Lincoln Project: the vicious side of the ledger

The Lincoln Project: what can it achieve?

The Lincoln Project helps fill out the vicious side of the ledger against Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

Will it help clear the space for the virtuous side of US politics to take over?

The question with the Lincoln Project is whether it can reach the persuadable voters who matter in the presidential election. If the organization makes a difference in November, could it have a role afterwards?

A short audio offering.

The Antifa fantasy

If the term “Antifa” appears to have emerged out of the blue, it’s because Trump and right-wing voices have assiduously promoted the organisation as an inaccurate catch-all for left-wing protest groups.

Donald Trump mentioned the left-wing anti-fascist group by name at the White House when announcing plans to deploy active duty troops to quell nationwide protests in the US.

The right-wing has systematically pumped up the popularity of this group out of proportion to its actual strength on the ground.  “There are certainly violent elements on the left involved in these riots,” wrote Tennessee-based disinformation researcher Jay McKenzie.

“Some almost certainly identify as or with Antifa, but [pro-Trump activists ]have also created this ‘Antifa’ boogeyman somewhat out of thin air through trolling amplified by Kremlin media.”

How do we know this?

A search of the term shows its dramatic growth in recent years. Anti-terror experts have also witnesses its growth. Counter terrorism instructor Clint Watts wrote on twitter that in the last three years of teaching to police departments, officers began to rate Antifa as the No. 1 terror threat, above IS and Al-Qaeda.

“Antifa suddenly became #1 threat for the majority of the class,” he wrote. “Some in the classes from major cities had never heard of it.”

Watts wrote that he was confused as this occurred even after major ISIS or White supremacist attacks in the news. “I’d ask,’who is the leader of Antifa?’ No answer. ‘When was last time someone from Antifa killed someone?’ Silence. Usually amounted vague recollection of property damage might be Antifa.”

“Some who said Antifa was the top priority, literally did not know Antifa stood for anti-fascist. As a result, I just stopped doing the exercise as it became way too political.”

Yet it spread wildly, as the google chart shows. How? Through right-wing social media accounts and personalities. US-based observer of right-wing media, Andrew Rosebrook credits a network of accounts such as Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, Tim Pool, Gavin McInnes, Paul Joseph Watson and Infowars/Alex Jones for “pumping up the keyword antifa over the past few years as the main threat to Americans.”

The term was also embraced by Russian propaganda network RT.

“Most of the early ‘Antifa’ coverage was from Russian government affiliates,” McKenzie wrote.

“Pro-Trump RW figures took it from there and were a major factor in memeing them into existence.”

In fact, a key moment when “Antifa” jumped from the ambient noise, into the fore may have happened in 2017, when a right-wing activist and troll submitted a petition to a White House petition for the Pentagon to designate Antifa as domestic terrorist.

The goal of the petition was not action as much as communication to “help shift the narrative toward decrying ‘leftist violence’ and [to] galvanize conservatives.” Politico reported: “The petition’s viral dissemination on social media is a tactic aimed at focusing conservatives on a common enemy.”

But is Antifa real?

Yes, but its membership is not anywhere near the scale it is being discussed as having.

Even academic Mark Bray, who wrote the book on the protest movement, acknowledged that it was “impossible to ascertain the exact number of people who belong to antifa groups because members hide their political activities from law enforcement and the far right.”

But “basically, there are nowhere near enough anarchists and members of antifa groups to have accomplished such breathtaking destruction [as Trump blames them] on their own.”

In other words, Antifa is more of an accusation than a description.

The Trump campaign has been a sophisticated communication assault from the earliest days of the campaign. In fact, often the Trump White House messaging exceeds its action on various issues.

Co-opting a real world event, or in this case, protest group, makes it much harder for onlookers to contest the fact. So it makes the battle to understand what is really happening much more difficult.

For example, the media can find actual Antifa members to speak to. But that doesn’t mean Antifa, or violent left-wing liberals are pivotal in understanding what exactly is happening on the streets. Or what Trump is up to.

Finally, casting protest as extreme and violent rather than mainstream and legitimate helps the Trump White House control the storyline about the news.

I would wager that controlling the storyline with the public is a major thrust of the Trump administration. It’s a heavily propagandistic venture. It hands Trump a tremendous amount of power.

The action of the right-wing and Donald Trump exploits the new information reality in which things don’t have to remotely factually true in order to mobilize people.

We’re seeing that in the “anti-Antifa” rhetoric today.

Leading civil society types and Democrats should experiment with the best way to counter this exploitation of our new communications reality, where it’s so easy for an unreality to be soft-peddled into our news cycle. (Remember Jade Helm!)

Perhaps the answer is a culture that circumvents the reliance on open and fallible communication technology. What would that look like? In a rush, I’d say the left/civil society is actually suffering from “over communication.” Maybe they should reconsider the value of dumb phones and email, of television and the printed pamphlet. At the same time, they should shun the technology that makes reality so fungible.

Foreigners for Bernie Sanders in 2020

One curious feature of the Bernie campaign is its international support. There is a network of Bernie Abroad sites, which involve Americans with their non-US spouses dialing and texting American voters for Bernie. Some clubs also invite non-Americans with no legal connection to the US to do the same.

“We welcome both American citizens living abroad as well as non-citizens to talk about American politics, do volunteer work for the campaign, etc,” said one organiser.

It’s a strange little netherworld for political support. Not the US liberals abroad so much, but the open door for non-Americans to get involved.

Other groups, even going back to 2016 like the one in Serbia, appear to be a bit more of a non-American outreach affair. (Although few remember, the US intelligence community concluded the Kremlin sought to support Sanders in 2016).

As the 2020 campaign continues, and the resolve around Bernie seems to harden even as his chances fall against ex-VP Joe Biden, it’s worth asking how much momentum is being generated and consolidated with the help of overseas clubs.

Of this momentum, how much is divorced from the reality on the ground in the US.

To be clear: Americans abroad probably make up the bulk of the overseas support. As the law is written however, non-US persons can participate in US elections.

From the FEC:

In general, foreign nationals are prohibited from the following activities:
Making any contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or making any expenditure, independent expenditure, or disbursement in connection with any federal, state or local election in the United States;
Making any contribution or donation to any committee or organization of any national, state, district, or local political party (including donations to a party nonfederal account or office building account);
Making any disbursement for an electioneering communication;
Making any donation to a presidential inaugural committee.

It’s crucial though that the latest amendment to the law,appears to be in 2002. Presumably when the law was written, it was assumed that foreign nationals would be, well, within the US.

Instead, the law appears to provide a loophole for any foreign national who has a strongly held view on US politics, which is many people.

Importantly, in 2002, it would be somewhat hard to imagine a sophisticated coordinated campaign involving foreigners at a large scale in support of one US candidate. Eighteen years ago, that would have involved a lot of scattershot efforts, with long-distance phone calls, and awkward online interaction. We know this because of the kind of online coordination around the anti-globalization movement.

In 2002, we weren’t even at a MySpace-level social media coordination and sophistication.

In 2020, we’re a long way from MySpace, as this excellent article by The Age’s Tom Cowie makes clear. (Ed’s note: People from the great city of Melbourne, Australia are called Melburnians, and “spruiking” is Australian for “to promote.”)

This means that there is no hard barrier between Americans abroad in support of Sanders, and non-Americans abroad in support of sanders.

I don’t question the good intentions of many of the participants. But intentions aren’t the issue, so much as the actions.

A short, incomplete list of groups is here.

And of course, the dank memes that any capable political leader needs.

There are many more, of course. Full map here:

Even if the majority of people involved in this effort are US citizens, there is no clear line between a globalised get-out-the-vote effort and an influence campaign. It’s about action, not intention.

Some messages include the rallying points like “To expose corporate Democrat bankruptcy and lead our party home!” which seems to me a big call for people who potentially aren’t even Americans.

How would people outside the US feel to get texts and calls from Americans making broad generalizations about their internal political parties?

To a degree any American GOTV effort is an influence campaign — but a domestic one between Americans to achieve an election outcome, between Americans. It becomes murky when people overseas are invited to get involved.

As the rules are written, if Bernie Abroad clubs in Russia and China were active, and they were open to foreigners – how would that look?

All of this is of concern as the Sanders campaign shows little willingness to concede to the reality of the primaries.

So what does the Sanders campaign run on — feelings of “Democrat bankruptcy”? The Sanders message of anger and outrage for US inequality turns seamlessly to one of internal division even as a Democrat, presumably, Joe Biden has to face off with the most corrupt American president in US history.

How is that any different to the multi-spectrum attack on the reputation of Hillary Clinton when she ran against Donald Trump in 2016?

Russian national charged with interfering in US politics

Another day, another criminal complaint. This one alleges a woman named Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova served as bookkeeper for ‘Project Lakhta’, a vast effort funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin targeting domestic Russian audiences, as well as ones in the US, EU and Ukraine, among others.

alaska“The strategic goal of this alleged conspiracy, which continues to this day, is to sow discord in the U.S. political system and to undermine faith in our democratic institutions,” said US Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger.

Full document: netyksho_et_al_indictment.