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Online Populism Explained: An Hour with Joe Trippi

     “I’m a Cortez guy,” Joe Trippi roared at the end of our conversation in the corner office of Howard Dean’s headquarters in Burlington, Vt.  As in: Hernando Cortez, the Conquistador who faced the Aztec hordes five centuries ago with just 400 Spanish troops at his side, and burned his own boats on the beach in case his compatriots thought of leaving prematurely.  Horses, gunpowder and steel made all the difference for Cortez.  The Trippi difference in the Democratic nomination fight has been the Internet. 

     There’s a military note of stunning political incorrectness in the Cortez connection, entirely out of tune with Trippi’s actual record.  He is a congenital liberal from Los Angeles who was mesmerized at age 13 by Robert Kennedy’s victory and martyrdom a few blocks from his home in 1968.  At 17 Trippi read Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail and decided that the man he wanted to be when he grew up was Gene Pokorny, the altar-boyish guerrilla who’d organized George McGovern’s Wisconsin primary campaign in 1972.  Trippi cut his real political teeth marshalling a campus rebellion at San Jose State University and then grape boycotts on behalf of farm workers.  Starting with Ted Kennedy in Iowa in 1979, Trippi has been a field captain on call for any number of leftish Democrats who lost big in the end.  So the Cortez fantasy of a killer instinct and a cool, comprehensive grasp of a technological revolution is a bet on the future, not the past.

     With colleague Josh Ward at the wheel, I went up to Burlington on Wednesday on a reporting mission, to meet the man who didn’t simply find traction for Howard Dean in the blogosphere.  Trippi has kicked the Internet into gear for all time and for all to see.  He may be the only completely modern improvisational master of a power game that is evolving week to week. 

     Dipping Skoal snuff and drinking Diet Pepsi non-stop, Joe Trippi in person has an air of nervous tension and a deeper serenity.  As he explained in a benchmark interview with Larry Lessig last August, Trippi and the Dean campaign both come out of Silicon Valley and the open-source software wars of the mid-nineties.  But just as important, I think, Trippi is a stalwart of the rebels’ and dreamers’ wing of the Democratic party, a devoted student in particular of Gary Hart, who ran the McGovern campaign (and Gene Pokorny) in 1972.  In 1984 Trippi observed Hart’s pebble-and-ripples model of “concentric circles” in an insurgent campaign that almost stole the presidential nomination from Walter Mondale.  Hart’s idea was “run into a town in Iowa.  Just get one person.  That’s your pebble.  Drop your pebble in the water.  And leave.  Let that energy ripple out to other folks in town.”  The wave nearly swamped Mondale. 

     For me the metaphor resonates with the great Emerson essay, “Circles,” and with Stirling Newberry‘s view that the shape of power in the Internet era is shifting from pyramids to spheres.  More to the point, the image of circles stuck with Joe Trippi.  “The Internet,” it dawned on him a couple of years ago, “was concentric-circle organizing on steroids.”

     I had wondered if Trippi, with a Dean nomination plausibly in sight, would be turning his thinking now to the very different business of a general campaign against George Bush.  The answer was that my question was wrong.  Trippi’s thinking began with next fall’s campaign and worked backwards.  The question was how to find 2-million workers and raise $200-million in small contributions against an incumbent Republican with unlimited cash.  An entirely out-of-control, viral Internet contagion was the only means of building those numbers by November, 2004.  The Dean campaign we have seen so far (with half a million recruits and about $30-million in income) is a preview of Trippi’s strategy, not a culmination. 

     Inescapably there will be a fall campaign of Dean TV spots, Trippi said, a sort of barking contest with Karl Rove.  But Trippi’s heart will not be in it.  Television is “an abysmal way to communicate,” he said.  The Internet campaign “gets back to something we had before television, back to neighbors knocking on doors.”  If Trippi is right, the critical conversations among voters about the candidates will be “at the bar and the water cooler,” prompted by bloggers, not ad men.

     What makes him so sure, I asked, that George W. Bush is not “bloggable”?  We tend to forget that one year ago the idea of a quick, righteous and virtually painless war on Iraq made an easily bloggable cause.  War-bloggers, I said, used to be the toast of the Web.  

     Trippi grants the power of the war-bloggers, in the past.  But he seems certain that George Bush is all wrong for the Internet.  “In any medium, you have to say something,” Trippi said, but the Internet in particular puts a premium on a certain style of provocation and a degree of authenticity that Howard Dean commands and George Bush does not.  The other Republican handicap on the Internet, in the Trippi view, is that Bush and Rove have not even begun to unlearn the ancient rules of campaign command and control–rules that Trippi grew up with, too.  “I know how tough it is to undo the wiring upstairs.  But it’s very simple: you cannot command and control the Internet.”

     Our conversation is here in three takes:  Part One outlines some strategic fundamentals of Internet politics.  Part Two is the story of Joe Trippi’s development as an operative.  Part Three is about 2004, including an Internet campaign for Congress. 

     Joe Trippi has a placid assurance that the Democratic nomination is Dean’s, that an epochal change in campaign politics is underway, and that we are on the verge of a historic collision of forces in American life.  

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