There is a well-established pattern in American journalism. There is first a bandwagon effect where almost everyone piles on to a single narrative structure about some event. At that point, someone decides to stand out from the crowd by taking a contrarian view and argue that the conventional wisdom is wrong. So at various points in the past we had stories that suggested that Dick Cheney was not the evil mastermind of the Bush administration, that Sarah Palin was not as dumb as rocks, and so on. While these contrarian authors risk ridicule, they also get short-term notoriety and attention, which is what seems to matter more than actual credibility. I decided to be that contrarian today. This is not just for the sheer hell of it but because I heard a couple of interviews yesterday that made me realize that maybe many of the analysts of the Trump administration, and that includes me, may have been played for chumps by him.
There has been a steady stream of news stories, based on a vast number of leaks, about the Trump administration being in disarray with all manner of infighting, mixed signals, lack of a coherent message, people’s jobs constantly being on the line, and so on. But as media commentator Jay Rosen said on this week’s episode of On the Media that was based on an article he had written, reporters have mentioned a curious thing about all these leaks. He said that reporters find it very easy to get White House insiders to dish out the dirt about palace intrigues but very hard to get them to talk about actual policies.
He pointed to a lengthy article in Politico that said:
But behind that theatrical assault, the Trump White House has turned into a kind of playground for the press.
“If you’re doing anything involving any sort of palace intrigue, they are crazy cooperative,” said one reporter, voicing a common observation. “But if you have any sort of legitimate question, if you need a yes or no answer on policy, they’re impossible.”
The interview with Rosen was followed up by one with New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush who said that he and Susan Haberman had been given an exclusive interview with Trump to discuss infrastructure spending and during that interview Trump had made the irrelevant charge that Susan Rice, national security advisor in the Obama administration, broke the law by ordering surveillance of his campaign staff, and this false charge got all the subsequent media coverage. Similarly Trump’s Economist interview, that was supposed to deal with his economic policy, ended up focusing (and I was guilty of that too) on his absurd claim that he had coined the phrase ‘prime the pump’, rather than the fact that there is no coherent economic policy.
It struck me that Trump does this all the time. He agrees to give an interview to the mainstream media that is supposed to deal with a substantive issue but while giving it he says something that is outrageous. As Thrush says, the reporters feel obliged to report that nugget because even though it is trivial, it has a man-bites-dog newsworthiness, and then this becomes the focus of subsequent discussion and the lack of any coherent policy or even attempts to advance any policy gets lost.
And in listening to the interviews, it struck me that maybe this is Trump’s game all along. The more we talk about the bickering and Trump’s absurdities, even speculating about his sanity, the less we are talking about his failure to make any progress, or even make an effort, to advance the populist policies that attracted so many voters to him, such as the Mexican wall, to create huge numbers of jobs in the coal and manufacturing industries, stop companies from moving jobs overseas, withdraw from NAFTA, punish China for being a currency manipulator, produce a plan that would guarantee the defeat of ISIS, ‘drain the swamp’ of lobbyists and big banks inside the government, provide a health care plan that covers everyone, and so on. The only promises he has kept is to make life even more terrible for undocumented immigrants and to try to ban all refugees and many people from Muslim countries, though the latter has been halted by the courts.
This distraction provides another benefit for Trump because when the media discusses so much his absurdities, it not only hides from his base the lack of any progress on the promises he made to them but also reinforces their belief that the media is out to ‘get’ their hero by focusing on trivialities to bring him down, and driving them even more to Trump propaganda outlets, like Fox News or Breitbart or The Daily Caller. That is why he keeps accusing the mainstream media of being ‘fake news’ even as he eagerly seeks them out for interviews and watches them incessantly. It is all part of the game. Trump and his team do not hate the media. That is just a show put on for his base. He actually loves the media because he knows that he can play the media, that they cannot avoid reporting on the absurdities and the intrigue and thus avoid any discussion of the substantive issues.
So maybe we should not underestimate Trump. Yes, he is an egomaniac, a narcissist, woefully ignorant, and someone who seems to be totally corrupt and self-centered. He may not be that smart but he does have one important skill and that is that he knows how to manipulate the media and has a shrewd sense of how to get it to run after squirrels in a way that shields the fact that he has sold out his base.