The Trump Campaign's Pathological Reality Gambit

A hardcore Trump base is being convinced to only get its news and entertainment from one place—and it's neither Fox News nor Breitbart

Look, we’re all aware we live in filter bubbles and we all know it’s a huge problem.

But it’s important to understand this: some people know how to weaponize pathological reality far more effectively than others. It is often the case that those on the side of facts, research, and expertise have a great deal of difficulty competing with paranoid conspiracies and pathos-driven screeds because, well, fear sells.

The speed, scale, and ubiquity of social media have essentially jabbed an epi pen into that premise—allowing all manner (and I really mean all manner) of mis- and disinformation to spread at lightning speed. And it’s not just that it can hit more eyeballs; because of the circular nature of content, and the collapse of consumer into creator and vice versa, these ideas become participatory reality strains, branching off in infinite directions, overlapping with any number of others.

At at a minimum, the presence of all these opposing reality strains confirms people’s suspicion that they cannot trust anybody, that to believe institutions “they’ve been told to trust” puts them in peril. On the darker side of this equation, it leads people to follow dark, manipulative impulses handcrafted to promote chaos.

And this is a bad, bad place for us to be. It’s how we ended up with #PizzaGate. It leaves us susceptible to autocratic takeovers.

Which brings us to the Trump campaign. I’ll inevitably be talking a whole lot about Trump and affiliated parties in this newsletter, but today we’re specifically looking at the campaign’s app. Take a look at the video below from The Recount, in which Jennifer Palmieri dives into the “curated universe for the president’s most loyal supporters.”

“This isn’t just an app—this is your tool to keep America great,” a cheesily masculine voice intones. It’s a self-contained universe meant to bypass both mainstream media and the Republican party itself. It’s not just entertainment and news content; it’s gamified with literal points that can be used for anything from discounts at the Trump store to photos with the President.

The engine of Trump’s reality machine is Brad Parscale, who is the most effective living propagandist in the Western Hemisphere. Check out the video in this CNN article, where he describes using gamification to spread the app, and the implementation of an engagement page with video tutorials that has “has helped the campaign pick up several hundred thousand volunteers just during the Coronavirus lockdown” (emphasis mine).

In this universe, Lara Trump has a show called Real News Update:

My guess is that, for many of you, this is the first you’re hearing of the show; it launched in 2017. Lara Trump is also a host of The Right View, a live-streamed daily talk show that’s not-so-subtly riffing on The View.

Don Jr. is also a star in this universe with his show, Triggered, piggybacking on the brand of his book of the same name (the sales of which his father inflated).

Notably, the tone of the app deviates considerably from Trump’s all-caps Twitter approach. The app and much of the programming present this culture as cool and unbiased so that users feel like they’re getting “real” news (note how often they manage to squeeze in the world “real”). It’s a scheme designed to meet all their users’ news and entertainment needs, 24/7—like a Trump rally that’s never off.

Many, myself included, have no interest in subjecting ourselves to this particular reality strain—and that’s the final piece to this puzzle. It’s an isolated ecosystem that never encounters resistance or dissent, reifying the “veracity” of whatever propaganda they choose to present.

The implications here are massive. Trump is using the mechanism of his presidency to congregate his true believers in a self-contained reality of his making. With Don Jr.’s name already getting tossed around to imminently run for Governor of Florida or Montana and President in 2024, and an inevitable Ivanka bid somewhere in there, the impacts of this media empire will be most acutely felt after Trump himself leaves office.

And he’s going to access his base through the reality he created—one that doesn’t have to, and won’t, play by anybody else’s rules.

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This stuff is really important to me; I think everybody should be paying a lot more attention to it and discussing it. It’d mean a lot if you’d spread the word however is right for you.

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