You know that feeling when you see someone on television and you think “I know that guy, I’ve met him somewhere but I can’t place it”? That’s the feeling I had when the face of Alexander Nix, the suspended boss of Cambridge Analytica, popped up on screen recently. His tech firm worked for the Trump campaign in 2016 and is at the centre of the Facebook scandal. Everyone involved denies wrongdoing.
Perhaps I should have been more attuned and alert, when Nix’s Cambridge Analytica and the question of what it had done for Trump started to be covered in depth. It came back to me late.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration in early 2017, a good friend had organised a private dinner in London for a small group to discuss politics and drink wine. It was terrific, the wine I mean. Really good. My friend has great taste and a top palate. Perhaps that is why the evening is something of a blur.
Nothing much happened, I think. This is the point where I should be able to give you some scoop on the Trump campaign, but no. If there was one that evening, I missed it.
Nix is getting a global monstering right now and deserves some sympathy in human terms. Facebook, long overdue proper scrutiny and getting it now, needs to spread the blame for manipulating democracy and giving fake news a digital boost. Nix runs, or ran, a small firm and has talked publicly at conferences about his work. He is a convenient target, flak even, for Facebook, especially in the UK as he went to Eton, the nation’s smartest school. Nix is no friend of mine. I met him only once. It just seems bizarre that going to Eton is now deemed license to attack someone in the strongest terms. In my experience, journalists (sometimes on the Guardian) who went to lesser public schools are the very worst for attacking Etonians. I went to a comprehensive state school if you’re asking.
Anyway, what is Nix like? That evening he was pleasant and not remotely arrogant, for someone who had – it is said – just helped get Trump elected. Incidentally, for those saying the digital campaign made no difference, the question must be if digital is overhauling the economy and producing major changes in society – and it is – then is it credible to say that in a contest in which Trump won by only 77,000, across three states, it made no difference? That is an election where Trump and his team campaigned against the old media, with the concentrated use of new media techniques rooted in Facebook advertising. I doubt what happened can ever be mapped on a spreadsheet, but it is a good bet that the CA work made some difference, perhaps even the crucial difference, in changing history.
Several observations about my brief encounter. Nix was clearly bright, in mathematical and business terms. He knew the models and knew what he was talking about on the numbers and techniques. But I recall two aspects of the conversation.
Trump’s woeful inauguration speech came up over drinks before dinner. It was a good speech, Nix said, because it connected with Trump’s “America First” base. There was a pause, as the others digested this. No, responded one of the dinner party. You are missing the point. An inaugural speech is not a campaign rally speech. A US president is the head of state. The idea is that on the occasion when they are sworn in they speak to the country, to all Americans in an attempt to unify. Instead, Steve Bannon and Trump produced a divisive, nasty speech that was in George W Bush’s phrase on the day “some weird shit.”
Later in the evening, I recall that Nix suggested he thought everyone had misread Steve Bannon, the Trumpian strategist, since removed. Steve Bannon, he suggested, was great but best understood as an operator, that is a pragmatist. He is about Steve Bannon, he suggested. There is no ideological thread or mission.
Even the most basic study of Bannon’s career and pronouncements shows that is incorrect. Bannon is alarmingly consistent in what he argues, through his invocation of classical tales and the theme of Western civilisation under assault. You can disagree with his diagnosis, but there is no doubt what he is about.
Oh my goodness, I thought, when this obvious response was put to Nix. Politics is not his thing. Nix helped Trump win. And politics is not his thing.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
That is unusual, really. All the strategists or major players in campaigns one meets usually have a feeling for these calls and assessments of character, history and conduct. They are not always right in their major judgments but those judgments are usually rooted in a natural instinct for politics and how people, the politicians and the voters, behave.
Ironically, Nix ran a company offering a digital service that claimed to be able to model, map and shape opinion, to figure out people and their behaviour through the use data. Reassuringly, it turns out that it can only ever tell you so much.