It is impossible to make policy, develop strategy, or run anything effectively if there is not a common set of facts and a common understanding of reality.
The Atlantic (March 2020) published a fascinating and disturbing long form article by McKay Coppins about the 2020 election; specifically about what President Donald Trump’s campaign is doing in the information domain to motivate the president’s supporters and demotivate those who do not support him, in an attempt to see him reelected. The article is fascinating, especially for those who spend a lot of time working on or around the information domain as it is a deep, deep dive into the president’s campaign’s information strategy.
It is disturbing because it makes it clear that one of the purposes of this information strategy is to make it impossible for Americans to have a common set of facts and a common understanding of reality in order to make decisions. Actively seeking to destroy this common understanding of factual reality – from deciding who to vote for and what policies and strategies those in office should pursue, let alone what good policy and effective strategy is – may be a good way to motivate the base and drive turnout, but it is ultimately detrimental to the health of America as a self governing, democratic republic.
Coppins reports that : “Bryan Lanza, who worked for the Trump campaign in 2016 and remains a White House surrogate, told me flatly that he sees no possibility of Americans establishing a common set of facts from which to conduct the big debates of this year’s election. Nor is that his goal. ‘It’s our job to sell our narrative louder than the media,’ Lanza said. ‘They’re clearly advocating for a liberal-socialist position, and we’re never going to be in concert. So the war continues.’”
“Among liberals, there is a comforting caricature of Trump supporters as gullible personality cultists who have been hypnotized into believing whatever their leader says. The appeal of this theory is the implication that the spell can be broken, that truth can still triumph over lies, that someday everything could go back to normal—if only these voters were exposed to the facts. But the people I spoke with in Tupelo, Miss. seemed to treat matters of fact as beside the point. One woman told me that, given the president’s accomplishments, she didn’t care if he ‘fabricates a little bit.’”
“A man responded to my questions about Trump’s dishonest attacks on the press with a shrug and a suggestion that the media ‘ought to try telling the truth once in a while.’”
“Tony Willnow, a 34-year-old maintenance worker who had an American flag wrapped around his head, observed that Trump had won because he said things no other politician would say. When I asked him if it mattered whether those things were true, he thought for a moment before answering. ‘He tells you what you want to hear,’ Willnow said. ‘And I don’t know if it’s true or not—but it sounds good, so fuck it.’”
What Coppins’ reporting reveals is a two part problem. The first is the purposeful destruction of a common understanding of factual reality.
It goes right to the heart of the title of this week’s column: if nothing is true, then everything is possible. Then if nothing is true, if everything is possible, it becomes impossible to actually have the necessary and needed discussions and debates that the Founders and Framers intended within the self governing democratic-republic they bequeathed to us as our inheritance as Americans.
Regardless of one’s own personal political or ideological preferences, if we cannot as Americans agree on at least a baseline set of facts, then it is impossible to make appropriate progress on any of the issues that face Americans and America in the 21st Century regardless of what level of government they need to be addressed at.
The second problem is perfectly summed up in Mr. Willnow’s remarks to Coppins: “He (author’s note: “He” here refers to the president) tells you what you want to hear, and I don’t know if it’s true or not – but it sounds good, so f**k it.”
I spent the better part of ten years as a senior civilian advisor; to colonels commanding brigade combat teams, major generals commanding the U.S. Army War College and U.S. Army divisions, lieutenant generals commanding U.S .Army Corps and Army Service Component Commands, and to senior leaders at Geographic Combatant Commands, Major Commands, the Department of the Army, and the Department of Defense.
There are two basic requirements for being a good senior advisor – civilian or otherwise. The first is to live on information overload; being ahead of the knowledge requirements; what information is going to be required to meet the requirements, and having that information and vetting it for accuracy, so that it is ready and available when needed. The second is to take that information, make it digestible to the people you are supporting, and provide it to them because it is what they need to know — not necessarily what they want to hear!
It may be very reassuring to Mr. Willnow that he feels the President tells him what he wants to hear, but that is detrimental to America as a self governing democratic republic. Why? Because it lets Mr. Willnow, and the rest of us, off the hook for doing the necessary work of being citizens who have inherited the right to participate in America as a self governing democratic republic.
Regardless of the issues in the U.S. in 2020, regardless of what level of government at which they should be addressed, and regardless of one’s political affiliation or ideological preference, if we cannot as Americans agree on a common understanding of facts and reality — then the American experiment as a self governing democratic republic has failed.
The 2020 election is going to push us, as Americans, fully into an information wilderness of mirrors. It is going to take all of us using every one of our critical thinking skills to resist America becoming a place where nothing is true and everything is possible. Because an America where nothing is true and everything is possible is an America that will not be — because it cannot be — a self governing democratic republic.