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How Brad Parscale Conned Donald Trump

What if the Trump campaign's digital operation is a Potemkin Death Star?
May 15, 2020
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Brad Parscale, campaign manager for U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks before a rally (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

1. Trump Digital

A lot has been written about the Trump campaign’s super-sophisticated digital operation. I am . . . not skeptical, exactly. But let me say this:

Brad Parscale has a very keen interest in making sure that his operation is portrayed as a gigantic, all-powerful black box.

In 2016, Trump cycled through campaign managers at a rapid clip. The only job security Parscale has comes from convincing Trump that he has built some magical machine which no one else—and especially not Old Man Trump—can understand. Or operate.

Creating the impression that the entire Trump campaign will rise or fall with an opaque digital operation is a way to make Parscale un-fireable. Because unlike the 2016 campaign, which was basically about letting Trump be Trump, there is now a great deal of sunk-cost into an operation which is purpose-built to keep the septuagenarian boss from understanding how it works. Or even, what it really is.

So let’s couple that with the reality that even very sophisticated tech operations are pretty not-great at predicting what people want.

How many “recommendations” that Netflix pushes at you do you watch relative to content you discover on your own?

How often do you buy one of the “people also bought” suggestions from Amazon?

I bring this up because yesterday a friend forwarded an email he recently got from the Trump campaign touting an interactive survey:

Super sophisticated, right? This is in line with all of the gamefication ideas you see Parscale pushing about how the campaign is turning Trump voters into active participants and yadda yadda yadda.

Well, scroll on down to Question 10 in the survey:

Oops.

What I’m driving at here is that maybe Trump Digital really is a Death Star. But that’s a non-falsifiable proposition. The digital operation is too sprawling, too micro-targeted, and too evanescent for anyone to really have a handle on how effective it is.

All you can really do is look at the polls. And as Harry Enten wrote last weekend, Biden has the largest and steadiest lead any challenger has ever held against an incumbent.

As in: Ever.

I’m sure Big Brad will tell the boss that without his Magical Internet Machine he’d be losing to Biden by even more right now. And for all I know, that’s true.

But I kind of suspect it’s not.

In way, all of this is just one more sign of Trump’s weakness. In 2016, Trump bet on himself. He saw campaigns as basically superfluous and certainly viewed campaign managers as disposable cogs in the machine that is the cult of Donald J. Trump.

If Trump keeps Parscale around even as he lags Biden in the polls, it’s a sign that the president no longer believes that he is enough to get his voters out on his own and that he’s hostage to whatever sales pitch he bought from Parscale.

It’s a good reminder that inside every con man is a mark.

2. Serology

When we look back on this period, one of the artifacts of the coronavirus culture war that will look particularly ridiculous is the fight over serology tests and the precise fatality rate of COVID-19.

We had a pandemic. It killed scores of thousands of people. Figuring out the exact fatality rate for the virus is an interesting challenge and it’s data worth knowing. But the public fight about it was more performative than informative.

My buddies at the New Atlantis have a new piece about what’s actually useful in serology tests and how we should be approaching this data: