How to Beat Populists When the Facts Don’t Matter

How to Beat Populists When the Facts Don’t Matter

A few weeks ago, I went to a political rally in a farmyard. The Polish presidential candidate Rafał Trzaskowski was speaking; in the background, a golden wheat field shimmered in the late-afternoon sun. The audience was enthusiastic—the host, a local farmer, had spread news of the candidate’s visit only the day before—but the juxtaposition of Trzaskowski and the wheat field was odd. He is the mayor of Warsaw, speaks several languages, has degrees in economics, and belongs to the half of Poland that identifies as educated, urban, and European. What does he know from wheat?

But Trzaskowski was running for president in a country whose other half lives in an information bubble that teaches people to be suspicious of anyone from Warsaw who is educated, urban, and European. Polish state television, fully controlled by the ruling Law and Justice party, was sending aggressive messages into that bubble, warning its inhabitants that Trzaskowski was dubious, foreign, in hock to “LGBT ideology”—which the incumbent president, Andrzej Duda, called “worse than communism”—and beholden to Germans and Jews. The messages, constantly repeated on a wide array of radio stations and television channels, were designed to reinforce tribal loyalties and convince Law and Justice voters that they are “real” Poles, not impostors or traitors like their political opponents.

During his short campaign, Trzaskowski did his best to reach into that bubble too. He stood beside wheat fields, spent a lot of time in small towns, and ran ads that called for an end to division. “We are united by a dream,” he said in one speech: “a dream of a different Poland,” a Poland where there are no “better” and “worse” citizens. This was a deliberate choice: Instead of mobilizing the voters inside his own bubble by attacking the ruling party, he sought to bridge Poland’s deep polarization by appealing to national unity.

[Anne Applebaum: Poland’s rulers made up a ‘Rainbow Plague’]

He came close, winning 49 percent of the vote. But he failed. Trzaskowski’s half of Poland was insufficiently enthusiastic, while the other half was energized, angry, and very much afraid of Jews, foreigners, and “LGBT ideology.” Duda’s voters were also happy with the government subsidies and reduced retirement age that his party had approved, and not remotely inspired by Trzaskowski’s language of solidarity and unity—if they even heard it.

If they even heard it: If that doesn’t sound familiar, it should. Because the same thing could happen in the United States this fall—or during the next election in France, or Italy, or Ukraine. American politics, Polish politics, French politics, Italian politics, Ukrainian politics, all derived from their own history, economics, and culture, now have this in common: In each of these countries, deep informational divides separate one part of the electorate from the rest. Some voters live in a so-called populist bubble, where they hear nationalist and xenophobic messages, learn to distrust fact-based media and evidence-based science, and become receptive to conspiracy theories and suspicious of democratic institutions. Others read and hear completely different media, respect different authorities, and search for a different sort of news. Whatever the advantages of these other bubbles, their rules render the people in them incapable of understanding or speaking with those outside of them.

In some places, including Poland and the United States, the country is divided in half. In other places, such as Germany, the proportions vary, but the divide is just as deep. A couple of years ago, I took part in a project that looked at foreign influence in the 2017 German parliamentary elections. We found, among other things, that the overwhelming majority of Germans—left, right, and center—follow a mix of big newspapers, magazines, and television outlets, including public TV. But many of the Germans who vote for the far-right Alternative for Germany—the number hovers between 10 and 14 percent—get their news from a completely separate set of sources, including a heavy dose of Russian-funded German-language media, such as Sputnik and RT. The voters in the far-right bubble don’t just have different opinions from other Germans; they have different facts, including “facts” provided by a foreign country.

[David Frum: The great Russian disinformation campaign]

The point I am making here is not about Russia. It is about the deep gap in perceptions that now separates a tenth of German voters from the other 90 percent. Is that chasm permanent? Should the other German political parties try to reach the people in the populist bubble? But how is it possible to reach people who can’t hear you? This is not merely a question of how to convince people, how to use a better argument, or how to change minds. This is a question about how to get people to listen at all. Just shouting about “facts” will get you nowhere with those who no longer trust the sources that produce them.

Here is how this problem looks in the United States: On the day after Donald Trump met Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in 2018, Sarah Longwell found herself in Columbus, Ohio, talking with a focus group she had convened—a room full of people whom she characterizes as “reluctant” Trump voters, people who had voted for the president but had doubts. Trump’s bizarre behavior in Helsinki had bothered her. The president had looked cowed and frightened; in accepting the Russian leader’s insistence that he had not interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, Trump appeared to side with Putin and against America’s FBI. “D.C. is on fire about it, I’m on fire about it, I think it’s a big moment,” Longwell told me. “I ask folks in Columbus, ‘What happened yesterday in Helsinki?’ They look blank.”

Longwell is a Republican activist, or rather a Never Trump Republican activist—one of the few remaining members of what was once a large group. She spent 2016 rooting for an alternative to Trump. She spent 2017 losing friends. That was the year of the “body snatchers,” she said, when “people who you thought were with you suddenly started to change.” In 2018, she tried to figure out what to do next. Instead of giving up, she and another Never Trump Republican, the longtime journalist and activist Bill Kristol, raised money and set out to find people who felt the same way, not in Washington but across America, especially in Republican-voting suburbs.

Their initiative, now called Republican Voters Against Trump, immediately ran into the information wall. Among Longwell’s focus group in Ohio, Trump’s bizarre behavior in Helsinki did not register. “People haven’t heard about it,” Longwell recalled thinking. “It’s not breaking through.” This wasn’t because the people in the group were uninterested in politics. Nor was it because they were only watching Fox News. On the contrary, they were getting news from social media, from alerts on their phone, from devices of all kinds. They were getting too much news, in fact. As a result, all reporting about Trump—the crush of scandals and corruption—is, Longwell said, “so omnipresent, so daily, that it becomes white noise to people.”

Helsinki, porn stars, “Grab them by the pussy,” Ivanka Trump’s Chinese trademarks, taxpayers’ money going to Trump golf clubs, the sex scandals, ethics scandals, legal scandals, even the power-abuse scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment—they have all melted together over the past four years. They have become a series of unpleasant news stories that follow TV advertisements for hairspray or mouthwash, that precede a Facebook post about a cousin’s wedding anniversary. For Longwell’s reluctant Trump voters, dislike of the scandals and dislike of the media that report on the scandals became one and the same—a huge hornets’ nest that nobody wanted to touch or think about. At the same time, these same voters were being bombarded with other messages—messages that reminded them of their tribal allegiance. They “swim in a cultural soup of Trumpism,” Longwell said. Being Republican was part of their identity. Images relating to God, patriotism, and the Republican Party were all around them. Cumulatively, those messages were much stronger than their dislike for Trump.

[Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes: Revenge of the Never Trumpers]

Ben Scott, a technology expert who worked on disinformation policy at Barack Obama’s State Department and was an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, has studied that same phenomenon. Digital media, he told me, have “allowed people to experience a higher frequency of highly evocative representations”—meaning the constant barrage of pictures, video, commentary, and memes that portray America, Christians, or families under siege; that align Trump with the Church and the Army; that see threats from foreigners, immigrants, outsiders of all kinds. People who live in this “alternative” news bubble also see or hear “mainstream,” fact-based media. But they reject them. They identify them as the enemy, and they learn to ignore them. The Clinton campaign’s mistake, Scott reckons, was its belief that people inside this bubble could be moved by an appeal to facts. They weren’t.

At first, Longwell also thought that an appeal to facts could move reluctant Trump voters to change their mind. But when she played them videos that clearly showed Trump lying, they shrugged it off. In part, this was because they did not hold him to the same standards as other politicians. Instead, she thinks, they saw him as a businessman and a celebrity, someone exempt from normal morality. “They say, ‘Yes, he lies. But he’s honest, he’s authentic, he’s real,’” Longwell said.

Even more powerful, though, is the pull of the group. Republican voters know that Trump lies. If they forgive him, that is because their friends and their families, the other members of their party, forgive him too. “I’m a Republican, my parents are Republicans, all of my friends are Republicans,” Longwell’s focus-group members told her. To vote differently wouldn’t just be an intellectual decision for these voters. It would tear them away from their tribe.

But what happens when that tribe itself starts talking about Trump in a different way? That, it turns out, is quite another matter entirely.

Change the messenger                   

Inside the noisy and chaotic modern information sphere, the message doesn’t matter nearly as much as the messenger. Many people no longer trust major media outlets to give them valuable information—and they may never do so again. They no longer trust politicians or groups they perceive to be outside their tribe either—and the days when a president got a respectful audience just for being the president may never return again. But voters do trust people they know, or people who resemble people they know. Understanding this to be true, Longwell and Kristol began experimenting. Instead of just creating professional campaign videos (though they have made one or two of those), they began soliciting and disseminating homemade clips. The Republican Voters Against Trump website features a quote from one of them—“I’d vote for a tuna fish sandwich before I’d vote for Donald Trump again”—as well as information on how to create your own video.

Hundreds of people have contributed clips, and many have already been posted. Among them are people who describe themselves as lifelong Republicans, as evangelical Christians, or as veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The videos are unscripted: Each person gives their own reasons for feeling disillusioned or angered by an administration they believe has betrayed them and their conservative ideals, and each explains their views in their own words. “People know that they are being sold something in an ad,” Longwell said. By contrast, they look at the RVAT videos, they see someone in their community, and they think, I like that person.

When tested on focus groups, the ads do have an impact: People find them convincing. Perhaps this is because they reflect conservative anxieties about Trump without criticizing the conservative tribe. The people in the videos sympathize with Republican voters’ dilemma, as Longwell herself does. “Tribalism isn’t all negative,” she said. “It also involves elements of loyalty, trust, and community.” Indeed, Trump’s abuse of loyalty, trust, and community is what seems to anger both her and the people in the videos the most. Their feelings of betrayal come through.

[Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles: The last anti-Trump Republicans are biding their time]

The use of insiders to reach into closed communities is an established technique—one often used in touchier, more trying circumstances. Sasha Havlicek, who runs a counter-extremism organization in London called the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (the group also worked on the 2017 German election study), has tried many times to find credible inside voices to speak with people who are on the cusp of being recruited online, whether into ISIS or white-supremacist organizations. Havlicek and her colleagues sometimes find disillusioned former members to counsel these would-be recruits, but she also looks for “church groups, local employers, veterans, or anyone who can offer an alternative sense of community.” What’s important, she told me, is to find people who can offer a crucial form of reassurance: Once you change your vote or your politics, once you break from what everyone around you is doing, “you won’t be alone.”

Make noise—and make jokes

If the world of counter-extremism offers lessons, so does the experience of anti-communism. Back in the 1980s, Poland was a Soviet-occupied Communist country with an entirely closed media environment. The Communist Party ran all the newspapers and the sole television network. Protest was illegal, and protesters were arrested. But an unusual dissident group called the Orange Alternative broke through the wall of regime media—by making people laugh. The group staged “happenings” that weren’t exactly demonstrations but something closer to comic performances. In 1987, the Orange Alternative held a parade on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, carrying pro-communist banners and drawing laughing crowds; another time, dozens of people dressed up as Santa Claus and gave out candy. The authorities were flummoxed: The parades were clearly protests, but the police looked stupid when they arrested people for wearing “communist” red outfits or Santa Claus suits. Srdja Popovic, the veteran Serbian activist—he helped lead a youth movement that overthrew the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević—has lectured on what he calls the “power of laughtivism.” “Humor melts fear,” he says. Mockery removes the aura of an authoritarian party or leader, making followers more willing to listen to alternatives.

In the U.S., this is one of the tactics now being pursued by the Lincoln Project. Founded by another group of anti-Trump Republicans, it doesn’t need the elaborate introduction it might have required a few weeks ago, not least because it has so successfully trolled the president. In May, the group made a short video that began with the words, “There is mourning in America. Today, more than 60,000 Americans have died from a deadly virus Donald Trump ignored.” Gloomy music followed, along with gloomy pictures: tattered buildings, abandoned houses, shabbily dressed people. Then, at the end, a picture of the Lincoln Memorial and the American flag: “If we have another four years like this, will there even be an America?”

The clip, a harsh take on the famous Ronald Reagan “Morning in America” commercial, was an instant hit: More than 1.5 million people watched it within two days of its appearance on Twitter. Even more people saw it after it ran on Fox News in the Washington, D.C., market. One of its viewers was the president, who fired off a series of midnight tweets loaded with all the familiar insults: RINOs, losers, a “disgrace.” The result: Money poured into the Lincoln Project’s coffers. John Weaver, one of the group’s founders, told me that in subsequent days, the video was viewed on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook millions of times.

[Reed Galen, John Weaver, and Rick Wilson: The party of idolaters]

Since then, the Lincoln Project has launched advertisements mocking Trump in Russian; advertisements making fun of the president’s apparent difficulties drinking a glass of water; advertisements laughing at his campaign manager, who was later fired, possibly for that reason; advertisements appearing within minutes of the event that they parody. A clip needling the president over his weight and apparent mental decline briefly caused #ImpotusAmericanus to trend on Twitter. The sometimes nasty, sometimes childish glee radiated by the group’s Twitter account (1.8 million followers) has provoked a harsh counterattack. The Lincoln Project and its founders have been denounced by some on the right as Democrats in disguise, acting under a false flag; by some on the left for alleged hidden agendas; by others as stooping to the same destructive tactics as the president. My Atlantic colleague Andrew Ferguson called the Lincoln Project’s ad campaign “personally abusive, overwrought, pointlessly salacious.”

The Lincoln Project’s founders count the attacks from the Republican Party as a success, not least because they distract the GOP from its campaign against Joe Biden. But do the Lincoln Project’s ads get through to Republican voters, let alone change their minds? Steve Schmidt, another one of the founders, argues that the information bubble around the president really does now function like an autocratic personality cult: Before any positive messages can get through, the spell has to be broken. For that reason, attacking Republican Party leaders is a necessity. “Diminish them, mock them, and laugh at them,” Schmidt told me. “Punch back hard before you lose the ability to do it.” He also thinks that aggressive, even vulgar, laughter will help break through the wall of indifference and convince distracted voters that something important is happening. “The side arguing from democratic values should not be the soft side in the debate,” Schmidt said. “It should be ferocious.”

Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Appeal to patriotism

In the grand scheme of things, both of these Never Trump Republican projects are tiny—like little speedboats racing alongside the aircraft carrier that will be the Democratic presidential ad campaign this fall. Weaver described their role as the sappers “blowing up supply lines” while the generals prepare their assault. Still, some of their efforts run parallel to Biden’s campaign strategy. He, too, is looking for ways to reach into the conservative bubble, or at least to not offend it. Biden has, for example, been careful to avoid making statements that could be used to scare Republican voters. He does not call for defunding the police, for example, or the opening of the border, or the abolition of all private health insurance. He keeps his rhetoric moderate, even though his base is baying for redder meat. As Ezra Klein of Vox has written, the Democratic candidate’s campaign staff is well aware that “mobilization is often the flip side of polarization.” The language that excites his base will also enrage his opponents, which is why he avoids it.

The risk, of course, is that Biden ends up like Trzaskowski, issuing calls for unity that excite nobody, not even his own party. But not everybody in the liberal center ends up that way. Schmidt’s conclusion—that the “side arguing from democratic values” need not be boring—was also reached a few years ago by a group of university students in Zurich, the founders of an effort called Operation Libero. When they began, the Swiss People’s Party, a populist-nationalist party, dominated the country’s politics. It had successfully promoted a vision of Switzerland as a closed enclave, and proposed a series of referendums designed to stoke xenophobia, halt immigration, and curtail the country’s ability to sign foreign treaties.

[Peter Beinart: Biden goes big without sounding like it]

In contrast, Operation Libero’s founders argued for a more welcoming vision of the nation. They pointed out that modern Switzerland’s founding moment was the liberal revolution of 1848, that the country had a long history of religious tolerance and openness to the world. Calling themselves the “children of 1848,” Operation Libero started making amusing video clips—an animated cartoon of Helvetia, the national symbol, howling as she is knocked over by a populist wrecking ball—and memes. The group created teams of volunteers who would argue against the Swiss version of the online alt-right, and invited the populists to engage in debate. It worked: Not only did Operation Libero help its own side prevail in several referendum campaigns, but its members looked like they were having fun doing it. One widely circulatedphotograph showed members of the group—including one of its founders, Flavia Kleiner, in a hot-pink jacket—cheering exuberantly as they celebrated an electoral victory.

But Operation Libero didn’t just offer fun; it also offered patriotism—a different version of patriotism. “We are offering a more positive view of Switzerland,” Kleiner told me a couple of years ago. “We don’t want it to be an open-air museum with an idealized past.” In the United States, the field is wide open for Biden, or anyone who supports him, to use emotive American symbols and traditions to mobilize voters of all stripes. One Biden campaign ad from last year went in exactly this direction, contrasting the language of the Declaration of Independence (“All men are created equal”) with the language of the 2017 alt-right march in Charlottesville, Virginia (“Jews will not replace us”). The renewal or recasting of American founding documents to suit a contemporary moment is, of course, nothing new. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted the “magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” and referred to the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But there is a possible trap here too. In this era of information overload, the appeals to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that worked in the past might now sound trite; worse still, the language of democracy and of America’s founding can sound like yet another set of slogans in the information war. Trump’s campaign seems to be hoping that this happens; that’s why the president is already mocking the ideas and ideals of democracy itself. On social media, the president has posted “Trump 2024, 2028, 2032” memes and teasing tweets about postponing the election. Although they did cause some alarm among some of his supporters—proof that the rules surrounding elections still enjoy bipartisan respect—Trump’s tweets may have achieved their purpose among others: They made the familiar rhetoric of democracy and common purpose sound old-fashioned, out of touch, dated.

Use the memories that unite, not the ones that divide   

It’s not just American rhetoric that no longer unifies. American history itself has become contentious too. At a moment when people are arguing over statues, how can stories about the past ever unite us? Or, to put it differently: How can Biden talk about American history in a way that doesn’t alienate either his opponents or his supporters?

[Read: The Kumbaya candidate]

Some lessons might emerge, eccentric though they may seem, from another project I’ve been part of. This one also used focus groups, in an attempt to understand how Ukrainians in regions with very different histories remember the past. Western Ukraine was part of Poland until 1939, the east has a long history of Russian domination, and the two regions have radically different memories, especially of the Second World War. Russian disinformation directed at Ukraine has long sought to exacerbate these differences, characterizing western Ukrainians as “Nazis” and reminding easterners of the part they played in the Red Army’s victory. As a result, any conversation about the war is liable to make somebody (maybe everybody) angry.

But when focus-group moderators changed the subject to different historical traumas, it turned out that the differences were not so great. When Ukrainians talk about, say, the Soviet-Afghan War in the ’80s or the economic collapse that followed the end of the U.S.S.R. in the ’90s, they have similarly strong emotions and similarly evocative feelings, no matter which part of the country they inhabit. They are also more likely to believe the information presented in documentaries about those subjects, whereas they approach similar films about the Second World War with distrust.

To my knowledge, no one has yet done the same kind of study in the U.S. But I can guess that, as in Ukraine, some Americans are divided by their different historical memories. Right now, different interpretations of the civil-rights movement, and even of the Civil War and Reconstruction, lie at the root of angry arguments about statues, military-base names, and the Confederate flag. Reconciling those memories is not something that will happen between now and November. But there might well be other things we can talk about, other episodes in American history that evoke strong, unifying feelings in both red and blue America. The moment of national mourning that followed 9/11? The financial crisis of 2008? The Biden campaign has already begun to explore the national experience of isolation and lockdown. Unsurprisingly, the Trump campaign has responded with a disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about whether that isolation and lockdown were even necessary. From its point of view, anything that creates bonds between red and blue Americans is anathema.

Deliberately mixed messages

One way or another, all successful campaigns—political campaigns, activist campaigns, even commercial advertising campaigns—need to reckon with the fact that audiences live in different information spheres. The era of mass media and unitary campaign slogans is drawing to an end. This is not news: The Russian operatives who intervened in the 2016 election were telling members of Black Lives Matter Facebook groups different things from what they told the anti-immigration activists they targeted in Idaho.

Still, we haven’t really absorbed the significance of this moment. In this post-mass-media era, sowing division is far easier than creating unity, giving an advantage to politicians who seek to win by creating scapegoats and enemies. Targeted advertising makes it much easier to splice and dice the electorate, and it isn’t hard to create misunderstandings between groups who no longer speak to each other. For all those reasons, the odds are that whoever is the ultimate victor, the 2020 campaign will leave America even more bitterly divided than it is today, and that will go on being a problem in the future.

[Read: The long arc of Joe Biden]

Even if the Democratic nominee wins, “Can Biden reach into the opposite bubble?” is a question not just for the autumn of 2020 but for the spring of 2021, the winter of 2022, and many years into the future. The need to reach across informational and cultural divides will add an extra layer of complication to the multiple economic, medical, and foreign-policy crises a new Biden administration would immediately face, and will make it difficult to carry out the deep reforms that our bureaucracy, our democracy, and our health-care system need. But unless Biden makes an effort to talk with his opponents, he could end up much like the candidate in the Polish wheat field, with only the facts and 49 percent of the public on his side. Biden’s campaign may represent the last chance to bridge the gaps that divide us. If Trump wins another term, then we can be certain that no one will even try.

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