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Op-Ed: Email, the Trump Phenomenon, and the Politics of Anonymity

‘News source’ shapes, nurtures, and intensifies the prejudices of recipients by appearing to validate them

douglas r. forrester
Douglas R. Forrester

Initially, I thought Donald Trump’s candidacy was akin to the mistaken impression given by a loud automobile that it has a powerful engine when it really is only a little car without a muffler. However, a better analogy may be that Trump is the personification of an anonymous, political email. I say this because I’ve noticed a remarkable similarity between the character and tone of his bombast and the nature of anonymous, political emails. Flowing like a subterranean river of “Ghostbuster” ectoplasm, they endanger the city above. Either by seduction or inclination, Trump has taken a dive into the ooze.

The emails to which I refer are those supposedly “exposing” some stupid or sinister action by well-known public figures. Obama, Biden, key presidential advisors, Clinton, Pelosi, Reid and co-partisans are favorite subjects, although conspiracy theories propounded may include bipartisan references. Generally, those pilloried are categorized as “liberal/socialist,” derelict in their patriotic responsibilities or perhaps traitors. In earlier times they were called “reds,” “pinkos,” or “fellow-travelers.”

Well-known accusations involve the president’s birthplace, religion, Islamist sympathies and appointments, flagrant disrespect of the Constitution through use of executive orders, secret plans to assume dictatorial control through domestic use of the military, conspiratorial efforts as a socialist/Muslim/whatever/ Manchurian candidate, use of an open border to destabilize the country, and so on and so on. One receives them from well-known friends but all lack an identifiable, legitimate author. That key feature is lost in the process of endless forwarding or perhaps the source is deliberately obscured. I suspect it is the latter.

Anonymous pamphleteering has always been part of American politics, but this is different. I believe the sheer size of the wave of anonymous, political emails is reshaping the shoreline of American politics. They have become a primary news source for millions of voters. Aside from easily available instructions about the technology of anonymous emails and some focus on particular groups (for example, hackers known as “anonymous”) or efforts of particular whistle blowers, there is little research regarding this phenomenon. Yet, it is deeply troubling, even for those of us in strong political opposition to those usually vilified.

Since the rise of political microtargeting a decade or so ago, there has been a remarkably heavy stream of these cyberspace messages characterized by common attributes: 1) indifference to facts; 2) vicious degradation of intelligence, appearance and motivations of persons; 3) false allegations; 4) false attribution of false allegations (to enhance apparent credibility); 5) inclination to attack (via anonymous emails) sources challenging the falsehood of the allegations; 6) disrespect for government and conspiracy at the highest levels; 7) paranoia about not being able to speak freely because of “political correctness”; 8) “the truth” being accessible only through surreptitious channels of communication; 9) blaming the poor for being poor; and 10) racism/xenophobia.

They are surprisingly effective and politically inflammatory. I believe we are seeing a fruit of their circulation: the leading Republican presidential candidate (among others) gives clear evidence of their influence. Moreover, I think it is quite possible that the reason Trump is connecting so well with such a large swath of the (Republican if not Democrat) electorate is that he shares with them political emotions and conclusions shaped by anonymous emails.

I first became aware of this bandwidth of political communication when a relative asked my opinion of the content of several. Upon review, it became clear very quickly that, without exception, these emails were fabricated stories coupled with reassurances they had been “verified” by some commercial site. In short, none were innocent misrepresentations; they were deliberately crafted tools of a political con game.

After literally hundreds of fact-check exercises to help him appreciate the mischief afoot, he is beginning to realize that if a political email is anonymous it is, by design, false. He is grasping a scary truth: the source or headwaters of any given river of these anonymous emails is a bad spring of bogus stories carefully designed to poison emotions and mislead minds for political purposes. As contagion is spread from person to person or like thousands of seeds sown by a parent plant into animals that will carry them far and wide, they effortlessly reach fertile soil in the minds of recipients.

None of us want to think we can be misled, but if one applies a thin veneer of print to gossip and has it delivered in a personal and private way, it apparently can pass unhindered through the gateways of the mind. The nature of this particular form of gossip is potent and insidious for three interlocking reasons: 1) it is written; 2) it is privately (and repeatedly) transmitted, usually from those we like; and 3) akin to venom, which is chemically designed to seek out particular kinds of cells, the transmission process finds targets predisposed to have biases reinforced. No doubt, it has had a significant influence on the politics of my relative and his email friends. This news source has shaped, nurtured, and intensified their prejudices by appearing to validate them.

This is not innocuous political chatter or noise. Aside from the disreputable nature of this slander, it is counterproductive to the efforts of those who genuinely disagree on policy grounds with the officials usually vilified. Legitimate argument is reframed and drowned by claptrap that inhibits possibilities for sound debate and better government. The sheer number of similar messages in circulation is astounding. Forget civil discourse: They have swamped and usurped reasoned discourse.

Polls have established that most people don’t read news but get it via some kind of video. This is bad enough but particularly in the case of political news because the content is so limited. Be that as it may, the coin of the realm is name recognition and because Trump came into the race with a lot of it, most have assumed his lead is largely attributable to this built-in feature.

Yet, we are well past that explanation, and it is clear political observers are still befuddled by the Trump phenomenon. They pass it off to some kind of estrangement and outrage against the establishment. Perhaps, but why? Maybe another source shaping political sentiment is on the rise at which we should look more closely, even though it moves below our radar and is difficult to assess in terms of causal relationships. As a nation, we may be seeing the boomerang effect of what amounts to a homegrown cyberspace attack on ourselves.

Despite some recent poll fluctuations and an uncertain future, the normal rules of political gravity seem suspended for Trump and rational assessment fails us. Frank Luntz, a nationally seasoned political consultant, threw up his hands after a lengthy probe of a focus group, in which he tried hard to pinpoint any weakness in his candidacy and why he floats like the Cheshire Cat above typical standards of voter logic. Luntz concluded, “There’s like an alternate universe.”

In his introduction to the classic TV series, Rod Serling warned us: “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears, and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call ... The Twilight Zone.”

Welcome to political cyberspace.

Deep Throat’s advice to the previous generation, “Follow the money” to find the mischief is still wise but to that I would add for our time, “Follow the email train.” The irony here may be that the political denizens who’ve been ginning up these falsehoods to undermine the opposition party and its candidates are now faced with an even bigger danger, flown from their own Pandora’s Box.

Douglas R. Forrester is a former Republican nominee for U.S. Senator and Governor of New Jersey.

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