Where did “The Wall” come from, who is to blame and why is it a threat to Democracy?

This week in Salon, Chauncey Devega published a timely and provocative interview with Timothy Snyder, Yale Professor of history. You should read it.

And before going further, you might want to read my review of George Dyson’s essay “Childhood’s End” as I will borrow some concepts discussed there. In particular, note the the distinctions between digital and analogue (biological) computing and associated trends on individual agency, digital tribalism, truth and knowledge in democracy.

With the President addressing the nation again this afternoon, perhaps about his imaginary “National Emergency” at the border or even about the ongoing negotiation about “The Wall” and Shutdown, I started musing about two things:

  • What brought us to this moment of impasse about something as ridiculous and deeply divisive as “The Wall”?
  • Who is to blame or at fault for getting us to this point where the path forward seems to be simply blocked or deeply dark for our constitutional democracy?

Where did “The Wall” come from?

It’s not news that immigration has become increasingly divisive in American and world politics in the past couple of decades. In fact, immigration’s rise and fall as a flashpoint for division is cyclical.

According to excellent reporting from The Guardian and others, we know Cambridge Analytica (CA) researched and built rhetorical weapons to fight and enflame the culture war in the presidential election of 2016. They did this in part with an enormous data set with insights into millions of Americans that was surreptitiously taken from Facebook.

Here’s how the New Yorker summarized CA’s research and findings:

“(Cambridge Analytica Data Scientist Christopher) Wylie details the story of the creation and deployment of “the weapon” that he and Nix sold to Bannon, and then to Mercer, to fight their “culture war.” It was in those early days of 2014, Wylie says, that he and Bannon began testing slogans like “drain the swamp” and “the deep state” and “build the wall,” and found a surprising number of Americans who responded strongly to them. All they needed was a candidate to parrot them.”

Trump became that candidate.

In this week’s Salon interview, Yale historian Timothy Snyder puts Trumps trademarked campaign rallying cry into context and explains why those CA research results should not surprise us:

“”Build that wall” is a classic, fascist way to divide tribes. The fantasy is that there actually is a clean division between one group of people and another, and of course that can only exist in fantasy. There is no real physical division which has made that happen in the history of the world. But as an image the wall is very powerful because it leverages the idea of “us and them,” which is a very powerful way to begin politics.”

Pulling together these strands, a trove of Facebook data was used by Cambridge Analytica to find the best ways to divide Americans along cultural lines — and “Build The Wall” was one of the best taglines to accomplish this cultural schism.

Trump and his campaign in 2015–16 put this into use — and his White House continues to drive it with increasing consistency and volume as their primary organizing principal. In the last two days, his campaign committee started using “The Wall” in Facebook ads to grow their lists and put pressure on Republicans in the Senate and now on Democratic leaders as well with ads depicting bricks and vaguely threatening violence against his democratic political opposition.

So who is to blame?

I see individual, corporate and national actors like Trump, Cambridge Analytica, Russia primarily as the results of, not root causes of, what we are experiencing today. That doesn’t mean they are blameless or have not taken bad or even criminal actions, and it also doesn’t mean they are solely or collectively bear the ultimate responsibility of what we are experiencing.

In my view, there are two primary drivers and together they are reinforcing each other’s impacts:

  1. Analogue Computing, i.e. It’s Our Dang Fault. It’s shockingly easy to point fingers at others in nearly any situation. It’s in our social nature and in our DNA to want to belong — and one of the easiest ways to feel like you belong is to exclude others. We have done human-level division, exclusion, violence and bigotry exceedingly well this since the invention of stone weapons and fire.
  2. Digital Computing, i.e. The Machines Are Making It Worse. Rhetoric like Trump’s Wall is being weaponized by our own digital tools, social networks and the profit incentives we built into today’s corporate structures. Digital screen’s stickiness keep our eyes downward. Mobile notifications drive attention and increasingly actions. Artificial intelligence-powered newsfeeds inform our decision-making and shape our perception of what is factual. It’s becoming increasingly hard to imagine how to move on from this sustained and self-inflicted enhancement of our own tribal tendencies. In Snyder’s words, “The machines are very good at finding out the things that generate emotional reactions from us.”

I don’t mean to sound too pessimistic in highlighting these dark tendencies and trends. After all, this could be more of a temporary concern as younger generations could have greater filtering and tolerance for some of the worst parts of dis/misinformation. Recent research published in Science Advances — and summarized here by the Associated Press — suggest that older and more conservative Americans are more likely to share false information on social media.

So maybe we have a route out of this dark path? The 2018 elections were promising as intermediate data points, but the 2020 elections are no guarantee in the White House, Senate or even in the House with districts remaining highly gerrymandered to favor Trump’s GOP.

State of Exception: What if we are in the worst timeline?

Snyder highlights what in his view may be the biggest danger to democracy at this moment: a declaration of a “National Emergency” — specifically, one that might never end:

“The idea of “the exception” is the most dangerous idea for modern democracies and modern rule of law systems. […] When the president starts talking about a “state of exception,” then one should be aware that Donald Trump is working in a tradition, and the tradition is one which says you use the exception to open an aperture, and then you try to make that opening bigger and bigger and bigger.”

We as individuals must be vigilant in the coming days, weeks and months for Trump moving toward a “National Emergency” exception like this.

Whether it is The Wall, The Shutdown, the Mueller investigation or some new real or imagined threat— it is our responsibility to hold the line by rejecting the ideas of such a constitutional exception.

In the coming days, don’t let any human or artificial intelligence divide you from trust in small-d democratic institutions and the rule of law.

And be ready to take action when needed to support those institutions.

Political Strategy for a digital world. Founder and President at Measured Campaigns

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