Tens of thousands of trees have been killed across America so that pundits and scholars could try to explain, in millions of words, how the nation came to elect an inexperienced, often buffoonish, racist and misogynistic real-estate huckster as its 45th president. A stunning and largely overlooked new bombshell report suggests the real answer to the great mysteries of 2016 can be boiled down to one word.
A TV network in the United Kingdom recently got its hands on a massive cache of data used four years ago by Cambridge Analytica — the shadowy political firm employed by Donald Trump’s campaign, long a fascination for those of us who feel the president’s election was tainted — to target a whopping 198 million Americans with ads, mostly on social media. That’s actually more than the 138 million Americans who eventually went to the polls — but this may be the point. The enterprising journalists of the UK’s Channel 4 found millions of potential Hillary Clinton voters were ID’ed by that one word, “deterrence.”
And a disproportionately large number of these “deterrence” votes in 16 key battleground states were — you guessed it — African-Americans.
The reporting suggests that the voters that Cambridge Analytica wanted to deter from the polls were bombarded on Facebook with so-called “dark” advertising that might repulse Black people likely to elect Trump’s Democratic rival. The ads highlighted the infamous 1996 episode when then-First Lady Clinton talked about “superpredators” in urban communities, or a spot where a Black actor — portraying a Black actor doing a Clinton ad — stopped in mid-stream and claimed, “I just don’t believe what I’m saying.” The goal wasn’t to persuade voters to switch to Trump but to stay home or maybe vote for a third-party candidate like Jill Stein of the Green Party.
Objectively, the scheme worked. In Wisconsin — where Trump pulled off his most surprising 2016 win — studies found the Black voter turnout dropped a whopping 19% from 2012, when voters in Milwaukee and elsewhere had rallied behind Barack Obama. The decline in African-American voting was bigger than Trump’s narrow 27,000 vote margin. At a December 2016 rally, Trump said the quiet part out loud when he proclaimed that Black voters who stayed home “was almost as good” as the handful who voted for him.
If you’re thinking that hidden ads on Facebook alone couldn’t have caused this, you’re right. Experts also found that Wisconsin’s strict voter ID laws kept thousands more at home in November 16 — another implement in a giant Republican toolbox that is broadly labelled as “voter suppression.” Simply put, with its white and increasingly working-class base of supporters shrinking every year, GOP strategy increasingly relies on finding ways not to win over a diverse electorate but to find ways to keep those folks from voting at all.
“Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity (sic) are,” Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee wrote on Twitter Thursday, as the formerly silent part of voter suppression is now becoming a roar. “We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
On a number of fronts, it appears that GOP voter suppression efforts in 2016 weren’t the final culmination of a generation-long erosion of voting rights in America but in fact a trial run for much broader efforts in 2020. Despite boasts by the giants of social media that they’re cracking down on abuses — Twitter has banned political ads, and Facebook has announced moves against the conspiracy theory QAnon and fraudulent post-election victory claims — experts say there’s nothing to prevent another disinformation campaign this fall.
Spencer Overton, a former Obama administration official who’s now a George Washington University law professor and a leading authority on voter suppression, told me in an email interview there’s been a “lack of complete disclosure” by companies like Facebook and by the campaigns. He added that “we all have to press them to engage in responsible content moderation and remove coordinated attempts to suppress the vote, and after the election look at structural changes to ensure more transparency and accountability.”
But Facebook isn’t the only battleground. On the legal front, Republicans hope their control of state legislatures and increasing chokehold on the judiciary — bolstered by the more than 200 judges rammed through by Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — can place legal restrictions on voting. They involves reducing hours or the number of polling places, eliminating dropboxes for mail ballots, making it difficult to count absentee votes — pretty much anything they can think of to make voting harder instead of easier.
Here in Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign has tried — and so far been stymied — to limit the number of dropboxes that would make it easier to deposit mail-in ballots without worrying about the problems at the U.S. Postal Service, while lawmakers in Harrisburg are pushing for a special committee with subpoena power to probe the election. In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott imposed rules that mean just one dropbox in its most populous jurisdiction — Harris County, roughly the size of Rhode Island — while Florida, aided by a ruling won with Trump-appointed judges, is requiring restitution payments from potential ex-felon voters that will disenfranchise thousands.
The other big worry — and this is new for 2020, thanks to the expiration of a legal settlement barring Republicans from doing this — is around so-called election observers that the GOP and Trump campaign aim to send to mostly urban polling places. The scheme — similar to ones that have intimidated non-white voters in the past — is said to have as many as 50,000 volunteers with the president himself seeking more, calling on an “Army for Trump.”
“They call it election security but really it is a massive effort in hindering the vote,” Ashley McBride, the Pennsylvania state director of the progressive mobilizing group For Our Future PAC, told me. She said she’s alarmed at the militaristic tone of the Trump volunteer efforts and at the idea that gaggles of the president’s diehard supporters might harass voters walking toward polling places, as already happened in early voting in Virginia.
McBride said her group, like others, is working in communities to educate folks about this year’s voting options and encouraging a plan, which could include casting a ballot by mail. But even with the threat of intimidation, she noted that many Black voters have a unique attachment to casting ballots in person. “Still for thousands of African-Americans,” she said, “it’s a cliché but somebody fought and died for my right to vote.”
In a weird way, maybe we should thank people like Trump and Utah’s Lee for being so honest about what the Republican Party’s real goal is here, which is hoping that U.S. citizens — but especially Black and Brown ones — won’t exercise that right. And shame on us for describing these moves in bland terms like “voter suppression,” when what is really happening is that one American political party no longer believes in “rank democracy,” to borrow Lee’s terminology. There are better names for their ideology. Fascism springs to mind.
The other party, the Democrats, might be pretty confused about where it stands on a lot of issues (cough, cough ... fracking), but its plank is pretty clear when it comes to expanding voting rights and democracy. A victory for Joe Biden and a Democratic-led Senate could mean early action in 2021 on a full restoration of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, so eroded by a conservative Supreme Court to pave the way for the current shenanigans.
There’s the rub. Democracy, as an American ideal, is absolutely on the ballot next month, but you might have to navigate a phalanx of MAGA hats and thugs in “Ballot Security” shirts to cast that life-or-death vote. If Republicans can successfully pull off the scheme they call “deterrence” in 2020, you have to worry what kind of election there’ll even be in 2024.