How Marketing AIs Put Trump In The Oval Office
Back in my old Bronx neighborhood, we kids were taught by Catholic sisters whose lessons I found deeply persuasive. I loved religion class because I believed what they told us: that God was everywhere, protecting us, guiding us, and, at times — with wisdom and infinite love — disciplining us. I could feel his presence during Mass, of course, and sometimes in the playground, but never more vividly than in my room, alone, when I would finish my bedtime prayers by pillow-screaming “F****CK!” with such force that my voice would crack into a dry shriek like a sax blown so hard the reed can’t seat. It was the gravest sin I was capable of at the time and it filled me with concentrated joy. I wouldn’t dare let my parents overhear because they would never have understood. Still, I couldn’t merely whisper the word; that would have diluted the offense and God might not have answered.
So I sinned in silence, but with fury and delight, until he revealed himself. I could sense his disappointment descending into the room, reflected off every surface, saturating the very air. I was throwing an elbow and he was replying with a reassuring smack. Thus through sin did I commune with the Almighty. He disapproved, of course, but he does not despise. Nothing was ever so comforting to me as proving, at least to my satisfaction at the time, that God is real.
You might not believe in a supreme being, but you had better believe in an omnipresent, invisible shepherd that guides and disciplines us. It’s called artificial intelligence and it involves myriad networked parts, most of which are hidden from view, into which every device we own is integrated. Not long ago, it accomplished an apparently supernatural feat: it installed Donald Trump, of all people, in the White House.
Too clever by half
The power to scrutinize human lives in minute detail that we’ve entrusted to private-interest behemoths is unprecedented. Any totalitarian Soviet surveillance state would have sacrificed a generation of its first born for a mere taste of the data we voluntarily surrender to information brokers and advertisers as we go about our daily routines using Google, YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook and Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and Twitter, not to mention SMS, WhatsApp, Pinterest, imgur, Skype, Zoom, Steam, Origin, Twitch, Amazon, PayPal, Netflix, eBay, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, OnStar, TikTok, Web mail, Tinder, Grindr, Uber, and Lyft, plus several hundred-thousand minor phone apps and casual games — what Apple CEO Tim Cook once called the data-industrial complex.
Information harvesting on this scale enables true intimacy in targeted advertising. Only there’s more: the ability of a pervasive information system to analyze the finest threads of daily life for marketing purposes brings with it the ability, and the motivation, to show us communications — personal, commercial, and official — that it believes we will welcome while concealing information it thinks we will resist. And this enables the system to influence our behavior. AIs tell us whom to follow; they show us video clips we might like; they nudge us toward discussion forums likely to welcome our views; they suggest search terms; they recommend news sources we’re inclined to trust and articles we might find interesting; they curate our choices of movies, TV shows, music, and YouTube channels; they remember what we buy, where we go, and what we seek; they introduce us to people we’ll probably like in real life.
Above all, they sell. Big Tech has become a global umbrella industry devoted to understanding and positioning every one of us as consumers in ways meant to maximize the efficiency of ad campaigns. But political beliefs often coincide with patterns of consumption, so when online AIs organize people according to their interests in goods, services, information, and entertainment, they reinforce political biases as a side effect. Marketing priorities have created durable echo chambers where it’s logical to amplify dominant political themes and discourage diversity.
For example, if you’re a Sun-Belt retiree and a Trump voter, I’m not going to deplete my ad budget selling you vegan snacks. Rather, I’m going to corral you with others who believe and like what you believe and like, and try to sell you a Winnebago. If you’re an anti-vaxer and a Trump voter, I’ll offer you ammunition reloading supplies and dehydrated meals. The last thing I want to do is contradict or confuse or judge you. I will take care to remain inoffensive, even supportive; I want you to keep on doing you, and to keep on showing me who you are. That’s the tactically sound move.
One might draw from this that Trump’s performances on Twitter represent the “tech” angle explaining his popularity, and that banning his account should put an end to him, but that’s wrong. His admirers experience a comprehensive program of pro-Trump, or at least GOP-friendly, propaganda in the virtual communities toward which they are herded by marketing AIs aiming to sell fishing tackle and payday loans. Professionals, on the other hand, rarely visit such sites, having themselves been directed elsewhere by AIs keen to sell raw-milk cheeses and space-age baby strollers, which explains why educated people were blindsided by Donald’s victory. They never saw it coming because the bots curating their daily online experiences filtered out realistic portrayals of the MAGA movement, and obscured the breadth of its appeal stretching across party lines at the lower-income level.
There is no dark conspiracy here; the motive is simply profit. People with similar incomes and levels of education tend to hold similar beliefs, which makes them likely to seek similar goods and services, and to vote in similar ways. There really is no more to it than that. But it’s a lot. Big Tech has become an omnipresent, invisible shepherd in our social and political ecosystems urging us to indulge our biases and embrace our ignorance. Politics became media savvy millennia ago; what’s new here is this: monetizing the users of a service or app or device with maximum efficiency means that political inclinations must occupy a substantial part of any useful consumer taxonomy. Marketing has become politically aware, and politically exploitative to boot.
We always thought that AI would evolve and coalesce, grow sentient and hyperintelligent, conclude that the universe would be better off without the human species, and exterminate us intentionally. No one expected World War Three from vast swarms of Roomba-brained sales bots mindlessly shooing us into the trenches, but that clearly is where we’re headed.
Timing is everything
A decade ago, social media services and online AIs were fewer, simpler, and less deeply embedded and interconnected. Still, there was plenty of viral content. We got, for example, Donald Trump posing as a billionaire businessman in The Apprentice, a sudden promotion to national status from his previous posting as a local media parasite hammering loudly on the firmly locked gates of New York society. He debuted early, alongside Paris Hilton and the Kardashians.
The technology that helped launch the first wave of reality-TV celebrities has since evolved into something far more sophisticated, ubiquitous, and effective. Most recently it’s been generating Disney’s inexhaustible supply of 21st-Century Gashlycrumb Tinies destined for momentary Hype House fame and inevitable rejection. This generation is different: they’re not focused on TV. They are, rather, permanent residents of YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and the like, but they possess large media territories and their influence extends beyond those borders. We now have a system that effortlessly spawns social-media “stars” who, like Trump, point us toward the everlasting American fountain of vanity and schlock. Marketing algorithms can’t tell the difference between popular and good, so they treat popular *as* good: technology itself has no taste and no conscience.
There has been a silent leap in data mining bandwidth — and AI competence and pervasiveness — by several orders of magnitude in the past decade. Nearly every speck of information you encounter on every device you use and every app you run is filtered and curated and shared by marketing AIs whose mission is to draw eyeballs to ads.
The system is tuned to seek something like Donald, then amplify, multiply, and interconnect. A train wreck, a bridge collapse, a kid choking on a lungful of cinnamon or puking up a Tide pod: it’s all the same to marketing AIs. It’s all blissfully easy to monetize. The grotesque attracts eyeballs effortlessly, so the routine dynamics of media success tempts online creators and media personalities to go ugly for clicks. Trump, more than most, is willing to appear hideous in pursuit of attention. That is his superpower.
When political dialogue flows naturally through the rivers of commercial propaganda that fuel our economy, there is no escape. In 2006, a budding social media industry made Donald Trump. In 2016, its mature incarnation sealed the gaps between marketing and politics, and made Donald Trump president.
Even today, we hear it: Hillary was so far ahead in the polls, how could she have lost? Two reasons: First, the New Economy destroyed what we might call working-class careers and created involuntary migrants from the working class to the working poor who were angry enough to welcome an anti-president like Donald. The Democrats among them found solidarity with Trumpers because they’ve all slid along the same dismal employment trajectory. The loss of labor unions and dismantling of the welfare state affected a class, not a political party. Working-poor Democrats share more common ground with working-poor Republicans than they do with educated, liberal Democrats, a fact understood and used to advantage by Trump’s political forefathers: guys like Boss Tweed, Huey Long, and James Michael Curley — all of them true Americans. Like them, Trump knows how to harness grievances that span party divisions.
When middle-class professionals saw clips of Trump’s MAGA rallies with audiences deliriously cheering his signature torrent of self-serving fatuities, they dismissed it all as a freak show, the appeal of which must be limited to a handful of Ku Kluxers, misogynists, and gun nuts in remote quarters. They couldn’t (and largely still can’t) imagine that their working-class neighbors a few blocks over thought “President Trump” was worth a shot, because, really, their employment prospects can’t get much worse.
Second, the information-filtering and surveillance technology integrated into every electronic device, every software application, indeed, every thread of our lives, has segregated us in virtual consumer districts that serve as political echo chambers indulging and nourishing every manner of belief and desire, however peculiar or unhealthy, while muting contradictory voices, including truthful ones.
Nudge frustrated people no one talks to or thinks much about toward information ghettos where they can commiserate and identify a common adversary without fact checking, and let the mixture ferment. Eventually, something like Trump will evolve.
The Yankee Doodle default
Trumpism has always been difficult for Americans to avoid. It might even be our fate. Donald is a natural American leader, an organic choice. He’s the Music Man; he’s Flannery O’Connor’s Bible salesman. But he’s also strenuously mediocre, like Mark Twain’s Duke and Dauphin, and that is what makes him so deliciously American. He made a pig’s breakfast of the federal Covid response, causing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths because his involvement guaranteed that no other outcome would be possible. He is an agent of chaos: a colossal, deafening vortex of ham-fisted cheapness and kleptocratic malpractice. He’s sloppy and sweaty with troll-doll hair and a Plasti Dip tan, and his dentures come loose. Dry-humping an American flag is not outside his repertoire if he thinks it might draw applause. Can’t you just hear Seventy-Six Trombones playing him on and off the stage? He’s larger than life, but not big: he’s hypertrophied, like puffed cereal. He’s the great Oz, a timid schlemiel fiddling with horn compressors that belch steam and flames and noise. Donald Trump is America in human form.
This isn’t over. The Biden Administration is a mere catch breath. No one frustrated and angry enough to have preferred Trump to Hillary in 2016 will be any less angry or frustrated in 2024. Marketing AIs will keep spurring on the grotesque, and Americans will keep embracing it. Truly, we are stuck with what the bots have wrought. However one might judge Donald’s term in office, this fact is indisputable: we will never be rid of the Trumpian type. They’re too interesting, too inclined to trend, too easy for big tech to monetize. Scandals, misadventures, and criminal allegations that would have destroyed any national leader two decades ago are mere entertainment today. Silicon Valley might (or might not) be finished with Donald; but Trumpism has achieved cultural immortality, its inanities forever buoyed by marketing AIs — the invisible hustlers and swindlers that govern the currents of this ocean of hogwash through which we all swim.