I am currently reading a terrific book. Brittany Kaiser’s Targeted is, its caption declares, “the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower’s inside story of how big data, Trump, and Facebook broke democracy and how it can happen again.” Kaiser tells a riveting and disturbing story about how Cambridge Analytica emerged from a firm called Strategic Communications Laboratories, and how it pioneered techniques of digital “micro-targeting” that helped elect Trump.
Strategic communication. Trump’s White House has eliminated press briefings, viciously attacked the press and indeed all independent media sources, and organized a cynical and relentless campaign of disinformation via Twitter, Facebook, Fox News, Breitbart, YouTube, the One America News Network, and a range of other media.
Trump in office — with the assistance of henchman like Bill Barr and with the support of the entire Republican party — has used every such means at his disposal to attack and delegitimize all forms of accountability, first with the Mueller Report and now with the entire impeachment process. And he has been remarkably successful. On MSNBC this weekend one of the news anchors discussed with a guest how Democrats are wary of using “the M word” in connection with impeachment. The word in question is not “Motherfucker.” It is Mueller: the decorated war hero, Republican stalwart, and former head of the FBI, who was appointed by Trump’s own Justice Department as a special counsel, the guy who Trump and Barr defamed to the point where some are loath to even mention his name. The same guy who produced a massive, two-volume, damning report on how the Trump campaign had interfaced with Russian intelligence even if “conspiracy” could not be demonstrated — because the Mueller team was unable to interview the principals — and then obstructed any investigation into this.
Mueller and his team perhaps could have handled their investigation and report better, and Mueller himself surely could have done a much better job in his House testimony. All the same, the Report is a trove of unimpeachable evidence of electoral corruption and abuse of power. And it is the House Democrats, and not Mueller, who bear significant responsibility for their failure to take advantage of this evidence and to counter the Republican campaign of disinformation. They brought him in for a day of boring and poorly-planned cross-examination, and then allowed Trump and Barr to bury everything contained in Mueller’s report.
There was nothing strategic about the way the Democrats communicated about Mueller, unless their goal was to abase themselves before Trump.
The House impeachment inquiry thus far has been much more effective, mainly under the leadership of Adam Schiff, serving as Nancy Pelosi’s Designated Hitter. Matthew Miller published a good piece about this in the Washington Post last weekend whose point is well-summarized in its headline: “How to win a message war: Be bold, clear and swift. Mueller wasn’t. Schiff was.” Miller’s positive account of the Schiff Intelligence Committee’s majority report also applies to the report just released by Nadler’s Judiciary Committee on “Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment.” Both reports are focused, and have a simple, clear message, especially by contrast with the massive and unwieldy two-volume Mueller report.
At the same time, it is hard to take seriously the claim that either of these reports “is easily digestible by mass audiences.”
The reason is that most Americans do not even read newspapers, much less tightly-argued legal briefs, even if they are only 52 pages long, as is the Judiciary report (only?). USA Today is the largest circulating daily newspaper in the U.S., and at over 1.6 million daily readers, its readership is larger than the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times put together. According to a 2018 Pew Report, only 7% of Americans report getting their news from print media; 14% get their news from radio, 44% from television, and 34% (and constantly growing) from social media.
I read the Schiff and Nadler reports, and loved them both. And I am a college professor, a political scientist who has been teaching at least semi-motivated undergraduates for four decades, and who has trouble enough getting these people to carefully read a 30-page essay even when they know a grade might hang in the balance.
Will “mass audiences” really read, much less “digest,” these impressive legal documents?
Last weekend’s Washington Post reported that “Republicans mount an ad blitz on impeachment, making some vulnerable Democrats nervous.”
What kind of public relations and strategic communications strategy are the Democrats pursuing?
Are they undertaking a massive ad campaign to explain and support impeachment?
Have their reports, and the information contained therein, been disseminated in effective, concise, bite (and byte)-sized, and “sexy” ways, on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram?
If you want to share with young people some attractive bullet-points or graphics on impeachment, perhaps featuring some particularly compelling quotes (like Sonderland saying “it was quid pro quo”), where can you find them?
Did you know that in June, Rob Reiner produced and distributed a five-minute video on YouTube that featured a number of prominent Hollywood celebrities reading excerpts from the Mueller Report, and ended with Martin Sheen saying: “All this is in the Report. Please, just read it for yourself?” I didn’t know, until I heard Reiner discussing it on MSNBC last month. He claimed millions have viewed it. It was the kind of thing that we need much more of. But we also need for these things to be very proactively disseminated, via the entire range of media and especially social media, and indeed embraced and used, effectively, by Democratic leaders. Such efforts must not be allowed to fly under the radar.
Have you seen such a video or ad on impeachment, featuring Hollywood stars, or pop stars, or NBA or perhaps even NFL stars? I haven’t.
Do Adam Schiff, or Jerrold Nadler, or Nancy Pelosi have a staff person who does web design and social media and is working full time on impeachment? Does the Democratic National Committee, led by Tom Perez, have such a staff person? Can you find anything on the committee websites beyond the turgid reports themselves?
What is being done by the Democrats, in an organized fashion, to promote the messaging of their impeachment, with an eye toward public opinion now and in 2020? What are they waiting for?
In mid-October, Politico ran a story: “Dems scrambling to counter Trump with grassroots impeachment campaign.” The story reported that the Republicans have far outplayed the Democrats on the strategic communication of impeachment:
Trump’s presidential campaign had already filmed an ad focused on impeachment, which it used to raise more than $8 million in two days after the impeachment push began. Soon after, Trump and the RNC launched a $10 million advertising offensive, some of it targeting House Democrats who are facing difficult reelection bids. In total, Republicans have spent $6.3 million on impeachment-focused advertising on television, Google and Facebook since Pelosi announced an inquiry on Sept. 24, while Democrats have spent $2.4 million, according to Advertising Analytics.
The story also reports on some promising new initiatives to promote impeachment in swing states, especially one by the newly-formed ACRONYM group. And a recent Vox piece points out that while Trump continues to spend massively on Facebook ads attacking impeachment, Tom Steyer’s Need to Impeach initiative has also spent almost $2 million on impeachment ads.
There is currently a political struggle being fought over the future of constitutional democracy itself.
The House of Representatives is merely one site of this struggle. And the official proceedings of the House, whether in the form of verbal testimony or published reports, are merely one means through which this conflict is being debated and fought. The Republicans have proven themselves to be brilliant practitioners of the politics of negativism, disinformation, and resentment. They have mastered the art of targeted digital communication, and have used it to target democracy itself.
Unless the Democrats dramatically up their strategic communications game, they will lose both the Senate vote and the symbolic struggle over impeachment. And we will all suffer the consequences.
Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.