Digital Politics in the Age of Trump

Lara Barger ‘11 is building the next generation of political mobilization online.

Erica Wanis and Brian Brown


Perhaps the central thread of the 2016 presidential campaign has been the frustration of ordinary Americans who feel so disconnected from political influence that they see little hope for their future.

On the Republican side, many working-class white people feel unrepresented in Washington, and fear for their livelihoods and their children’s future amid demographic changes. On the Democrat side, debt-ridden Millennials who thought that they had achieved political relevance with the Obama campaign are disaffected and think big changes need to happen. Both have flocked to the campaigns of political candidates they think give voice to their fears and anger.

What is particularly remarkable about all this is that it happens in a time when we were supposed to be more connected than ever before. Social media infuses virtually every aspect of public – and often private – life, and allows people to spread their impact through their network. Yet for significant portions of the population, all this knowledge seems only to have amplified their awareness of what’s wrong with the world, as publications, campaigns, and interest groups have arisen to stoke fears and put them to use for their own ends.

What would it look like if digital tools and social media could better connect people to the political process, break down ideas of an unresponsive elite, and empower people to affect the world around them?

These are the questions of every day for John Jay Institute alumna Lara Barger ’11.

Lara is the Deputy Social Media Director of the Republican National Committee. She has the wealth of a new generation of analytics and communications tools at her disposal, as she seeks to create new digital connections so people can interface with political organizations.


A Potent Force Beginning to be Realized


Lara is working in a surprisingly underutilized field. Everyone knows social media can help win elections, but only recently have people begun to plumb the depths of more foundational questions about its potential.

Barack Obama's campaign machine was the first to truly appreciate and effectively use social media as a tool to win elections, and it was wildly successful--on a certain level. According to an article published in the January 2013 issue of The National Psychologist,

“[O]bama is the first social media president. In 2012, Obama not only had the expertise on his team, he had an established social media machine up and running. Since social media is about relationships, having a running start building those connections is a distinct benefit. . . . Obama dominated the social media space because his team got how networks work. The real power of social media is not in the number of posts or Tweets but in user engagement measured by content spreadability. For example, Obama logged twice as many Facebook “Likes” and nearly 20 times as many re-tweets as Romney.  With his existing social media base and spreadable content, Obama had far superior reach.”

In many ways, the brave new world of social media seems made for Progressives. As noted in the article, the Romney campaign, and the McCain campaign before that, was slow to appreciate the potent force that social media had come to play in politics. President Obama's election in 2008 and again in 2012 offers a powerful lesson to Republicans that the candidate who wields the tools of social media most effectively is likely the candidate that will end up wielding his pen and his phone from behind a desk in the Oval Office.

But Team Obama’s efforts were mainly about winning elections, not solving any larger structural problems. Amplifying the reach of a charismatic leader hardly goes to the heart of the good digital tools can do. And Democrats complained after both the 2008 and 2012 elections that the infrastructure the campaign built were proprietary, and not shared fully with the long-term party apparatus.

Lara has no such problems—the Illinois native says she is helping to build a 21st century political party that steps beyond 20th century stereotypes.

She explains:

“There are so many misconceptions about Republicans propagated across the social media sphere: Republicans are all old white men, Republicans are disconnected and disengaged, Republicans lack vision for the future of America, Republicans lack new ideas. . . social media offers us an amazing opportunity to correct these misconceptions, and optimizing this opportunity is my job.”

In early 2015, the RNC announced major upgrades to its digital media effort and team, with new hires and new investment in infrastructure. “For the first time the RNC completely integrated our digital, data and technology capabilities to help us identify voters, volunteers and donors with great success in the 2014 midterm cycle. We built the first engineering and data science team that created voter scores, the API and important voter contact applications and our online marketing teams set records,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.

Lara is part of an effort that includes top-of-the-line new technology, and team members who are experts in Big Data, game theory, mobile apps, digital strategy, and social networks. But for her, the goals go far beyond better data.


Timeless Principles, Modern Technology

“Social media,” she says, “is so important because it reaches everyone. Whether it's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or one of the other platforms, there's a way to reach almost everyone and get your message across to people, especially those that a brand or party might not realize is part of their audience.”

This long-term view of an expansive audience is important, especially in (and after) an election that has had so much media coverage. Julia Kiewit ‘09, a free-market policy strategist in Colorado, points out:

“If nothing else, perhaps the attention that has been drawn to the electoral process this season, even if negative, has reminded people that there is a very real process with which we can be engaged. The capacity for electing good leaders still exists...provided informed, thoughtful people are engaged and participate in the electoral process.”

But that’s easier said than done, and getting there will take people who have both a vision for what the American political dynamic should be, and concrete ways of getting there. “To inspire, influence, or lead people, you must channel or transform their image of the future,” explains Nathan Hitchen ‘07, founder of Conservative Foresight Consulting. “Conservative communities of interest must pioneer more strategic and long-term endeavors to transform our present difficulties into future successes.”

Digital media is only one part of how that could happen, but Barger thinks it can be a significant part. “Social media offers ways to tailor the messages to fit both platform and audience. The opportunities for reach and messaging are truly endless.”

Lara’s day-to-day work at the RNC involves strategizing with the broader communications team, generating content and making sure the GOP messaging is consistent across the board, so they can reach the right people and get them engaged. “There is always a trending story or message that we really want to highlight across the various platforms, for example our new Republican Leadership Initiative, which is a program to recruit, train, and empower volunteers.” Trending under the hashtag #leadright2016, this new program is tailor-made for a new political reality in which social media plays a central role. Followers can see photos of volunteers in action on Instagram and Twitter. They can read the latest updates from campaigns across the country and join the conversation themselves through the vast network of grassroots activism available on Facebook.

“A unique path has been carved for me, and I can't wait to see where it takes me. This is just the beginning for me, and for the larger conservative movement.”

Lara says she never envisioned herself working as a social media expert. Her undergraduate study was in theology (though she recently earned a Master's Degree in Political Management), and she says she never could have imagined the ways in which her liberal arts education uniquely equipped her for her current career. In many ways, she credits the John Jay Fellows Program for helping her see that her skill set could be used in non-obvious ways.

When the time came for her to do her externship, she found herself working under the Vice President of Marketing at the Heritage Foundation. Like so many of the externship opportunities facilitated by the John Jay Fellows Program, Lara's work at the Heritage Foundation led to a full time job. In hindsight, she observes:

“I really admire the work that Alan Crippen and the John Jay Institute have done to cultivate leaders across all facets of society. The more of a spread of people through different fields you have, the greater the impact will be. I am honored to be a part of that, to be able to use my skills, education, and passion to help influence the next generation of conservatives in America. It's incredibly exciting.”

When asked about where she sees herself moving forward, Lara says she is very happy in her current role, and confident that she will be prepared for whatever comes next. “Being part of the (Institute) alumni network means there will always be someone that I can connect with to help guide me on a new path, open new doors of opportunity, or simply answer questions.”

It will be fascinating to watch Lara's work within the RNC play out in the months ahead. It has been a turbulent primary season, in which the disaffection of various constituencies has been clearly revealed on both sides of the political aisle. Lara’s grounding in the best ideas of human experience offers great promise when connected with contemporary communications opportunities. Perhaps she can play a significant role in building the next generation of political institutions and connecting the thoughtful, informed citizens needed for their success.


Erica Wanis is a consultant for the John Jay Institute's Center for a Just Society. She resides in New York City, with her husband and two children.

Brian Brown is a digital strategist based in Colorado and the director of communications for the John Jay Institute.