In 2020, Trump's distraction superpowers have finally stopped working

Trump shoved every scandal off the front page by generating five new outrages — but that's not working anymore

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 9, 2020 1:00PM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump steps off Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on June 21, 2020 after returning from a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump steps off Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on June 21, 2020 after returning from a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump is dumb — so dumb he literally suggested on live television that scientists should explore injecting household cleaners into people's lungs to cure the coronavirus. But due to what appears to be a serious and undiagnosed personality disorder — his niece Mary Trump, who is a clinical psychologist, suggests it's likely narcissism or sociopathy — Trump managed to stumble backwards into a strategy that works well with the 24-hour cable news ecosystem of national politics. Actually, "strategy" may be too strong a word, but it's inarguable that Trump's short attention span, impulsive nature and all-consuming corruption have meant a constant deluge of scandals and outrages, with each one knocking the last one out of the headlines. 

The result has, impossibly, redounded to Trump's advantage. Because no one scandal lingers in the headlines and cable chyrons too long, his scandals and failures have taken on an ephemeral nature. Much of the public, which only half watches the news at best, has no idea how serious the situation is, since no single story sticks around long enough to make an impression on voters who aren't compulsive political junkies. Even those of us who spend 12 hours a day engaged with the news cycle lose track of how serious the situation is.

Remember Hurricane Maria? The assassination of Qassem Soleimani? The fraudulent Trump University? The Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki? Trump does one evil or stupid or corrupt or criminal thing after another, and no one can keep up with it all. In contrast, Hillary Clinton was sunk by a single scandal that shouldn't have even been a scandal — her use of a private email server — but got so much sustained attention for months that it came to define her candidacy. 

But 2020 appears to be the year that Teflon Don's superpower of distracting us from one scandal with the next one is finally starting to fail him. He now faces two stories that he can't push out of the headlines, no matter what outrageous things he says or what antics he pulls: The coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protest movement. Going by his abysmal approval ratings, it appears that Trump is just as vulnerable as any other politician to being defined by a negative story that lingers in the headlines day after day, week after week, month after month.

It's no longer background noise. People are paying attention, finally, to how bad this president really is. 

The coronavirus, in particular, has been a source of frustration for Trump because pandemics, being completely indifferent to the demands of the short-attention-span news cycle, work on their own timeline. Trump's erratic efforts to control the narrative, which were so effective in the past, are falling apart in the face of a virus that bides its time and has a much, much longer attention span than Trump can muster. 

Witness what is playing out in Oklahoma, for instance. Back in June, Trump scheduled a rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth weekend — a blatantly racist trolling tactic that ended up backfiring when the rally turned out a small fraction of the crowd that was promised, filling barely one-third of the arena, with no overflow audience for the massive stage set up outside. 

The internet had fun for a day, making fun of Trump's George Michael Bluth walk back to the White House, of course. But there is no doubt this is the sort of story that, in previous years of the Trump administration, would have been largely forgotten a few weeks later, as the news cycle moved on while the next dozen Trumpian provocations and scandals were dished out. 

But here we are, two and a half weeks later, and the Tulsa rally is still on the front page of the New York Times, thanks to the coronavirus. 

"Coronavirus Surge in Tulsa 'More Than Likely' Linked to Trump Rally," reads a Thursday Times headline.

It turns out that the incubation period for coronavirus is the equivalent of three to seven typical life cycles for a Trump scandal, which means Trump won't be able to move past this Tulsa scandal at anything close to the speed with which he's become accustomed. No, this is going to be a slow burn: Cases are likely to keep growing at their own pace, indifferent to Trump's desire to create shiny distractions that make everyone forget how cruel and irresponsible it is to hold rallies where social distancing and mask-wearing are strongly discouraged. 

Trump may want to "move on" from the virus, but alas for him, the virus doesn't care what you think. It's going to stick around and keep doing it's thing, especially when confronted with spineless policy-makers beholden to a president who can't sustain the attention needed to mount a real, long-term strategy to control or defeat the virus. 

A similar phenomenon is playing out with the Black Lives Matter protests. In this case, the story has been sustained by the concentrated efforts of activists across the country, who have kept the protests up, day after day for weeks now, making it impossible for Trump to move on, even if he wanted to. 

The wild part about this, however, is that Trump doesn't even seem to want to move on. The same deep psychological damage that has allowed him to hijack the news cycle with his tantrums and impulsive tweets has also made it impossible for him to pivot away from the BLM protests. He's both a racist and a cable news addict, and as such, he can't help but keep on reacting to the protests and — being a glutton for attention — doing everything in his power to thrust himself center stage.  

Well, count him successful at doing that, anyway. A story that started out being about protests against police brutality is now largely about Donald Trump. He keeps lashing out at protesters, tear-gassing people to create an idiotic photo-op and making false accusations about Bubba Wallace, a Black NASCAR driver who has spoken out in favor of the protests. He has even let the protests completely dictate his campaign strategy, scrapping whatever else his minions might have come up with to recenter the entire campaign around Trump's anger at seeing protesters tear down Confederate monuments. 

These actions have only served to draw the protests out more, fuel more anger, and make sure the story of Black Lives Matter stays at the top of the headlines, instead of falling away in favor of whatever chaos is emanating from the White House this week. Because the larger story has stayed front and center, that means media outlets are giving more space to the continued investigations into the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others, publicizing details that, in other times, would have gotten buried under supposedly bigger and hotter news. 

That sustained media attention has done a lot to help Black Lives Matter get its arguments out — and has done nothing but hurt Trump, by making sure stories that highlight what a massive racist he really is penetrate the consciousness of many people who tend to tune out most of the news most of the time. 

Trump's superpower has always been distraction, but 2020 was the year we discovered his kryptonite: Sustained attention to a single story.

This started to become evident late last year, when the impeachment hearings and trial focused the nation's attention away from the scandal-a-minute cycle and toward the single narrative of a president who wanted to cheat in the 2020 election, and attempted to blackmail a foreign leader into helping him. As long as that story dominated headlines, support for removing Trump from office remained relatively high. It only started to fade after the trial was over and the news media moved on. 

There's likely a lesson in this. Between now and November, there will probably be a dozen or more discrete Trump scandals. Even in the past few months, in the face of the coronavirus and the protest movement, we've seen lots of Teflon Don stories come and go: Attorney General Bill Barr's abuses of power, Trump's the purge of the inspectors general, Trump's latest efforts to make "Obamagate" a thing, Trump and Barr manipulating the Justice Department to spring Trump cronies like Michael Flynn from punishment, and the administration's measures to end basic protections for trans people who seek health care. Even the Russian bounty story, which reveals that Trump was told long ago that Russia was paying Afghan fighters to kill American soldiers, appears to be sinking under the waves, unable to sustain enough media attention that Ordinary Joe Swing Voter ever hears about it. 

But it's possible none of that will matter, if the coronavirus story and the Black Lives Matter protests continue to draw sustained attention from the media. Trump's failures to deal with the virus and his over-the-top racism have both hurt him, badly, with voters — as long as those issues remain front of mind. If that stays true into the fall, there's a good chance Trump gets walloped at the ballot box in November. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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