Chances are that by the time you get to the end of this article, there will be news of another information operation targeting Donald Trump. There’s one a day now—each trumpeting a new mortal threat to the republic or some dastardly revelation based on sources that are usually anonymous. Whatever it is, it will serve the same purpose as the hundreds of similar sallies launched over the last four years—namely, to preserve and protect the position and privileges of America’s ruling elite.
Trump stories are rarely about Trump. The same stories, or versions of them, would have targeted anyone who threatened to sever the American political, corporate, and cultural elite’s economic lifeline to the Chinese Communist Party. It is largely because Trump sought to decouple the United States from the CCP that America’s China Class, which owns the platforms on which Americans communicate, has waged a relentless campaign of information warfare against him through its social media and prestige media brands.
Consider the last two anti-Trump info ops: He gratuitously denigrated the historical suffering of African Americans, and he expressed contempt for America’s war dead. These are the sort of false allegations that political operatives are tasked to manufacture and disseminate during election season. Their purpose is to reinforce a negative impression of the opposing party among whatever cohort is being addressed, and make the target spend resources—time and money and sometimes blood—on defense. That’s politics 101, since the time of the Romans.
What’s new is that this is now journalism too. Since the internet defunded the press at the end of the 20th century and social media became the dominant player in America’s information space, journalism has abandoned the traditional standards and practices that once defined reporting. For instance, the smear holding that Trump is contemptuous of the military was supposedly based on four anonymous sources recalling exchanges from three years ago, which have been contradicted by dozens of named sources, some of whom were physically present when the comments were supposedly made—and some of whom have been public Trump opponents. In traditional journalistic terms, that’s not a news story—that’s a failed attack line.
The press that existed in America from the end of the 19th century until the turn of this one was designed to inform, influence, and sometimes inspire or inflame fellow citizens. But for people under 30, the only kind of “journalism” they’ve ever known is more like Pravda in the old Soviet Union or the kinds of party media found throughout the Third World. Journalism is an insider’s game, in which the stories are often outlandish, but rarely true; their actual news value is the hints they may offer about shadowy maneuverings that affect people’s lives but take place out of public view, like the rise or fall of a particular colonel who is pictured standing closer to or farther away from El Caudillo or Al Rais. Stories aren’t about the realities they purport to depict; the real stories are always the stories about the story.
American journalists, who now draw their paychecks directly and indirectly from the country’s largest economic interest—technopolies like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook—are now turning the public sphere into a phantasmagoria of conspiracy theories and hysteria to cement the politburo’s position and privilege.
Accordingly, the debate in Washington, D.C., over which great power is feeding more disinformation into the 2020 election cycle isn’t real—it’s not Russia, as collusion impresario and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff claims, nor, as Attorney General William Barr says, is it China, though he’s closer to the truth. The source of the purposeful disinformation pouring into the American public sphere like untreated sewage is the American elite, led by its tech oligarchs, who own the platforms on which information campaigns are staged and laundered to protect their core interests—foremost among them being cheap Chinese labor and access to Chinese markets.
Let’s return to the two smears from above: Trump scoffs at Black suffering and Trump says military service is for suckers and losers. The former comes from the Washington Post’s famous Watergate reporter Bob Woodward’s new anti-Trump book, and the latter was posted on the website of the Atlantic. Strip away the decorative paraphernalia that dresses them up to look like news articles, and both of these pieces of “journalism” are actually just tweets. The stories they’re attached to are hollow vessels festooned with brand names to ensure their reach and reception as they circulate through the information ecosystem of social media and cable news platforms.
Of course, when Jeff Bezos bought the Post and Woodward brands in 2013, he had no more idea than Vladimir Putin did that the host of “Celebrity Apprentice” would one day sit in the Oval Office. Bezos acquired them for the same reason the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs picked up the Atlantic—to defend the industry, tech, and political arrangements with China’s manufacturing base that drive their profits from “political interference.”
A little historical background may help explain how America’s information supply has become so badly poisoned. The Atlantic magazine was founded in the mid-19th century in Boston, where it published some of the founding figures of the American nationalist movement in literature like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 2005, its owner moved the Atlantic to Washington, D.C., where it accomplished the rare feat of turning a profit in the contemporary publishing industry—not by selling magazines or ad space, which had been turned into cheap commodities by the rise of the internet, but by billing Beltway lobbyists and tech and defense executives for the opportunity to influence well-known thought leaders at conferences, luncheons, and parties hosted under the Atlantic label in Washington, Aspen, and elsewhere. Laurene Powell Jobs bought a majority share in 2017.
The big message her property sent with its anti-Trump blog post was that Trump is contemptuous of a significant part of his base. What many Trump supporters saw was something else, though: Another proof of the elite’s determination to replay the 2016 election cycle.
Four years ago, few normal Americans imagined that their political class was capable of manufacturing a conspiracy theory out of whole cloth and laundering it through the nation’s spy agencies and the press in the hope of overturning the result of a democratic election. But after four years of Russiagate, and subsequent operations (the Mueller investigation, Ukrainegate, the razing and looting of American cities disguised as “peaceful protests,” etc.), no one is unaware that such coordinated campaigns are possible. In fact, they have become normal.
This time around, the role played by spies in the 2016 election is being filled by former senior Pentagon officials, including James Mattis, Trump’s one-time defense secretary. In June, Mattis wrote an article—in the Atlantic—likening Trump to the Nazis for wanting to dispatch the military to protect the lives, homes, and businesses of American voters.
Gen. Mattis is no stranger to Silicon Valley or its scandals. As head of U.S. Central Command, the four-star Marine general pushed for the products of one Silicon Valley startup to be used on wounded Americans in uniform, and after retiring he won a lucrative seat on the board of the same company, Theranos, which turned out to be the biggest fraud in the history of biotech.
Then there’s Stanley McChrystal, a retired four-star Army general who is reportedly advising a Democratic PAC called “Defeat Disinfo” on how to use Pentagon software to wage information warfare operations against the Trump campaign. McChrystal resigned his post in 2010 after a magazine reporter documented how he and his aides savagely mocked then-Vice President Biden, the man his information warfare campaign is now supposed to install in the White House.
McChrystal’s beef with Trump is something more than just greed or ego. He has been openly critical of Trump for wanting to get American forces out of the Middle East. He ripped the president when Mattis left his Pentagon post because the Marine wanted to keep more troops in Syria. McChrystal was head of operations in Afghanistan and thinks Trump should stay there, too. The problem is, he’s not sure why. As he told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he thinks the best option is to stay in Afghanistan and “muddle along.” And now he’s getting paid by Silicon Valley, too.
Trump is right that top military brass has it out for him and probably for the reasons he states—because pointless engagements like Afghanistan advance them personally and land them lucrative seats on the boards of defense and technology companies. But the personal ambitions of Pentagon officials are finally no more relevant here than those of the FBI, DOJ, CIA, and State Department bureaucrats who played a role in the first installment of the Russiagate franchise. They’re walk-on parts, as are the various media operatives and outlets like Bob Woodward and the Atlantic, in a much larger corruption of our politics.
The central pillar of the corrupt new order is the American elite’s relationship with China. To be clear, the issue is not that former media organizations like the Post and the Atlantic are pro-China. Both publish articles about the Chinese military, intelligence services, propaganda campaigns, human rights abuses, etc.—at the same time as the Post runs a regular insert produced by the Chinese Communist Party called China Daily. The point is that terms like pro- or anti-Red China are from a different era, when publications like Henry Luce’s Time Magazine were partisan and had points of view.
What matters now are platforms. And for the purposes of information warfare, what’s important is not the content but rather the availability and reach of the platforms, whose job is to protect the American ruling elite’s wealth and preferences by spreading whatever propaganda the elite sees as beneficial. By threatening to split the United States from China, Trump earned the enmity of America’s China Class, which is working hard to remove him from office, and replace him with someone more pliant.
Trump was not the first presidential candidate who noticed there was a tremendous political opportunity in picking up the support of a middle class undone by the ruling class’s foreign trade practices. Democratic Congressman Richard Gephardt made the same case during the 1988 election cycle. Gephardt lost. He lost again in 1992.
By the time the Clinton White House granted China most favored nation trade status in 2000, all of Washington knew that America was running a vast trade deficit that was destined to increase with accession to the World Trade Organization. The price for lifting tens of millions of rural Chinese peasants out of poverty through favorable trade arrangements would be tens of millions of American lives ruined, even as large American companies like Apple and Nike and bankers like JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs got richer. The elite reasoned that they had no choice: The rise of China was inevitable. Why fight it?
American political and corporate elites didn’t choose decline. They chose to get rich. By shipping America’s manufacturing base off to China, they seized a business opportunity the likes of which had never been seen before—an enormous captive labor force controlled by an authoritarian regime that guaranteed the steady production of goods at a fraction of what it would cost at home. American cultural elites (Hollywood, sports, art, etc.) who exploited the increasingly large Chinese market for their products provided cover for the China Class cohort with messaging that dovetailed with CCP propaganda.
Who were Americans to judge a great and ancient civilization like China’s for jailing dissidents and enslaving the Uighur minority? Doesn’t America have its own history of slavery and political prisoners? It’s racist to protect American jobs. Those jobs aren’t coming back and there is nothing to be done about it, as Barack Obama famously said—unless you have a magic wand …
Calling out the American elite for betraying American interests in the service of their own personal and corporate bottom lines helped Donald Trump win the presidency. But it’s not clear that he truly understood how deeply entwined Beijing’s interests were with America’s China Class—and that trying to decouple the two would lead to an attempt at a permanent coup by the new techno-elite, targeting not just him and his supporters but the foundations of the republic, from our military to the media, and from our justice system to the institution of the presidency itself.
The American elite’s financial relationship with China is the key to understanding what’s been happening in America the past four years. Any president, Democrat or Republican, who took on China would have been targeted by the China Class. Because it was Trump flying the Republican banner who sided with America’s working men and women, the Democrats resorted to alliances with powers that now threaten the stability and security of the country.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).