In the far future, when the remnants of the human race are gathered in protective arcologies as the planet burns around them, I imagine that young people will want to know: What was Donald Trump, and what was Trumpism? There are many ways to answer that question, of course, but personally, to have them truly understand Trumpism in all its ridiculous fullness, I will suggest they read this, a relatively small but perfectly realized example of the motivating impulses and ultimate goals of Trumpism: The Tech Bias Story Sharing Tool.
The tool, which debuted on Wednesday, is actually just a web form for Trump voters to submit stories (with screen shots!) of anti-conservative bias on social media platforms, with the implicit promise of future regulation of big platforms. Republican agitating around social media is an established phenomenon at this point — just this morning, Republican senator Ted Cruz was asking to see a manager on Twitter — but this initiative was interesting to me less as a particular instance of a GOP talking point than as the apotheosis of Trumpism — a masterpiece of the politics and prerogatives of our current president. Why?
It recasts technological alienation as partisan grievance. A core aspect of Trumpism is its ability to articulate in starkly partisan terms the sense, felt by a wide swath of voters, of having been left behind, skipped in line, or otherwise cut out of the benefits of technological advancement and economic growth. But this often-legitimate sense of alienation is twisted by Trumpism into a personal politics of grievance and resentment, in which “liberals” and Democrats are conspiring to restrain, stifle, and censor Republicans — like, say, on social media.
Now, it seems extremely obvious to me that social media isn’t biased against Republicans, if for no other reason than because Republicans keep saying out loud that social media is the key element of their electoral success. “Facebook was the method” by which Trump won the presidency, his campaign manager has said, “the highway in which his car drove on.” The president himself told Fox News “I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you.”
But I can see how this would be less obvious to other people. The opacity of the ranking and sorting systems that define the experience of a platform like Twitter or Facebook can be extremely alienating. Who knows why one update garners hundreds of likes and shares, and another sinks without any engagement? A democratic and civically healthy approach to this problem might be to enforce increased transparency and accountability from social media companies through independent audits. A Trumpist solution is to blame it on liberal bias. And why wouldn’t voters believe it? As Tarleton Gillespie, an academic who studies content moderation on social media, put it on Twitter, “Single users aren’t in a position to know why their content was removed or why their page ranks where it does. But they are in a good position to suspect bias, as a satisfying explanation.”
It provides cover to far-right extremism. One consequence of Trumpism’s focus on affective, hyperpartisan politics is the protection it offers to even further-right groups and actors. By claiming victim status even as they command the balance of political power in the U.S., and by maintaining that any criticism at all is an unfair liberal attack, Trumpists move the center of American politics to the right, and open up space for America’s many different flavors of racist extremists, who are imputed to be mirror images of left-wing Democrats. As the president put it after anti-racist protestor Heather Heyer was killed during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, there are “some very fine people on both sides.”
Regardless of intention, this provision of cover is the ultimate effect of initiatives like the Tech Bias Story Sharing Tool. Republicans aren’t actually being censored by platforms, but neo-Nazis and other extremists are. (Ineffectively, maybe, but certainly moreso than garden-variety Trump voters.) The Trumpist insistence that liberal bias is the real problem with social media, the very reason this form exists, masks another problem for which there is vastly more evidence, and whose consequences are vastly more dangerous: the use of social media as an organizational and informational tool for violent right-wing extremists. Serendipitously, the White House launched its tech bias form on the same day it announced that it would not endorse a nonbinding international call to curb extremism online.
At its core, it’s kind of a scam. At the howling heart of Trumpism, beneath the veneer of nationalist-workerist politics and policies, is the con. Trump may have been elected because he promised to address the alienation and resentment of the rural and suburban white voters who make up his base, but he’s done very little in office to materially address their concerns. Instead, the presidency has mostly been used to directly enrich Trump and his family, and indirectly enrich the already wealthy through expensive tax cuts.
The Tech Bias Story Sharing tool is pure Trumpism, in this respect. Some of the people who created it probably believe that social media is biased against Republicans; I have no doubt that some of the stories it collects will appear in a congressional presentation and/or Trump tweet thread within the year. In that sense it might be emotionally satisfying to Trump voters on Twitter, in the same way that Trump saying “Build the wall” seems to be emotionally satisfying to attendees of his rallies, even as the social safety net frays underneath them.
But the most important function of the tech-bias tool almost certainly isn’t to gather evidence to address a genuine problem. “The thing about the Trump Facebook bias survey is it’s just going to be used to assemble a voter file,” the Times’ Kevin Roose points out, “which Trump will then pay Facebook millions of dollars to target with ads about how biased Facebook is.” That is, none of the people who submit grievances to the form will have their accounts restored or content promoted. They won’t get explanations for why social media isn’t working the way they think it should, and they almost certainly won’t get satisfying regulation out of their complaints. Instead, they’ll be advertised to about Trump — and whatever else the Trump campaign uses the list for — for the rest of their digital lives, on the very platforms they feel completely alienated from.
It’s incredibly stupid and pandering. Truly, though, what makes the Tech Bias Story Sharing project the apotheosis of Trumpism is Question 15 on the form: “One more thing, just to confirm you aren’t a robot. The Declaration of Independence was signed in what year?”
This is a question that a robot could answer incredibly easily. You don’t even need to program the robot to look up the answer (though even that would be trivial). You just tell your form-stuffing robot to always answer Question 15 with “1776.” This means that the question was written either, on the one hand, simply to instill some vague sense of smug patriotism in the poor dupes who are earnestly filling out the form, or, on the other hand, by a person who has no clue what they’re doing. Which is perfect, because it’s the key question of Trumpism: Are these people cynical panderers, or actual idiots?