Esther Cameron


On February 4, 2021, TIME magazine published a long article by Molly Ball, entitled "The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election."  Given the timing, the forum, and the peculiar tone of this piece, it has the air of marking a defining moment.  We would thus do well to ponder the messages it contains, for the sake of understanding the kind of reality in which we are now living.

In particular, this piece can give us some clarity on the matter of the "conspiracy theories," or theories characterized as such, with which the air has been thick over the past year.  Some of these theories are presented by people who appear to be well-informed and responsible, while others contain weird elements or are tainted with anti-Semitism and racism.  It is clear that some wild stories are being made up, that some of the informants are delusional or self-serving.  And we really have no way of checking out even the most plausible-sounding stories.  However, this piece, as testimony from the side that has become the "mainstream", allows us to draw some inferences from the facts it admits and from the way it uses language.

At outset, the title sets up a dissonance in the reader's mind.  "Shadow Campaign" makes one think of "conspiracy theories," which are bad.  But this – well, not quite conspiracy, but shadow campaign, was good, because it "saved" something.  This title teases the reader.  It half-admits something, while at the same time asserting that that something wasn't bad at all.

What was the 2020 election "saved" from?  The first paragraphs tell us: "chaos."

The nation was braced for chaos. Liberal groups had vowed to take to the streets, planning hundreds of protests across the country. Right-wing militias were girding for battle. In a poll before Election Day, 75% of Americans voiced concern about violence.

Instead, an eerie quiet descended. As President Trump refused to concede, the response was not mass action but crickets. When media organizations called the race for Joe Biden on Nov. 7, jubilation broke out instead, as people thronged cities across the U.S. to celebrate the democratic process that resulted in Trump’s ouster.

First of all "liberal groups."  The previous months had seen widespread riots ("protests") by mobs that vandalized, looted, and committed mayhem and even murder while liberal politicians declined to restrain them. "Right-wing militias," on the other hand, had been responsible for relatively isolated incidents.  There was little reason to worry about what they would do in the event of a Democratic victory.  

And then the "jubilation": seventy-five million people, evidently, were not jubilant.  But in the universe of this article, winner takes all.  The losers are erased.  The cheers reported in this paragraph remind this writer of the cheers that rise from the crowd as the new dictator steps out on the balcony.  Actually, most of the crowds in the video that accompanied the article didn't look all that big.

The author then reports:

A second odd thing happened amid Trump’s attempts to reverse the result: corporate America turned on him. Hundreds of major business leaders, many of whom had backed Trump’s candidacy and supported his policies, called on him to concede.

To Trump this seemed "very odd" and pointed to an "orchestrated effort."  In response to this, the author , in a sentence that stands by itself, admits:  "In a way, Trump was right."  By "adopting" Trump's position, the author defuses it.  She then explains:

There was a conspiracy unfolding behind the scenes, one that both curtailed the protests and coordinated the resistance from CEOs. Both surprises were the result of an informal alliance between left-wing activists and business titans. The pact was formalized in a terse, little-noticed joint statement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO published on Election Day. Both sides would come to see it as a sort of implicit bargain–inspired by the summer’s massive, sometimes destructive racial-justice protests–in which the forces of labor came together with the forces of capital to keep the peace and oppose Trump’s assault on democracy.

A little shift takes place within this paragraph:  the alliance is at first between "left-wing activists and business titans."  Then it is between the Chamber of the Commerce and the AFL-CIO who published a statement calling for all votes to be counted.  Are left-wing activists and unionized labor the same people these days?  I would ask whether the mobs that burned, looted and assaulted a few months before the election were union members, or perhaps more what Marx would have called the Lumpenproletariat.  In this article, as often elsewhere, "activists" is a code word for those mobs or their inciters. At this point they are not quite portrayed as partners in the alliance, but as merely having "inspired" it.  At any rate their actions, though "sometimes destructive," are not being treated as an "assault on democracy."  That term is reserved for Trump's questioning of the election results.

This tactic continues in the next paragraph: "For more than a year, a loosely organized coalition of operatives scrambled to shore up America’s institutions as they came under simultaneous attack from a remorseless pandemic and an autocratically inclined President."  It is not explained which actions of the President were autocratic.  Similarly, when the author continues:

The scenario the shadow campaigners were desperate to stop was not a Trump victory. It was an election so calamitous that no result could be discerned at all, a failure of the central act of democratic self-governance that has been a hallmark of America since its founding.

 -- we understand that there was some calamity to be afraid of, but it is not clear just what the calamity would have consisted of.  In any event, the shadow alliance proceeds to "shore up America's institutions" by doing the following:

They got states to change voting systems and laws

Are a country's institutions being shored up when voting systems and laws are abruptly changed? They also

helped secure hundreds of millions in public and private funding.

Some itemization of the major donors would have been interesting. (Later, we do read that "the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative chipped in $300 million.") Furthermore, they

fended off voter-suppression lawsuits, recruited armies of poll workers and got millions of people to vote by mail for the first time.

The "voter-suppression lawsuits" may be a loaded term characterizing lawsuits filed to prevent the authorization of massive mail-in voting, which had not been previously considered compatible with American institutions.  And also,

They successfully pressured social media companies to take a harder line against disinformation and used data-driven strategies to fight viral smears.

This could be translated: they shored up American institutions by curbing free speech.  The article makes extensive use of what has been called "emotive conjugation" (example: I am firm, you are stubborn, he is pigheaded).  Here, what we say is information, while what the other side says is disinformation.  Similarly, people working with Trump were "henchmen."  There were, of course, no henchmen on our side – only dedicated workers.

Trump threatened democracy not only by trying to prevent mail-in voting ("Before the election, Trump plotted to block a legitimate vote count"), but also by his actions after the election:

trying to steal the election he’d lost–with lawsuits and conspiracy theories, pressure on state and local officials, and finally summoning his army of supporters to the Jan. 6 rally that ended in deadly violence at the Capitol.

He tried to make his case, which the Supreme Court refused to hear although it was supported by eighteen states.  

I can't resist here giving my own perception of what happened on January 6.  In the weeks after November 3, Trump seemed to me increasingly like a wounded bull.  It does not appear to me that he intended his followers to storm the Capitol; that was the work of a few hotheads among the masses that had come to show support.  In his speech he began by urging them to demonstrate "peacefully"; later, perhaps getting worked up, he used the word "fight." But that word has many meanings – people "fight the good fight," "fight cancer," etc. and there was nothing like the "burn it down" rhetoric that emanates from the "activists" on the left.  Of course, Trump should have told the rioters to go home immediately, and his failure to do so was a grave moral error.  It was also a fatal tactical blunder, which leads one to think that Trump could not plot his way out of a paper bag.  Someday perhaps someone will write a faithful account of the events, an account inspired neither by hero-worship nor by hatred of this strange man who for a few short years was able to undermine, not so much American institutions as the grip of certain forces on them.  

The author again asserts that her story is "the story of an unprecedented, creative and determined campaign whose success also reveals how close the nation came to disaster." Again it is not clear what disaster was averted, other than a Trump victory. One member of the alliance is quoted as saying, "it’s massively important for the country to understand that it didn’t happen accidentally. The system didn’t work magically. Democracy is not self-executing."  Because democracy is fragile, she says, it is important that the story be told.

That’s why the participants want the secret history of the 2020 election told, even though it sounds like a paranoid fever dream–a well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information. They were not rigging the election; they were fortifying it. And they believe the public needs to understand the system’s fragility in order to ensure that democracy in America endures.

In other words: "some of the conspiracy theories are true, but we are going to call it 'fortifying' rather than 'rigging.'"  What a world of difference a word can make.

The article then goes into some detail about how the "shadow campaign" was carried out, specifically in Michigan.  I won't try to follow all of her recapitulation, but will note some interesting highlights.  For instance, the author states that Trump's election in 1916 is "credited in part to his unusual strength among the sort of blue collar white voters who once dominated the AFL-CIO."  So who dominates the AFL-CIO now, so that the leaders of that organization would line up with the Chamber of Commerce on November 3?  For that matter, why would the National Association of Evangelicals also sign the proclamation? These are not rhetorical questions; I would be grateful to any reader who could give me some answers.  

The mastermind of the "shadow campaign," Mike Podhorzer, worked with a

network of contacts across the progressive universe: the labor movement; the institutional left, like Planned Parenthood and Greenpeace; resistance groups like Indivisible and MoveOn; progressive data geeks and strategists, representatives of donors and foundations, state-level grassroots organizers, racial-justice activists and others.

Thus the alliance included those ("racial-justice activists") who for several months had shored up democracy by looting, burning, mayhem and the occasional murder.  (That this is indeed the meaning, is confirmed a few paragraphs later, where it is stated that the alliance "drew energy from the summer’s racial-justice protests, many of whose leaders were a key part of the liberal alliance.") And "others."  

The campaign for mail-in ballots was enormously successful; according to the author, nearly half the ballots in the election were mail-in ballots.  

Besides assisting the process of mail-in voting in a variety of ways, the campaign also dealt in an innovative way with the opposition's claims, which, says the author, posed an unprecedented danger.

Bad actors spreading false information is nothing new. For decades, campaigns have grappled with everything from anonymous calls claiming the election has been rescheduled to fliers spreading nasty smears about candidates’ families. But Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories, the viral force of social media and the involvement of foreign meddlers made disinformation a broader, deeper threat to the 2020 vote.

Again, what we say is information, while what they say is disinformation.  "Involvement of foreign meddlers" is rich.  Ball's article needs to be read together with Lee Smith's "The Thirty Tyrants," which appeared on and deals with the increasingly close alliance between China and the American elite.  In the light of Smith's analysis, it seems likely that considerable funding from China went into this effort at shoring up American democracy.  

In any event, the alliance felt that the increased severity of this problem warranted a fresh approach. They employed a researcher named Laura Quinn, who found that

engaging with toxic content only made it worse. “When you get attacked, the instinct is to push back, call it out, say, ‘This isn’t true,'” Quinn says. “But the more engagement something gets, the more the platforms boost it. The algorithm reads that as, ‘Oh, this is popular; people want more of it.'”

The solution, she concluded, was to pressure platforms to enforce their rules, both by removing content or accounts that spread disinformation and by more aggressively policing it in the first place.

Certainly it is more effective to silence contradiction than to answer it, and this approach was indeed adopted, with the cooperation of Mark Zuckerberg (note the recurrence of that name.) How the silencing of opposing opinions is consistent with the shoring-up of democracy, is not explained.

The message that mail-in votes are not susceptible to fraud had to be conveyed not only to the public at large but also to "local officials–the secretaries of state, attorneys general, governors who would be in the eye of the storm."  For this purpose, the alliance raised $20 million from the "private sector."  They

created a force of “election defenders” who, unlike traditional poll watchers, were trained in de-escalation techniques. During early voting and on Election Day, they surrounded lines of voters in urban areas with a “joy to the polls” effort that turned the act of casting a ballot into a street party.

I seem to recall that there was something called "electioneering at the polls," which was illegal. Of course, with mail-in ballots the polls are everywhere, so that rule is difficult to enforce. The idea was, I think, was that voting is an act to be done by an individual in isolation from any sort of social pressure.  That was considered to be part of the basis of democracy. But freedom from pressure was not one of the aims of the "shadow alliance."

The summer uprising had shown that people power could have a massive impact. Activists began preparing to reprise the demonstrations if Trump tried to steal the election. “Americans plan widespread protests if Trump interferes with election,” Reuters reported in October, one of many such stories. More than 150 liberal groups, from the Women’s March to the Sierra Club to Color of Change, from to the Democratic Socialists of America, joined the “Protect the Results” coalition. The group’s now defunct website had a map listing 400 planned postelection demonstrations, to be activated via text message as soon as Nov. 4. To stop the coup they feared, the left was ready to flood the streets.

In other words, the threat of a resumption of rioting was held over everyone's head.  And indeed, a few paragraphs later this is given as a reason why the Chamber of Commerce decided to join the shadow alliance: "The summer’s racial-justice protests had sent a signal to business owners too: the potential for economy-disrupting civil disorder."  We can't let that happen, of course, so we have to make sure the potential rioters are kept happy.

Podhorzer predicted that because Republicans tend to vote in person while Democrats tend to vote by mail, the early results would show Trump leading, giving him a pretext for claiming victory and disputing the results when the mail-in ballots came in. When the early results bore out the prediction, then among the members of the alliance

The conversation that followed was a difficult one, led by the activists charged with the protest strategy. “We wanted to be mindful of when was the right time to call for moving masses of people into the street,” Peoples says. As much as they were eager to mount a show of strength, mobilizing immediately could backfire and put people at risk. Protests that devolved into violent clashes would give Trump a pretext to send in federal agents or troops as he had over the summer. And rather than elevate Trump’s complaints by continuing to fight him, the alliance wanted to send the message that the people had spoken.

Again: the threat of violent protest was being held in the background.

So the word went out: stand down. Protect the Results announced that it would “not be activating the entire national mobilization network today, but remains ready to activate if necessary.” On Twitter, outraged progressives wondered what was going on. Why wasn’t anyone trying to stop Trump’s coup? Where were all the protests?

Again: it is not specified what Trump was doing that would have constituted a "coup."

Podhorzer credits the activists for their restraint. “They had spent so much time getting ready to hit the streets on Wednesday. But they did it,” he says. “Wednesday through Friday, there was not a single Antifa vs. Proud Boys incident like everyone was expecting. And when that didn’t materialize, I don’t think the Trump campaign had a backup plan.” 

It is evident from this passage that a confidential and intimate relationship existed between the civilian and the paramilitary wings of the shadow alliance.  Did this relationship spring up in final phase of the election campaign?  Or were the summer riots, from the start, part of the alliance's strategy? 

What happened on election night itself is represented by one incident:  

It was around 10 p.m. on election night in Detroit when a flurry of texts lit up the phone of Art Reyes III. A busload of Republican election observers had arrived at the TCF Center, where votes were being tallied. They were crowding the vote-counting tables, refusing to wear masks, heckling the mostly Black workers. Reyes, a Flint native who leads We the People Michigan, was expecting this. For months, conservative groups had been sowing suspicion about urban vote fraud. “The language was, ‘They’re going to steal the election; there will be fraud in Detroit,’ long before any vote was cast,” Reyes says.

He made his way to the arena and sent word to his network. Within 45 minutes, dozens of reinforcements had arrived. As they entered the arena to provide a counterweight to the GOP observers inside, Reyes took down their cell-phone numbers and added them to a massive text chain. Racial-justice activists from Detroit Will Breathe worked alongside suburban women from Fems for Dems and local elected officials.

Those on the Trump side complained that in various places Republican observers were prevented from entering the polling places.  Their account of the incident might well differ from the above.  Perhaps a court of justice, if there is still such a thing, might be able to determine which account is accurate.  Meanwhile, we note that the "racial-justice activists" were on the scene.

The alliance realized that after the vote was counted, Trump would still try to dispute the results at the stage of certification and of the electoral college vote. During the certification process in Detroit

activists settled on a strategy of foregrounding the people’s right to decide, demanding their voices be heard and calling attention to the racial implications of disenfranchising Black Detroiters. They flooded the Wayne County canvassing board’s Nov. 17 certification meeting with on-message testimony; despite a Trump tweet, the Republican board members certified Detroit’s votes.

Again, the threat of violence was in the background.  A further court of appeal was the Republican-controlled state legislatures, who in theory might have declared the election void and appointed their own electors.  Hoping to achieve this result, "the President invited the GOP leaders of the Michigan legislature, House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey, to Washington on Nov. 20."  Afraid that Trump would persuade Chatfield and Shirkey and their example would encourage other state legislatures to follow suit,

The democracy defenders launched a full-court press. Protect Democracy’s local contacts researched the lawmakers’ personal and political motives. Issue One ran television ads in Lansing. The Chamber’s Bradley kept close tabs on the process. Wamp, the former Republican Congressman, called his former colleague Mike Rogers, who wrote an op-ed for the Detroit newspapers urging officials to honor the will of the voters. Three former Michigan governors–Republicans John Engler and Rick Snyder and Democrat Jennifer Granholm–jointly called for Michigan’s electoral votes to be cast free of pressure from the White House. Engler, a former head of the Business Roundtable, made phone calls to influential donors and fellow GOP elder statesmen who could press the lawmakers privately.  [Italics mine]

Whatever pressure Trump may have tried to exert on the lawmakers, he was clearly outgunned.  It is not much wonder that state legislatures "stood up to Trump's bullying."

Then came the January 6 fiasco, to which the allies of the preceding summer's street thugs responded with such righteous horror. It probably finished Trump, who at the time of the writing of the article was "in Florida, facing his second impeachment, deprived of the Twitter and Facebook accounts he used to push the nation to its breaking point." 

Amazing the power of a Twitter account.  And I had thought it was the Chinese virus, the carefully-stoked race riots, and the devastating lockdowns that had brought the country to the breaking point.    

Not mentioned in this article is the Supreme Court's refusal, on procedural grounds which to this non-practicing lawyer sounded preposterous, to hear the lawsuit for election fraud brought by Texas with the support of seventeen other states.  Had the evidence been presented, the witnesses examined and cross-examined, then, whatever the outcome, there would have been at least a chance for the whole country to feel that, as the author triumphantly concludes, "The will of the people prevailed."

Why the Supreme Court refused to take the case still puzzles me. The justices have life tenure and thus should be above political pressure.  

Perhaps they simply found the claims of the Trump supporters so implausible as to be not worth adjudicating and adopted the reasoning of the "shadow campaign" that "lies" are better silenced than contradicted.  On the other hand, perhaps an axiom was at work here which the individual whose name has become a synonym of evil formulated as "the big lie."  A big lie, so this axiom states, is more likely to be accepted than a small one.  Similarly if there was massive voter fraud, assisted not only by mail-in ballots but by election software that could be manipulated, it might be harder for people to bring themselves to challenge it, than to expose and punish small-scale fraud.  I would guess that the big lie is effective because it is not only a falsehood but a slap in the face of truth, a signal that truth is no longer relevant, that force is in charge.  And we have seen that with the shadow alliance, the background threat of force was indeed present.  Sometimes I think deference to violence is a generalized response, triggered even in those who are not immediately threatened. 

Ball's article of course stops short of admitting that electoral fraud took place.  Of course, they wouldn't admit that. Yet the massiveness of the coordinated effort described -- and it was not fully described; neither the relentless campaign of the “mainstream” press against Trump, nor China and the Islamist organizations, which had an interest in the outcome and whose contributions would hardly have been spurned, was mentioned -- makes massive electoral fraud seem not wholly implausible.  And it would be the height of naïveté to suppose that the conscience of an organization which keeps an army of rioters in the background, would stick at generating ballots or amplifying the voice of the "people" with the computer skills which Silicon Valley would have placed at their disposal. 

Why was this article written?  Was it, as the author declares, to advise the American people of the fragility of democracy and the need for vigilant efforts to preserve it?  I doubt it.   

Again I find myself thinking of the kind of speech given from the palace balcony by the dictator who has just succeeded in consolidating his power.  For TIME, as perhaps the most influential American print magazine, could be called the capital of the media empire which is the public face of the partially-described alliance that was victorious here.  This statement was not written to reassure us that everything was aboveboard.  Quite the contrary: it was written to flex the muscles of the alliance in public, so as to give anyone who might still want to object an idea of what they would be up against.  

As said, the alliance is only partially described.  The name "China" does not appear in the article.  If one mentions that name, then one sees that the coronavirus which originated in Wuhan, and the lockdowns which were supported by a worldwide media-generated panic, fit into this puzzle.  Of course the virus may have originated in a bat sold in the Wuhan market just in time to generate chaos ahead of the American election, stoking frustrations that could be vented in massive riots and making the legalization of mail-in ballots so urgently necessary. But as the Romans used to say, cui bono – those who are benefited by a development had an interest in producing it, and the possibility that they were instrumental in producing it is not to be lightly dismissed. 

This is not good news.  In the wake of a probably rigged election and in the presence of more and more blatant control of speech, we are evidently at the start of a long night.  Those who want to maintain some level of integrity must try to band together and learn from those who have faced such situations in the past, in order to have hope of living to see a new dawn.

(I cannot help hoping that, having read this, the reader will turn back to this piece, posted a few months ago, and in particular to the poem "An Invitation," to which this piece links.  "An Invitation" was written in 1975; I have been thinking about these things for a long time.)

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