I usually avoid writing about the demise of America. It’s a bit of a cliché, an easy narrative for commentators to contextualise the latest news, whether it’s an Iranian hijacking or the rise of some new terrorist group.
It seems America has been dying for years, which makes me think of Mark Twain: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Nonetheless, a few weeks ago I wrote about how democracies choose to die. In it, I referenced a study that could predict the death of any democracy with 96.8 per cent accuracy and made a brief reference to America.
The study argued that any democracy meeting four of five criteria is doomed to collapse. America, I said, appears to have three: economic inequality, frequent changes of power, and foreign meddling in domestic politics. That means a fourth – a malfunctioning economy – will theoretically bring it all crashing down.
Although the idea that democracies choose to die was interesting, the reference to America felt mostly theoretical until I read this piece by McKay Coppins in The Atlantic. It’s the story of how some guy called Brad is talking America into suicide.
Brad Parscale is the director of Trump’s 2020 campaign. He’s from Kansas, 6’ 8” with a pointy beard, and the man behind the plan of ‘narrative over truth’, as Coppins puts it.
The Republican Party and the Trump campaign, spearheaded by Parscale, have compiled 3000 data points on every American voter that they will use to ‘micro-target’ political ads. “If candidates once had to shout their campaign promises from a soapbox, micro-targeting allows them to sidle up to millions of voters and whisper personalized messages in their ear.”
This allows Parscale to effectively create different narratives for different voters. Some might aim to make that person vote for Trump, like telling bible-thumpers in Iowa that he’ll defund Planned Parenthood. Others might try and prevent that person from voting, particularly young women or ethnic minorities. Another groups of ads might radicalise right-leaning people ‘with certain psychological characteristics’ in the same way jihadists use online marketing to radicalise those with Islamist tendencies.
The effort has been facilitated by Facebook, which has refused to police false information spreading through its site. It has instead created an ‘archive’ of political ads to foster transparency, but that misses the point. The problem isn’t whether the ads are true or false. The problem is that people no longer care.
Millions upon millions of these ads have created a form of politics in which emotions are more important than the facts. Tell people what they want to hear, what makes them feel good, and the facts don’t matter. The President isn’t the candidate with the best policies or oratory; the President is the candidate with the best story, fiction or otherwise.
The other red flag Coppins touched on is attacks on journalists, usually one of the first precursors to democratic collapse. He tells a story of how Donald Trump Jr. uses a network of loyalists and a dossier containing trawled information on journalists to discredit those who criticise the President. Apparently the dossier includes information on about 2,000 people and is managed by a paid programmer in India.
“When the press as an institution is weakened, fact-based journalism becomes just one more drop in the daily deluge of content—no more or less credible than partisan propaganda,” Coppins writes.
By this account, the death of America isn’t coming about through the usual suspects, like a coup or a ‘declaration of emergency powers’ that never ends. It’s through the McDonald-isation of information – you eat what tastes good, even if it isn’t healthy. And so America is developing an appetite for a demagogue.
Consider this gem from a guy Coppins found at a Trump rally in Mississippi. “He tells you what you want to hear,” Willnow said. “And I don’t know if it’s true or not—but it sounds good, so fuck it.”
For now, this dystopia feels confined to politics. Trump is an unpopular president with no guarantee of re-election in November.
But imagine if the fourth criteria – a poor economy - was added to the mix. False information would pin the blame on political opponents and used to justify a subtle shift in political systems, whilst those crying foul are either drowned out by noise or discredited by an Indian dossier. A political system based on how people feel, rather than what they think, is ripe for takeover.
America will be a republic, if you can want it. This is the true danger of Brad from Kansas: he is talking America into wanting something else.