How should Democrats fight back against Trump's billion-dollar "Death Star"?

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has built a $1 billion disinformation machine. Here's how to beat it

Published February 11, 2020 8:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump and Brad Parscale (Getty Images/Salon)
Donald Trump and Brad Parscale (Getty Images/Salon)

They're calling it the "Death Star." While supporters of the various Democratic candidates for president pummel each other online, Grand Moff Brad Parscale, Donald Trump's campaign manager, is deploying this appropriately nicknamed $1 billion disinformation machine with the real potential to obliterate even the most perfect Democratic ticket this fall. For starters. 

Among other things, this raises an extraordinarily important question: How exactly do the Democrats fight back against what amounts to a nuclear arsenal of lies and kooky conspiracy theories? We'll circle back to that.

McKay Coppins' terrifying new article for The Atlantic, "The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President," about Parscale's Rosslyn, Virginia-based agitprop factory, the "Death Star," is a stop-the-presses moment for this election. Frankly, the size and despot-scale cynicism of Parscale's project is almost too much to comprehend, rendering the myriad other Jenga pieces in this election small by comparison. 

In essence what Coppins exposes here is everything we've heard about the nefarious, Robert Mueller-indicted Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia, but knocked off and weaponized domestically by Trump and Parscale, with the purpose of brainwashing millions of American social media users, poisoning their minds by polluting their Facebook feeds with laser-targeted, customized propaganda designed to make sure Trump gets a second term. 

Coppins calls it "the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history." 

And how could it not be? According to the article, the Republican National Committee, which has merged with the Trump campaign, even sharing office space, has collected thousands of identifying details about you. Not the royal you — you specifically, if you're registered to vote. Around "3,000 data points" on every voter in America

The plan is to exploit those thousands of data points (your biases, your interests, even your favorite color) to coerce you into voting against the Democratic ticket, while further eroding public confidence in facts reported by the press, "jamming the signals" and "sowing confusion."

Insanely, Facebook has opened its doors and welcomed Trump's Death Star into our timelines. Mark Zuckerberg's stupefying decision to allow deliberately false political advertisements on his increasingly toxic platform, combined with the RNC's data-mined information about you, will allow Parscale's super-weapon to drill directly into our news feeds with microtargeted lies designed to cattle-prod us into action (or into inaction, as the case may be). Zuckerberg, Coppins notes, thinks his library of ads will help watchdogs to identify the false ones, but Parscale knows that excuse is completely bogus. 

We've all heard the trope before: "A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots." This is precisely how disinformation circumnavigates the internet despite fact-checkers, and in the face of even the most thorough debunking. In this case, by the time a reporter punches his or her way through the countless ads stored in Facebook's pointless library, the false ads will have already radicalized the voters who received them. Indeed, each ad might have hundreds of variations specific to you and your friends. In other words, good luck policing Facebook's political ads when they multiply like gremlins. It feels as if Facebook is a subsidiary of the Trump campaign, at least for now.

To be clear: While past Democratic campaigns have also employed microtargeting, Parscale's operation is calibrated to capitalize on Trump's own fetish for lying and outlandish conspiracies. Indeed, Trump's 2016 campaign engaged in similar tactics. Now imagine Trump's modestly financed 2016 propaganda efforts, turbo-boosted with the power of the billion-dollar Death Star.

Part of the goal here is to destroy the traditional press, be it print, internet or television news. The concept is as old as the oldest authoritarian regimes: If facts are dragged down to the same level as propaganda — if all content is disinformation — then none of it is. Likewise, Trump and Parscale are deploying "swarms of surrogates" to attack and dox unfriendly members in the press, a process Donald Trump Jr. has been more than happy to help with. In one case, Trump surrogates doxed a Business Insider writer who irritated Junior, so the machine swung into action, nearly costing the writer his job. Worse yet, the 2020 machine will apparently also target local TV newscasters who don't toe the pro-Trump line. 

Steve Bannon said recently about this campaign against the press, "There are casualties in war."

Adding to the up-is-down, fiction-is-truth Orwellian underpinnings of all this, supporters of the president — you know, the president who can't stop whining about "fake news" — are publishing fake local news websites that look entirely legitimate. Once established, these fake sites, with plausible-sounding names like the Arizona Monitor and the Kalamazoo Times, become official-looking platforms for all varieties of hideousness. Nothing is safe, not even local papers. Coupled with Sinclair Media's takeover of local television news, the Trump war against reality is a war of attrition.

For all of its near-term thinking, with Republicans bouncing from Trump scandal to Trump scandal, conducting triage as they go, the Trumpian disinformation attack against American voters by using our own data against us while eroding factual reality, is a long-term plot that's already manifesting systemic damage to the republic. How could it not? 

One way the damage could get worse is if the Democratic Party creates its own version of the same colossus, complete with wild falsehoods and ludicrous conspiracies intravenously pumped into our skulls, along with digital terrorism directed at both journalists and the facts they report. Some operatives on the left reportedly believe it's acceptable to fight fire with fire, and to let fly with party-sanctioned dirty tricks backed by mountains of dark money. 

While there will always be dirty tricksters in politics, institutionalizing totalitarian agitprop campaigns on the Democratic side would be a catastrophic mistake. Yes, the Democrats have to win, but they have to do so with their integrity and values, their adulthood, intact — because otherwise the entire system could break down, with no guarantee of victory. As I said earlier, Democratic campaigns have used micro-targeting and social media advertising before, but that doesn't have to mean a delivery vehicle for horseshit. Indeed, Trump is his own worst enemy, providing a daily horror-show of incompetence, indecency, authoritarian blurts, embarrassing mishaps, racism, misogyny and weird behavior that defies explanation. We have a lot to work with.

Democrats only need to precisely and tenaciously reinforce the raw truth about Trump, not unlike the ads being run by Mike Bloomberg's campaign. There's more than enough material for this election cycle, and given the Republican track record, the motherlode of grabassery is bottomless. All told, the most effective attacks against Trump don't require embellishment to make them more effective. The truth, pushed out in sufficient quantity, will do just fine.

Meanwhile, Trump absolutely needs his 16,241 lies and a massively expensive disinformation campaign to make up for all those aforementioned shortcomings, not unlike the way he needs his hair-helmet, his clown makeup, and his sloppy suit jackets to mask his physical flaws. We've all noticed the vast amount of heavy-lifting being done by Fox News and the congressional Republicans to prop up this weak incumbent. Parscale's Death Star is the latest wireframe to be installed, fortifying the president from totally collapsing under the ponderous weight of his own illegitimacy. It's easy to be intimidated by it all, until we realize how much effort is required to compensate for Trump's impotence.

Coppins concludes by noting that this election is "a referendum on reality itself." Exactly right. As I wrote back in November:

[W]e've found ourselves locked in a fight to defend the very fabric of reality itself. The endgame for the rest of us Normals is to victoriously bend the national discourse back to a place where a functioning supermajority accepts that reality is reality and lies are fiction. This has to be achieved before the mentally disintegrating Mad King convinces his disciples that he can use his unlimited power to arrest dissidents, to execute "invading" migrants, to arrest for murder parents who allow their dying infant to pass away peacefully — to manifest horror shows we can barely begin to contemplate.

It all begins by obliterating the truth.

We know the culprits of this plot, and unlike in past elections, we have a much better sense of how the war against reality is being waged. As with the Confederates before Antietam, or the Empire at the end of "Rogue One," they've allowed their battle plans to slip out. There can be no excuse for allowing Trump to win, given what we know. The question of our time is whether enough of us will red-flag the propaganda and take action to stop the flanking armies, while reinforcing sources of factual reality, or whether we blindly let it happen while sharing photos of our dinners. Ultimately, we have to fight this fight in our own news feeds and inside our own Twitter mentions, one blocked troll at a time. With the future of the republic at stake, it's not really a matter of "if" we can do this. We have to. 


By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.