Given the ongoing focus on Russia’s role in the 2016 election, there’s a detail of the country’s apparent effort to influence American politics that gets lost. The period during which the most targeted Facebook ads were bought by Russians believed to be working for the Internet Research Agency was in 2015, focused heavily on Missouri, Maryland and Ohio.
Why there? Because the Russians were trying to heighten cultural divides and began tracking American politics in 2014. They’d seen unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore following the deaths of young black men at the hands of police. They’d seen the polarization that resulted. And, it seems, they decided to focus on issues of race — a focus that was sustained through and past the 2016 election.
It was just one side effect of the racial tension that erupted in 2014 — a tension that was, itself, one of a number of emergent trends that heavily influenced both the 2016 election and how candidates are positioning themselves for 2020.
2014 was also the year that the Islamic State emerged in the public consciousness as a significant threat. In January, the militant group overran the Iraqi city of Fallujah. In June, Islamic State forces attacked an airfield near Tikrit, Iraq, slaughtering hundreds of Iraqi air force cadets. A number of other attacks extended the group’s territory and left a staggering death toll in Iraq and Syria.
Then-President Barack Obama at first dismissed the Islamic State by comparing it to a junior varsity terrorist squad and then, in August, told reporters that the White House “[didn’t] have a strategy yet” for addressing the group. With the 2014 midterm elections looming, the Islamic State became a focal point of Republican attacks against Democratic candidates.
At times, the purported threat posed by the Islamic State merged with another threat that had spiked as a concern for Americans: that Islamic State fighters would flow across the border with Mexico into the United States.
Over the course of fiscal 2014 — beginning in October 2013 — there was a surge in minors from Central America seeking refuge in the United States from spiking crime in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The arrival of tens of thousands of young people sparked a crisis for the Obama administration, which struggled to house and process the unexpected arrivals. In California that July, a caravan of buses carrying migrant children was blocked by protesters.
This, too, became a central part of Republican rhetoric during the 2014 election. Conservative websites hyped the influx as a threat. Conservative commentators like Laura Ingraham focused pointedly on immigration as an issue, helping oust then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) in the Republican primary in June.
In August of that year, there was an online development that, at the time, seemed distant from the politics of the moment. A group of mostly young men began targeting and harassing women who worked in the video-game industry, ostensibly out of opposition to efforts to make game characters and development more broadly representative. It quickly grew into a sprawling culture war, pitting trolls and open misogynists against people they often disparagingly called “social justice warriors.” Gamergate, as it came to be known, was the first time the Internet had seen such a wide-scale, concerted effort to attack individuals over political issues using tools like doxing (sharing private information about people) and anonymous trolling.
That same month, a black teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson. When Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman the prior year, a movement called Black Lives Matter was formed. Ferguson was the site of the first BLM protest, sparking broad awareness of the movement. The movement grew following the deaths of other black men at the hands of police, including Freddie Gray in Baltimore in early 2015 and the decision of a Staten Island grand jury not to indict a police officer for choking to death Eric Garner in July 2014. BLM protests spread across the country into 2015.
This was probably one spur for a spike in the number of Americans saying that race relations were generally bad, rather than generally good. By the beginning of 2015, the number of Americans saying race relations were bad was at its highest point since the 1990s, according to Washington Post-ABC News polling — a sharp change from views when Obama was inaugurated.
One 2016 candidate, in particular, was ready for that shift.
In June 2015, Donald Trump announced his intent to seek the Republican Party’s nomination in a speech that was heavily focused on leveraging concerns about immigration. He also warned about “Islamic terrorism … eating up large portions of the Middle East,” saying that the terrorists had “become rich” — and so he was, therefore, “in competition with them.”
Trump probably embraced those concerns because he was part of the receptive audience for hard-right rhetoric on immigration and terrorism that was prevalent in 2014. His echoing the rhetoric he heard from conservative media meant he was saying what a large part of the Republican base wanted to hear. He moved to the front of the primary pack and, in a crowded field, cruised far enough into the primaries to secure the nomination.
He kicked off his general election campaign in July 2016 with a speech at the Republican convention that was remarkable for its dark, ominous tone. He warned of criminal immigrants “roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.” He described spiking murder rates in predominantly black cities such as Chicago and Baltimore — both of which had seen civic unrest in the preceding months (the former as a result of a planned Trump visit). He talked about “terrorism in our cities” — a reference to the murder of several Dallas police officers killed by a self-described supporter of Black Lives Matter. (The prior November, he’d shared a false meme blaming black Americans for most killings of whites.) He talked about the threat of terrorism, including the massacre at an Orlando nightclub the month prior by a gunman who had pledged allegiance to the group.
Trump received indirect support from an army of online trolls and members of the “alt-right” who deployed many of the tactics fostered during Gamergate. They targeted Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, and those who supported her. There was a willful push to spread false or misleading information to cast Clinton in a negative light, often excused under the umbrella rubric of “trolling.”
On Election Day, it wasn’t the economy that spurred his support. Clinton was the strong choice of voters worried most about the economy, according to exit polling, beating Trump by seven percentage points. Among those worried about immigration or terrorism? Trump won by about 42 and 22 points, respectively.
Trump has held fast to the same priorities as president. The government shutdown that spanned the new year was a function of his insistence on building a border wall, a campaign pledge that extends back to before his actual campaign began.
But the Democratic Party was also shaped by 2014, in ways that are just becoming apparent.
Over the past two decades, two trends have been shifting the Democratic Party: a move toward a more liberal ideology and a move toward a more diverse base. It took 2014, though, to shift key views on race within the party itself.
The Post’s Scott Clement and Emily Guskin looked at data from the General Social Survey released Tuesday. It shows a marked shift since 2014 and the focus on racial inequity that BLM spurred.
Since 2014, there has been a sharp increase — especially among Democrats and independents — in the number of Americans who believe that the lower economic status of black Americans is mainly a function of discrimination.
This mirrors other research showing a shift among Democrats. It’s not solely a function of BLM and the events of 2014, but that movement and the events that drove it are probably at least one part of the shift.
No group voted more loyally Democratic in 2016 than black women, who, according to exit polls, preferred Clinton to Trump by a 90-point margin. That helped spur a focus within the Democratic Party on nonwhite candidates for office, something that has permeated the 2020 primary field to the extent that former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke has already described his being a white man through the lens of privilege. Members of the Democratic field have embraced the idea of studying the possibility of reparations for historical slavery and discrimination — a policy position that would have seemed nearly impossible several years ago.
Part of the party’s embrace of positions central to nonwhite voters and women is certainly a reaction to Trump’s presidency. But, then, Trump’s presidency is itself a reaction to issues of race, immigration and a terrorism threat that emerged shortly before his candidacy and gave him a viable primary platform.
American history extends far enough back that events of five years ago aren’t the only drivers of this moment. But 2014 looms large in how we got to where we are in this moment.