Hard to say whether or not this message will travel beyond this screen. But it may be worthwhile sending a message to the future. Just in case someone wonders someday how we got to this point.
Here are five or six things I know about him.
POTUS 45 is a television celebrity. Most people know who he is. His name recognition was much more valuable during the campaign than anyone anticipated. It radically changed the fundraising equation, along with the necessary campaign expenditures. His celebrity also created a constituency beyond the typical voter, and this connection has continued beyond the election into his presidency. It should not be underestimated. Fans have been turned into voters. It gives them a role in the ongoing reality television show.
His celebrity status was built on the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity. As long as you’re the topic of conversation, you’ve won. Generally speaking, in a presidential campaign, negative public attention is considered fatal. Even the smallest slip of the tongue can have major consequences. POTUS 45 is actively looking for statements that cross the line. Violating norms allows him to dominate the headlines.
His base likes it when his opponents and the media are outraged by some statement. They are entertained by watching heads explode in outrage on live television. Describing POTUS 45’s behavior as “crazy, unreal or not normal” plays into his framing of the public dialogue. It feeds into his public image as an outsider. This puts the media into a bind; the ratings they get by demonstrating their outrage, are addictive. But performing outrage on television is not the same thing as doing journalism.
Some think POTUS 45 is a stupid man, and in many ways he is. He’s not well read and has the attention span of a gnat. But he’s quite sophisticated in reading both individual people and groups of people. He can see what will excite them and what outrages them. His rhetoric is also quite sophisticated. He will often use these formulations:
- Many people are saying X
- X is true, in many cases…
- I would never say that X is a criminal
- Everyone agrees that X is true.
- You’re a smart guy, you know that X is true
- X is definitely true, and I will present the evidence at some future point…
- I have special knowledge about X that other people don’t know…
These rhetorical devices allow him to dodge any counter-arguments or questioning. He can simply say, “I’ve heard, and many people agree, that X is true.” The criticism is now diverted to “many people.” POTUS 45 has also been lining up his scapegoats. Should anything bad happen, he’ll use it to his advantage. His political opponents will be blamed, and he’ll attempt to destroy his opposition and consolidate power. His negligence is strategic.
Another typical tactic is to take advantage of who is allowed to say what in any particular situation. For instance, there is no downside in publicly attacking a judge. The law restricts the judge from responding. If the judge can be goaded into responding, then that judge can be forced to recuse herself. Similarly, attacking people who’ve signed confidentiality agreements has no downside. Another variation is to publicly attack a person and simultaneously threaten to sue them.
POTUS 45 uses a variation of this tactic with the press. He relies on the other person’s politeness and deference to decorum. For example, continually lying about something and daring the press to call him a liar. In order to do so, the press must violate norms and general decorum. Once decorum has been violated, it gives him an attack vector. “How dare you call me a liar.” The frame is created where you need to follow any and all rules, whereas he is exempt. This is how he gets a room full of journalists to laugh at him calling them “fake news” and the “lying news media, in many cases.” They aren’t allowed, by the rules of decorum, to respond forthrightly.
Diversion is another common tactic. By threading as many falsehoods and near falsehoods into his public statements, he can cause the media to chase its tail doing meaningless fact checking. They burn cycles while missing the main story. Cable news has hours and hours to fill, and they let POTUS 45 program it with nonsense. They just never seem to have time to get to the important stories. Joy Reid of MSNBC is particularly guilty of this. She’s got 4 hours to fill on the weekend, but she has too many topics and too many guests. She ends up talking 100 miles an hour trying to squeeze it all in. The end result is there’s not enough time to get to the important stories with any kind of depth. As cable news anchors like to say, “we’ll have to leave it there.” But they’ve left it nowhere.
The tactic is to create so many threads that none can be investigated in any depth. The media uses no editorial judgement to focus in on the top two to three stories. Instead they chase anything that allows them to make the “Home Alone” scream face. They know that that kind of coverage turns into ratings. What it doesn’t do is turn into journalism.
Back in 1991, Tom Peters wrote a management gimmick book called “Thriving on Chaos.” This isn’t exactly what POTUS 45 does, but he does thrive on chaos. That’s his management style. In a chaotic situation, deep subject-matter knowledge is nullified. Since no one is certain exactly what’s going on, POTUS 45 can make decisions based on little or nothing. I’m told this is also a technique used by abusive spouses. The more chaotic his administration, the flow of news coverage and politics in general are, the better. When journalists say “this is crazy,” they’re adding to the frame most helpful to POTUS 45.
And here’s the last thing I know about him. Or, at least, the last thing I’ll make note of here. At the bottom of POTUS 45’s rhetoric (and therefore his politics) is an obsession with purity and cleanliness. His language about immigration and borders is filled with these kinds of metaphors. His thin skin and faux sensitivity to criticism are also tied in to this. His refusal to apologize is a refusal to acknowledge any kind of dirt or uncleanliness of his positions or actions. Two of his favorite insults are “disgusting” and “disgraceful.” He proudly states that he’s a germaphobe, and uses this as a defense against the contents of the Kompromat dossier on him that was recently released. Within his primary stylistic metaphor are the seeds of a potent counter rhetoric.
POTUS 45 has been phenomenally successful at crowding out all other topics of conversation. Unfortunately, that includes presenting a positive alternative vision. Until a compelling alternative vision can earn some screen time, we’re still playing in his frame.