The old African-American aphorism “When white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia” has a new, morbid twist: when white America catches the novel coronavirus, black Americans die.
Thousands of white Americans have also died from the virus, but the pace at which African-Americans are dying has transformed this public-health crisis into an object lesson in racial and class inequality. According to a Reuters report, African-Americans are more likely to die of covid-19 than any other group in the U.S. It is still early in the course of the pandemic, and the demographic data is incomplete, but the partial view is enough to prompt a sober reflection on this bitter harvest of American racism.
Louisiana, with more than twenty-one thousand reported infections, has the largest number of coronavirus cases outside of the Northeast and the Midwest. When the state’s governor, John Bel Edwards, announced recently that it would begin to provide data about the racial and ethnic breakdowns of those who have died, he included the grim acknowledgement that African-Americans, thirty-three per cent of Louisiana’s population, comprise seventy per cent of the dead.
The small city of Albany, Georgia, two hundred miles south of Atlanta, was the site of a heroic civil-rights standoff between the city’s black residents and its white police chief in the early nineteen-sixties. Today, more than twelve hundred people in the county have confirmedcovid-19 cases, and at least seventy-eight people have died. According to earlier reports, eighty-one per cent of the dead are African-American.
In Michigan, African-Americans make up fourteen per cent of the state’s population, but, currently, they account for thirty-three per cent of its reported infections and forty per cent of its deaths. Twenty-six per cent of the state’s infections and twenty-five per cent of deaths are in Detroit, a city that is seventy-nine per cent African-American. covid-19 is also ravaging the city’s suburbs that have large black populations.
The virus has shaken African-Americans in Chicago, who account for fifty-two per cent of the city’s confirmed cases and a startling seventy-two per cent of deaths—far outpacing their proportion of the city’s population.
As many have already noted, this macabre roll call reflects the fact that African-Americans are more likely to have preëxisting health conditions that make the coronavirus particularly deadly. This is certainly true. These conditions—diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and obesity—are critical factors, and they point to the persistence of racial discrimination, which has long heightened black vulnerability to premature death, as the scholar Ruthie Wilson Gilmore has said for years. Racism in the shadow of American slavery has diminished almost all of the life chances of African-Americans. Black people are poorer, more likely to be underemployed, condemned to substandard housing, and given inferior health care because of their race. These factors explain why African-Americans are sixty per cent more likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes than white Americans, and why black women are sixty per cent more likely to have high blood pressure than white women. Such health disparities are as much markers of racial inequality as mass incarceration or housing discrimination.
It is easy to simply point to the prevalence of these health conditions among African-Americans as the most important explanation for their rising death rates. But it is also important to acknowledge that black vulnerability is especially heightened by the continued ineptitude of the federal government in response to the coronavirus. The mounting carnage in Trump’s America did not have to happen to the extent that it has. covid-19 testing remains maddeningly inconsistent and unavailable, with access breaking down along the predictable lines. In Philadelphia, a scientist at Drexel University found that, in Zip Codes with a “lower proportion of minorities and higher incomes,” a higher number of tests were administered. In Zip Codes with a higher number of unemployed and uninsured residents, there were fewer tests. Taken together, testing in higher-income neighborhoods is six times greater than it is in poorer neighborhoods.
Inconsistent testing, in combination with steadfast denials from the White House about the threat of the virus, exacerbated the appalling lack of preparation for this catastrophe. With more early coördination, hospitals might have procured the necessary equipment and staffed up properly, potentially avoiding the onslaught that has occurred. The consequences are devastating. In the Detroit area, where the disease is surging, about fifteen hundred hospital workers, including five hundred nurses at Beaumont Health, Michigan’s largest hospital system, are off of the job with symptoms of covid-19. Early in the crisis, at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital, nurses were reduced to wearing garbage bags for their protection. Across the country, health-care providers are being asked to ration face masks and shields, dramatically raising the potential of their own infection, and thereby increasing the strain on the already overextended hospitals.
The early wave of disproportionate black deaths was hastened by Trumpian malfeasance, but the deaths to come are the predictable outcome of decades of disinvestment and institutional neglect. In mid-March, Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board in Illinois, which encompasses Chicago, lamented the covid-19 crisis and proclaimed that “we are all in this together,” but, weeks later, she closed the emergency room of the public Provident Hospital in the predominantly black South Side. Preckwinkle claimed that the closure would last for a month and was a response to a single health-care worker becoming infected with the virus. Leave aside the fact that nurses, doctors, and other health-care workers have been testing positive for covid-19 across the country, and their facilities have not been shuttered. It is a decision that simply could not have been made, in the midst of a historic pandemic, in any of the city’s wealthy, white neighborhoods on the North Side.
Meanwhile, in Cook County Jail, three hundred and twenty-three inmates and a hundred and ninety-six correctional officers have tested positive for covid-19. Not only have officials not closed the county jail as a result but they also have yet to release a significant number of jailed people, even though the facility has the highest density of covid-19 cases in Chicago. These are the kinds of decisions that explain why there is a thirty-year difference in life expectancy—in the same city—between the black neighborhood of Englewood and the white neighborhood of Streeterville. They are also just the latest examples of the ways that racism is the ultimate result of the decisions that government officials make, regardless of their intentions. Preckwinkle is African-American, and the chairperson of the Cook County Democratic Party, but her decisions regarding Provident Hospital and Cook County Jail will still deeply wound African-Americans across Chicago.
The rapidity with which the pandemic has consumed black communities is shocking, but it also provides an unvarnished look into the dynamics of race and class that existed long before it emerged. The most futile conversation in the U.S. is the argument about whether race or class is the main impediment to African-American social mobility. In reality, they cannot be separated from each other. African-Americans are suffering through this crisis not only because of racism but also because of how racial discrimination has tied them to the bottom of the U.S. class hierarchy . . .
federal lawsuit alleging that the California city of Rancho Cordova “fostered a culture of violence” among local police was filed just weeks before videos showing a white Rancho Cordova police officer pummeling a Black teenager sparked national outrage on Monday. Local law enforcement officials are investigating the latest incident, which reportedly began when the officer stopped a 14-year-old boy for buying a cigar. The encounter escalated, and now-infamous videos circulating widely online show the officer pinning the boy to the ground and punching him several times.
For many, the videos are just the latest example of how people of color, particularly Black and Native people, must turn to social media to seek accountability for acts of racist police violence. Moreover, a lawsuit filed by two brothers arrested in March claims Rancho Cordova has “fostered a culture of violence” that allows its police officers to use excessive force against the public. Together the two cases raise important questions about race and police accountability in the diverse, working-class suburb of Sacramento — and around the country.
Last month, twin brothers Thomas and Carlos Williams filed separate lawsuits in a California federal court alleging that they were wrongfully arrested and violently beaten by three Rancho Cordova police officers on March 23. The two brothers were doing yard work outside Carlos Williams’s new home in Rancho Cordova when a white neighbor mistook them for burglars and called 911, according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Thomas Williams. Without warning, the officers busted into the yard yelling expletives with their guns drawn.
The Williams brothers, who are Black, tried to tell the officers that they were residents, but the officers “did not care,” the lawsuit claims. Thomas Williams, an education professor who founded a school for children with disabilities, told local reporters that he was “kneed in the head and elbowed on the side of my face.” The officers later accused the brothers of resisting their orders, but the brothers say their hands were in the air. One officer held Thomas Williams in a chokehold for over a minute until he became unconscious, according to the complaint.
“I said, ‘Man he’s not going to make it.’ I saw the veins and the officer just squeezing him tight,” Carlos Williams told CBS Sacramento.
While Thomas Williams was collapsed on the ground in handcuffs, the officers searched the two brothers and found Carlos Williams’s driver’s license, which made it “plainly obvious to the arresting officers that Carlos was not burglarizing his own home,” the lawsuit claims. Still, the officers searched the home and property before arresting the two brothers and holding them in custody for 20 hours. Neither has been charged with a crime, and the lawsuit alleges the officers have since made numerous false statements to justify the excessive use of force.
Now, five weeks later, a controversy over police violence unfolding in Rancho Cordova has ignited social media across the country. On Monday, 14-year-old Elijah Tufono was stopped and aggressively detained by a Rancho Cordova police deputy identified as Officer Brian Fowell in local reports. On the evening news, Tufono said he had just bought a cigar off a stranger when a cop pulled up and asked him what was in his hand. Tufono said he handed the cigar over to the officer right away, but the officer continued to ask him questions. Frightened, Tufono tried to talk his way out of it and the situation escalated into a scuffle as Fowell tried to put him in handcuffs.
In the video, Fowell is seen wrestling Tufono on the ground and throwing punches into the boy’s abdomen. Tufono was arrested and cited before being released to his family. Videos of the arrest posted by friends and family quickly went viral, drawing condemnation from thousands of viewers as well as former Democratic presidential candidates Julian Castro and Kamala Harris.
While law enforcement officials in Rancho Cordova say they are investigating the use of force against Tufono, it remains unclear if the use of force against the Williams brothers is also being investigated. The Rancho Cordova Sheriff’s Department, which contracts with the city’s police department, did not respond to an email from Truthout. Unlike the arrest of Tufono, it appears that no clear video footage has emerged of the Williams brothers’ arrest, and the plaintiffs are not certain of the officers’ identities. A dashboard camera in one of the police cars was turned off shortly before the incident, and at least one officer repeatedly turned on and off a microphone attached to his body, according to the lawsuit.
The U.S. is using the pandemic as a pretext to further shut down asylum, while spreading the virus through deportations.
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COVID-19 Weaponized to Shut Down Borders
The Trump administration began pushing its agenda of shutting down asylum in the U.S. right out of the gate, and COVID-19 has now provided a new justification. Purportedly to protect public health, the government has essentially shut down asylum at the southern border with Mexico while the U.S. spreads the virus through deportations. Asylum deals with Central American nations are currently in limbo, but the administration could begin sending people to a third country, Honduras, at any time.
In 2019, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security signed a series of bilateral agreements with security officials in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, including an asylum cooperative agreement (ACA) with each country. The agreements permit the U.S. to send asylum seekers of other nationalities to precisely those Central American countries that hundreds of thousands of citizens have been fleeing, and forcing them to seek asylum there instead or return home.
More than 900 Hondurans and Salvadorans were sent to Guatemala under the agreement between November 2019 and mid-March 2020, when implementation was suspended due to factors related to COVID-19, and the president of El Salvador said months prior that his country did not yet have any capacity to receive people under the third country deal. But implementation of the U.S.-Honduras asylum cooperative agreement could potentially begin at any time, following its publication on May 1 in the U.S. Federal Register.
“There are some reasons why the Trump administration might roll out some other ACAs like the Honduran ACA,” said Yael Schacher, senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International, a humanitarian and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
Together with Human Rights Watch, Refugees International just released a new report, “Deportation with a Layover,” that examines the U.S.-Guatemala asylum cooperative agreement. The May 19 report details rights violations and lack of protection at every step of the way, from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody to Guatemala. People are effectively compelled to abandon their asylum claims, according to the report, which notes only 20 of the 939 Hondurans and Salvadorans sent to Guatemala under the deal applied for asylum in Guatemala.
No insurance. 64 years old. Alone, along with all the other black people at the bottom of the pandemic.
By LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant
Dr. Manigault-Bryant is an associate professor of Africana studies at Williams College.
My mother is dying a painful death, and it has everything and nothing to do with Covid-19.
In a piece for The Atlantic detailing the ways in which the coronavirus seems to be hitting black people the hardest, Ibram X. Kendi wrote: “Sometimes racial data tell us something we don’t know. Other times we need racial data to confirm something we already seem to know.” My mother is a living example of what we already know about race, class and suffering.
She is not in an elder-care facility, nor a hospital. She has not been, and most likely will not be, tested for the virus or receive a diagnosis of having it.
Still, hers is the body of all the black people at the bottom of the pandemic. No insurance, though not for lack of trying. Medicaid applications denied for reasons we don’t understand. Inconsistent care at a local public clinic meant hard-to-come-by appointments and checkups only at moments deemed most critical. It wasn’t enough.
Now, she’s dying from end-stage liver disease and kidney failure, diagnosed too late to save her. This has nothing to do with Covid-19.
She is not even that old (64, and thus Medicare ineligible), but FaceTime tells no lies, and she is wasting away before us. What’s worse, even as I’m exactly four hours and three minutes away — geographically closer than I’ve been in over a decade — I can’t be near her, touch her, cook for her, kiss her or tell her all of the things that I don’t yet know I need to say. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
On the occasion she’s strong enough to answer the phone, holding the phone for FaceTime proves too much. Calls come too late, even as time is too short. The grandchildren who live close by cannot get close to her — the idea of transmitting anything to her, as she’s so obviously immune-compromised, is terrifying. The underlying conditions would amplify an already-certain death. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
My brother, who lives exactly six minutes and 24 seconds away from Mommy, risks seeing her because someone needs to make sure she’s still breathing. That check-in is thus essential. He scrubs himself clean after work with all manner of chemicals — he’s a waste management truck driver, an essential employee. This is an effort to protect her. He’s close to her. This is an effort to protect us. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
He tries to get her to eat something other than her single meal of applesauce and Vienna sausages. This has nothing to do with Covid-19.
It’s officially power-of-attorney and health-proxy time. Getting my mother to the lawyer — a four-minute drive — is a thing. My brother and I spend hours strategizing transportation. The errand feels like it takes an eternity. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
My mother is going to die soon, and my process isn’t pretty. I laugh and remember, rage and weep, and I lament time lost, never to be regained. When she has enough energy to speak, she rushes me off the phone, invoking busyness. She’s busy getting ready to die, and it doesn’t seem like it’s on her own terms. Is it ever? I want more time. This has nothing to do with Covid-19.
Like so many, countless others, my family and I are going to be left with the unsettling weight of her death. My mother is going to die soon, and it will most likely be alone. I am afraid. I am one of many grieving, forever-changed faces. No repast. No low-country songs sung graveside. No sending up our timber for her. We cannot grieve properly. Lots of regret. This has everything to do with Covid-19.
The local prosecutor, George E. Barnhill, concluded that no crime had been committed. Arbery had tried to wrest a shotgun from Travis McMichael before being shot, Barnhill wrote in a letter to the police chief. The two men who had seen a stranger running, and decided to pick up their firearms and chase him, had therefore acted in self-defense when they confronted and shot him, Barnhill concluded. On Tuesday, as video of the shooting emerged on social media, a different Georgia prosecutor announced that the case would be put to a grand jury; the two men were arrested and charged with murder yesterday evening after video of the incident sparked national outrage across the political spectrum.
To see the sequence of events that led to Arbery’s death as benign requires a cascade of assumptions. One must assume that two men arming themselves and chasing down a stranger running through their neighborhood is a normal occurrence. One must assume that the two armed white men had a right to self-defense, and that the black man suddenly confronted by armed strangers did not. One must assume that state laws are meant to justify an encounter in which two people can decide of their own volition to chase, confront, and kill a person they’ve never met.
But Barnhill’s leniency is selective—as The Appeal’s Josie Duffy Rice notes, Barnhill attempted to prosecute Olivia Pearson, a black woman, for helping another black voter use an electronic voting machine. A crime does not occur when white men stalk and kill a black stranger. A crime does occur when black people vote.The underlying assumptions of white innocence and black guilt are all part of what the philosopher Charles Mills calls the “racial contract.” If the social contract is the implicit agreement among members of a society to follow the rules—for example, acting lawfully, adhering to the results of elections, and contesting the agreed-upon rules by nonviolent means—then the racial contract is a codicil rendered in invisible ink, one stating that the rules as written do not apply to nonwhite people in the same way. The Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal; the racial contract limits this to white men with property. The law says murder is illegal; the racial contract says it’s fine for white people to chase and murder black people if they have decided that those black people scare them. “The terms of the Racial Contract,” Mills wrote, “mean that nonwhite subpersonhood is enshrined simultaneously with white personhood.”
The racial contract is not partisan—it guides staunch conservatives and sensitive liberals alike—but it works most effectively when it remains imperceptible to its beneficiaries. As long as it is invisible, members of society can proceed as though the provisions of the social contract apply equally to everyone. But when an injustice pushes the racial contract into the open, it forces people to choose whether to embrace, contest, or deny its existence. Video evidence of unjustified shootings of black people is so jarring in part because it exposes the terms of the racial contract so vividly. But as the process in the Arbery case shows, the racial contract most often operates unnoticed, relying on Americans to have an implicit understanding of who is bound by the rules, and who is exempt from them.
The implied terms of the racial contract are visible everywhere for those willing to see them. A 12-year-old with a toy gun is a dangerous threat who must be met with lethal force; armed militias drawing beads on federal agents are heroes of liberty. Struggling white farmers in Iowa taking billions in federal assistance are hardworking Americans down on their luck; struggling single parents in cities using food stamps are welfare queens. Black Americans struggling in the cocaine epidemic are a “bio-underclass” created by a pathological culture; white Americans struggling with opioid addiction are a national tragedy. Poor European immigrants who flocked to an America with virtually no immigration restrictions came “the right way”; poor Central American immigrants evading a baroque and unforgiving system are gang members and terrorists.
Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, with its vows to enforce state violence against Mexican immigrants, Muslims, and black Americans, was built on a promise to enforce terms of the racial contract that Barack Obama had ostensibly neglected, or violated by his presence. Trump’s administration, in carrying out an explicitly discriminatory agenda that valorizes cruelty, war crimes, and the entrenchment of white political power, represents a revitalized commitment to the racial contract.
But the pandemic has introduced a new clause to the racial contract. The lives of disproportionately black and brown workers are being sacrificed to fuel the engine of a faltering economy, by a president who disdains them. This is the COVID contract.
As the first cases of the coronavirus were diagnosed in the United States, in late January and early February, the Trump administration and Fox News were eager to play down the risk it posed. But those early cases, tied to international travel, ensnared many members of the global elite: American celebrities, world leaders, and those with close ties to Trump himself. By March 16, the president had reversed course, declaring a national emergency and asking Americans to avoid social gatherings.
Over the weeks that followed the declaration of an emergency, the pandemic worsened and the death toll mounted. Yet by mid-April, conservative broadcasters were decrying the restrictions, small bands of armed protesters were descending on state capitols, and the president was pressing to lift the constraints.
As Matt Gertz writes, some of these premature celebrations may have been an overreaction to the changes in the prominent coronavirus model designed by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which had recently revised its estimates down to about 60,000 deaths by August. But even as the mounting death toll proved that estimate wildly optimistic, the chorus of right-wing elites demanding that the economy reopen grew louder. By April 16, the day the first anti-lockdown protests began, deaths had more than doubled, to more than 30,000.That more and more Americans were dying was less important than who was dying.
The disease is now “infecting people who cannot afford to miss work or telecommute—grocery store employees, delivery drivers and construction workers,” The Washington Post reported. Air travel has largely shut down, and many of the new clusters are in nursing homes, jails and prisons, and factories tied to essential industries. Containing the outbreak was no longer a question of social responsibility, but of personal responsibility. From the White House podium, Surgeon General Jerome Adams told “communities of color” that “we need you to step up and help stop the spread.”
Public-health restrictions designed to contain the outbreak were deemed absurd. They seemed, in Carlson’s words, “mindless and authoritarian,” a “weird kind of arbitrary fascism.” To restrict the freedom of white Americans, just because nonwhite Americans are dying, is an egregious violation of the racial contract. The wealthy luminaries of conservative media have sought to couch their opposition to restrictions as advocacy on behalf of workers, but polling shows that those most vulnerable to both the disease and economic catastrophe want the outbreak contained before they return to work.
This tangled dynamic played out on Tuesday, during oral arguments over Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’s statewide stay-at-home order before the state Supreme Court, held remotely. Chief Justice Patience Roggensack was listening to Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Colin Roth defend the order.
“When you see a virus like this one that does not respect county boundaries, this started out predominantly in Madison and Milwaukee; then we just had this outbreak in Brown County very recently in the meatpacking plants,” Roth explained. “The cases in Brown County in a span of two weeks surged over tenfold, from 60 to almost 800—”
“Due to the meatpacking, though, that’s where Brown County got the flare,” Roggensack interrupted to clarify. “It wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County.”
Perhaps Roggensack did not mean that the largely Latino workers in Brown County’s meatpacking plants—who have told reporters that they have been forced to work in proximity with one another, often without masks or hand sanitizer, and without being notified that their colleagues are infected—are not “regular folks” like the other residents of the state. Perhaps she merely meant that their line of work puts them at greater risk, and so the outbreaks in the meatpacking plants, seen as essential to the nation’s food supply, are not rationally related to the governor’s stay-at-home order, from which they would be exempt.
Yet either way, Roggensack was drawing a line between “regular folks” and the workers who keep them fed, mobile, safe, and connected. And America’s leaders have treated those workers as largely expendable, praising their valor while disregarding their safety.
“There were no masks. There was no distancing inside the plant, only [in the] break room. We worked really close to each other,” Raquel Sanchez Alvarado, a worker with American Foods, a Wisconsin meatpacking company, told local reporters in mid-April. “People are scared that they will be fired and that they will not find a job at another company if they express their concerns.”
Although, by the official tally, more than 70,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, many governors are rushing to reopen their states without sufficient testing to contain their outbreaks. (Statistical analyses of excess deaths in comparison with years past suggest that COVID-19 casualties are approaching and may soon exceed 100,000.) Yet the Trump administration is poised to declare “mission accomplished,” engaging in the doublespeak of treating the pandemic as though the major risks have passed, while rhetorically preparing the country for thousands more deaths. The worst-case scenarios may not come to pass. But federal policy reflects the president’s belief that he has little to lose by gambling with the lives of those Americans most likely to be affected.
“We can’t keep our country closed down for years,” Trump said Wednesday. But that was no one’s plan. The plan was to buy time to take the necessary steps to open the country safely. But the Trump administration did not do that, because it did not consider the lives of the people dying worth the effort or money required to save them.
The economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, and the Trump administration’s failure to prepare for it even as it crippled the world’s richest nations, cannot be overstated. Tens of millions of Americans are unemployed. Tens of thousands line up outside food banks and food pantries each week to obtain sustenance they cannot pay for. Businesses across the country are struggling and failing. The economy cannot be held in stasis indefinitely—the longer it is, the more people will suffer.
Yet the only tension between stopping the virus and reviving the economy is one the Trump administration and its propaganda apparatus have invented. Economists are in near-unanimous agreement that the safest path requires building the capacity to contain the virus before reopening the economy—precisely because new waves of deaths will drive Americans back into self-imposed isolation, destroying the consumer spending that powers economic growth. The federal government can afford the necessary health infrastructure and financial aid; it already shelled out hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts to wealthy Americans. But the people in charge do not consider doing so to be worthwhile—Republicans have already dismissed aid to struggling state governments that laid off a million workers this month alone as a “blue-state bailout,” while pushing for more tax cuts for the rich.
“The people of our country are warriors,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. “I’m not saying anything is perfect, and will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”
The frame of war allows the president to call for the collective sacrifice of laborers without taking the measures necessary to ensure their safety, while the upper classes remain secure at home. But the workers who signed up to harvest food, deliver packages, stack groceries, drive trains and buses, and care for the sick did not sign up for war, and the unwillingness of America’s political leadership to protect them is a policy decision, not an inevitability. Trump is acting in accordance with the terms of the racial contract, which values the lives of those most likely to be affected less than the inconveniences necessary to preserve them. The president’s language of wartime unity is a veil draped over a federal response that offers little more than contempt for those whose lives are at risk. To this administration, they are simply fuel to keep the glorious Trump economy burning.
Collective solidarity in response to the coronavirus remains largely intact—most Americans support the restrictions and are not eager to sacrifice their lives or those of their loved ones for a few points of gross domestic product. The consistency across incomes and backgrounds is striking in an era of severe partisan polarization. But solidarity with the rest of the nation among elite Republicans—those whose lives and self-conceptions are intertwined with the success of the Trump presidency—began eroding as soon as the disproportionate impact of the outbreak started to emerge.
The president’s cavalier attitude is at least in part a reflection of his fear that the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus will doom his political fortunes in November. But what connects the rise of the anti-lockdown protests, the president’s dismissal of the carnage predicted by his own administration, and the eagerness of governors all over the country to reopen the economy before developing the capacity to do so safely is the sense that those they consider “regular folks” will be fine.Many of them will be. People like Ahmaud Arbery, whose lives are depreciated by the terms of the racial contract, will not.
Listen to Adam Serwer talk about this story on Social Distance, The Atlantic’s podcast about life in the pandemic:
*Correction: An earlier version of this piece misdescribed a study showing disproportionately black counties were responsible for more than half of coronavirus cases in the United States by describing those counties as “majority black.”
ADAM SERWER is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.
As many college students as well as others have moved back home during the current pandemic people’s houses are feeling more cramped than ever. The conditions of small living spaces feel even more confining as communities are tasked with staying inside as much as possible with orders to shelter in place still intact in some locations. These conditions have left many feeling restless, bored, agitated and sad as they try to carve out private space and a sense of normalcy in such an uncertain time. The feelings of confinement ordinary people are facing contrasts starkly with the views of celebrity housing available through live streams, photos, and videos on social media. Gal Gadot and several other celebrities, for example, released a video of them singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The video was posted to Gadot’s Instagram with the caption “We are in this together, we will get through it together. Let’s imagine together. Sing with us. All love to you, from me and my dear friends.” Immediately, people on Instagram and Twitter noted the emptiness of these gestures coming from wealthy celebrities without the addition of material action.
The pandemic has drawn to a head the inequalities in housing and wealth defining the contemporary US. The nation’s majority have been left scrambling to make rent for their tiny apartments while watching the wealthy squirrel away in large open concept mansions with lush lawns and huge pools.
For Black communities, these contradictions are nothing new, as forced immobility and confinement have defined their historical and contemporary experiences with regard to the matters of space. As West Africans were rendered slaves, one of their primary spatial experiences was confinement, first in slave castles like El Mina in modern Ghana and then aboard the thousands of slave ships that traversed the Atlantic across five centuries. Africans crossed the ocean packed in and chained together with little room to move.
The carceral space aboard the slave ship put captives in a position of increased vulnerability to diseases and illness. Despite slave trader’s efforts to bring only “healthy” Africans across the sea many ships suffered numerous casualties due to yellow fever, smallpox, scurvy, malaria, flux, and several other diseases. Sowande’ Mustakeem has noted that the isolation caused by the sea voyage along with the cramped and unsanitary conditions captives were held in created unique and devastating encounters with disease. The spread of disease was further aggravated by the violent treatment of captives aboard these ships as well as poor nutrition. As people’s bodies attempted to heal from physical and psychological injuries as well as illness, they faced an environment that only further deteriorated their capacities to fight infection.
In the North American context, despite variation in housing circumstances across different regions and time, the enslaved were forced to live in confining spaces. Whether awaiting sale in a dingy and overcrowded slave pen in Richmond, living in overcrowded gender-segregated barracks in Charleston, or making lives in a drafty and inadequately sized cabin on a rural sugar plantation in New Orleans’ hinterland, slaves experienced the quotidian violence of tight living irrespective of other differences in their social conditions and labor. This contrasts sharply with white slave owners who demonstrated their power with sprawling homes on sprawling estates. Consider for example, Thomas Jefferson’s Albemarle County, Virginia mansion, Monticello in contrast to the small and poorly insulated log cabin structures in which the people he enslaved lived. The contrasts between Black and white space also had another dimension related to mobility. Especially in the wake of the Jacksonian era, white people moved freely, while enslaved people’s movements were legally regulated and violently circumscribed. Even free Black people, especially after Nat Turner’s bloody 1831 rebellion, were strictly delimited in their abilities to move freely. Confinement and immobility were twinned conditions for slaves. As Katherine McKittrick analyzes, Harriet Ann Jacobs, spent seven years in her grandmother’s garret or attic space, unable to fully stand upright in nine-foot-long, seven-foot-wide, three-foot-tall space. She hid in this space, carving it as a “loophole of retreat” in order to evade the violence of her master and eventually to escape. For Jacobs freedom required a subtle reworking of the confinement enforced on Black life and Black geographies.
This lack of mobility and confinement continued after slavery as part of its afterlives along with the related condition of predisposition to contagious disease and premature death. In Chicago between the World Wars, Black migrant communities were forced into the West and Southside by legally sanctioned segregation, policing, and vigilante violence. Black families rented small apartments called kitchenettes at exorbitant rates, and as St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton characterized in their influential study, lived in cramped poorly heated and congested conditions. As Rashad Shabazz argues, in the spaces of kitchenettes, Black Chicagoans experienced an expression of carceral power in their ordinary lives, manifest in the arrangement of their housing. He writes “by creating close associations between people the kitchenette made privacy of any kind impossible, shaming its residents by putting all actions under the forced gaze of others in the room.”1 This kind of housing arrangement is psychologically wearing, as Richard Wright’s Native Son disturbingly and dramatically fictionalizes. Many Black Chicagoans, across generations, experienced life-long emotional states like the frustration, restlessness, and captivity some people stuck in their homes due to the pandemic currently are experiencing for the first time.
This confining geography extending out from kitchenette also had deadly effects. In 1918 and 1919 the Spanish Flu pandemic caused mass death and tremendous social upheaval that anticipated and rehearsed what Black communities are currently experiencing with COVID-19. Prisoners today are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19—the highest number of cases tied to a location is a prison in Ohio where 80% of the prisoners have tested positive. This resonates with the history of the Spanish Flu in Chicago. As one Chicago Defender writer noted, “Chicago police stations are doing more to breed disease than any other agency supposed to be working for the good of Chicago.”2 The journalist went on to note the way Chicago jails “huddle prisoners together” without medical examinations and how this led to the spread of the deadly flu.3 The carcerality of the kitchenette also made its residents vulnerable. Shabazz notes that Black Chicagoans had higher rates of mental illness, disease, and death all of which were influenced by their crowded and run-down living conditions. These kinds of vulnerabilities tied to spatial confinement are ongoing in Chicago where 50% of the deaths from COVID are Black, and where segregation and carcerality continue to define the landscape.”4
Blackness’s tie to tight spatial control and confinement,extending between living spaces and formal carceral institutions, and from slavery to the present, puts Black people at greater risk for disease and infection exacerbated by the mental health effects of confinement. This greater vulnerability tied to spatial confinement, overcrowding, and other effects of our nation’s anti-Black geography buttresses the spatial advantages white communities enjoyed historically and which they continue to enjoy. White slave owners profited from the confinement and forced vulnerability of their slaves. White landowners in Chicago profited from overcharging their Black tenants for poor quality housing. The risk of death, disease, and mental illbeing that Black people live with exists to produce white safety and comfort, guaranteed in exclusive geographies away from lead paint, rusty water, over-policing, and gratuitous violence. In order to mitigate the unequal deadly effects of COVID-19 and to prevent the future of devastating conditions disproportionately affecting Black people, we must reimagine the American landscape outside this history defined by the twinned and reinforcing structures of Black immobility and confinement.
Rashad Shabaz, Spacializing Blacknes: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 50. ↩
“Spanish Plague Raging in Chicago: All Places of Public Assemblage Ordered Closed by Health Officials,” Chicago Defender (Chicago, IL), Oct. 19, 1918. ↩
One day last fall, I sat down to create a new Facebook account. I picked a forgettable name, snapped a profile pic with my face obscured, and clicked “Like” on the official pages of Donald Trump and his reelection campaign. Facebook’s algorithm prodded me to follow Ann Coulter, Fox Business, and a variety of fan pages with names like “In Trump We Trust.” I complied. I also gave my cellphone number to the Trump campaign, and joined a handful of private Facebook groups for MAGA diehards, one of which required an application that seemed designed to screen out interlopers.
The president’s reelection campaign was then in the midst of a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup. That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country, and I wanted to see it from the inside.
The story that unfurled in my Facebook feed over the next several weeks was, at times, disorienting. There were days when I would watch, live on TV, an impeachment hearing filled with damning testimony about the president’s conduct, only to look at my phone later and find a slickly edited video—served up by the Trump campaign—that used out-of-context clips to recast the same testimony as an exoneration. Wait, I caught myself wondering more than once, is that what happened today?
As I swiped at my phone, a stream of pro-Trump propaganda filled the screen: “That’s right, the whistleblower’s own lawyer said, ‘The coup has started …’ ” Swipe. “Democrats are doing Putin’s bidding …” Swipe. “The only message these radical socialists and extremists will understand is a crushing …” Swipe. “Only one man can stop this chaos …” Swipe, swipe, swipe.I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.
What I was seeing was a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal political leaders around the world. Rather than shutting down dissenting voices, these leaders have learned to harness the democratizing power of social media for their own purposes—jamming the signals, sowing confusion. They no longer need to silence the dissident shouting in the streets; they can use a megaphone to drown him out. Scholars have a name for this: censorship through noise.
After the 2016 election, much was made of the threats posed to American democracy by foreign disinformation. Stories of Russian troll farms and Macedonian fake-news mills loomed in the national imagination. But while these shadowy outside forces preoccupied politicians and journalists, Trump and his domestic allies were beginning to adopt the same tactics of information warfare that have kept the world’s demagogues and strongmen in power.
Every presidential campaign sees its share of spin and misdirection, but this year’s contest promises to be different. In conversations with political strategists and other experts, a dystopian picture of the general election comes into view—one shaped by coordinated bot attacks, Potemkin local-news sites, micro-targeted fearmongering, and anonymous mass texting. Both parties will have these tools at their disposal. But in the hands of a president who lies constantly, who traffics in conspiracy theories, and who readily manipulates the levers of government for his own gain, their potential to wreak havoc is enormous.The Trump campaign is planning to spend more than $1 billion, and it will be aided by a vast coalition of partisan media, outside political groups, and enterprising freelance operatives. These pro-Trump forces are poised to wage what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history. Whether or not it succeeds in reelecting the president, the wreckage it leaves behind could be irreparable.
THE DEATH STAR
The campaign is run from the 14th floor of a gleaming, modern office tower in Rosslyn, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Glass-walled conference rooms look out on the Potomac River. Rows of sleek monitors line the main office space. Unlike the bootstrap operation that first got Trump elected—with its motley band of B-teamers toiling in an unfinished space in Trump Tower—his 2020 enterprise is heavily funded, technologically sophisticated, and staffed with dozens of experienced operatives. One Republican strategist referred to it, admiringly, as “the Death Star.”
Presiding over this effort is Brad Parscale, a 6-foot-8 Viking of a man with a shaved head and a triangular beard. As the digital director of Trump’s 2016 campaign, Parscale didn’t become a household name like Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. But he played a crucial role in delivering Trump to the Oval Office—and his efforts will shape this year’s election.
In speeches and interviews, Parscale likes to tell his life story as a tidy rags-to-riches tale, embroidered with Trumpian embellishments. He grew up a simple “farm boy from Kansas” (read: son of an affluent lawyer from suburban Topeka) who managed to graduate from an “Ivy League” school (Trinity University, in San Antonio). After college, he went to work for a software company in California, only to watch the business collapse in the economic aftermath of 9/11 (not to mention allegations in a lawsuit that he and his parents, who owned the business, had illegally transferred company funds—claims that they disputed). Broke and desperate, Parscale took his “last $500” (not counting the value of three rental properties he owned) and used it to start a one-man web-design business in Texas.Parscale Media was, by most accounts, a scrappy endeavor at the outset. Hustling to drum up clients, Parscale cold-pitched shoppers in the tech aisle of a Borders bookstore. Over time, he built enough websites for plumbers and gun shops that bigger clients took notice—including the Trump Organization. In 2011, Parscale was invited to bid on designing a website for Trump International Realty. An ardent fan of The Apprentice, he offered to do the job for $10,000, a fraction of the actual cost. “I just made up a price,” he later told TheWashington Post. “I recognized that I was a nobody in San Antonio, but working for the Trumps would be everything.” The contract was his, and a lucrative relationship was born.
Over the next four years, he was hired to design websites for a range of Trump ventures—a winery, a skin-care line, and then a presidential campaign. By late 2015, Parscale—a man with no discernible politics, let alone campaign experience—was running the Republican front-runner’s digital operation from his personal laptop.
Parscale slid comfortably into Trump’s orbit. Not only was he cheap and unpretentious—with no hint of the savvier-than-thou smugness that characterized other political operatives—but he seemed to carry a chip on his shoulder that matched the candidate’s. “Brad was one of those people who wanted to prove the establishment wrong and show the world what he was made of,” says a former colleague from the campaign.Perhaps most important, he seemed to have no reservations about the kind of campaign Trump wanted to run. The race-baiting, the immigrant-bashing, the truth-bending—none of it seemed to bother Parscale. While some Republicans wrung their hands over Trump’s inflammatory messages, Parscale came up with ideas to more effectively disseminate them.
The campaign had little interest at first in cutting-edge ad technology, and for a while, Parscale’s most valued contribution was the merchandise page he built to sell MAGA hats. But that changed in the general election. Outgunned on the airwaves and lagging badly in fundraising, campaign officials turned to Google and Facebook, where ads were inexpensive and shock value was rewarded. As the campaign poured tens of millions into online advertising—amplifying themes such as Hillary Clinton’s criminality and the threat of radical Islamic terrorism—Parscale’s team, which was christened Project Alamo, grew to 100.
Parscale was generally well liked by his colleagues, who recall him as competent and intensely focused. “He was a get-shit-done type of person,” says A. J. Delgado, who worked with him. Perhaps just as important, he had a talent for ingratiating himself with the Trump family. “He was probably better at managing up,” Kurt Luidhardt, a consultant for the campaign, told me. He made sure to share credit for his work with the candidate’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and he excelled at using Trump’s digital ignorance to flatter him. “Parscale would come in and tell Trump he didn’t need to listen to the polls, because he’d crunched his data and they were going to win by six points,” one former campaign staffer told me. “I was like, ‘Come on, man, don’t bullshit a bullshitter.’ ” But Trump seemed to buy it. (Parscale declined to be interviewed for this story.)
James Barnes, a Facebook employee who was dispatched to work closely with the campaign, told me Parscale’s political inexperience made him open to experimenting with the platform’s new tools. “Whereas some grizzled campaign strategist who’d been around the block a few times might say, ‘Oh, that will never work,’ Brad’s predisposition was to say, ‘Yeah, let’s try it.’ ” From June to November, Trump’s campaign ran 5.9 million ads on Facebook, while Clinton’s ran just 66,000. A Facebook executive would later write in a leaked memo that Trump “got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser.”Though some strategists questioned how much these ads actually mattered, Parscale was hailed for Trump’s surprise victory. Stories appeared in the press calling him a “genius” and the campaign’s “secret weapon,” and in 2018 he was tapped to lead the entire reelection effort. The promotion was widely viewed as a sign that the president’s 2020 strategy would hinge on the digital tactics that Parscale had mastered.
Through it all, the strategist has continued to show a preference for narrative over truth. Last May, Parscale regaled a crowd of donors and activists in Miami with the story of his ascent. When a ProPublica reporter confronted him about the many misleading details in his account, he shrugged off the fact-check. “When I give a speech, I tell it like a story,” he said. “My story is my story.”
In his book This Is Not Propaganda, Peter Pomerantsev, a researcher at the London School of Economics, writes about a young Filipino political consultant he calls “P.” In college, P had studied the “Little Albert experiment,” in which scientists conditioned a young child to fear furry animals by exposing him to loud noises every time he encountered a white lab rat. The experiment gave P an idea. He created a series of Facebook groups for Filipinos to discuss what was going on in their communities. Once the groups got big enough—about 100,000 members—he began posting local crime stories, and instructed his employees to leave comments falsely tying the grisly headlines to drug cartels. The pages lit up with frightened chatter. Rumors swirled; conspiracy theories metastasized. To many, all crimes became drug crimes.
Unbeknownst to their members, the Facebook groups were designed to boost Rodrigo Duterte, then a long-shot presidential candidate running on a pledge to brutally crack down on drug criminals. (Duterte once boasted that, as mayor of Davao City, he rode through the streets on his motorcycle and personally executed drug dealers.) P’s experiment was one plank in a larger “disinformation architecture”—which also included social-media influencers paid to mock opposing candidates, and mercenary trolls working out of former call centers—that experts say aided Duterte’s rise to power. Since assuming office in 2016, Duterte has reportedly ramped up these efforts while presiding over thousands of extrajudicial killings.
The campaign in the Philippines was emblematic of an emerging propaganda playbook, one that uses new tools for the age-old ends of autocracy. The Kremlin has long been an innovator in this area. (A 2011 manual for Russian civil servants favorably compared their methods of disinformation to “an invisible radiation” that takes effect while “the population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon.”) But with the technological advances of the past decade, and the global proliferation of smartphones, governments around the world have found success deploying Kremlin-honed techniques against their own people.
In the United States, we tend to view such tools of oppression as the faraway problems of more fragile democracies. But the people working to reelect Trump understand the power of these tactics. They may use gentler terminology—muddy the waters; alternative facts—but they’re building a machine designed to exploit their own sprawling disinformation architecture.
Central to that effort is the campaign’s use of micro-targeting—the process of slicing up the electorate into distinct niches and then appealing to them with precisely tailored digital messages. The advantages of this approach are obvious: An ad that calls for defunding Planned Parenthood might get a mixed response from a large national audience, but serve it directly via Facebook to 800 Roman Catholic women in Dubuque, Iowa, and its reception will be much more positive. 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.
Parscale didn’t invent this practice—Barack Obama’s campaign famously used it in 2012, and Clinton’s followed suit. But Trump’s effort in 2016 was unprecedented, in both its scale and its brazenness. In the final days of the 2016 race, for example, Trump’s team tried to suppress turnout among black voters in Florida by slipping ads into their News Feeds that read, “Hillary Thinks African-Americans Are Super Predators.” An unnamed campaign official boasted to Bloomberg Businessweek that it was one of “three major voter suppression operations underway.” (The other two targeted young women and white liberals.)The weaponization of micro-targeting was pioneered in large part by the data scientists at Cambridge Analytica. The firm began as part of a nonpartisan military contractor that used digital psyops to target terrorist groups and drug cartels. In Pakistan, it worked to thwart jihadist recruitment efforts; in South America, it circulated disinformation to turn drug dealers against their bosses.
The emphasis shifted once the conservative billionaire Robert Mercer became a major investor and installed Steve Bannon as his point man. Using a massive trove of data it had gathered from Facebook and other sources—without users’ consent—Cambridge Analytica worked to develop detailed “psychographic profiles” for every voter in the U.S., and began experimenting with ways to stoke paranoia and bigotry by exploiting certain personality traits. In one exercise, the firm asked white men whether they would approve of their daughter marrying a Mexican immigrant; those who said yes were asked a follow-up question designed to provoke irritation at the constraints of political correctness: “Did you feel like you had to say that?”
Christopher Wylie, who was the director of research at Cambridge Analytica and later testified about the company to Congress, told me that “with the right kind of nudges,” people who exhibited certain psychological characteristics could be pushed into ever more extreme beliefs and conspiratorial thinking. “Rather than using data to interfere with the process of radicalization, Steve Bannon was able to invert that,” Wylie said. “We were essentially seeding an insurgency in the United States.”Cambridge Analytica was dissolved in 2018, shortly after its CEO was caught on tape bragging about using bribery and sexual “honey traps” on behalf of clients. (The firm denied that it actually used such tactics.) Since then, some political scientists have questioned how much effect its “psychographic” targeting really had. But Wylie—who spoke with me from London, where he now works for H&M, as a fashion-trend forecaster—said the firm’s work in 2016 was a modest test run compared with what could come.
“What happens if North Korea or Iran picks up where Cambridge Analytica left off?” he said, noting that plenty of foreign actors will be looking for ways to interfere in this year’s election. “There are countless hostile states that have more than enough capacity to quickly replicate what we were able to do … and make it much more sophisticated.” These efforts may not come only from abroad: A group of former Cambridge Analytica employees have formed a new firm that, according to the Associated Press, is working with the Trump campaign. (The firm has denied this, and a campaign spokesperson declined to comment.)
To bolster his case, Zuckerberg pointed to the recently launched—and publicly accessible—“library” where Facebook archives every political ad it publishes. The project has a certain democratic appeal: Why censor false or toxic content when a little sunlight can have the same effect? But spend some time scrolling through the archive of Trump reelection ads, and you quickly see the limits of this transparency.
The campaign doesn’t run just one ad at a time on a given theme. It runs hundreds of iterations—adjusting the language, the music, even the colors of the “Donate” buttons. In the 10 weeks after the House of Representatives began its impeachment inquiry, the Trump campaign ran roughly 14,000 different ads containing the word impeachment. Sifting through all of them is virtually impossible.
Both parties will rely on micro-targeted ads this year, but the president is likely to have a distinct advantage. The Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign have reportedly compiled an average of 3,000 data points on every voter in America. They have spent years experimenting with ways to tweak their messages based not just on gender and geography, but on whether the recipient owns a gun or watches the Golf Channel.While these ads can be used to try to win over undecided voters, they’re most often deployed for fundraising and for firing up the faithful—and Trump’s advisers believe this election will be decided by mobilization, not persuasion. To turn out the base, the campaign has signaled that it will return to familiar themes: the threat of “illegal aliens”—a term Parscale has reportedly encouraged Trump to use—and the corruption of the “swamp.”
Beyond Facebook, the campaign is also investing in a texting platform that could allow it to send anonymous messages directly to millions of voters’ phones without their permission. Until recently, people had to opt in before a campaign could include them in a mass text. But with new “peer to peer” texting apps—including one developed by Gary Coby, a senior Trump adviser—a single volunteer can send hundreds of messages an hour, skirting federal regulations by clicking “Send” one message at a time. Notably, these messages aren’t required to disclose who’s behind them, thanks to a 2002 ruling by the Federal Election Commission that cited the limited number of characters available in a text.
Most experts assume that these regulations will be overhauled sometime after the 2020 election. For now, campaigns from both parties are hoovering up as many cellphone numbers as possible, and Parscale has said texting will be at the center of Trump’s reelection strategy. The medium’s ability to reach voters is unparalleled: While robocalls get sent to voicemail and email blasts get trapped in spam folders, peer-to-peer texting companies say that at least 90 percent of their messages are opened.
The Trump campaign’s texts so far this cycle have focused on shouty fundraising pleas (“They have NOTHING! IMPEACHMENT IS OVER! Now let’s CRUSH our End of Month Goal”). But the potential for misuse by outside groups is clear—and shady political actors are already discovering how easy it is to wage an untraceable whisper campaign by text.In 2018, as early voting got under way in Tennessee’s Republican gubernatorial primary, voters began receiving text messages attacking two of the candidates’ conservative credentials. The texts—written in a conversational style, as if they’d been sent from a friend—were unsigned, and people who tried calling the numbers received a busy signal. The local press covered the smear campaign. Law enforcement was notified. But the source of the texts was never discovered.
WAR ON THE PRESS
One afternoon last March, I was on the phone with a Republican operative close to the Trump family when he casually mentioned that a reporter at Business Insider was about to have a very bad day. The journalist, John Haltiwanger, had tweeted something that annoyed Donald Trump Jr., prompting the coterie of friends and allies surrounding the president’s son to drum up a hit piece. The story they had coming, the operative suggested to me, would demolish the reporter’s credibility.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this gloating—people in Trump’s circle have a tendency toward bluster. But a few hours later, the operative sent me a link to a Breitbart News article documenting Haltiwanger’s “history of intense Trump hatred.” The story was based on a series of Instagram posts—all of them from before Haltiwanger started working at Business Insider—in which he made fun of the president and expressed solidarity with liberal protesters.
The next morning, Don Jr. tweeted the story to his 3 million followers, denouncing Haltiwanger as a “raging lib.” Other conservatives piled on, and the reporter was bombarded with abusive messages and calls for him to be fired. His employer issued a statement conceding that the Instagram posts were “not appropriate.” Haltiwanger kept his job, but the experience, he told me later, “was bizarre and unsettling.”The Breitbart story was part of a coordinated effort by a coalition of Trump allies to air embarrassing information about reporters who produce critical coverage of the president. (The New York Timesfirst reported on this project last summer; since then, it’s been described to me in greater detail.) According to people with knowledge of the effort, pro-Trump operatives have scraped social-media accounts belonging to hundreds of political journalists and compiled years’ worth of posts into a dossier.
Often when a particular news story is deemed especially unfair—or politically damaging—to the president, Don Jr. will flag it in a text thread that he uses for this purpose. (Among those who text regularly with the president’s eldest son, someone close to him told me, are the conservative activist Charlie Kirk; two GOP strategists, Sergio Gor and Arthur Schwartz; Matthew Boyle, a Breitbart editor; and U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell.) Once a story has been marked for attack, someone searches the dossier for material on the journalists involved. If something useful turns up—a problematic old joke; evidence of liberal political views—Boyle turns it into a Breitbart headline, which White House officials and campaign surrogates can then share on social media. (The White House has denied any involvement in this effort.)
Descriptions of the dossier vary. One source I spoke with said that a programmer in India had been paid to organize it into a searchable database, making posts that contain offensive keywords easier to find. Another told me the dossier had expanded to at least 2,000 people, including not just journalists but high-profile academics, politicians, celebrities, and other potential Trump foes. Some of this, of course, may be hyperbolic boasting—but the effort has yielded fruit.
In the past year, the operatives involved have gone after journalists at CNN, TheWashington Post, and TheNew York Times. They exposed one reporter for using the word fag in college, and another for posting anti-Semitic and racist jokes a decade ago. These may not have been career-ending revelations, but people close to the project said they’re planning to unleash much more opposition research as the campaign intensifies. “This is innovative shit,” said Mike Cernovich, a right-wing activist with a history of trolling. “They’re appropriating call-out culture.”
What’s notable about this effort is not that it aims to expose media bias. Conservatives have been complaining—with some merit—about a liberal slant in the press for decades. But in the Trump era, an important shift has taken place. Instead of trying to reform the press, or critique its coverage, today’s most influential conservatives want to destroy the mainstream media altogether. “Journalistic integrity is dead,” Boyle declared in a 2017 speech at the Heritage Foundation. “There is no such thing anymore. So everything is about weaponization of information.”
It’s a lesson drawn from demagogues around the world: 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. Relativism is the real goal of Trump’s assault on the press, and the more “enemies of the people” his allies can take out along the way, the better. “A culture war is a war,” Steve Bannon told the Times last year. “There are casualties in war.”
This attitude has permeated the president’s base. At rallies, people wear T-shirts that read rope. tree. journalist. some assembly required. A CBS News/YouGov poll has found that just 11 percent of strong Trump supporters trust the mainstream media—while 91 percent turn to the president for “accurate information.” This dynamic makes it all but impossible for the press to hold the president accountable, something Trump himself seems to understand. “Remember,” he told a crowd in 2018, “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”Bryan Lanza, who worked for the Trump campaign in 2016 and remains a White House surrogate, told me flatly that he sees no possibility of Americans establishing a common set of facts from which to conduct the big debates of this year’s election. Nor is that his goal. “It’s our job to sell our narrative louder than the media,” Lanza said. “They’re clearly advocating for a liberal-socialist position, and we’re never going to be in concert. So the war continues.”
Parscale has indicated that he plans to open up a new front in this war: local news. Last year, he said the campaign intends to train “swarms of surrogates” to undermine negative coverage from local TV stations and newspapers. Polls have long found that Americans across the political spectrum trust local news more than national media. If the campaign has its way, that trust will be eroded by November. “We can actually build up and fight with the local newspapers,” Parscale told donors, according to a recording provided by ThePalm Beach Post. “So we’re not just fighting on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC with the same 700,000 people watching every day.”
According to one longtime strategist, candidates looking to plant a negative story about an opponent can pay to have their desired headlines posted on some of these Potemkin news sites. By working through a third-party consulting firm—instead of paying the sites directly—candidates are able to obscure their involvement in the scheme when they file expenditures to the Federal Election Commission. Even if the stories don’t fool savvy readers, the headlines are convincing enough to be flashed across the screen in a campaign commercial or slipped into fundraising emails.
DIGITAL DIRTY TRICKS
Shortly after polls closed in Kentucky’s gubernatorial election last November, an anonymous Twitter user named @Overlordkraken1 announced to his 19 followers that he had “just shredded a box of Republican mail in ballots” in Louisville.
The original post was removed by Twitter, but by then thousands of automated accounts were circulating screenshots of it with the hashtag #StoptheSteal. Popular right-wing internet personalities jumped on the narrative, and soon the Bevin campaign was making noise about unspecified voting “irregularities.” When the race was called for his opponent, the governor refused to concede, and asked for a statewide review of the vote. (No evidence of ballot-shredding was found, and he finally admitted defeat nine days later.)
The Election Night disinformation blitz had all the markings of a foreign influence operation. In 2016, Russian trolls had worked in similar ways to contaminate U.S. political discourse—posing as Black Lives Matter activists in an attempt to inflame racial divisions, and fanning pro-Trump conspiracy theories. (They even used Facebook to organize rallies, including one for Muslim supporters of Clinton in Washington, D.C., where they got someone to hold up a sign attributing a fictional quote to the candidate: “I think Sharia law will be a powerful new direction of freedom.”)
But when Twitter employees later reviewed the activity surrounding Kentucky’s election, they concluded that the bots were largely based in America—a sign that political operatives here were learning to mimic Russian trolling tactics.Of course, dirty tricks aren’t new to American politics. From Lee Atwater and Roger Stone to the crooked machine Democrats of Chicago, the country has a long history of underhanded operatives smearing opponents and meddling in elections. And, in fact, Samuel Woolley, a scholar who studies digital propaganda, told me that the first documented deployment of politicized Twitter bots was in the U.S. In 2010, an Iowa-based conservative group set up a small network of automated accounts with names like @BrianD82 to promote the idea that Martha Coakley, a Democrat running for Senate in Massachusetts, was anti-Catholic.
Since then, the tactics of Twitter warfare have grown more sophisticated, as regimes around the world experiment with new ways to deploy their cybermilitias. In Mexico, supporters of then-President Enrique Peña Nieto created “sock puppet” accounts to pose as protesters and sabotage the opposition movement. In Azerbaijan, a pro-government youth group waged coordinated harassment campaigns against journalists, flooding their Twitter feeds with graphic threats and insults. When these techniques prove successful, Woolley told me, Americans improve upon them. “It’s almost as if there’s a Columbian exchange between developing-world authoritarian regimes and the West,” he said.
Parscale has denied that the campaign uses bots, saying in a 60 Minutes interview, “I don’t think [they] work.” He may be right—it’s unlikely that these nebulous networks of trolls and bots could swing a national election. But they do have their uses. They can simulate false consensus, derail sincere debate, and hound people out of the public square.
According to one study, bots accounted for roughly 20 percent of all the tweets posted about the 2016 election during one five-week period that year. And Twitter is already infested with bots that seem designed to boost Trump’s reelection prospects. Regardless of where they’re coming from, they have tremendous potential to divide, radicalize, and stoke hatred that lasts long after the votes are cast.Rob Flaherty, who served as the digital director for Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, told me that Twitter in 2020 is a “hall of mirrors.” He said one mysterious account started a viral rumor that the gunman who killed seven people in Odessa, Texas, last summer had a beto bumper sticker on his car. Another masqueraded as an O’Rourke supporter and hurled racist invective at a journalist. Some of these tactics echoed 2016, when Russian agitators posed as Bernie Sanders supporters and stirred up anger toward Hillary Clinton.
Flaherty said he didn’t know who was behind the efforts targeting O’Rourke, and the candidate dropped out before they could make a real difference. “But you can’t watch this landscape and not get the feeling that someone’s fucking with something,” he told me. Flaherty has since joined Joe Biden’s campaign, which has had to contend with similar distortions: Last year, a website resembling an official Biden campaign page appeared on the internet. It emphasized elements of the candidate’s legislative record likely to hurt him in the Democratic primary—opposition to same-sex marriage, support for the Iraq War—and featured video clips of his awkward encounters with women. The site quickly became one of the most-visited Biden-related sites on the web. It was designed by a Trump consultant.
FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE
As the president’s reelection machine ramps up, Democratic strategists have found themselves debating an urgent question: Can they defeat the Trump coalition without adopting its tactics?
On one side of this argument is Dmitri Mehlhorn, a consultant notorious for his willingness to experiment with digital subterfuge. During Alabama’s special election in 2017, Mehlhorn helped fund at least two “false flag” operations against the Republican Senate candidate, Roy Moore. For one scheme, faux Russian Twitter bots followed the candidate’s account to make it look like the Kremlin was backing Moore. For another, a fake social-media campaign, dubbed “Dry Alabama,” was designed to link Moore to fictional Baptist teetotalers trying to ban alcohol. (Mehlhorn has claimed that he is unaware of the Russian bot effortand does not support the use of misinformation.)
When TheNew York Timesuncovered the second plot, one of the activists involved, Matt Osborne, contended that Democrats had no choice but to employ such unscrupulous techniques. “If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” Osborne said. “You have a moral imperative to do this—to do whatever it takes.”Others have argued that this is precisely the wrong moment for Democrats to start abandoning ideals of honesty and fairness. “It’s just not in my values to go out there making shit up and tricking voters,” Flaherty told me. “I know there’s this whole fight-fire-with-fire contingent, but generally when you ask them what they mean, they’re like, ‘Lie!’ ” Some also note that the president has already handed them plenty of ammunition. “I don’t think the Democratic campaign is going to need to make stuff up about Trump,” Judd Legum, the author of a progressive newsletter about digital politics, told me. “They can stick to things that are true.”
One Democrat straddling these two camps is a young, tech-savvy strategist named Tara McGowan. Last fall, she and the former Obama adviser David Plouffe launched a political-action committee with a pledge to spend $75 million attacking Trump online. At the time, the president’s campaign was running more ads on Facebook and Google than the top four Democratic candidates combined. McGowan’s plans to return fire included such ads, but she also had more creative—and controversial—measures in mind.
For example, she established a media organization with a staff of writers to produce left-leaning “hometown news” stories that can be micro-targeted to persuadable voters on Facebook without any indication that they’re paid for by a political group. Though she insists that the reporting is strictly factual, some see the enterprise as a too-close-for-comfort co-opting of right-wing tactics.
When I spoke with McGowan, she was open about her willingness to push boundaries that might make some Democrats queasy. As far as she was concerned, the “super-predator” ads Trump ran to depress black turnout in 2016 were “fair game” because they had some basis in fact. (Clinton did use the term in 1996, to refer to gang members.) McGowan suggested that a similar approach could be taken with conservatives. She ruled out attempts to misinform Republicans about when and where to vote—a tactic Mehlhorn reportedly considered, though he later said he was joking—but said she would pursue any strategy that was “in the bounds of the law.”“We are in a radically disruptive moment right now,” McGowan told me. “We have a president that lies every day, unabashedly … I think Trump is so desperate to win this election that he will do anything. There will be no bar too low for him.”
This intraparty split was highlighted last year when state officials urged the Democratic National Committee to formally disavow the use of bots, troll farms, and “deepfakes” (digitally manipulated videos that can, with alarming precision, make a person appear to do or say anything). Supporters saw the proposed pledge as a way of contrasting their party’s values with those of the GOP. But after months of lobbying, the committee refused to adopt the pledge.
Meanwhile, experts worried about domestic disinformation are looking to other countries for lessons. The most successful recent example may be Indonesia, which cracked down on the problem after a wave of viral lies and conspiracy theories pushed by hard-line Islamists led to the defeat of a popular Christian Chinese candidate for governor in 2016. To prevent a similar disruption in last year’s presidential election, a coalition of journalists from more than two dozen top Indonesian news outlets worked together to identify and debunk hoaxes before they gained traction online. But while that may sound like a promising model, it was paired with aggressive efforts by the state to monitor and arrest purveyors of fake news—an approach that would run afoul of the First Amendment if attempted in the U.S.
Richard Stengel, who served as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy under President Obama, spent almost three years trying to counter digital propaganda from the Islamic State and Russia. By the time he left office, he told me, he was convinced that disinformation would continue to thrive until big tech companies were forced to take responsibility for it. Stengel has proposed amending the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which shields online platforms from liability for messages posted by third parties. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter, he believes, should be required by law to police their platforms for disinformation and abusive trolling. “It’s not going to solve the whole problem,” he told me, “but it’s going to help with volume.”
There is one other case study to consider. During the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, pro-democracy activists found that they could defang much of the false information about their movement by repeatedly exposing its Russian origins. But this kind of transparency comes with a cost, Stengel observed. Over time, alertness to the prevalence of propaganda can curdle into paranoia. Russian operatives have been known to encourage such anxiety by spreading rumors that exaggerate their own influence. Eventually, the fear of covert propaganda inflicts as much damage as the propaganda itself.
Once you internalize the possibility that you’re being manipulated by some hidden hand, nothing can be trusted. Every dissenting voice on Twitter becomes a Russian bot, every uncomfortable headline a false flag, every political development part of an ever-deepening conspiracy. By the time the information ecosystem collapses under the weight of all this cynicism, you’re too vigilant to notice that the disinformationists have won.
POWERS OF INCUMBENCY
If there’s one thing that can be said for Brad Parscale, it’s that he runs a tight ship. Unauthorized leaks from inside the campaign are rare; press stories on palace intrigue are virtually nonexistent. When the staff first moved into its new offices last year, journalists were periodically invited to tour the facility—but Parscale put an end to the practice: He didn’t want them glimpsing a scrap of paper or a whiteboard scribble that they weren’t supposed to see.
Notably, while the Trump White House has endured a seemingly endless procession of shake-ups, the Trump reelection campaign has seen very little turnover since Parscale took charge. His staying power is one reason many Republicans—inside the organization or out—hesitate to talk about him on the record. But among allies of the president, there appears to be a growing skepticism.
Former colleagues began noticing a change in Parscale after his promotion. Suddenly, the quiet guy with his face buried in a laptop was wearing designer suits, tossing out MAGA hats at campaign rallies, and traveling to Europe to speak at a political-marketing conference. In the past few years, Parscale has bought a BMW, a Range Rover, a condo, and a $2.4 million waterfront house in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “He knows he has the confidence of the family,” one former colleague told me, “which gives him more swagger.” When the U.K.’s Daily Mail ran a story spotlighting Parscale’s spending spree, he attempted deflection through flattery. “The president is an excellent businessman,” he told the tabloid, “and being associated with him for years has been extremely beneficial to my family.”
But according to a former White House official with knowledge of the incident, Trump was irritated by the coverage, and the impression it created that his campaign manager was getting rich off him. For a moment, Parscale’s standing appeared to be in peril, but then Trump’s attention was diverted by the G7 summit in France, and he never returned to the issue. (A spokesperson for the campaign disputed this account.)
Some Republicans worry that for all Parscale’s digital expertise, he doesn’t have the vision to guide Trump to reelection. The president is historically unpopular, and even in red states, he has struggled to mobilize his base for special elections. If Trump’s message is growing stale with voters, is Parscale the man to help overhaul it? “People start to ask the question—you’re building this apparatus, and that’s great, but what’s the overarching narrative?” said a former campaign staffer.
But whether Trump finds a new narrative or not, he has something this time around that he didn’t have in 2016—the powers of the presidency. While every commander in chief looks for ways to leverage his incumbency for reelection, Trump has shown that he’s willing to go much further than most. In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, he seized on reports of a migrant caravan traveling to the U.S. from Central America to claim that the southern border was facing a national-security crisis. Trump warned of a coming “invasion” and claimed, without evidence, that the caravan had been infiltrated by gang members.
Parscale aided this effort by creating a 30-second commercial that interspersed footage of Hispanic migrants with clips of a convicted cop-killer. The ad ended with an urgent call to action: stop the caravan. vote republican. In a final maneuver before the election, Trump dispatched U.S. troops to the border. The president insisted that the operation was necessary to keep America safe—but within weeks the troops were quietly called back, the “crisis” having apparently ended once votes were cast. Skeptics were left to wonder: If Trump is willing to militarize the border to pick up a few extra seats in the midterms, what will he and his supporters do when his reelection is on the line?
It doesn’t require an overactive imagination to envision a worst-case scenario: On Election Day, anonymous text messages direct voters to the wrong polling locations, or maybe even circulate rumors of security threats. Deepfakes of the Democratic nominee using racial slurs crop up faster than social-media platforms can remove them. As news outlets scramble to correct the inaccuracies, hordes of Twitter bots respond by smearing and threatening reporters. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has spent the final days of the race pumping out Facebook ads at such a high rate that no one can keep track of what they’re injecting into the bloodstream.
After the first round of exit polls is released, a mysteriously sourced video surfaces purporting to show undocumented immigrants at the ballot box. Trump begins retweeting rumors of voter fraud and suggests that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers should be dispatched to polling stations. are illegals stealing the election? reads the Fox News chyron. are russians behind false videos? demands MSNBC.
The votes haven’t even been counted yet, and much of the country is ready to throw out the result.
NOTHING IS TRUE
There is perhaps no better place to witness what the culture of disinformation has already wrought in America than a Trump campaign rally. One night in November, I navigated through a parking-lot maze of folding tables covered in MAGA merch and entered the BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo, Mississippi. The election was still a year away, but thousands of sign-waving supporters had crowded into the venue to cheer on the president in person.
Once Trump took the stage, he let loose a familiar flurry of lies, half-lies, hyperbole, and nonsense. He spun his revisionist history of the Ukraine scandal—the one in which Joe Biden is the villain—and claimed, falsely, that the Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams wanted to “give illegal aliens the right to vote.” At one point, during a riff on abortion, Trump casually asserted that “the governor of Virginia executed a baby”—prompting a woman in the crowd to scream, “Murderer!”
This incendiary fabrication didn’t seem to register with my companions in the press pen, who were busy writing stories and shooting B-roll. I opened Twitter, expecting to see a torrent of fact-checks laying out the truth of the case—that the governor had been answering a hypothetical question about late-term abortion; that a national firestorm had ensued; that there were certainly different ways to interpret his comments but that not even the most ardent anti-abortion activist thought the governor of Virginia had personally “executed a baby.”
But Twitter was uncharacteristically quiet (apparently the president had said this before), and the most widely shared tweet I found on the subject was from his own campaign, which had blasted out a context-free clip of the governor’s abortion comments to back up Trump’s smear.
After the rally, I loitered near one of the exits, chatting with people as they filed out of the arena. Among liberals, there is a comforting caricature of Trump supporters as gullible personality cultists who have been hypnotized into believing whatever their leader says. The appeal of this theory is the implication that the spell can be broken, that truth can still triumph over lies, that someday everything could go back to normal—if only these voters were exposed to the facts. But the people I spoke with in Tupelo seemed to treat matters of fact as beside the point.
One woman told me that, given the president’s accomplishments, she didn’t care if he “fabricates a little bit.” A man responded to my questions about Trump’s dishonest attacks on the press with a shrug and a suggestion that the media “ought to try telling the truth once in a while.” Tony Willnow, a 34-year-old maintenance worker who had an American flag wrapped around his head, observed that Trump had won because he said things no other politician would say. When I asked him if it mattered whether those things were true, he thought for a moment before answering. “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.”
The political theorist Hannah Arendt once wrote that the most successful totalitarian leaders of the 20th century instilled in their followers “a mixture of gullibility and cynicism.” When they were lied to, they chose to believe it. When a lie was debunked, they claimed they’d known all along—and would then “admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.” Over time, Arendt wrote, the onslaught of propaganda conditioned people to “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”
Leaving the rally, I thought about Arendt, and the swaths of the country that are already gripped by the ethos she described. Should it prevail in 2020, the election’s legacy will be clear—not a choice between parties or candidates or policy platforms, but a referendum on reality itself.
This article appears in the March 2020 print edition with the headline “The 2020 Disinformation War.”
MCKAY COPPINS is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Wilderness, a book about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.