If Democrats want to impeach President Trump, they'll have to fight him first and he's already throwing punches online. In the process, he’s revealing digital strategies and tactics he’ll invoke to fend off those who would remove him from office.
Information and disinformation
We already know Trump’s basic message: he's been blaming Democrats and media for most of the problems of the world at least since he started running for office. His Twitter account already portrays impeachment as an illegitimate conspiracy to thwart his presidency, and of course to take our guns away in the process. He's the real victim, and his supporters with him, as uncounted Facebook ads will surely trumpet.
So Trump will evade and distract, just as he did when undermining the Mueller report, and he'll also counterattack. His signature move is to turn the tables, making the story about his accusers, something he learned in part from Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy's former lawyer.
Trump's campaign has already launched ads against "the squad" on Facebook, part of a multi-million-dollar advertising blitz on the social platform. His campaign also recently previewed a comprehensive line of attack against Joe Biden, aiming to turn him into "another Hillary Clinton" in 2020. Should we be surprised that Trump's State Department has been probing Clinton's email server again?
Any Democrat, Republican or other public figure who supports impeachment should expect to be brutalized online, whether through Trump's tweets, Facebook memes or direct messages from supporters via social media. Past misdeeds might not stay quiet for long, and it may not matter whether the dirt is real, since Trump supporters on social media and in the conservative press have shown little appetite for fact-checking in the past. We might not get to the level of deepfake videos, but based on experience, we can expect Trump to do everything he can drag his opponents down into the mud. In his eyes, his survival depends on it.
Following up on his 2016 campaign's Facebook success, his team is cranking out promoted posts by the thousands designed to keep his base on his side. He'll also take advantage of the natural ability of digital advertising to present different messages to different audiences, for example feeding red meat to the believers while serving more reasonable content for voters who might need some persuading. As the impeachment effort takes shape, we should expect to see content aimed specifically at the districts of members prominent in the process. Even if they're in safe Democratic seats, dealing with angry Trump supporters at home might at least increase the pressure they feel.
Likewise, as Trump tries to keep his own teammates from defecting, wavering Republican House members and senators will likely see the barrage of ads and tweets. Helping out on both fronts? A grassroots movement of Trump supporters on Twitter, organized in part via "Trump trains" and amplified by "retweet hubs." With enough actual humans pushing the retweet button, you don't need a boost from a botnet.
Trump's reelection campaign intends to mobilize people on the ground, not just online. Manager Brad Parscale has claimed that Trump 2020 will train two million volunteers, tripling Trump’s ranks from 2016. Will that grassroots strategy carry over to the fight against impeachment? Trump will surely hold his usual rallies on friendly turf, gathering email addresses and other data in the process. Will his team also organize protests and town hall takeovers aimed at vulnerable, or otherwise strategically placed Democrats? If so, considering the intensity of this political moment, face-to-face confrontation carries risk — and to some, Trump is already crossing dangerous lines.
Finally, Trump 2020 has already raised millions of dollars hyping the danger of House Democrats' impeachment inquiry, and he'll certainly bring in many tens of millions more. How will he spend it? Perhaps more on TV than we expect, particularly if his team tries to persuade low-information voters that impeachment is fundamentally illegitimate. When push comes to shove, targeted TV could complement digital ad blitzes and grassroots activism to keep wobbly Republicans in line. If TV ads or any other expense help keep Trump in office, his grassroots donors will happily pay for it.
For the House of Representatives, hearings and eventual votes. For the Senate, decisions that will define the careers of all involved. For America, a reckoning. For those of us who do politics for a living? A lot of work. Let's hope that when this is done, we have a system to come back to, in a country that hasn't torn itself to fragments.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the 2019 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-three-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.