In a rare moment of candor in an otherwise typically long and rambling interview then presidential candidate Donald Trump did with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa for The Washington Post in April 2016 he made the following admission:
Donald Trump: I bring rage out…I always have…I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do. I also bring great unity out, ultimately. I’ve had many occasions like this, where people have hated me more than any human being they’ve ever met. And after it’s all over, they end up being my friends.
Woodward has been reminding people of this line recently to sound the alarm that we are “being had” – that Trump is creating fresh provocations for the media to be outraged by almost every day so that we are all just caught up in a rage and can’t separate the truly important transgressions from ones that are a distraction. Woodward goes on to say “he’s doing things to distract us from all the big policy decisions he’s gambling on.” It seems like two years into the Trump presidency people are finally starting to figure out his strategy but it was all laid bare in the interview quoted above from the campaign trail. Trump seems to thrive on bringing rage out in people and furthermore thinks that eventually those very same people will come around and become his friends. The great comedian and media critic Jon Stewart recently echoed what Woodward said in an interview with Christiane Amanpour saying that Trump baits journalists and “appeals to their own narcissism and ego” and is able to distract attention away from his policies and “just focus on the fight”. Stewart thinks we should focus less “on his insults and more on the people being hurt”. On a recent episode of his podcast the journalist Ezra Klein recently addressed Trump’s “ability to jam outrage into the system constantly…so that people don’t have time to digest whatevers just happened or whatever just came out”. He goes on to say that Trump is a “genius at changing the subject by recognising that he can just change the subject to other things people are upset about” and that previous presidents would manage a scandal by changing the topic to something “boring” but “the thing that Donald Trump understands is that the only way to distract from scandal is with scandal and he’s okay with there being negative attention on him, he just wants to control what the negative attention is about.” Klein breaks it down to a scientific level saying “I think that he’s understood that it’s like if something is a -5 charge you can only replace it with something that’s between -4 and -6, you can’t replace it with a +1 and that’s a good insight into how the media works.” Klein recently talked to Whitney Phillips who studied online trolling and talked about how online trolls crave attention, but that journalists can’t help but report on it because it’s so outrageous. She compared trolling strategy to Trump’s war with the media as a “feedback loop predicated on sensationalism.”
This strategy of distraction means that the media rightfully gets whipped into a flurry of outrage over Trump’s latest scandal and therefore bigger policy issues or fundamental problems with his presidency are not making waves in the same way. A case in point is that The New York Times published a blockbuster 13,000 word story of Trump’s history of dodging taxes on Wednesday, October 3rd and went so far as to say that Trump had engaged in “outright fraud”. The story was overshadowed by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings at the moment so the Times even re-published the story in its entirety on Sunday, October 7th. Though the story is damning and hopefully more will come of it, the actual impact has been rather muted. Trump himself dismissed the piece as “very old, boring and often told hit piece”. After the initial publication of the story Trump tweeted that the two women that cornered Jeff Flake in an elevator in the midst of the Kavanaugh hearings were actors paid for by George Soros – possibly as a means to distract from the tax story. ProPublica and WNYC have been doing some fine reporting on Trump as well and published a story implicating Trump and his family in deceptive practices involving their real estate business. The impact of that story was similarly muted. Now that Democrats control the House there is a possibility that these issues will be properly investigated and Robert Mueller’s team could be investigating these items already. Donald Trump is certainly no typical president and he is doing incredible damage to the country and the institution but it would be wise to not fall prey to the Trump-created distractions.