The Art of Distraction

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(Credit: Willis Glassgow/The Associated Press)

Usually, I tend to think that the chaos of the Trump administration is a direct result of incompetency and unprofessionalism. The infighting, the lack of consistent messaging, and the failure to gather political momentum all stem from Trump’s own managing style, lack of discipline, and personal volatility. Taken together, these factors make for a turbulent, knee-jerk presidency with little to show for all its bluster.

But then there are days like today, where we get to see Trump’s true genius (for lack of a better word) at work.

There is some precedent for today’s events, to be sure. Throughout the campaign, Trump was praised for being a master of manipulating the media, earning himself millions in free advertising. He did so by being offensive, by being novel, and by being theatrical — he made news.

The side effect of this media strategy (assuming it is conscious, which I do) was to put the press and the rest of us on a Trump rollercoaster, while some joined the Trump train. For those enraptured by his terrifying but nonetheless exciting rallies, Trump was a constant source of the same excitement one feels witnessing a disaster. What will he say next? Who is left to offend? He said THAT about McCain/Clinton/Muslims/women?

It all amounts to a media strategy that I’ve talked about before: changing the channel, from scandal to scandal. And as long as none of the scandals truly stick — or if you have so many they become devalued — then you reap the rewards in free media attention, and, most importantly, you control the news.

This is what happened today, when Trump wrote a series of tweets that let the world know that the US military would no longer be open to transgender Americans.

I am going to largely ignore the details of this issue. More articulate and informed people than I can fight back against the policy itself. Suffice it to say that I think Trump’s justifications are baseless and wrong. The policy is poorly conceived, irrational and useless. It is both arbitrary and draconian.

But this only adds to my belief that today’s tweets were not about the issue itself, as important as it may be. In fact, this might be the most pure, distilled example of Trump’s changing the channel strategy that we have ever seen. It’s so magnificently obvious that I almost admire his brazenness. But Trump knows the media, he knows us, and he knows he has us in a bind.

We can’t help but forget, at least for a while, about Russia, about Sessions, about the Boy Scout Jamboree, about comments he made about immigrants yesterday, about the failing healthcare bill.

Trump’s tweets today were tactically brilliant, and they worked for three reasons:

  1. We can’t ignore them. Transgender issues are so sensitive and so important, especially on the left, that they are bound to overshadow, at least for a while, any other issue on the table. Even if we know, as is obvious, that Trump is doing this to distract us, we can’t help but be distracted. To not react would be to abandon a cause and a constituency that the left has correctly embraced. Trump knows this, and so the choice of transgender rights as his target this morning was an inspired one.
  2. The base loves them. A combination of sticking it to crazy, gender-fluid, social engineering postmodernists AND supporting our military? Sign me up! There are few issues that are better designed to rile up the core of Trump supporters and get them into the fight. And Trump needed it. Even Breitbart had begun gently criticizing the president for his treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But now they have something else to worry about.
  3. We are predictable. Trump knows how this works: he makes a tweet, we read the tweet, we get angry. We react. (Then people like me write pieces about how we shouldn’t react.) He sparks a maelstrom of liberal outrage and his supporters get to revel in liberal tears. We are so reliable (see point 1) that he can do something like this at will. If he were even better at it, he could have his media team already ready and out there managing the media’s reaction and rallying Republicans. But simply knowing he can call on the press to freak at any moment is enough for Trump’s personal appetite for chaos.

Trump’s tweets today were a blatant attempt to distract us from his other scandals. There was no reason to announce this today, and it apparently came as a surprise to officials in the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is on vacation.

But what is the left to do? Even knowing that this is a distraction, what action does that lead to? The left can’t ignore the tweets, but nor should they be fooled into thinking that Trump has placed any meaning into this action beyond what it will get him in the short term (which is itself an indication of his cruel lack of regard for LGBT issues). The fact that this policy will have a real impact on people does not matter to him, and it must and should to the left. In this way, Trump retains the initiative.

I have a special hatred for the argument that the chaos of the Trump administration is actually “4D chess,” that Trump actually has it all figured out. To me, it stinks the same sense of ultra-competency that drives conspiracy thinking. The world is messier than that. I think that the president just stumbles from scandal to scandal. But he does have one trusty move, and we witnessed it today.

If the president is playing chess, it’s just a normal game. And when the going gets tough, Trump just knocks a few pieces down and rearranges the board. The new situation may not actually be advantageous to him, but nor is it particularly good for us, because we don’t always remember what the board looked like before. What’s more, the new arrangement may cause harm to those around us, as this policy would do. It’s hard to go back to the previous board, so we often have to address the new one.

The worst thing? Trump can always do it again, and we’re helpless to stop him.

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