During the 2016 presidential campaign and throughout his first nine months in office, Donald Trump’s strategy for keeping his face in the headlines while also controlling the narrative has been about creating misdirection to obfuscate the issues he doesn’t want us to talk about. It’s like a child’s magic trick, and not much more complicated.
Often the issues he’s distracting us from are various near-catastrophic screw-ups by Trump himself. At the very least, we know he’s aware of what’s going around him. While he’s incompetent at most things, he has a liminal sense of bad news and how to wiggle out of it. This is what he’s always done, stretching back to the 1980s. Trump has to control the freak show, and we need to stop making it so easy for him.
Over the weekend, Trump tweeted something about how his demonization of the “fake news” -- aka the “dishonest media” -- appears to be working, given that 46 percent of voters in a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll believe bad news about Trump is fabricated.
This is a fantastic example of how Trump often blurts information in a deliberate vacuum. Statistics without context are meaningless, even though he successfully tricks his people, over and over again, into accepting them at face value. For example, Trump likes to brag about the gains in the Dow Jones average since Election Day but refuses to provide context showing the upward trend has been rolling along steadily since 2009. Likewise, he’ll never mention that another recent poll from Quinnipiac shows that American voters trust the news media more than they trust Trump, 52 percent to 37 percent. Oops.
We’re not breaking any news when we suggest that Trump lives in the “eternal now.” He’s like a goldfish with a 20-second memory, forgetting everything that came before and incapable of pondering what’s next -- each 20-second go-around expiring to make room for another news cycle of his own creation. Trump doesn’t discriminate. He’ll say or do just about anything in order to extricate himself from a tight spot or to lure the news media down a pointless and distracting rabbit hole.
The problem is that we can’t and probably shouldn’t ignore what the president has to say. Holding him accountable for his tweets or his crazy-eyed pronouncements at cabinet meetings and joint press conferences is mandatory. It’s a fact of life. Whatever the president says is news that ought to be reported and debated. He controls our nuclear arsenal, alarmingly enough, so what he says matters. It’s built into the political process. The problem is that as Trump leans on the food-pellet button, our Pavlovian response is to continue to follow his lead. The more he tweets about Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., referring to the flamboyant legislator as “wacky,” the more we continue to cover the multiple aftershocks of the initial poop-tweeted Trumpquake.
This allows Trump to seize the initiative every time, with the only exception being the ongoing reporting on the sustained Russian attack on our democratic process. This is where the print media, in particular, has held tightly to the narrative and pushed onward, despite whatever monstrosity Trump has belched into the world that morning. It can be done. The Russia story perseveres, while reporting on other events in the Trump era are too often based on his knee-jerk pronouncements, many of which are hand-picked or influenced by the giggling couch tumors on "Fox & Friends." (Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade are responsible for a significant prong of the Trump agenda. Yes, it’s that bad.)
Unfortunately, we prefer the freak show over substance. We always have. It’s sexier and easier to understand. The freak show fits conveniently into 140 characters. In an era when digital traffic is the life-support system keeping journalism alive, the press will mostly give us what we think we want. If we ask for a week-long news cycle that ignores the substance of four soldiers killed in action in favor of a he-said-she-said between Wilson, Trump and White House chief of staff John Kelly, then the press and cable news are going to give us the latter, with the substance shuffled off to footnotes and throwaway remarks. (Consumers have more control over the product than we realize.)
The big questions and the unnerving substance of the Niger story aren’t being discussed because Trump is using his platform to make the story entirely about “wacky” Wilson. (His word, not mine.) Lost in the chaos of Trump’s eternal now are several key questions that aren’t being forced into Trump’s face: What happened in Niger? Why were these soldiers killed? What was Trump’s engagement in the mission? What has changed recently that made this patrol, which had occurred dozens of times without event, so deadly?
Could it be that Trump’s Muslim ban happened to include a ban on immigrants from the nation of Chad, convincing its military commanders to withdraw their critical support in our multinational fight to stop Boko Haram from establishing a caliphate in central Africa? Possibly. Is this what we’re all tweeting about today? Of course not. We’re all hitting Trump and Kelly based on their latest close-up magic trick. It’s fine to talk about what they’re saying, but we really and truly have to eat our veggies, too.
We have no choice but to start turning around Trump’s tennis-ball machine to face him point blank, rather than absorbing every shot ourselves. If we don’t, we concede the battlefield to Trump every time. Worse, it’s getting to a point where we can probably recognize Rep. Wilson’s hat with more familiarity than the location of Niger and Chad on a map. Trump’s freak show wins again.
In Patton Oswalt’s brilliant new Netflix standup special, “Annihilation,” he described the challenges of covering Trump's presidency as a comedian. He observed that as soon as he develops a joke about something Trump has said or done, it's almost immediately old news, replaced by whatever the newest outrage might be. Oswalt said it's like seeing a mentally ill person on the street playing with his own feces, but as soon as you turn to your friends to say something about it, they interrupt you to say that the guy has sculpted his shit into a sombrero. Some days it's impossible to keep up.
Those of us covering Trump for a living are more than familiar with this problem. The press, however, shouldn’t be as indulgent of the outrageousness, given the near-total invisibility of the underlying substance. The discussion can’t always be about the misshapen orange man playing with his poop-sombrero. The news cycle should ultimately be driven by why he’s doing it, coupled with the negative societal and political consequences.
Both the press and consumers of news bear equal responsibility in securing the narrative. We have a responsibility to not allow the freak show to go viral every single time. As long as it does so, Trump wins. This is what he wants us to do. He wants us to keep his name at the top of every “trending” widget there is. As any tabloid star of 30 years will tell you, they have to control our gawking eyes or die, and more crazy equals more eyeballs. Our best weapon against Trump is to deprive him of what he wants most. Make him react to us, and not the other way around. There’s no reason why millions of us can’t do it. And then we win.