In Ukraine, anti-Trump strategists confront Russia, Putin

For the past two decades, Mike Madrid has battled Democrats, Republicans, Donald Trump, and an annoying squirrel family that has taken up residence in the eaves of his Midtown Sacramento home.

His latest mission is to confront Vladimir Putin and the substructure of lies and disinformation that the Russian leader has built to support the invasion and attempted conquest of Ukraine.

“This is a war of the digital age, of the information age,” Madrid said via an encrypted mobile phone, before a meeting in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv with the Zelensky administration. “And the Ukrainians are incredibly sophisticated in the way they are developing messaging and building infrastructure to fight back.”

Madrid, a consultant to the republican campaign, has spent much of his political career tackling difficult causes, including the struggle within his party to broaden the GOP’s appeal to working class and Latino votersput an end to the immigrants’ scapegoat and resist Trump’s bigotry and coarseness.

(His battle with the squirrel invaders, with confusing Madrid as an Elmer Fudd in real life, garnered hundreds of thousands of Twitter views and turned his feed into an international clearinghouse for all things squirrel.)

The goal during a 10-day stealth visit to Ukraine, Madrid said, was to help the country strengthen its social media presence by applying some of the lessons he and others learned in the 2020 campaign as part of the troubled project. Trump’s Lincoln.

One was the “need to use humor and humiliation against a tyrant to reduce people’s fear,” Madrid said. “It is better to do [Putin] a clown than a devil “.

People watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on TV

People watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky deliver a virtual speech to the United States Congress in March.

(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

His goal at the Lincoln Project was to reach convincing voters in key parts of the battlefield states. TV commercials and viral videos were the most engaging (and profitable) aspects of the group’s strategy. Madrid’s efforts have been surgical attacks aimed at weakening Trump and helping Joe Biden by leveraging information for analysis.

He placed the digital ads, one after the other, and then measured their effect in real time, using a series of metrics (shares, likes, time spent watching) to determine which messages performed best. She was a master class on online engagement.

Immediately after the elections, Madrid left the Lincoln Project. The departure followed a bitter break with some of its founders, which they faced allegations involving sexual harassment and financial self-treatment.

Despite that unhappy ending, Madrid’s link with the rebel effort indirectly led to Ukraine. A director and information warfare specialistwho is producing a documentary about the Lincoln Project, introduced Madrid and Ron Steslow, a fellow digital strategist and Lincoln Project alum, to Ukrainians fighting Russia online.

Earlier this month the two traveled to Ukraine, accompanied by a Russian information specialist – here with no name for security reasons – to help declare war on Putin on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

The three stealthily met with academics and political activists. They clung to cyberwarriors and senior members of the Zelensky administration. They shared ideas on how to target the public to counter Putin’s propaganda, ways to penetrate Russia’s closed society to tell the real story of the invasion, and ways to engage millions of pro-democracy allies around the world.

They were impressed by the expertise of the resistance and the fortitude and determination of its ranks.

“Ukrainians know their history,” Madrid said. “They will all die before they let Russia take their land. They know what the Russians will do to them. Look at Bucha and Irpin”, A city where Ukrainians claim that hundreds of civilians have been massacred. “You know.”

A self-portrait taken in Madrid at the Independence Square in Kiev, known as the Maidan.

A self-portrait taken in Madrid at the Independence Square in Kiev, known as the Maidan.

(Mike Madrid)

Madrid spoke from a hill outside Lviv, overlooking a series of small plots where farmers were sowing. It was a quiet respite from the air raid sirens, roadside checkpoints, and quiet meetings in dark apartments. An irregular phone connection is faded in and out.

For more than a decade, he noted, Russia has been waging a cyberwarfare against Ukraine, the United States and other countries. After interfering in the 2016 presidential campaign, for Trump’s benefit, Putin and his troll herds continue to do so It floods social media with content aimed at dividing Americans on politics, race, pandemic restrictions and other issues.

The reaction will require new alliances across political parties and national borders, said Madrid, which began flying home on Wednesday.

“We all agree,” he said of his new compatriots, “this will be the future of cyberwarfare. … Networking to bring down regimes that threaten the rise of authoritarianism. Ukraine has built the infrastructure. for what it seems “.

Now, he said, it is up to others around the world to expand and build on those pro-democracy efforts.