Archive for the ‘Libya’ Category

How “The Great Hack” Misses The Point by ANN MARLOWE JULY 22, 2019 5:19 AM

Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

originally published in on 7/22/19

It portrays Cambridge Analytica as taking advantage of lax controls at Facebook. But that was the least of the company’s problematic behavior.

or a moment, it looked as though capitalism was doing precisely what it is supposed to do, policing itself through the market. Almost exactly a year ago, Facebook’s market capitalization lost $119 billion in a single day when it revealed that 3 million Europeans had closed their accounts and that growth projections had slowed in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

The scandal erupted when British journalist Carole Cadwalladr orchestrated revelations by Cambridge Analytice whistleblower data scientist Christopher Wylie to the New York Times and Guardian, together with a sting operation by the U.K.’s Channel 4 News. Wylie admitted to working with a Cambridge University professor, Alexsandr Kogan, on for-profit use of data from FB profiles that was collected under the premise that it was for academic research. There has been much back-and-forth about when —and if—Cambridge Analytica deleted the data.

As a result, the EU introduced new data protection laws. And six U.K. companies in the Cambridge Analytica group had to declare bankruptcy.

It’s important to realize, though, that Facebook showed no interest in cleaning house for a long time.TheCambridge Analytica scandal made headlines in March 2018, but the basic elements were reported in December 2015 in the Guardian. Harry Davies exposed that CA’s work for candidate Ted Cruz used Facebook data harvested without users’ consent. Facebook refused to comment on Davies’ and others’ reporting.

Up until Trump’s election, there was also an unfortunate tendency for the media to see data harvesting as benign as long as left of center campaigns were the ones doing it. As this breathless 2012 Guardian article details, the Obama re-election campaign used Facebook to reach supporters in ways that would now make many of us queasy. “The re-election team, Obama for America, will be inviting its supporters to log on to the campaign website via Facebook, thus allowing the campaign to access their personal data and add it to the central data store.”

And these days, Facebook’s market price is close to its pre-scandal levels, even as the Federal Trade Commission has voted to fine the company a record $5 billion for misuse of data harvested from 87 million users in violation of its own rules. And while Cambridge Analytica, its parent company, SCL Elections, and four other affiliates filed for bankruptcy, spinoff SCL companies were started in 2017-8 in the U.K. When will we find out what they are up to? When something else dreadful occurs?

The coming Netflix documentary The Great Hack is a missed opportunity to remind viewers of what happened when Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica to collect data from users. The film, unfortunately, is not only dizzy and poorly edited, but gives way too much screen time to an impressionistic sketch of a not-very interesting former executive. Distracted viewers may remember the endless shots of Brittany Kaiser in cars, planes, and luxury hotels, and not notice the wrongdoing underlying it all.

But that wrongdoing wasn’t a bug in the way Cambridge Analytica operated, it was a feature. You could say the filmmakers give Kaiser, now 31, enough rope to hang herself, but that would have required them to question her version of the facts. Kaiser tries to portray herself as a human rights activist, but her work history before CA, the Nigerian election work she initiated for CA, and her current reinvention as a crytocurrency hustler with links to organized crime make that vanishingly improbable.

True, the film also follows an American professor of media studies at the New School, David Carroll, who sued Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections, in the U.K. under U.K. data protection laws, requesting all the data they had collected on him. But the bankruptcy of the UK companies led the UK court to decide against Carroll. On a happier note, The Great Hack also features the successful efforts of Carole Cadwalladr, whose Observer articles about Wylie’s revelations led directly to the collapse of SCL Group and to parliamentary hearings. (Full disclosure: I met Carroll and Cadwalladr in the course of tweeting about SCL, and collaborated on an article with Cadwalladr.)

The most disappointing aftermath of the CA scandal, though, is not Facebook’s impunity or Carroll’s defeat. It’s the way it’s been stovepiped as a case of a bad actor that took advantage of lax controls at Facebook. In fact, the data misuse was the least of the company’s problematic behavior.

Since August 2016, I’ve written or co-written five pieces exposing different aspects of Cambridge Analytica, from its former significant ownership by controversial U.K. property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz to its involvement in the “investor passports” business to its organizing hacking in Nigeria to its links with the Trump inner circle (Steve Bannon, Erik Prince, the Mercers).

My theory is that SCL/CA was a one-stop-shop that handled hacking elections, bribing foreign officials, getting them second or third passports, laundering their money, and dabbling in cryptocurrency. In fact SCL was apparently planning its own cryptocurrency just before the end came.

What was the real end game? It’s hard to say. But it’s interesting that SCL Group, which was incorporated in 2005 in the U.K., had seemingly little interest in making money in the data business. The company managed to lose 99 percent of its shareholders’ equity in its first seven years: “Shareholders’ equity plummeted from: £681,000 in 2006 to a modest £273,000 in 2012 to £4,424 in 2013 and £87,420 in 2014,” as I wrote for Tablet in 2016. ( Equity recovered to $244,194 in 2015, the last year the company filed accounts. )

These accounts were unaudited; the firm’s auditor, PKF, resigned in May 2013, apparently so that the firm could be domiciled at its address. It remained listed as accountant. But no other firm stepped in as replacement auditor.

The biggest SCL Group shareholder between 2005 and June 2015 was Vincent Tchenguiz, an innovative real estate investor with a penchant for conspicuous consumerism. As the Telegraph put it, “Tchenguiz’s motivator is money.”

So why did he stay invested so long in an unprofitable company? Tchenguiz only divested his shares when SCL was about to start work for Ted Cruz. His director, Julian Wheatland, remained a director until the company’s end, and even acquired a small shareholding.

Meanwhile, the key figures at SCL/CA are still riding high, trying to monetize their infamy where they previously tried to monetize our data.

Which brings us to Brittany Kaiser, the former executive turned “whistle-blower.”

When she’s not promoting cryptocurrency, Kaiser is writing a memoir of her “whistleblowing” for a “very high six figures” advance. Meanwhile the real CA whistleblower, Christopher Wylie (the pink-haired young man you may have seen on TV) appears in The Great Hack calling the company “a full-service propaganda machine”, and says Kaiser is no whistleblower.

Unlike Wylie, who left SCL in July 2014, Kaiser stuck with the company long past its sell-by date, leaving in winter 2018 due to a pay dispute, not revulsion at its dishonesty and lack of moral compass. Another problem is Kaiser’s own dishonesty and lack of moral compass.

According to the film and to Kaiser’s publisher, HarperCollins, prior to joining SCL she was “spending most of her career working for progressive political campaigns and human rights organizations.”

But there may even be more than meets the eye to one of Kaiser’s few certified liberal activities. Kaiser says she worked on Obama’s digital campaign alongside fellow Andover alum Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, in the summer of 2007.

Congress questioned Mark Zuckerberg in 2018 about Obama for America’s 2012 campaign which (depending on users’ privacy settings) allowed the same scraping of friends’ data without their permission that Cambridge Analytica’s did.

And contrary to Kaiser’s claims, her work before Cambridge Analystica involved rubbing shoulders with corrupt leaders and power-brokers in Libya, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia and other countries not exactly known for championing human rights.

Podcast episode cover image
Tim Miller on the Awfulness of Mike Pompeo
On today’s Bulwark Podcast, contributor Tim Miller joins host Charlie Sykes to discuss Pam Bondi’s impeachment debut, Bo…
It was at a buzzy downtown Manhattan loft party in mid-November 2015. An acquaintance sang out to me as I walked in, ”You have to meet Brittany, you both worked in Libya!”

Brittany Kaiser was smiley and agreeable and young and disarmingly short; she said she’d been a human rights activist in Libya, where I’d worked as a journalist in 2011-12.

It was Kaiser’s bad luck that one of my companions at the party was Libyan, a former private banker with a huge stock of acquaintances. So we hit Kaiser with questions about what she did and for whom.

My Libyan friend had attended a May 2013 foreign direct investment conference in London that Kaiser herself had helped organize, and my friend lost no time in excoriating the then-prime minister whom Kaiser had worked with on the conference, Ali Zeidan, as “a big thief.” (He fled Libya in March 2014 after presiding over its looting and political collapse, and when he tried to return in August 2017 he was promptly kidnapped and lucky to escape the country with his life.)

My Libyan friend had heard enough and walked away in search of food. I continued peppering Kaiser with questions. I challenged her, asking why a “human rights” activist had worked with thieves like Zeidan. I was offensive. But Brittany wasn’t offended; she muttered something about having been very young then. She wasn’t very articulate, but she never lost her cool. She said she worked for a political consulting firm now. She even gave me her business card before we parted.

I found Kaiser’s activities so suspect that though it was late when I got home from the party I sat down at my laptop and went straight to the Companies House website to look up SCL Group Ltd, Kaiser’s employer. I also found the firm she’d worked for on the FDI conference, PACE Group. There was an advance promotional slide deck online.

In the next days, I pieced together part of the story. Kaiser incorporated Pan African Conference and Exhibition (PACE) in January 2013 with a woman from Sudan, Asgad Hagaz, who owned 999 of the company’s 1,000 shares, with Kaiser owning one. Hagaz and her husband Tariq Mohammed were known in the London Libyan community as Gaddafi supporters. PACE also worked with the embassy of Ethiopia in London in May 2014 on investment opportunities. Yet PACE doesn’t seem to have ever had a website.

According to the slide deck online, the “platinum sponsor” of the May 2013 conference that Kaiser organized was ODAC, a Libyan state contracting board helmed from 1989 to 2011 by Ali Ibrahim Dabaiba, a corrupt official said to have stolen more than $2 billion from the Libyan state. Another Libyan friend in London who attended the PACE FDI event thought the real purpose of the conference was to reinstate these corrupt contracts with the new ODAC management. (Coincidentally, when I met Kaiser I was researching the assets stolen by Ali Dabaiba. So it was Kaiser’s double bad luck to run into someone who knew what ODAC was.)

PACE never filed a return or accounts; it was dissolved by compulsory strikeoff in September 2014, presumably for non-filing.

In August 2013, according to her LinkedIn, Kaiser joined a related, equally shadowy group, Pathfinder Trade. Kaiser’s bio for Pathfinder lists work in such beacons of human rights as “Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Burma (sic), Azerbaijan, Mongolia and Iran.” (Oh, and China.) Pathfinder itself lists a seeming charity, World for Libya, as a “strategic partner” on its website. But World for Libya was also set up as a vehicle for political influence by associates of the kleptocrat Dabaiba family, as noted in a Wall Street Journal expose.

It may or may not prove to be relevant to the Kaiser-SCL saga that as I published in January 2017,

Tchenguiz did a £20 million trade-offset deal with Gadhafi in 2008, and was formerly half-owner of a London estate agency, now called Chestertons, which sold the office tower at 14 Cornhill to the Libyan Investment Authority in 2008.

Tchenguiz’ partner in Chestertons, Salah Mussa, a British Libyan, was the founder of World For Libya. So it could be that Kaiser came to the attention of the Mussa-Tchenguiz-Wheatland team in her PACE/Pathfinder days.

As this background suggests, Kaiser did not unwittingly slide down a slippery slope into involvement with nasty causes and people. She jumped down willingly.

But The Great Hack doesn’t begin to suggest how far over to the dark side Kaiser and her associates went during their tenures at SCL.

Kaiser initiated SCL’s work on the Nigerian presidential election of 2015, in an email she sent my source on December 19, 2014. My source on Kaiser’s Nigerian involvement was a former associate of Nigerian billionaire Benedict Peters. My source was furious at what he viewed as SCL’s incompetence, which is why he was willing to talk; later he also had a falling-out with Peters.

Peters was close to the incumbent Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, and former oil minister Diezani Alison-Madueke, who was first arrested for massive corruption on October 10, 2015, in London, some months after the SCL work in Nigeria described here.

The elections were slated to take place in February 2015—far too soon after Kaiser’s pitch to mount a proper digital campaign. (The election actually took place 28-29 March 2015 due to security issues.) My conclusion is that SCL had no intention of organizing a campaign based on its much-trumpeted personality profiling. They had cruder methods in mind, requiring a lot less time and effort.

The agreement was that Peters would pay SCL Group almost $2 million to work to re-elect Goodluck Jonathan; in addition, one of Kaiser’s friends, Chase Ergen, would obtain diplomatic passports from the Caribbean island of Dominica for Peters, Alison-Madueke, and one other Nigerian businessman. Such passports offer visa-free travel to 135 countries, including the Schengen area while Nigerian passports only offer visa free travel to 45 countries, mainly in Africa. In addition, people who fear indictment and confiscation of their primary passport may attempt to acquire others. (Ergen, a son of DISH chairman Charlie Ergen, is close to Dominica’s longtime PM, Roosevelt Skerritt.)

Most of the $2 million from the Peters group was wired to SCL’s London bank, but a few hundred thousand—my source couldn’t recall the exact figure—was sent to the Swiss bank account of what he called “ Israeli hackers with a Kiev company”. The Israelis did the real work: hacking Goodluck Jonathan’s opponent Mohamed Buhari. (Some of my source’s charges, including illegal hacking of Buhari’s financial and medical records, but not the passport deal, were verified by other sources in this article by Carole Cadwalladr.)

Despite SCL’s efforts, Goodluck Jonathan lost to Buhari in 2015. In March 2019, Buhari won a second term. Since then, Diezani Alison-Madueke has been arrested on money-laundering charges in both Nigeria and the U.K.; she had to return $153 million in state funds to Nigeria.

Speaking of the dark side, to the extent that anyone’s taken the fall for SCL it’s been Kaiser’s boss, the nervous, arrogant SCL Group CEO Alexander Nix. He refused to be interviewed for The Great Hack” but is nonetheless shown often on-screen, most memorably presuming to lecture MP Damian Collins, the head of the parliamentary inquiry into fake news before which he testified.

Nix also appears in famous clips from a Channel 4 (U.K.) sting video released March 19 2018 – the same day that the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office or ICO requested a warrant to search SCL’s offices. In the video, Nix tells a man he believes to be a potential foreign client, actually a reporter in disguise, about the SCL’s use of honeypots. He’s accompanied by the much older Mark Turnbull, a Bell Pottinger veteran then at SCL. (From 2004 until 2012 Turnbull ran Bell Pottinger’s Specialist Unit in Conflict Transformation. Bell Pottinger is better known in the U.K. than in the U.S. It collapsed in September 2017 amid allegations of inflaming racial tensions in work for South African clients, after a long history of work for dictators and rogues.)

Nix was supposed to appear on a panel at the annual Cannes Lions advertising convention this June but had to step down due to the outcry among attendees, including one past award winner who cut up his Lion prize in protest.

Nix’s last business venture, however, still exists, albeit without him. Nix and the CA gang started a new company, Emerdata Ltd., in the U.K. August 11, 2017, a week before the Delaware Cambridge Analytica LLC director Steve Bannon left the White House. Six of its 10 directors have resigned due to the Facebook scandal – Nix resigned March 28, 2018 shortly after resigning from SCL itself—but not Emerdata’s most notorious directors, Rebekah and Jennifer Mercer.

People like Nix and Kaiser don’t give up easily. They just keep plugging away, starting new companies with new hustles. And so just a few months after the collapse of CA, on June 7, 2018, a former director of Emerdata, Ahmad al-Khatib, 29, started Auspex International Ltd with Mark Turnbull, Nix’s co-star in the Channel 4 sting video.

Al-Khatib is one of the sons of Ashraf Hosny al-Khatib, an executive in the UAE crown prince’s court. The court is headed by a brother of the de facto ruler of the UAE, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

According to the unintentionally humorous press release, “It was Turnbull’s integrity, along with his strong track record in strategic consultancy and campaigning, that persuaded Al-Khatib to appoint him.” (Turnbull’s old firm Bell Pottinger had worked for the Abu Dhabi Airports Company and Emirates Airline.)

The Great Hack treads lightly about what Kaiser has done since leaving SCL, which is, besides the arduous task of self-promotion, crypto-hustling.

Kaiser’s LinkedIn lists her as co-founder of Bueno Capital, in the “Zurich area”, since September 2017.) What does Bueno do? The website listed on its LinkedIn page no longer works nor is there any information on who registered it. But one can consult a video from “CryptoHQ,” a side event at Davos 2018 Kaiser was involved with, to watch a lavishly fur-coated Kaiser explain “we work on building teams for blockchain projects and implementing them” and gush that it’s “the greatest time” to get involved with crypto: “The only alarm bell is there’s not enough developers to keep up with the boom.”

Kaiser has also made the time to serve on the advisory board of a crypto junketing company in neighboring Macau, DragonCoin, which has drawn the wrong kind of attention for being associated with Broken Tooth, aka Wan Kuok-koi, a scary convicted felon from Macau’s organized crime triads. Broken Tooth, recently released from prison after serving a 14-year sentence, is banned from Hong Kong.

If you don’t know much about what Kaiser did, her youth and carefully cultivated air of naivete may fool you. Or, if you are involved in fooling others, you may accept her as a kindred spirit. Some elements in the crypto “space” accept Kaiser as a whistleblower on SCL—as she was billed at a recent Hong Kong gathering (video here). Just this month, an Austin company reminiscent of London’s wilder AIM market rides, Phunware, named Kaiser to its advisory board.

Phunware, which describes itself as “a fully-integrated enterprise cloud platform for mobile,” commented that “Brittany has been at the epicenter of the global movement toward privacy, consumer protection and corporate accountability.” Phunware’s stock price has gone from over $300 in February to $2 today.

Ann Marlowe

Terror and Slow Justice: Dragging Libya to court for a deadly 1989 hijacking.

Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

originally published in The Weekly Standard, Sept 4 2017

Few Americans noticed, but this past June, Muammar Qaddafi’s longtime spy chief Abdullah Senussi was apparently released from prison in Tripoli, where he had been sentenced to death in July 2015 for decades of officially sanctioned murders of his fellow Libyans. If Senussi was not released—everything is murky in Libya—he was at least seen at a festive meal at a Tripoli hotel.

Justice has been a long time coming to Senussi, one of six Libyans convicted in a French court in 1999 for the murder of 170 people on UTA Flight 772, the “forgotten flight” of the title of Stuart Newberger’s book. The DC-10 had left Brazzaville, Congo, on September 19, 1989, and reached its first stop, N’Djamena, Chad. It took off from N’Djamena for its final stop, Paris, but 45 minutes after takeoff a bomb exploded and the plane broke into four sections that plunged from the sky, some of the passengers likely still conscious when they smashed into the Niger desert.

Newberger, a lawyer who represented the seven Americans killed on Flight 772, writes that it is unlikely Senussi will leave Libya alive. But his own narration of decades of terror by Qaddafi and others, and decades of appeasing international responses, should make us wonder. One condition of the release of the American hostages from Iran in 1981 was that they could not sue Iran. Many laws have been passed since to assist victims of terror in seeking redress in civil lawsuits in the United States, but as Newberger’s UTA 772 case shows, legal judgments can always be overtaken by political events. The results are rarely fair to the victims of terrorism and their loved ones.

Newberger is most engrossing in describing the work supervised by France’s Jean-Louis Bruguière, an 11th-generation investigating magistrate, which he calls with some justice “one of the greatest detective stories of all time.” The plane’s debris—and the passengers’ remains—were scattered over a 50-by-5-mile area of remote desert in an era before GPS, mobile phones, Google Earth, and many other contemporary tools. Remarkably, within four weeks the remains of a suitcase were found; it tested positive for plastic-explosive residue.

Bruguière leveraged France’s good connections in Congo, where it turned out the bomb entered the UTA plane in a suitcase carried by a Congolese, Apollinaire Mangatany. His small group of revolutionaries aimed to overthrow Mobutu, the dictator of neighboring Zaire, and they accepted assistance from Libya’s Brazzaville embassy. In revenge for France’s support of Chad in the recently ended Libya-Chad war, Mangatany’s Libyan handlers supplied him with a suitcase containing explosives, telling him it was intended to blow up the French plane when it sat on the runway in N’Djamena. Mangatany may not have been killed in the explosion: His remains, along with those of over 60 of the other passengers, were never identified, and it’s possible he got off the plane in Chad and disappeared.

By June 1990, physical evidence surfaced indicating Libya’s involvement. Newberger details the patient police work that tied a tiny piece of green plastic circuit board found at the crash site to the German middleman who sold 100 Taiwanese-made timers to one of Abdullah Senussi’s subordinates in the Libyan Mukhabarat (intelligence service). The Germans apparently had thought they were providing timers for battery-operated runway lights on remote desert airstrips in Libya.

In October 1991, Bruguière issued international arrest warrants for four Libyans—including Senussi. But none was extradited: Libya doesn’t allow its citizens to be tried for crimes outside the country, and Libya’s lawyers pointed out at the time that France doesn’t either. Eventually Bruguière charged Senussi and five other Libyans with destroying UTA 772; they were convicted in absentia in 1999.

Meanwhile, in November 1991 a Scottish prosecutor had indicted Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, apparent Libyan Mukhabarat agents, for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988, which resulted in the deaths of 259 passengers and crew, as well as another 11 people on the ground. The majority of victims aboard that flight were American and the crash site was easy to reach, so it received much more media attention than UTA 772. Yet even for Pan Am 103 it would take until 2003 for a compensation deal to come together, and it was not finalized until 2008.

Newberger entered the story in April 2002 when he was contacted by Douglas Matthews, the billionaire owner of the DC-10 leased to UTA. Matthews wanted to bring a civil suit against Libya for the destruction of his $40 million aircraft, and his lawyer knew of Newberger.

Newberger had become famous in 2000 for winning $40 million in compensatory damages for newsman Terry Anderson, held hostage for seven years by Iran. This lawsuit was only made possible by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and by 1996 amendments to the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. These measures, enacted in response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, allowed for the waiving of sovereign immunity to bring lawsuits against states that sponsored terrorism, and allowed commercial assets of these countries to be seized in the United States. It took the passage of still another law for Anderson to collect his judgment from $400 million in Iranian government funds frozen in the United States.

The UTA 772 suit was filed in 2003 and took its name, Pugh v. Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, from Robert L. Pugh, a diplomat who survived the U.S. embassy attack in Beirut in 1983 and was ambassador to Chad in 1989. His wife Bonnie had been one of the seven Americans killed on UTA 772. It took until 2008, with Libya delaying every step of the way, but Pugh resulted in a massive judgment of around $6 billion in favor of the American plaintiffs. Here is where Newberger and the families involved in his case find out that “politics was more powerful than law”—because (spoiler alert) a political agreement ended up having a large effect on the settlement. The relatives who participated in the Pugh suit were each eligible to receive $10 million, just a tenth of what they would have received under the court judgment against Libya, had it been allowed to stand.

Newberger’s book is at its best—clear and fast-paced—when discussing the details of policework. The book would have benefited, however, from an editor who could have steered the author away from some formulaic descriptions and clichés. Also, it would have been compelling to hear the voices of the Pugh plaintiffs that Newberger represented, were they willing be interviewed and quoted. And, given the complicated nature of the story Newberger is telling, the absence of a timeline is keenly felt.

In the years since the Pugh case was decided, the struggle to use our legal system to bring terrorists and their supporters to justice has continued. A law passed in 2016—the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which was enacted in the only override of a presidential veto in the Obama years—allows federal courts to exercise jurisdiction over foreign states charged with supporting terrorism, regardless of whether the state is designated a sponsor of terrorism. This change in the law made it possible, earlier this year, for many of the families of the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia in civil court. This is a welcome development, but if there is any lesson to be found in Newberger’s book, it is that expectations should be tempered, since justice can be very slow in coming.

Stop Donald Trump from Colonizing Your Brain

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

Originally published on on May 21 2017:

Like a Libyan dictator of old, the leader is everywhere, including inside your head
By Ann Marlowe
May 21, 2017 • 10:00 PM

I keep trying to finish this essay, but every six three hours or so there’s a major new Trump scandal to react to.

It reminds me of a remark in the German filmmaker Wim Wenders’ 1976 movie Kings of the Road. A German character says that Americans have “colonized our subconscious.” He means the music, the movies, the blue jeans that formed hipster identity in 1970s Germany.

Trump has colonized our subconscious—in fact, he was succeeding at that even during the campaign. (Too many were ready to embrace a psychopath who had no internal censor because a decade of stultifying political correctness had led to a craving for something that felt like truth-telling, even if it wasn’t.) And now a fevered fixation on Trump, Trump, Trump is playing into his hands.

Usually, you have to be a dictator to accomplish this. What’s happening here reminds me of visiting Libya in the first heady days of its freedom from Gadhafi.

I spent about six weeks in eastern Libya in spring 2011, when a million people woke from a 42-year-long nightmare and dipped their toes into ordinary life again. The most emblematic story I heard in Benghazi was told to me by someone who, even more than today’s citizen activists, dropped everything to do what she thought was right. She was a dental professor who, on Feb. 17, 2011, walked out of the classroom where she was grading exam papers and didn’t go back for seven months. It was more important to help make a new society.

This brilliant woman, Iman Bugaighis, eventually did go back to teaching. She also spoke repeatedly of the need to root out the “little Gadhafi in our heads.” Without doing that, she said, there would be no real democracy in Libya. (Today, there’s too much democracy in Libya. But that’s another story.)

From what Iman and many other Libyans told me, Gadhafi’s regime was omnipresent. The TV, the radio, the posters in the street, and the photos in government offices: Gadhafi, Gadhafi, Gadhafi. You were never able to get him out of your head.

Another Libyan spoke of the regime’s “organized confusion,” a deliberate effort to govern by impulse so that no one could think straight and organize to resist. The regime did crazy things to make sure you paid attention. One day, the school curriculum might be totally changed, or the military academy moved hundreds of miles, or English and French books banned, or any madness you can imagine.

Once your life revolves around hating someone, you’re finished as a thinker, artist, human
Starting to sound familiar? In totalitarian societies, the need to focus obsessively on the regime helps grow a little Leader inside one’s head. Even in opposition, there’s no escape. And once your life revolves around hating someone, you’re finished as a thinker, artist, human.

Since Trump’s election, friends of mine who had no prior interest in politics, people who never even voted most of the time, have been marching, Tweeting obsessively, talking about getting involved with “the resistance.” Some are arty people who are far to the left, others are rentiers, bon vivants. Before the election, some were spending money and enjoying life. Others were involved with Mandarin art activities, pursuits that no longer seem urgent.

Meanwhile, I’ve met other people from a wide range of professions who have been doing anti-Trump research, often very good research, as citizen journalists. Twitter is full of their work, even though it’s the shrill simplifiers who get most of the attention.

It’s like what happened to many Americans after Sept. 11. Some joined the military or got a degree in Middle Eastern studies. More eccentrically, I learned Farsi and went to write about Afghanistan.

Is this drastic change in interests healthy? Yes and no. Yes to the point where it corrects an unhealthy ignorance of political matters and isolated self-absorption. But no, when you stop producing or consuming culture or art. No, when you can’t get Trump out of your head.

I force myself to stop checking Twitter and read a book instead, preferably one written a long time ago and in a foreign language. Go to a museum now and then. An opening. Moderation. Balance. Pick a piece of the work and do it, steadily and surely. I think of an almost 2,000-year-old rabbinical edict: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”