Is the Trump Administration Using ‘Active Measures’ Techniques?
In 2016, a lot of people were sick of politicians, and voted for Trump as an outsider. He spoke differently from any previous president, was willing to speak his mind, and people saw this as authentic. Since then, people have come to see that he has not been truthful about facts, even if he is willing to say things that make people uncomfortable. When we first knew that Trump lied a lot, many people just said “a lying politician, how redundant can you get”? Many people still feel that way — sure, he lies more than others, but so what? He didn’t lie to get us into endless war like George W Bush; in fact, he hasn’t started any new wars, so he is better than Bush Sr., and indeed most past presidents, it might be argued.
But there is something different about Trump’s form of lying and the disinformation that he spreads, which many have written about, including Anne Applebaum, the famed historian who wrote Gulag about Stalin’s crimes. She argued that it’s a sign of authoritarianism, and many others have recently argued that Trump and his movement shows every sign of fascism. What is the real danger? Polarization and Tribalism? Corruption? Disinformation? Conspiracy theories? Fascism? Cult of Personality? Chaos and violence — even a Race War? The truth: It’s all the same danger. And it can all be explained once you understand Active Measures techniques, a tool used by intelligence agencies, most famously the KGB. (Note: this article is not making any claim about Trump and Russian intelligence).
Active Measures is a playbook, well known to intelligence officers all over the world, and probably known to most elected officials, at least since former KGB officer Yuri Bezmenov spoke out about it in the 1980s. Many of the techniques can be done without conscious intention, especially by an organization, individual, or group seeking fame and power and willing to play dirty. A true Active Measures campaign occurs when a group does it consciously and does so over a long period, actively attempting to undermine a society over decades. Such campaigns never play out the same, and there may be parts of the Active Measures playbook as described by Yuri Bezmenov that are clearly not being used, and other aspects used today which were unknown or would not have worked then, but the basic playbook is the same — whether it is being used consciously or not, whether it comes more as a result of the desire for power and narcissism of Trump himself, or from the intent of a few power hungry players around him, or from Putin, does not matter.
What matters is that we understand the tools being used to manipulate the American people, because a complete understanding of these tools offers us the only effective tool for us, to prevent the playbook from reaching its desired conclusion and to reverse the damage already done. Let’s look at each of these issues, and see how they are related and how Trump is using them.
Disinformation. Trump excels at the use of language (calling something a “hoax” or rebranding something to make it appear a much bigger issue) and lies, and through his Twitter account spreads the disinformation of others. Trump and his top allies like Kellyanne Conway appear to expertly use the tactics of the 4 D’s of disinformation. And, Fox News and other rightwing outlets spread disinformation knowingly.
In a leaked internal document, Fox News describes how they themselves were aware that they had been peddling Russian-oligarch produced disinformation, including the content requested by Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to smear Joe Biden. Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs with ties to Putin, like former corrupt prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko and the allies of Dmytro Firtash (indicted Ukrainian oligarch and accused high-level Russian mafia associate), produced and disseminated the information to opinion columnist John Solomon. His claims were then presented as fact, and Solomon as an investigative journalist, on Fox News shows like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Solomon appeared on Fox News at least 139 times. The internal memo said that Fox News contributor John Solomon played an “indispensable role” in a (Russian-backed) Ukrainian “disinformation campaign”, called out Rudy Giuliani for amplifying that disinformation; it also called out other Fox News guests and Trump supporters for “spreading disinformation,” and highlighted financial ties that they had to Firtash. The memo acknowledges that Giuliani’s indicted partners, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, had “strong reported financial links to Firtash.”
“Reading the timeline in its entirety — not a small task — makes clear the extensive role played by Rudy Giuliani and his associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, in spreading disinformation,” the memo says. A married couple who were frequent guests on Hannity, Lou Dobbs, and Tucker Carlson to criticize the impeachment inquiry and attack Fox News analysts who questioned the president’s actions, were called out: “Notable are the roles of Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing in spreading disinformation and their parroting of beneficial narratives while employed by Firtash.” During the time of their Fox News appearances in 2019 the couple billed Firtash $1 million for this work, while he fought extradition to the United States for his crimes. This financial relationship was not reported, and the internal memo advises employees to focus on the pair’s “non-disclosure of financial motives and representation of Firtash while spreading false and misleading stories.”
The internal memo also concedes the fact that Media Matters — a watchdog of right-wing propaganda — is more reliable than their own Sean Hannity. If only Fox News had altered course after that memo circulated. When it leaked, they were still inviting Solomon on to speak. Since then, they have perhaps stopped spreading so many obvious Putin lies, but they have continued to spread disinformation and foment chaos.
Fox News is only one way that Trump and his allies have used to purposely spread disinformation. Trump has also leaned on the CDC repeatedly to downplay the coronavirus, and encouraged Americans to question the legitimacy of the FBI and the State Department. He tells his base that they cannot trust the media, and attacks journalists. This is how Trump can control the narrative. Anything he does not like is “fake news” and his base consumes his disinformation as the only source of truth, as we will see below. It is well known that disinformation spreads online within the little bubbles that Google, Facebook, and Twitter provide each of us, based on our data which they track, analyze, and share. A new docudrama The Social Dilemma explores just how much social media has been abused to spread disinformation and divide us. Lies spread 6 times faster than truth online. Outrageous lies with no evidence, created by Russia or by Trump or his allies or supporters, will be trending on Twitter before the truth can get out — and then only some will even pay attention to the truth.
A 2017 Intercept article explains that although “the extraordinary phenomenon of fake news spread by Facebook and other social media during the 2016 presidential election has been largely portrayed as a lucky break for Donald Trump … a closer look reveals that some of the biggest fake news providers were run by experienced political operators well within the orbit of Donald Trump’s political advisers and consultants.” This includes Laura Ingraham, from Fox News, and (at the time) “a close Trump ally currently under consideration to be Trump’s White House press secretary,” who “owns an online publisher called Ingraham Media Group that runs a number of sites, including LifeZette” which was publishing conspiracy theories and stories “of dubious veracity.” There is much more to be said about this, including the role of Breitbart (created by Steve Bannon) and funding of dubious news sources by Robert Mercer (who was a close ally to Trump, but has been in and out during the 2020 election), and Mercer and Bannon’s role in Cambridge Analytica. It seems that Trump spends some days just tweeting, considering the number of tweets that he posts in a given day. This is not a president doing work for the American people, but simply a (dis)information disseminating machine.
This is becoming the central issue of the moment. Disinformation creates chaos, and it undermines everything important and good. Avaaz is a global activist non-profit normally working on all kinds of issues like poverty, environmentalism, refugee crises, but they have recently recognized that they can’t win any of those fights while the disinformation problem continues. Many organizations have come to recognize this, and we have dozens of fact-checking and bias-recognizing apps and tools and websites now — but we are fighting against a bombardment of disinformation that has many unable to remember what it was like to trust news or to know what is true. We need to keep innovating new ways to combat this threat and to seek truth and knowledge. We will come back to this.
Corruption. There is almost too much corruption to list, which is not an accident. Of course Trump is abusing his office for his personal benefit, and to win corrupt loyalists, but the daily revelations — like the constant bombardment of lies and disinformation — also serve his interest in that they both create chaos and also tire the people out and get them used to his crimes, they become normalized in the minds of many. And of course, people refuse to believe that Trump is so much worse than previous presidents — so they choose either to believe that all presidents have been this corrupt (and we simply did not know or care before Trump) or that it’s all a hoax. A few of his corrupt acts include of course what he was impeached for (and might do again); enriching himself by forcing Secret Service agents to pay to stay at his hotels and other officials to stay at golf resorts and hotels and other of his businesses and a variety of other conflicts of interest and monetary corruption; many violations of the Hatch Act, including at the RNC; interfering in the Department of Justice — getting Barr and others to protect Trump and reward friends and punish enemies, emboldened after being “acquitted” by the Senate; the breaking of countless minor laws, which it’s hard to keep track of — like this one; and let us not forget that before the impeachment there was already the Mueller Report, which is full of abuses and obstruction committed by Trump and his allies. Furthermore, obstruction of justice & Congress are crimes in part because they are often used to prevent the public and the law from learning other crimes, thus the list may well be longer than anyone currently knows.
Obstruction of Justice and of Congress by itself used to be enough to get someone impeached and produce outrage, but the sole Republican Senator who voted to convict Trump did so on the initial crime but not on the obstruction. Mitt Romney still comes out as a hero for recognizing and admitting to one crime committed by Trump. Trump leveraged taxpayer funds, appropriated by Congress, to smear his political opponent with lies. And that crime was not only one of bribery and extortion of an ally for the personal benefit of the president in his re-election attempt — combining an abuse of office with an attempt to cheat in the election — it was also about spreading disinformation, working with corrupt oligarchs and the dictator they work for to confuse our sense of reality and make the search for truth less possible.
If our President can abuse his office and cheat in the election without facing impeachment and removal from office, then he can perhaps stay in office forever, and we no longer have a democracy or a republic, but a tyranny — the ultimate goal of any Active Measures campaign. Even if he is unable to do this, he will have undermined faith in free elections, and faith in our institutions, which constitutes a step in the Active Measures playbook.
Cult of Personality. To some extent or another, politicians and movements and other groups can be cult-like. Humans are tribal, and being part of an in-group can create a cult mentality, and ideology within a group can lead people to use cult-like tactics to drive their movement forward. Whether on purpose or not, Trump’s base has become a cult, and it has formed around his person and his word. To Trump’s base, nothing he says is untrue. His repetition of lies, “deny, deny, deny” even when the truth is obvious and the facts presented to him, these are techniques used by disinformation agents, and a key part of Active Measures campaigns.
An Active Measures campaign will attempt to sow distrust in all shared sources of truth. Every source of independent truth is either partisan (‘biased’) or untrustworthy (‘fake news’) or both (‘Democrat hoax’), and eventually they become synonymous. At first the idea is to divide the news media, and sow distrust on both sides about the other, like the partisan divide that was growing in America media (e.g., CNN vs Fox News) for decades. Eventually, the two sides have no shared truth or shared reality: Active Measures campaigns target not only news media but also science, and even long-standing truth-seeking bodies become suspect, both within government (e.g., Congressional hearings and intelligence investigations) and outside (the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now part of a conspiracy theory relating to the coronavirus pandemic, which itself — belief in the science — is a partisan issue). If everything is chaotic and you don’t know what to believe, it is the path of least resistance to believe what the leader says. Trump’s unwillingness ever to admit lies or criminality makes it an easy path: he has an answer for everything and all you have to do is quote him. The cult of Trump is very clear by now — not all his supporters or those who might vote for him are part of it, but many are. Trump Derangement Syndrome is reminiscent of how people in a cult speak of those who do not buy into the cult. It is often used to knock down any criticism of Trump, even criticisms which have strong evidence behind them.
As with every cult, many have sacrificed for their leader, taking the fall and leaving his record “clean” somehow to his flock. Those who go to jail for doing crimes for Trump or lying for Trump (such as Michael Cohen most recently) are criminals and liars and so cannot be trusted (if they, say, write a book), but somehow Trump is not held accountable. It is bizarre to those outside of the cult — they lied for Trump, they did the crime for Trump! (Too often, the media quotes Trump saying “how can we believe an admitted liar?” without saying “he lied for Trump!” in response.) It is simply not believable that Trump did not direct the criminality and the lie, because Trump directs actions in every endeavor that affects him.
Trump refuses to admit any lie — an Active Measures technique — and his core supporters believe everything that he says, no matter how obvious the lie might be, creating a cult. This is not only authoritarian, but also key to the Active Measures playbook for the person who wants to assume the complete dictatorial power at the conclusion. Create a chaotic situation where truth appears as a choice between two partisan opinions, and then lead people to you, make yourself the easy choice by never conceding any complicated realities, or admitting any faults, lies, or crimes. Trump denies science and fact as if they were his own lies whenever they are inconvenient or bad for himself. Amidst record-breaking, escalating wildfires and extreme weather on the West Coast, his answer is simple: bad management (“they need to rake more”); and facing a similarly unprecedented global pandemic: downplay it (“it’s like the flu”). When the truth is difficult or complicated, many gravitate towards simple and comforting disinformation.
Trump demands complete loyalty. One wrong word, and he may disown you, denounce you, smear your reputation, even bring you to financial and social ruin (something he practiced long before he ran for president). Loyalty is prized above all, but it is loyalty to the cult leader without reciprocation. Anything Trump says is true and anything said by an opponent (including anyone recently disavowed by Trump) is false: lies, a hoax, a witch hunt. Shared sources of truth outside of the single “one true source” that is the leader’s word or party line are undermined, discredited, and smeared until they are, eventually, banned. This is the goal. Only the leader speaks truth — and the only outlets left will report only ‘truth’ that the leader has blessed: pure propaganda.
However one ends up in a cult of any kind, it is never easy to walk away; it is never easy admitting one has made a mistake in trusting a politician, or in holding a political or ideological view. With all the doubling-down on Trump’s ‘alternative facts’, the embracing of lies and distorted reality, Trump’s hard core, his cult followers, may be seizing more tightly than ever to the delusions. This is the only way to achieve the distortion of reality and commitment to one voice necessary to accomplish the task of Active Measures. It is precisely what the Communist Party did in the Soviet Union. They never admitted any wrong and had an answer for everything: facts did not matter, only the “party line”. Propaganda rather than just spin, is required. Even QAnon, a conspiracy theory propaganda in favor of Trump, helps him cement the cult of personality and tests how much his base — his cult — will believe in him over their own eyes: Trump was friends with the sex traffikers of underage girls, Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, was caught on tape at their party apparently sexually assaulting a young woman (“Trump is seen grabbing a woman toward him and patting her behind”), and recently wished Maxwell well, after she was apprehended; he has made many disturbing comments about young women (and to young women), including about exploiting their vulnerabilities; this was something he did without Epstein’s help, indeed he was the Epstein — hosting assault and rape of underage girls — in the circle of beauty contests like Miss Teen USA; and was famously caught on tape laughing about getting away with sexual assault because of his celebrity; and yet, many believe the conspiracy theory that Trump will rid the world of a vast Democrat-led pedophile ring. It almost feels like a test or a contest: how brainwashed by Trump can you get?
Anything negative about Trump is “fake news” or a “hoax” to his base and this becomes reflex — after a while they do not even need Trump to say it, they will say it. They will take on the denial for him. They will also smear anyone who dares to speak out about Trump honestly, even before he does. He has his core cult followers and he has his political party. This year’s RNC had no platform, only Trump, only authoritarianism — his family and people who worship him spoke, and they shouted, they said cities were burning and only Trump can save you. “I am the only one who can protect you” is the message of a dictator or cult leader.
Polarization and Tribalism leads to team fighting, and ultimately a cult of personality — my team, right or wrong; my leader, right or wrong. This is an old problem, it set the stage for what we have now. Creating division is an early step in Active Measures.
Chaos and violence — Active Measures techniques are used ultimately to produce chaos and violence and then replace chaos with a Police State, Fascism, Cult of Personality around a single authoritarian leader. Chaos comes from the constant new lies and crimes every day, the news cycle going so fast we find ourselves only naming the most recent outrage, scandal, crime. We need to remember not just the book written last week by Michael Cohen but the other top Trump campaign officials who were indicted, and Trump’s abuses of power, including of his pardon (or commuting) power, and his abuses of power with foreign leaders, and his abuses of office for monetary gain — both the hatch act and the emoluments clause violations — and his incitements to violence, and his racism, and we need to understand what they all mean. But the whirlwind of scandals has created chaos in our minds, and in the news media. It is too much to keep up with. This is why it is so important to see that this chaos was planned: only by seeing it in light of Active Measures techniques can we find order in the chaos.
As for Violence, there are more and more reports of Trump supporters violently attacking protesters, Fox News has practically non-stop coverage of supposed violence in cities and riots, often replaying old footage as if it was new. Trump political ads do the same, and online (where lies spread much faster than fact) it is even worse. There is evidence that Trump supporters are often behind rioting and violence at these protests. Armed civilians who pointed their weapons at protesters spoke at the RNC, and ever since the Charlottesville remarks, Trump has made it clear that he supports white supremacist violence. Every time he condemns bigotry or white supremacist violence, he finds a way to add something divisive or hateful, or supportive of the bigots just to make sure they feel his support. He has repeatedly de-funded agencies and investigations into white supremacist violence and covered it up. A recent whistleblower complaint describes this, but he had already done it years ago in a more legal fashion. Trump is racist, but more than that, Trump wants a race war. He wants chaos and violence so that he can become the police state, the fascist dictator. This is how Active Measures works.
There is little to no evidence of Antifa involvement in protests, and much evidence of white supremacists like the Bugaloo Boys (who want civil war and chaos) murdering protesters, rioting and using violence in protests, and yet Bill Barr has pushed this Antifa violence line, and Fox News has run with this. Trump has offered pardons and compensation to anyone who spreads his lies and propaganda, a basic Active Measures technique. And it is pure Active Measures that Trump is trying to sow chaos and violence and to sell himself as the one person who can save you from it — from the chaos and violence that he is encouraging (and also exaggerating). As part of spreading disinformation, he and his allies attack the (non-propaganda) news media, including literally; Trump and his allies have even called for journalists to be executed. He is not for law and order — he is the criminal, his people are constantly violating the law, and he is the one sparking and encouraging race war and domestic terrorism. He creates the chaos and then acts the part of your One True Savior, who can prevent the chaos he has created — just like a cult leader, a mafia don, a dictator.
Fascism. No American likes to hear the term applied to American politicians, nor believes it’s possible in America — well, no white American anyway, the idea is more plausible to those who have felt racial oppression. There are also many signs that people outside America can see more clearly. America First, even “American Exceptionalism” (depending upon how used), sounds fascist to people outside the country. Dog whistles to racism have grown into whispers and sometimes shouts. Much of the rhetoric used by fascists in the past has returned: cities are diseased, immigrants are the cause of crime, are lazy, rapists of your white women, Trump speaks of “bloodlines,” and Western Civilization. And there are known white supremacists in Trump’s cabinet, and active shutting down investigating of white supremacist terrorists, reducing funding, suppressing the truth about it. Funding already was not not keeping up with the increase white supremacy terror activity, and programs have been cut back and resources directed to other kinds of terror activity, despite their lesser levels of activity; and a whistleblower just exposed how the DHS has been told to downplay the threat of white supremacist terrorism despite its clear rise and its obvious threat. Jason Stanley describes fascism as “the politics of us versus them” — division, scapegoating, blaming others — what Trump does best. If the Active Measures campaign wins, the chaos of today will be replaced by the American fascism of tomorrow. (The violence will remain — but be done by the state). Roger Stone has pretty much admitted to wanting martial law and seizure of votes in order to keep Trump in power, and Trump has said the same; though of course it is "to ensure things are legal", despite no evidence of voter fraud, Trump wants to get rid of our ballots. Reporters are being attacked and arrested, and we essentially have concentration camps for immigrants.
As described above, when discussing corruption, a core part of a successful Active Measures campaign involves undermining trust in the institutions of society, and this includes in the equitable provision of law and order, via the police, prisons, and courts. If the Justice Department bends to Trump’s will, it is no longer a trustworthy source of true justice, nor its investigations a shared source of truth. It is also a significant step toward a fascist state. His obstruction of Congress has strengthened the executive branch and made Congress unable to check its power. And he has taken a certain kind of control over the executive branch for his own ends, whether legal or not, that no previous president has and which is dangerous both to our national security and to our democracy.
Most recently, Trump looks again like he is trying once again to cheat in the election — to undermine our faith in it, and possibly to cheat via the post office, to get state representatives to elect him (which sounds just like how the Communist Party ran elections in The Soviet Union) and by flooding us with disinformation probably with help again from Russia. When it comes to Russian interference, Trump has curtailed investigations into his own benefiting, and tried to quash intelligence sharing: a whistleblower recently told of how the DHS intelligence agency was directed to have China’s influence exaggerated while downplaying the influence of Russia’s. This meant that the DHS would not even pass this information along to the FBI and to state governments, who would need it in order to do their job and prevent attacks. The whistleblower also revealed that the DHS was pressured to exaggerate the threat of Antifa while downplaying the threat of white supremacists. This serves Trump not only because his base would rather hear this lie, and includes some of these violent bigots, but the lie also increases chaos and violence. It is also a clever Active Measures ploy to soften people up to the idea that the anti-fascists are bad and so the fascists are the good guys. Fear of Antifa and free reign to attack Black Lives Matter protesters under the guise of fighting Antifa is served by spreading this disinformation. Some news media seem to understand that Trump wants chaos and violence so that he can run as the “law and order” president, but they do not see how this is right out of the Active Measures playbook, or how this could end in fascism.
So, what does this all mean? Well, people think stupidity is the only explanation for a lot of what Trump says and does — but a better answer for most of it is that he is actively trying to create chaos and division. Whenever you hear someone say that he’s stupid or incompetent, something he he did was stupid, or that he was too incompetent at his job, ask yourself if trying to create chaos and/or division could explain it instead? It’s Active Measures, and Trump is not as stupid as you think. This is not to say he is a genius (stable or otherwise) or doesn’t make mistakes of course. But a lot of what he does, things that are not for his obvious personal benefit, is intended to create chaos and division. Lying about climate change may be to get money from the fossil fuels industry, as with other politicians. But a lot of what Trump does is to sow division and create chaos. He is also a narcissist — we know this from his niece. And narcissist actions line up with Active Measures techniques, so it could be that others are using him, knowing he will do the things they want for his own narcissistic reasons.
Solutions? We have a road out. Peaceful protests, and legal and legislative action, are usually a good start. But for this we also need our institutions, which is why Active Measures is used to destroy those institutions. And if disinformation is being used to undermine our understanding of reality, sow chaos, and spread the lie that protests are really riots, our actual movement to combat this could be destroyed before it truly begins. When protests are designated pure violence, as we see Trump and his supporters doing, and the state uses violence in return, either the movement is quashed right away as in a fascist state or it could create a ‘civil war’ or ‘race war’ and a police state (or fascist state) is brought about in response. This is, again, a strategy. We need peaceful action that can be heard across the country and the world — whether in the form of a global strike or a million person march or a combination of these and pressure campaigns from those with certain kinds of power — workers in companies, whistleblowers, and Republicans against Trump — cooperation between those who disagree on policy but care about democracy and freedom. We need to use these tools, most of all education. We need to pressure social media companies to combat and expose disinformation, and we need to support our institutions and be creative, coming up with new tools and new kinds of movements and support for peaceful and longstanding proven methods, such as marches and strikes. We need to work with pro-democracy groups around the world. Trump appears to prefer authoritarians, as citizens and in private organizations, we need to combat that by working with organizations around the world, supporting each other to bring truth back to politics. “There’s a strong link between a conspiratorial mind and a totalitarian mind” wrote a public figure from Iran, under his public pseudonym, Kaveh Mousavi, in a blog post in 2017 with the title “Why I Signed the Pro-Truth Pledge (And You Should Too)”. He avoids his real name due to fears of political retribution. “to me, having a pro-truth attitude and promoting skepticism in the place of credulity is an integral part of my activism as a pro-democracy reformist.” Many Trump supporters believe that they have this attitude, even as they swallow Trump lies. They should be challenged to take the Pro-Truth Pledge, and held to account when they fall afoul of it. The media needs to do more. The media needs to avoid simply quoting Trump — not only doing real-time fact checking, but also rewording headlines to ensure that disinformation is known to be that before a person reads further, since they often do not. The media must also ensure that people know that the election may take longer if there is more mail-in ballots, that people trust their institutions and recognize who is trying to sabotage them. They need to call lies out, and make sure that readers do not simply dismiss them as biased when they do, but see what the facts and evidence support. And on what should be non-partisan issues, the media should use their power to demand things like transparency, accountability, do real investigations and ask follow-up questions — and not simply give a platform to spokespeople and propaganda.
News media and commentators often seem to assume that Trump believes the things he says. “We have a conspiracist as president,” [Professor of ethics in politics and government at Harvard] Rosenblum says. “He sees conspiracies everywhere, and he pronounces them. And he has, as president of the United States, the capacity to impose his own compromised sense of reality on the nation.” It is impossible to know for certain how much of what he says he truly believes, but we are learning. People once assumed he was joking when saying some of the more extreme things he has said but now we know (from his own mouth and from the actions he has taken) that he does not joke, and he means the extreme things he says. Also, we now know from legendary reporter Bob Woodward that Trump not only knew the Covid 19 coronavirus was much worse than the common flu (as President of the United States, it seems incredible to even question that) but that he understood it, did not question those facts, considered it deadly and dangerous, and downplayed the danger on purpose. His supporters may cite his defense: he did not want to panic people, but we know that Trump wants to sow chaos. He downplayed the virus for all the reasons that he does everything he does: for personal financial benefit, and to sow division and chaos. Seen through this lens, even telling Bob Woodward is explicable — it is just another news story, it will confuse people and create chaos and distract from other scandals, and he can spin it, and anyway he can cheat to win even if his popularity is rock bottom. He simply does not care, because he does not play fair. We also know from Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, that Trump knew that the ‘birther’ conspiracy he spread about Obama was untrue.
Like everything else, he used it as a tool. Professor Rosenblum is correct on one count in the quote above: as president, Trump is attempting to impose a compromised sense of reality on the nation. It may not be one he actually believes, but he repeats lies again and again in order to convince as many people as possible that they are true or might be true, and he gives support to conspiracy theories and to violent bigots and extremists to add to the chaos and to try to push the people toward fascism — either to embrace it or accept it as necessary or inevitable. The constant news coverage, the constant scandals and crimes, the constant lies and nicknames (calling things a “hoax” or “fake news”) repeated over and over are a strategy to exhaust his opposition and condition people to accept lies as simply a different truth, to confuse people so that they do not trust anything as reality.
And a key part of the Active Measures strategy is to undermine trust in institutions — intelligence agencies, the education system, the military, civil servants and government itself, so that they can be replaced after they have been torn down — and in experts. There is a trend of groups on social media who proudly proclaim that they are the most skeptical and want only truth and yet are filled with Trumpian disinformation. The groups might have been created or filled with paid disinformation agents, but it is more likely that these people truly think themselves truth seekers. Trump supporters see him as the only one speaking truth — just as the QAnon conspiracy cult describes it. The cult of QAnon, and it fits the description of a cult more than a mere conspiracy theory, could easily (though we may never know the truth) have been created by Trump or by Russian intelligence or another intelligence agency. It certainly fits well into the Active Measures playbook.
News reporters and experts assume that Trump believes what he says because we have never had to deal with someone like this before, and American institutions of all kinds are set up to rely in part upon good will, culture, reputation incentives, all sorts of informal rules. Nixon resigned when even his own party started to turn on him — Trump would never resign, and unfortunately his own party appears still unwilling to turn on him. Mountains of evidence of crimes much worse than anything Nixon did pile up, and his supporters and enablers deny deny deny, just as Active Measures techniques teach them to do. We must change the assumptions when dealing with Trump and his administration — We can no longer assume that people are acting in good faith. We will have to put things into law that used to be custom, avoid falling into the traps that he lays, and be on the lookout for the techniques — Active Measures techniques including the 4 D’s of disinformation, the use of chaos and division, the use of fear and other emotions, the use of nicknames and slogans to change the way we see things, the repetition of lies and refusal to concede the truth, the undermining of trust in each other and in our institutions.
What matters is that we understand the tools being used to manipulate the American people and the political landscape and what the inevitable result will be if we allow the playbook to be completed, so that we can effectively fight it and stop the destruction, and save American democracy and society. Understanding Active Measures offers us a tool — not a weapon, a tool. We must remember that the central goal of Active Measures is to create divisiveness, chaos, violence, and the need to replace all this with a dictator. Thus, stating that Trump is a threat to democracy may be necessary, but getting people angry and scared and calling for action against this threat in a divisive way only feeds into the playbook. It is easy to fall into this trap. Media tends to do this — drama is their bread and butter, and for many reporters they can hardly help it: they are more caught up in it than anyone, it does not mean that they are conscious of the harm they are doing. But the best response is calm and diligent work, with purpose and probity, supportive of democratic institutions and justice, coming together around shared truths, peaceful cooperation across party and ideological lines, and even across religions and cultures globally with grassroots coordination, the opposite of everything in the Active Measures playbook. We ought to be able to see the change we want and bring it about without destruction or a shot fired, by pointing out the Active Measures playbook at work and avoiding the trap. We might also push for the kind of change that will give people hope instead of fear — perhaps a Universal Basic Income. Rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and institutions.
If we are aware of the Active Measures techniques, we can see them whether the person using them is aware of them or not. Trump may not have even wanted the presidency to begin with, as many have stated, but he loves the power and profit he is getting from it, and loves getting away with outrageous flaunting of norms, and with crimes. He is obsessed with authoritarian leaders around the world and wants to be among them, probably wants to be the best at that game. Trump is more dangerous than we imagine. We cannot believe it could happen in 2020 or in America — we are wrong. The worst dictator, the worst regime in history possibly, exists in 2020 and Trump says that he is in love with him. Just as he accuses others of his own crimes (the most famous tactic of the KGB and Soviet propaganda), and his most outrageous statements are not jokes, we must beware that he may act out the worst of the Active Measures playbook right before our eyes — if we let him.
Sign our petition: acknowledge that Active Measures techniques are being used.
Take the Pro-Truth Pledge and encourage public figures and politicians to take it: www.protruthpledge.org
Have a reasoned, amicable debate on topics for which you sense a lack of consensus around basic facts and evidence: https://concordis.io/
Let us not let this be our epitaph: “It turns out that masses of people trapped in our technocratic society were bored, alienated, and frustrated. They were yearning for something — “regeneration through violence,” catharsis, apotheosis, the Rapture: Anything to free them from their mundane, dreary, going-nowhere lives. Participating in an Apocalyptic death cult fueled by a paranoid conspiracy mythology is more interesting, for many, than being a cog in a dreary machine, waiting for automation to take your bullshit job away from you and render you obsolete.”