Dark Arts Politics:
Firebreaking, Part 2
Republican John Anderson ran as an Independent for President in 1980. At the peak of his popularity, he was pulling by some polls in excess of 20 percent of potential, registered voters, causing no small amount of discussion of how the Constitution prescribes appointment of a President from those who cannot muster the required number of votes in the Electoral College. The discussions turned out to be entirely academic: by Election Day 1980, Mr. Anderson's support had waned considerably, and his candidacy now stands as something remembered by few. Pundits doing the requisite Monday morning quarterbacking attributed Anderson's fall to the hypothetical voters who finally came to understand in the final days that they would be wasting their votes if they were to cast them for a man who obviously could not win. Perhaps those political analysts were right; but there might have been more to the story.
At John Anderson campaign rallies across the United States, supporters weren't the only ones in attendance. Also milling about were young people carrying piles of flyers. These folks were handing them out to everyone. At some events, the flyers were so thick they were on the floor, on tables, even on the stage where Anderson would be speaking. Although there were several variants, he flyers were all pretty much the same. The title at the top was "An Angry Man," and the document as a whole was a professional piece of work: fairly well-written, no misspellings, two-column layout, justified margins (remember that this was before the advent of modern word processors for the masses), a few quotes, and some citations to sources.
The message conveyed in the document was clear. John Anderson was no liberal. He was, in fact, a conservative, and his record in Congress was right there for everyone to see. He was no friend whatsoever of progressive causes, and he was certainly no man that any self-respecting Democrat should even consider voting for. John Anderson was a wolf in sheep's clothing, and his candidacy was a ruse to help Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan win the election.
In October of 1980, while I was at the rooming house of a friend who had been active in the Anderson campaign, I saw one of those flyers on the side of his desk. On that visit, I also learned that he wasn't "all that interested" in working on the campaign anymore.
Jimmy Carter's people were making inroads. More importantly, they were doing so not among the fickle masses, but among the grassroots workers who had been pumping Anderson's candidacy. How much damage "An Angry Man" did, I can't say; but I do know that it was not completely ineffective. By late October, I was flat-footed trying to defend John Anderson's congressional record. It was only later that I actually read "An Angry Man" and found the talking points right there in plain English. Worse still, mostnot all, but mostof what was in that hit document was true.
Here's your first principle of political action in the dark arts: if you want your candidate to win, "truth" and "facts" are not the issues. You want your candidate to win because you believe in him or her. You've made it through the decision process, and you've even made it through what might constitute some tiny hint of buyer's remorse. By the time you're at the point where you're a political activist for a candidate, truth is no longer a "thing"; it's a weapon, both for you and for your opponents. They're going to swing it at you, you're going to swing it at them; and sooner or later, one side or the other will almost inevitably move past truth, especially if the other side is making it lethal. If that bothers you, then you've already waded way too far into this article.
The political dirty trick of "firebreaking" derives from the firebreak built to fight a wildfire. In Part 1 of this article, two kinds of firebreaks were built: Phil, Dan, and their boys built a fireline; John built a trench. The purpose of both was to deny the spreading fire its fuel. John's trench removed the fuel the fire needed; Phil and Dan's actually forced the fire to eat up its fuel in one place so it had no more ahead of it. In both cases, the fire had nowhere to go from the firebreak. Denied fuel to move forward, the fire died.
The more dramaticand by far the riskierof these two defenses is the fireline; but in either, there's always the chance that the fire will jump the break. Embers can fly through the air a long way. Firefighters out West can tell stories of watching wildfires jump six-lane highways, rivers, and even wide canyons, so you need to keep that in mind as we apply the concept of a firebreak to dirty tricks in political campaigning.
Step by step, here's what you do when the opposition is distributing negative literature about your candidate.
When you get your hands on that flyer, do not under any circumstances get mad and wad it up. Keep that thing pristine like it's a treasure. Get as many copies as you can. The more, the better. You're going to use some of those copies later: you're going to give a few away to select targets; the remainder, you're going to use as a prop. The more of them you gather, the fewer copies you'll have to make on your own nickel. The point is that you want a lot of them.
You probably won't know how long these have been getting distributed, but that doesn't matter. It's important that you know where they're being handed out. Most likely, rallies for your candidate will be a prime distribution location. Consider your candidate's rallies like honey attracting the pests. You'll use this knowledge later, but before you get to that point, you have some serious work to do, and it involves playing in the world of document forensics. You don't need to be an expert, but you do need to work in details.
Take your prize home or to whatever hovel you consider a residence. Sit down with that negative piece of crap the opposition pumped out of the bowel it calls its brain trust, and start analyzing. You're going to work on two levels: technical structure of the document and literary details of the content.
On the technical side, note everything: paper color and weight; text margins on every side; typefaces and font characteristics including point sizes; document layout including use of columns, justification, line and paragraph spacing; use of bold-face, italics, small-caps; flat or sectioned by sub-titles. Your goal is to be able to set everything up on your word processor so you can create a document that looks just like this one.
Now, read the document; and by this, I don't mean peruse it, scan it, look at it, or even merely go through it; I mean read it. And when you've finished reading it, read it again; and keep doing so until you understand exactly how the writer of the document writes. Look for everything: misspellings, repeated comma splices, and odd usages are just the beginning. Dig deeper. Does this writer use what grammarians call "simple" sentences, or does the writer use "compound," "complex," or even "compound/complex" sentences? How consistent is sentence structure from one sentence to the next? Why does the writer break from one paragraph to the next? Is the writer's style breathless or controlled? Does the writer use parentheses a lot?
What you're doing above is what used to be called, before the term became discredited by overuse in television and movies, "profiling." You don't want to know about this writer; you need to become this writer.
Let it sink in. Go back and read the document after a day of thinking about it.
Once you're confident you have it down, you're going to reproduce the document, but you're going to make some changes, and the changes you're going to make are going to turn the original document, which attacked your candidate, into a document that literally savages your candidate. That's right: you're going to write a document that is worse against your own candidate than the original was.
This is where care has to be taken. You want to make the document mean and unacceptable to all but the looniest people, you want to make it less truthful, and you want to marginally increase its stridence; but at the same time, you don't want to go so far over the top that it looks phony or, far worse, actually causes real damage to your candidate in the event that your version gets spread around too widely. In other words, you have to assume embers can fly.
Once you've created this document, make a handful of copies of it. No more than a couple dozen. You've built a bomb, and the last thing you want is thousands of copies of that bomb floating around. It's yours, and the fewer copies of it that are available, the more you control its use and vectors from its source.
Now for a note of caution. The printer you use for the output of your version may very well be embedding a unique signature. Don't use your own printer to print out your version. Take your file to a public library, to the local university or community college, or to someplace else for the final draft printing. And when you make the copies (remembering to use the same color and weight for the copy paper), use self-serve at the copy store, if that's where you're going to make the copies.
Now, you're ready to build the firebreaks.
Copies of the originals need to get into the hands of reporters. Make sure that happens, both at the local level and at the national level. You can be pretty much assured that not one reporter is going to give a rat's ass about what you've sent, and that's just the way you want it. Reporters almost always see themselves as too important for nonsense, and they'll dismiss this as nonsense. It's just politics, and if they have any seasoning at all, they'll think they've seen it all. Although it probably goes without saying, you need to ensure that you can't be sourced to the document you're sending to the media. You want it to look like the opposition is trying to inform reporters of the "facts."
Send the same document out to them again in about a week. You're saturating them with garbage. They'll treat it the same way they treated the first: they'll dismiss it, but this time maybe with a little more annoyance that somebody's trying to tell them how to do their job.
Soon after the second distributionnot more than a couple of dayssend your version to the same people. Then send it again about a week later. You've already established your information distribution pattern with the first document; now you're fitting the distribution of the second document into the same pattern.
In the same time frame that you were sending the original document to the news media, be sure to send the document to the bigwigs in your own candidate's campaign. If they aren't completely clueless dolts, they'll already know about it, but do not take chances on this matter. You might be surprised by how the top end of some campaigns float above it all as if their candidate's "message" is all they need to know about. Don't leave it to chance that the people sitting on the porch know there's a grass fire way down the hill. When you send the original to your candidate's fancy people, put a brief note with it saying, "This is being distributed at our rallies." And for God's sake, don't sign it.
In fact, cover your tracks everywhere. As I'll explain in brutal detail in the next installment of "Dark Arts Politics," you lose your effectiveness if you become personally known, either to the opposition or to your own side. This isn't about you; it's about winning.
Now, concerning that second document, the one you created, make as sure as you can that your own candidate's top people get it and see it. That means you need to send it to them more than once, and you need to send it from different postal stations. At the very least, mail it out from different places in your city, better still from different cities. The wider the net of postal stations, the more it looks like that second document is out there all over the place.
You're trying to build a fuel line. If your candidate bites, the media will already know that this document is out there, and the moral outrage from your candidate's media handlers will have fuel to feed their reaction. Everyone knows this dirt is out there, and the fireline will feed itself.
If your candidate is an idiot, you'll get nothing out of this. If your candidate is something less than an idiot, his handlers will see the two documents together as an escalating campaign of dirty politics, and the second document, containing as it does lies, half-truths, and other manner of dirt, will spur them to action.
If top of the food chain in your candidate's campaign latches on and starts raising Holy Hell, the opposition candidate will have three choices. First, he can deny having anything to do with either document. That won't play very well at all: he's already been attached to a dirty trick that's escalating from one distribution to the next. The rejoinders from your campaign headquarters to his denials will be predictable: "Just where will this guy stop his dirty campaigning?" "What's next on this guy's agenda to trash a decent, God-fearing, patriotic American who just happens to be his opponent in this election?"
Second, he can affirm the first document but repudiate the second. Again, that won't play very well in Peoria. He obviously got cocky: no one said anything about the first piece of crap, so he thought he could get by with a second one; and now that he's getting burned by it, he's just lying when he claims he didn't do the second one.
Third, he can put his head in the sand and pretend it will all blow over. The longer his head is in the sand, the longer that second document can be used to beat on his exposed backside.
You have to understand that what's happening here is a game of chance. The more intense your own, personal campaign to raise awareness of the existence of the two documents, the better your chances of getting the fire to catch the fuel you've set on the fireline. If you're successful, the resulting fire will burn out that grassfire that was creeping along. The opposition candidate will have had damage done to him, and your candidate's campaign people will be none the wiser that they've been used.
That's all fine, but a great deal of what happens in this phase is out of your control. You have to get people's attention at arm's length, you have to get them focused, and you have to hope that they'll react the way you want. All of that is most decidedly not a prescription for a sure hit. Almost nothing will get you certainty when you're doing dirty tricks: it's a game of odds, and the more numbers you bet on, the better your chances of a score.
You've done what you can with the remote control. Now it's time to get up to your second fireline, the one where you'll be right there when the temperature goes up to medium-rare on the meat thermometer.
You've made copies of the second document, and now it's time to take it to the peoplespecifically, the people at a rally for your candidate. You'll need to be patient: if the opposition isn't handing out copies of its own document, you are most decidedly going to keep yours in the bag you'll carry them in. But if the opposition is worth its salt, one or several of its foot soldiers will be there to spread their junk around like clowns handing out candy at a birthday party for six-year-olds.
You need to arrive early. You do yourself no favor by not commanding this trench as quickly as possible. Try your best to identify the troublemakers, and keep your eye on them as the site fills with people. You're going to find this harder than it sounds: operativeseven the rankest amateursaren't going to be obvious.
As a note of caution, all your campaign literature in the bag should be sandwiched in the middle of standard campaign literature in favor of your candidate. You most assuredly don't want some rent-a-cop for your own campaign doing a casual look inside you bag and seeing literature trashing the guy you're working for. That would ruin your fun.
If you've ever been to a campaign rallya good one, not some lame affair where everybody just mills around gruntingyou will have experienced the extraordinary energy one of those events can generate in the expectant crowd. The people get wound up. A candidate who's captured a strong following can expect a room full of cheering, waving, clapping, yelling fans. Before he or she arrives, the crowd builds. Signs are in the air, occasional demonstrators do parades through the crowd, and the noise can almost drown out the obligatory music.
Keep clearly in your mind that you're not there for the festivities. You have work to do. First, you're looking for copies of that original document. We'll assume you see them. You might even have one stuck in your hands by an arm through the packed crowd. Now, it's time to work.
Look around the crowd. Look for the energy. Look for the people who have it in high gear. Bring a copy of your document out of your bag. Show it someone.
"Have you seen this shit?" Get people to check it out. "Someone's passing this out around here. We've got people in here trying to trash our guy." Get people's attention: one by one, redirect focus. Don't hand your document to just anyone, but if someone wants to take it and look at it, that's a good sign. That's the kind of person you're looking for.
Keep going through the crowd. "Have you seen who's handing these out?"
Move quickly. "This needs to stop here and now."
Bring a few more out of your bag. "I didn't see who handed it to me. Look at what it's saying."
Work from the periphery toward the center. Your target is somewhere in the crowd, invisible in plain sight.
In the ideal situation, someone's going to spot the opposition's distributor while you're nearby. If that happens, magnify the spotting. "Are you sure? Omigod!" Get people to notice, especially people who've already seen what you're showing around. This is the moment when you'll know whether you're going to have success or failure.
Watch for crowd movement. You want to see if some small part of the swirl of people start going toward that operative who's your target. If you've tapped the energy of that crowd the right way, you'll see a couple of people push right through the thicket of event-goers and toward the target.
Step back, but keep looking right at where the trouble is about to begin. Tell people you're passing what's going on over there. Act like you're stepping forward to help out. Do not go overboard. You want a small mob, but you sure as Hell don't want a total riot.
Now, you need to leave, and you need to do so quickly and quietly. Ideally, you might want to move to another planet for a couple of days. If your work was good, grassroots opposition folks have found out that it's not, "Tee-hee-hee, I work for my candidate at other candidates' rallies!" They become acquainted with one of the age-old consequences of playing games with dirty tricks politics; to wit, they find out it can get their asses harmed in material ways. That crawling fire for which they were the lame, limp grass suddenly hit serious, high-octane fuel and turned everyone within range from a carbon-based life form into a standing piece of gristle blinking wondrously at the inferno that just did an impromptu cook-out.
That could be you, too, if you're not careful. What you're doing is dangerous as Hell: not only are you trying to burn out a simple grass fire building against your candidate, but you're also using people from your own camp for combustion. That's not cool in anybody's book. It doesn't mean you can't sleep with yourself at night, though. Rest assured, you'll get much better sleep than the ones at the rally who got their backsides kicked.
You've created a deterrent, and the more rallies you attend from city to city, the more chances you'll have to make crawling grass fires burst into flame and die right there and then. And the more you do it, the better you'll get at it. Remember that a few copies of your version of the negative document will be out there. That's good. At the rally, you've created localized, controlled chaos; and when people try to figure out who's handing out what, you will have created even more of it. If you don't understand the power of being the genesis of chaos, you obviously haven't read my article, "I Am Become Battle, How White Be My Tears."
Now, about those documents you sent to the media and to your own candidate. Don't expect miracles. Far too many grassroots activists these days wail about how "weak" their candidates are in attacking the opposition and responding to negative campaign tactics. If that weakness bothers you, look right inside your own ranks and ask, "What are we doing?" Contrary to what you might have seen on the occasional bronze statue from long ago, most generals these days don't ride into battles, and they surely don't dive into trenches to do hand-to-hand combat. That's the job of foot soldiers, and that's what you are. It's just that you're a little different from the average trooperif you want to be, that is.
And about all those copies of the original document you gathered up, keep those handy. A subsequent article in this series will be entitled, "Infiltration, Set-ups, and Intimidation." Those documents might be worth having around if you're up to those kinds of tactics.
Coming up next in Dark Arts Politics: "Foundations"
Part 1 · Part 2