At first glance, President Trump’s digital campaign operation appears fairly impressive. Like most things related to Trump, once you observe it for a while, it ain’t all that.
The Trump App, as a technical matter, is sound. It’s easy to sign up! There are social-media tutorials for the olds on how to spread the gospel online! The text messaging is seamless! They have merch! And oooh, look at all those nightly video “events” on live stream!
But the real question is who, besides the hardest-core Trump supporters, is going to consume all this Trumptastic content?
Probably no one. And that’s the point.
The Trump campaign isn’t trying to entice new voters by sneakily suckering them into their digital tractor beam; it’s radicalizing the people who are already on the Death Star. This effort has been called a “gamified campaign,” a “digital mousetrap,” and Candy Crush for MAGA-land—and all those descriptions that ring true. A Trump supporter uses the app to earn points redeemable for merchandise discounts, early event access, and even a photo with Trump. There are memes to be spread, hashtags to plant, and lots of prompts to donate and leverage contacts to recruit friends and family.
When Brad Parscale called this operation his Death Star, he was, no doubt, thinking like Grand Moff Tarkin and believing that he had built the ultimate power in the 2020 galaxy. It must have slipped his mind that the Death Star—and every subsequent Death Star ever built—included a fatal flaw so glaring and dangerous that it was able to be destroyed at minimal cost by a small band of rebels.
So in a way, Parscale isn’t wrong, exactly. The Trump campaign is loading their existing followers onto an all-inclusive Trump battle station that, despite all the bells and whistles, might very well blow up in their faces.
The salvage parts probably have more value.
Usually, a campaign sells the public a candidate who has a message, amplified over a variety of networks, to unify a majority of the country. It relies on direct mail, emails, and earned media to get this message out.
Not the Trump campaign. Trump’s team has built a content farm to silo supporters off from the rest of the country and force-feed them a steady diet of political amphetamines in order keep them hyped up up through Election Day.
The app’s premier offering is a video the Trump campaign churns out each evening at 8:00 p.m. Imagine the overwrought rhetoric from a direct-mail pitch being live-read and turned into dialogue for a TV show. It’s called “Team Trump Online.” It’s innovative because you watch it on your phone.
At its core, “Team Trump Online” is an especially unsophisticated political infomercial, the kind of thing that makes OANN look subtle and intelligent. There’s a rotating cast of characters riffing on a carousel of topics: The media is bad. Trump is phenomenal. Joe Biden and the Democrats must be defeated.
As we’ve come to expect, nepotism is a part of the act. Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump is a frequent host and has adopted all the affectations of a blended North Korean newscaster.
It’s the kind of thing that would embarrass even the talking heads at RT.
For example, on a recent episode, Lara Trump interviewed Parscale, where she asked,
Someone who really hasn’t adjusted well, Brad, to the online campaign platform is sleepy Joe Biden. In fact, the best they’ve got is Biden in the basement. What do you think that his problem is? Is he just too old to do this? What’s the story with Joe Biden?”
Occasionally, the guests on “Team Trump Online” are accidentally revealing. In the above interview, for instance, Parscale talked generically about the Trump campaign’s digital operation before explaining what he perceives as their primary strength:
Our team produces so much content, and our content is engaging, and I think we just say things that people want to hear.
In other words, the campaign isn’t producing material that will win over undecided voters or forge a governing majority. The mission is, explicitly, is to produce nuggets that Trump voters already want to hear that will, in turn, get picked up by other Trump voters, and spread across the Internet to even more Trump voters.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
The videos that tend to draw the most eyeballs, according to the YouTube counts, are those hosted by self-knighted “General in the Meme Wars,” Donald J. Trump Jr.—DJTJ to his broskis and the Pepe brigade.
Like his father, Don Jr. seems to have a lizard-brain understanding of how his shtick works with the marks. (In one of the early shows, DJTJ even says out loud that he needs to consume more caffeine in order to make his rants more interesting.) His show on the App is called “Triggered,” which—branding alert—is also the title of his best-selling book and may or may not be the theme of his 2024 presidential campaign.
As a performer, what’s interesting about Don Jr. is that even on an app-based show designed to be watched on a 3” screen, surrounded by allies, he’s always yelling and gesturing wildly about how poorly he’s treated by the media, including platforms such as Twitter. Where his father is all about gorilla-channel dominance, Don Jr.’s mode is more like the perpetually aggrieved Laura Loomer.
“You’ve never heard a leftist complain about being de-platformed and thrown off a platform, and they say some pretty outrageous stuff,” he said during a show last week. “I’m not looking for a conservative platform. I just want to be able to say what I want to say, and they can say whatever they want to say and let people choose. But when someone is getting bombarded with ‘this’ as though it’s truth and ‘this’ as though it’s lies, it’s not so fair.”
He wasn’t done. “[T]hey just are screwing with the algorithms and trying to hurt me,” he whined.
I can’t tell you what the algorithm says, but I do enough of this stuff, and I pay enough attention that if you have a brain, you realize it’s going on and, again, it feels like a dry run as they are knocking conservative thought leaders off, pushing leftists as hard as they can, knocking conservatives off, to influence the outcome of the 2020 election.
But say what you will about Don. Jr.—his show is the most thoughtful and authentic production on the platform. Most of the characters on the app pass the time reaching for new ways to describe their dear leader. At least Don Jr. has his own thing going on.
For instance, in a recent “Moms for Trump” video that aired on Saturday Katrina Pierson (yes, she’s still orbiting around Planet Trump) talked about the pandemic and worried, “It’s scary to know where we would have been today, if not for President Trump’s leadership over the last few years…I tell people all the time we have hope because we have a leader who actually puts Americans and America first…I sleep well at night knowing that President Trump is at the helm.”
This is an interesting pitch at a moment when 82,000 Americans have died and unemployment is close to 15 percent.
Trump 2020: It could have been worse!
When you think about it, the Trump App might be a less of a tool designed to help Trump win, than a hedge against him losing. Because while it isn’t going to convert undecided voters, it sure looks like an effective vehicle for creating an audience for a new media platform.
It would be the smartest thing his campaign has done, actually: Trump has built a massive data operation that could be turned into a viable media property that could become something like TrumpTV come January 20, 2021. And he got his political donors to foot the bill. Talk about a great kickstarter campaign.
Roger Ailes founded Fox with the vision it would become a powerhouse media ecosystem for Republicans. A new media channel pioneered by a former Republican president with a built-in following could easily be the next step. Trump TV would probably eat Fox’s lunch. He has a more significant and devoted following than any Fox star with access to the entire cosmos of Republican politicians eager to court him. And Fox itself is at a crossroads where its corporate leadership no longer even seems to know whether it wants to ride this tiger.
Besides, why would the millions of Americans who love them some Trump be willing to settle for a throne sniffer like Sean Hannity or a knock-off brand like OANN when they could get the real thing?
One of the hallmarks of Donald Trump’s business career was his uncanny ability to step away from one failing endeavor after another and always have a new project waiting.
That’s what the Trump App “Death Star” is. Trump’s voters just don’t know it yet.