Adolf Chaplin / Flickr x27 x27 I don t know...
Adolf Chaplin / Flickr

The start of the Trump campaign seems obvious. After all, it’s hard to forget Donald Trump descending on that ridiculous golden escalator to deliver his first aggressively ignorant, patently racist address. But that wasn’t the real start. Over a year before that day, the Trump campaign was already being created. It just didn’t have Trump. Instead, it had Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica.

The 2014 effort was part of a high-tech form of voter persuasion touted by the company, which under Bannon identified and tested the power of anti-establishment messages that later would emerge as central themes in President Trump’s campaign speeches, according to Chris Wylie, who left the company at the end of that year.

The themes of the Trump campaign—from “drain the swamp” to “deep state”—were created in advance by Bannon, and field tested against the stolen data of Facebook users using Cambridge Analytica’s disinformation tool set. Donald Trump was only the orange peg that Bannon drove into the hole he created. And Trump wasn’t even good at covering that up.

“A couple of you are a little marginal about this, but I came up with this expression, it’s called ‘drain the swamp,’ right, drain the swamp. And I hated it, I hated it. And it was a speech during the campaign, and it was a term that was actually given to me, usually like to think them up myself, but this was given to me — which bothered me too. I never like that.

In one paragraph, Trump goes from claiming he “came up with this expression” to admitting “it was a term that was actually given to me.” And it wasn’t the only one.

Donald Trump may be Vladimir Putin’s puppet—but there were other strings.

Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix said it directly.

Nix: “They don’t understand because the candidate never, is never involved. He’s told what to do by the campaign team.”

Reporter: “So the candidate is the puppet?

Nix: “Always.”

The build the wall, drain the swamp, deep state guy—the guy most people think of as Donald Trump—is nothing more than a role; an even more concocted character than the “You’re fired!” guy from The Apprentice. The core components of Donald Trump’s campaign were not products of some fortuitous “populist” outreach. They weren’t things that popped into Trump’s head. He didn’t make some mysterious connection with blue collar workers in the Midwest.

Donald Trump mouthed phrases that had been tried, tested, improved on and modified through a series of marketing trials and selective pressue. He used terms that had already been trickled out to specific voters in specific areas, for the purpose of both testing their effectiveness and laying the groundwork for a candidate to step into the job of delivering this pre-evolved pitch.

… Bannon — while he was a top executive at Cambridge Analytica and head of Breitbart News — was deeply involved in the company’s strategy and approved spending nearly $1 million to acquire data, including Facebook profiles, in 2014.

And they did it about the same time that this was going on:

By in or around April 2014, the ORGANIZATION formed a department that went by various names but was at times referred to as the “translator project.” This project focused on the U.S. population and conducted operations on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. …

By in or around May 2014, the ORGANIZATION’s strategy included interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with the stated goal of “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”

That’s from Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian individuals and a collection of associated organizations. Maybe it was just coincidence that the two projects kicked off at the same time. Maybe it was simply a shared understanding that social media tools had matured to the point where they could be used in a new kind of political warfare that would catch traditional campaigns flatfooted. Or maybe it was this:

A slide presentation prepared for the [Russian state-owned oil company] pitch focuses first on election disruption strategies used by Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, in Nigeria. They are presented under the heading “Election: Inoculation”, a military term used in “psychological operations” and disinformation campaigns. Other SCL documents show that the material shared with Lukoil included posters and videos apparently aimed at alarming or demoralising voters, including warnings of violence and fraud.

That presentation was … in 2014. What the Russian oil company had come to SCL to talk about wasn’t how they could change things in Nigeria. They came specifically asking about altering public opinion in the United States. What they got back was a description of how SCL could hack democracy.

Russia created an effort specifically directed at disrupting the election in the United States, at about the same time they got a pitch from Cambridge Analytica on how they had developed tools for exactly that purpose. Which is one helluva coincidence.

And while Alexander Nix may readily admit that Trump was nothing but a puppet, that doesn’t mean Nix was the man on the other end of that string.

“We had to get Bannon to approve everything at this point. Bannon was Alexander Nix’s boss,” said Wylie, who was Cambridge Analytica’s research director.

Vladimir Putin may have had his hands on Trump’s strings through the years of Trump’s dependence on cash from Russian oligarchs, but the words that came from Trump’s mouth were Steve Bannon’s terms, tested with Cambridge Analytica’s tools. But there was one point on which all of them agreed: They wanted to see America humbled.

One puppet. Many strings.

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