Sun Tzu, the Chinese military general and tactician born in 544 BC, advised: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
One thing I have learned from political campaigns is that if an opponent seems to be making mistakes, they may simply be off their game. But sometimes, something else is going on. Perhaps the opponent is following this advice, also from Sun Tzu: “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
Every day since President Donald Trump’s inauguration seems to bring more confusion and chaos. From the proliferation of fake news, alternative facts and missteps by the Trump administration, the drama never stops. One wonders: Will we ever get back to discussing facts, and will they ever figure out where the bathroom is at the White House?
When can we get back to what’s real?
Spreading misinformation and “astroturfing” — creating the impression of grassroots support for or against something or someone by paying people — is nothing new. But social media and online forums as the preferred medium is new to many people. But being in the thick of the tech industry, San Francisco and the Bay Area are often first to adopt online communications tools. Locally, “trolling” — deliberately making inflammatory posts — and “sock puppetry” — the assumption of a fake online identity — are nothing new.
And when there is a monied interest with an agenda to push, paying people can be an effective way to influence public opinion and politicians. Sometimes, it can even create the impression that it’s now socially acceptable to say and do certain things that previously were not. It is effective because, whether we recognize it or not, all of us are influenced by what our peers think.
We have seen corporate sponsored astroturf efforts in San Francisco. The soda industry’s fight against soda taxes is a prime example. (Disclosure: I served as a consultant to the “Yes” side in the 2014 and 2016 campaigns.) In 2014, the beverage industry paid people to protest on street corners as part of their astroturfing program. They were exposed on ABC’s “Nightline” in a segment called “This Protest Rally Is Brought to You by Big Soda.”
So what do we make of the reports of Russian pro-Trump trolls, as reported by The Guardian and other news outlets, and the confusion that they are sowing by spreading fake news? Or the Trump campaign’s hiring of actors to play supporters at his first campaign rally?
Are the pro-Trump astroturf campaigns means to specific ends, like we have seen locally, or could they also be a tactic in a game that is won when the opposition becomes too exhausted to bother figuring out what is even happening and stops paying attention?
What do we make of Kellyanne Conway’s “Bowling Green Massacre” concoction, or administration claims of having “evidence” of massive voter fraud, or photos released of Trump’s security briefings being held on the lawn at Mar-A-Lago? These communications may be intended to advance specific policy agendas, but consider that they might do more …
The media pokes fun, as if we are witnessing gaffes and unprecedented incompetence: “How dumb can these people be?” I agree they are dumb, or the people pulling their strings are dumb. As dumb as foxes.
Until now, we have never collectively witnessed a foreign government transform into a juggernaut right before our eyes, destabilizing our nation while we scramble like ants. And for those in our own country who want to install a new system that matches their own vision of what our country should be — they need the old order broken down first. So why would they not appreciate the assist?
I’ll admit, I underestimated the support for Trump’s policies and the indifference to his personal conduct that were instrumental to his win. There’s no question that he reflects the views of many people. But we’ll never know if he won every single swing state without some selective hacking into our machines.
Nationally, voting machines are still largely black boxes, programmed with proprietary codes that are legally denied public examination; some leave no paper trail and are built on old platforms that are no longer being patched for security holes. Would hacking them without leaving a trace be a challenge for skilled cyber espionage experts? What does this mean for future elections, like the 2018 mid-terms?
Russia clearly benefits by destabilizing the world’s most powerful nation. Vladimir Putin is on a mission to expand his influence. There’s no need to invent wild conspiracy theories. Every day, more information drips out from the intelligence community that confirms their interference.
Political philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli offered this: “Men ought to be indulged or utterly destroyed, for if you merely offend them they take vengeance, but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate, so that the injury done to a man ought to be such that vengeance cannot be feared.”
Instead of trying to sip from a fire hose of stories about fakery, dishonesty, antics and gaffes, and fitting them into our own narratives about who has the upper hand in that moment, it may be time to refresh ourselves on the works of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, and think bigger. To support and defend the Constitution and laws of our nation, it may be time to face our own weaknesses. And to better understand enemies — both foreign and domestic.
Maureen Erwin is a Bay Area political consultant. Most recently she led Sonoma County’s Measure M, which will create the largest GMO-free growing zone in the U.S.