Trump may be shrewder than we think


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.

Comments

  1. Tesaje says

    Yes. He is evil. All deflection and chaos. Been his modus operandi his whole life. People are so quick to assign evil intent to mental illness thus giving sociopaths free reign. That is pretty stupid in itself.

    The press endlessly repeat the outrageous lies and use them in their advertising sound bites with no balance. This inserts the lies into our brains. You have to be both aware and smart to recognize this and defeat it. It is brainwashing.

  2. ShowMetheData says

    I don’t think he can talk about any complex policies.
    Everything is a simplification for him – reducing as much as he can to either a big win or someone else made me lose. If there is no win, he will grab on any discussion that he can start a battle. Starting a battle is easier than fighting and completing a policy battle.
    Like the elite’s wars that they start, he can get so much affirmation for starting the war, that it pales against the net publicity value of actually winning the long war they started.

  3. EigenSprocketUK says

    If Trump were as shrewd as you suggest, wouldn’t he use all those super-shrewd skills to deflect the media attention onto something that didn’t involve laughing at him?
    Nope, he’s not shrewd.
    He is really effective at manipulating people and he’s so effective at it that he’s managed to become president of the people who let him. He’s like a weird evolutionary offshoot who has found his niche. And he’s going to stay in that niche. He’s going to do everything in his power to retain that niche – presidential fixed terms be damned.

  4. lanir says

    I think the first person he lies to is himself. If he were really thinking things through step by step he would probably only lie when he could directly get something out of it. By lying to himself first, it becomes both the solution to his ego problems and a behavior that other people reward him for.

    I’d be surprised if he’d given any sort of deep thought to why he does it. It’s probably just instinctually repeating a rewarding behavior. If he were doing it any other way I don’t think he’d carry it off well enough to distract the way he does. People listen because he seems to earnestly believe. Otherwise there would be clues that he didn’t feel that way and he’d risk coming across as more mechanical or dishonest in the fashion of a normal politician.

  5. starskeptic says

    The man has the attention span of a goldfish – no, not shrewd at all…

  6. kestrel says

    We had an NPD family member and one really striking thing was how everyone else tried to make the behavior of an NPD “normal”. They would claim senility. Or Alzheimer’s. Or, “that person is just ‘feisty’ ” (which makes me gag). Or, “that’s just how So-And-So is”. It does not matter what you say; they will try and twist that behavior into normality.

    From experience: no. This is not some clever ploy. This is what an NPD acts like. To them, life is a play, all about them, starring them, written by them. The rest of us are mere props, something like your refrigerator, and not actually human at all. Something to be discarded at a moment’s notice. They say whatever makes them feel good at that very moment. It’s OK if it’s a lie, it’s OK if they said the exact opposite moments ago. They will lie even when the truth would be beneficial. They say one thing and adamantly stand on it and seconds later say a completely contradictory thing. If you call them on it, they will deny ever having said the first thing and tell you that you are crazy. YOU will feel like you have lost your mind, since you clearly heard them say it mere seconds ago.

    It has been surreal. Trump is pretty close to *exactly* like our NPD, even down to screaming at the TV. It is really tough to get behind that mindset and has made me really treasure normal people. You know all those jokes about how you are not normal and none of your friends are? Well, actually you probably ARE normal and that is an incredibly good thing. When you have to live with someone who really and truly IS NOT NORMAL, you will really cherish and appreciate normality.

  7. Chiroptera says

    Count me in among the crowd who doubts strongly that neither Trump nor anyone in his administration have the skills to engage in this kind of deep distraction politics.

    “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.”

    This is probably because there are no policies in the background to discuss. When Trump first began to name his “team”, the first thing I thought was, “Wow. These guys are going go at each other with knives – especially when anyone turns their back.” The second thing I thought was, “Wow. And I doubt that any one of these clowns is capable of forming a coherent policy on anything beyond listing a single bullet point that says, ‘Break it!'”

    The reason the press can only get them to talk about “palace intrigue” is because palace intrigue is the only thing they actually know how to do.

    This distraction provides another benefit for Trump because when the media discusses so much his absurdities…[it] 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….

    Okay, this could be a conscious ploy, but this isn’t a sign of clever political acumen. This is basic authoritarian politics. In fact, I bet it’s the first thing you learn in Junior Authoritarian Club. Hell, it may even be instinctual to authoritarians.

    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….

    I’m not sure I buy this. For one thing, as far as I know bad politicians don’t often try to distract people from their incompetence by providing other, different examples of their incompetence.

    For another, it doesn’t seem to be working. Even when the mainstream media is being distracted by all the nonsense, they often point out that the nonsense is the biggest obstacle preventing the Trump administration from accomplishing. In other words, it’s pretty ineffective as a distraction.

    It would make more sense if this were a clever ploy to distract the public from actual policies being enacted under the radar, and I can’t imagine anyone in the White House capable of this kind of a feint.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    … 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.

    You cannot fail at a thing when you never try to do that thing.

  9. Owlmirror says

    The difference being that Chauncey Gardener had no desire for advancement of his own, and was genuine good at a useful activity, viz, gardening.

  10. CJ Wiggins says

    Priming the pump is mentioned 7 times. Not really thr focus of the interview.
    And since when was a politician dodging questions unusual?

  11. Mano Singham says

    CJ Wiggins,

    It is true that politicians routinely dodge questions. But usually they use evasive language and obfuscation. What Trump does is quite different in that he throws out new information that is titillating enough to command interest and does not care if it turns out to be flatly false.

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