22 March 2018

The seductive simplicity of blaming Trump’s win on Cambridge Analytica


For the last two years, on both sides of the Atlantic, liberals and other concerned citizens have spent their time searching for an answer to the agonising, appalling, question “How did this happen?” How, for the love of God, could the United States have elected Donald Trump president? How, for crying out loud, could the United Kingdom have been stupid enough to vote for Brexit?

These questions need answers and the simpler they are, the better. Reality is complicated so let’s find some clear-cut solutions that, happily, comfort and reinforce our own happy convictions or, as we call them when we see them in other people, prejudices.

There are many things wrong with Donald Trump but, in point of fact, his actual views are the least of them. The substance of Trump’s presidency, for all its manifest shortcomings and evident threats to the established manner of doing presidential business, has hitherto been less alarming than the manner in which he has conducted himself.

Trump violates many norms but the most significant of these is his contempt for the idea of the presidency itself. He does not comport himself in a “presidential” fashion; his every tweet spits on the cherished notion of the presidency as an office that, regardless of personal partisan affiliation, is due some modicum of respect.

Is it more probable that millions of Americans were hoodwinked by Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica into voting for Donald Trump for reasons those voters barely understand themselves or that millions of Americans would have voted for any Republican candidate against any Democratic opponent and, especially, when that Democratic candidate was Hillary Rodham Clinton? Sometimes even political questions have easy answers.

Moreover, for all that social media has become the fashionable subject in politics, is it more likely that Donald Trump capitalised on underlying currents evident in election results all across the developed world or that Facebook and those who use it to spread their political message have contrived to corrupt elections everywhere, aiding and boosting the efforts of populists from the United States to Poland via Italy and even the United Kingdom?

And, again, is it more probable that the idea of Donald Trump as can-do fixer who tells it like it is popularised — and even normalised, if you like — by the years he spent hosting America’s most popular “reality” television show or that this was all something cooked up by Steven Bannon and other people using Trump as their useful goon?

Add to that the manner in which the media — the mainstream media, that is — covered Trump as some kind of compelling, if gruesome, carnival show and you begin to see how the hours and hours of free coverage devoted to Trump helped persuade Americans that he was a risk worth taking.

Doubly so, indeed, because of his opponent. The mainstream television news covered Hillary Clinton’s email problems as though this was the second coming of Watergate. There was indeed a story there and one that needed to be covered. However unwittingly, however, it suggested there was some kind of equivalence between Clinton and Trump in terms of their personal probity. Plus, you know, Clinton was an appalling candidate, possessing all the human empathy and life of a smoked haddock. “You’re likeable enough” Barack Obama told Clinton, only half-jokingly, back in 2008; eight years later the American people decided that, actually, she wasn’t.

Cambridge Analytica are the new Russians, however; a universal solvent explaining all woes. Again more than one thing may be true at a time. Russian interference — not least in terms of the hacking of Clinton’s emails — and Facebook-based micro targeting doubtless had an impact. Quantifying that, however, remains elusive. It might have been enough to swing an election decided, cumulatively, by less than 100,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Then again, if Clinton had deployed more resources to Milwaukee and Detroit she might still have won.

Liberal Remain-voters on this side of the Atlantic are still also coming to terms with the vote for Brexit. This too seems an assault against common sense and, therefore, must be explained by some dark and mysterious and doubtless malevolent force. It cannot be that as simple as this being what the people bloody wanted. Something else must explain it; hence mutterings about “dark money” and the evil genius of Cambridge Analytica.

Winning campaigns are always staffed be geniuses and losers are always inept. Nevertheless, the Remain campaign really was a tepid, lacklustre thing just as Clinton’s was notably lacking in inspiration. The ground for Leave as prepared by 40 years of politicians from all parties complaining, in essence, that the EU was a terrible deal for Britain. David Cameron proved no exception to this trend. His argument, in the end, boiled down to this: “The EU is rubbish; please vote Remain”. You don’t need to even have a Facebook account to see the problem with that.

Equally, in an environment in which real wages remain nearly 5 per cent lower than they were a decade ago, you can begin to see why many voters were both fed up and welcomed the opportunity to say so. To put it another way, would Britain have voted for Brexit if the economy had been growing at 3 per cent a year for the preceding decade? Perhaps it would have but Leave would surely have had a much more difficult task on its hands. Sometimes, often indeed, it really is the economy stupid.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that separate stories are being wilfully conflated here. The means by which Facebook may be used — or, if you prefer, manipulated — is one thing. The security, or lack thereof, of Facebook’s data is another. And then there is the manner in which that data is used. The victories for Trump and Brexit have given, in some circles anyway, data-driven campaigning a bad odour. Conveniently this forgets the fact that Clinton and Remain also relied on data. Indeed, when the Tories won a surprising victory in 2015 many people were happy to credit the victory to the party’s superior online game. Few people thought that malodorous or in some vague and unspecified way a form of cheating or manipulating the public.

The backlash this week, then, seems driven by aesthetics as much as by real evidence of corporate and political malfeasance. Trump’s vulgarity is both his greatest strength — see how he pisses off all the right people — and the reason so many people, myself included, view him with such horror. It is not just that he is a racist and a boor and a bully and a shameless braggart — though he is all of those things and more — but that he does not have any even redeeming vices. He is no LBJ or Nixon or Kennedy, each of them in their different ways appalling characters redeemed to some extent by a deep and serious sense of political purpose.

Even so, the forces Trump capitalised upon — notably white male resentment — were not so very different from those Nixon exploited in 1968 and 1972. Equally, the data driven campaigns run by Trump and Clinton were little different in character from previous campaigns. Direct mail was invented more than 40 years ago; Facebook targeting is largely just a much more efficient means of achieving the same end.

And perhaps it is that efficiency which really scares us. The idea each of us has buttons that may be pressed offends our sense of ourselves as rational beings. Lurking behind the thought that “they” — the poor rubes — can be easily manipulated lies the unacknowledged fear that perhaps we might be too. Couple this with the vague sense that individually targeted political messaging breaks down the idea of an election as a great, if unavoidably disputed, national coming together and you begin to create the conditions in which a certain level of paranoia can thrive.

Where is it all heading? What happens next in a world where events crash into each other at, it sometimes seems, ever greater velocity? If this is just the beginning of a great technological revolution then where will it end? Who, indeed, is actually in control of these things? The thought that nobody might be is a thought we find truly frightening.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.