Democracy” provides the key to understanding how we have ended up with the most unpopular president in history. Despite the tsunami of reports about Russia meddling with the 2016 elections, this gripping documentary makes the case that it was instead the result of a combination of Robert Mercer’s funding and the computer-based Psyops his Cambridge Analytica firm exploited. This one-two punch produced a president that Gary Cohn described, according to Michael Wolff’s new bombshell book, Fire and Fury, as a “An idiot surrounded by clowns.”

Including the director Thomas Huchon, “Trumping Democracy” was the product of a creative team that despite (or, perhaps because of) its French provenance has a sharper focus on our national calamity than MSNBC, CNN and all the other usual suspects. Huchon’s last documentary “Conspi Hunter” was based on a bogus conspiracy theory about the CIA inventing the AID virus in order to subvert Cuba. He released the film online in order to show how quickly and easily conspiracy theories can go viral on the Internet. Given the role of Breitbart News and Infowars in the Trump campaign, it was logical that Huchon would make his latest film a kind of follow-up to “Conspi Hunter”.

The film begins with a visit to an artist named Scott Lobaido, who lives on Staten Island—the only borough in New York that favored Trump. Lobaido might be better described as an illustrator since most of his work is just one cut above the velveteen portraits of JFK or Elvis Presley that used to adorn some households in years past. This is a painting displayed prominently on the home page of his website.

The foul-mouthed Lobaido told his mild-mannered French interlocutor that the mainstream media was out to destroy Trump and that he could only rely on Fox News to get the real story. But his main source of “the truth” is the Internet. After spending 8 hours painting American flags or portraits of Donald Trump striking heroic poses, he sits down at his computer and goes to Twitter, Facebook or websites like Infowars to learn about the dangers that Muslims and Mexican immigrants pose to the republic. Much of what he takes as the gospel truth has about as much validity as “Conspi Hunter”.

He probably has relied on Paul Horner’s news stories on occasion, who is the next subject Huchon sits down to interview. Horner’s interest was less in promoting Donald Trump than it was in making money. Since he understood that his fake stories were more likely to get the attention of a Scott Lobaido than a Louis Proyect, he found it useful to “expose” Hillary Clinton. Carrying ads on his click-bait articles ensured that he was able to pay his rent and enjoy the good life.

Some research done after watching “Trumping Democracy” revealed that Horner died of an accidental drug overdose on September 18, 2017—no doubt paid for by the proceeds of his fake stories. Totally cynical about his profession, he revealed himself to the NY Times as someone totally unlike those who helped make him prosper:

Mr. Horner’s fraudulent articles could be found on Facebook, various news domains that he created, and in years past, on the fake news website National Report.

Even his byline was fake. He often went by the name Jimmy Rustling, as he did on this story, in which he claimed protesters were getting paid $3,500 to disrupt Trump rallies.

That article, which was tweeted out by Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, now has a taunting disclaimer at the top that says the story isn’t real: “I personally went to two Donald Trump rallies and I can say with 100% certainty that NONE of the protesters were getting paid,” the statement says. “This story I wrote is mocking all of you sheep who think protesters are getting paid.”

Next Huchon trains his eye on Robert Mercer, who is truly the éminence grise responsible for our woes today. In some ways, Mercer is the modern counterpart of Howard Hughes, another reclusive tycoon who used his wealth to reshape American politics. Instead of the airplane, it was IBM computers that helped Mercer become a billionaire. As a natural language pioneer at Big Blue, Mercer helped to lay the groundwork for artificial intelligence and ironically for the president who was the epitome of real stupidity.

His mastery of complex logarithms recommended him to Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that sought ways to make money by putting investing on a scientific basis. It didn’t work very well for Long Term Capital Management and let’s cross our fingers that it will work even more poorly for Renaissance Technologies. While the USA is like a patient on life support, the bankruptcy of this piggy bank for pigs might give it another five minutes before the plug is pulled.

With the technology he developed at the hedge fund, the firm prospered and so did he. His billions have helped him to carry out the same kind of libertarian rightwing crusade as the Koch brothers, but with much more of a Christian, right-populist twist. (It should be added that the populism was mostly cosmetic.) Mercer never spent a penny on chi-chi institutions like the Lincoln Center or the Museum of Natural History as do the Kochs. He was exclusively a big backer of propaganda machines like the Heritage Foundation and Breitbart News that he rescued from bankruptcy. Mercer and his lout of a daughter Rebekah developed a close relationship with Steve Bannon, who was funded by the Mercers when he served as Trump’s campaign manager.

Mercer’s first choice was Ted Cruz rather than Donald Trump. When Trump threw Cruz and all the other primary campaign competitors out of the ring as if it were a professional wrestling survival match, it wasn’t hard for the Mercers to get on the Trump bandwagon—even though it might be said that it was really Trump who got on their bandwagon.

The Mercers and their hired gun Bannon understood at the outset that Clinton, as awful as she was, was not nearly as awful as Trump. She was likely to win the popular vote as she did by nearly 2.9 million. They calculated that they had to focus on the electoral vote, an undemocratic measure that the founding fathers viewed as essential to keeping the rabble in line.

It was close ties between the British racist Nigel Farage and his American counterpart Steve Bannon that helped them to develop a winning strategy. When Britons voted for Brexit, a campaign with nativist implications that Farage helped to formulate, Bannon and the Mercers realized that what worked in England might work here. Farage tipped them off that a firm called Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) provided key demographic data that helped the Brexit campaigners secure a victory.

SCL developed Psyops that could be used to the advantage of election campaigns and ultimately to the military. The methodology involved developing a profile of potential voters inspired by the OCEAN personality test, which drew from publicly available databased to identify how people rated on the basis of Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Integrating publicly available databases and information drawn from Facebook and Twitter, the American offshoot of SCL named Cambridge Analytics that is owned by Mercer identified key voters who scored high on Neuroticism and voted Democrat in the last election in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. The Trump campaign then paid for ads that targeted this base heavily with social media ads in October and November that would last for only a brief period, thus leaving no obvious electronic trail.

While it is obviously impossible to prove that the ads made the difference in swinging these states to Trump’s advantage, it is certainly more plausible than blaming the Russian ads with which Rachel Maddow is obsessed, especially since the Trump campaign shelled out 150 million dollars, while the Russian ads did not exceed $150,000.

The real question is not whether the ads made the difference. It is instead what kind of society we are living in, where Psyops begin to be used routinely. That in combination with the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that gave corporations the right to buy elections makes the word democracy sound hollow.

When Psyops-type Facebook ads can swing elections, you have to consider the Internet—or at least the social media part of it—as a mixed blessing. Despite its obvious value in spreading news about protests in countries where the newspapers are government-controlled, it can also be exploited for propaganda advantages by the very same types of regimes—Syria being a prime example.

Oddly enough, there is an inverse relationship between technological advances and the ability of people to exercise their democratic rights. In 1986, I read a book titled “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman that made the case that television has been responsible for dumbing down the political culture. It is too bad that Postman, who died in 2003, never updated it to take the Internet into account. He was troubled by how television presidential debates had begun to become not much more edifying than those ridiculous five-minute food fights between Tucker Carlson and some leftist foolish enough to accept an invitation to “debate” him.

While most people nowadays are worried that Trump will impose a totalitarian regime of the type that Orwell warned about in “1984”, we should not rule out the possibility—or even the probability—that we are facing much more of a dystopia that resembles Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, where everybody had the freedom to do what they wanted except the right to change the system. Here’s how Postman contrasted the two British authors in the forward to his classic:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

It is also about the possibility that Donald Trump’s presidency is the realization of Huxley’s dystopian vision.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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