Trump is giving a masterclass in media manipulation

Trump’s media strategy: lots of white noise and static, very little actual content.

(Originally written March 3rd, 2017)

Only a month into his presidency, Donald Trump has already been called many, many things. To cite a few, he’s been deemed a bully, a racist, a misogynist, a fascist, an authoritarian, and a totalitarian, and often in the same sentence. Yet in the panicked rush to baptize him as the “worst president in the history of the United States,” one facet of his personality and of his presidential style has remained comparatively underreported. This is his manipulativeness, or rather his canny ability to influence the media’s agenda and what it reports, simply by manufacturing scandals and controversies. From his bizarre press conferences to his no-less unconscionable executive orders, he’s displayed an almost enviable talent for commanding and guiding the media’s attention, and it’s precisely this ability that’s as dangerous to America as his early-stage fascism or totalitarianism.

Indeed, it’s highly probable that his apparent totalitarianism and fascism is less the expression of deeply held beliefs in the merits of either systems, and more part of a deliberate strategy intended to distract attention away from what he really wants to do with his presidency. For example, on January 25th he took the extremely populistic step of signing an executive order that called for the construction of his notorious US-Mexico wall, a step that was met with blanket coverage from every major news outlet in the country. It was met with so much coverage, in fact, that few had time left over to notice that, on the same day, the CEO of Trump Executive Hotels, Eric Danziger, was quoted as saying, “There are 26 major metropolitan areas in the U.S., and we’re in five […] I don’t see any reason that we couldn’t be in all of them eventually.” Not only that, but it was also reported that membership fees at Trump’s exclusive Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach had been doubled to $200,000, no doubt in response to the increased opportunity and cachet that comes from being owned by the President of the United States.

Such business moves raise serious questions regarding conflicts of interest and presidential ethics, yet they were covered nowhere near as extensively as the border-wall executive order, or even his impending immigration ban. In a Google News search for “Donald Trump” restricted to January 24 (when Danziger gave his speech) and January 25, for example, it isn’t until page eight of the results that any mention is made of the planned tripling to his hotel empire. What’s more, only three articles were devoted to this story (or eight if the doubling of Mar-a-Lago’s fees are counted as part of it), whereas 42 were lavished on the wall, which may never even be built.

This kind of ‘censorship-by-relegation’ goes to show that, quite apart from any avowed political or economic purpose of a US-Mexico border wall, its announcement had the function of diverting attention away from how Donald Trump — a businessman first and foremost — will be commercially profiting from his own presidency. Not only that, but it provides a model example of how Trump is governing and how his team are creating spectacles that serve to paint him as an anti-democratic, nationalistic boogeyman, when all he really is at bottom is a deeply self-interested opportunist. While his actions have admittedly touched and harmed many lives already, his main interest in them relates to their ability to transfix the media and the public’s gaze, so that the real Donald Trump can pass by largely undetected and unopposed.

Take one of his latest controversies, in which White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer inexplicably barred several news organizations from attending an off-camera briefing. These organizations included the New York Times, Politico, the Guardian, the BBC, and CNN, and unsurprisingly, their exclusion from an impromptu press conference — no matter how trivial or non-existent its subject matter — played into growing fears that Trump is cracking down on freedom of speech and of the press. The thing is, the barring did very little to prevent either, since as Politico noted, “Because of the presence of the [approved] pool, the information [discussed at the briefing] was still shared with the entire White House press corps.” Given this, the “press ban” — as it was reported — comes off as entirely ineffectual and gratuitous, as the hissy fit of a group of petulant children. That is, until its ulterior motives are fully realised.

Once again, these involve contriving and orchestrating yet another controversy designed to grip the media’s energies for as long as possible. In this case, the purpose of such gripping was to redirect excess scrutiny and opposition away from the fact that, on the very same February 24th as Spicer’s little stunt, Trump had signed another executive order. This time, he’d ordered federal agencies to create “regulatory reform” task forces that would look into stripping “75 percent of the repetitive, horrible regulations that hurt companies, hurt jobs.” In other words, he’d ordered these agencies to do away with just the kind of pesky laws that get in the way of business concerns such as his from making as much money as possible. Of course, the downside of such whittling would most likely be that many important safeguards — for employees, for the environment — would also be removed, yet sadly the press and much of the anti-Trump world were too aghast at Spicer’s “attacks” on journalists to even consider paying a proportionate degree of attention on this front.

These attacks were complemented by the anti-press speech Trump himself gave on the very same day, further heightening concerns that the new administration will be striving assiduously to prevent journalists from doing their jobs. Yet they also created further distraction, stealing exposure and visibility from not just the self-serving executive order of February 24 and Trump’s intention to order reductions in carbon-emission targets, but from his persisting inability to put any flesh on his plans for, say, “bringing our jobs back.” That such issues are being sidelined or outright neglected as a result of Team Trump’s extreme political incorrectness underlines how, regardless of just how explicitly formulated it is, this incorrectness is ultimately working to make it easier for Trump to get away with rearranging the US for his own benefit and for that of people like him. In short, he and his team are essentially puppeteering the media, and so far they’re doing a first-rate, even masterful job, manufacturing scandals that consume the bulk of the media’s and the public’s resources in a largely phoney war.

Despite their apparent stupidity and ineptitude, the Trump administration must be intelligent enough to anticipate the kind of reaction that would follow a needless “ban” on certain newspapers and news sources. In fact, since Trump’s Chief Strategist is Steve Bannon, the former executive chair of a Breitbart site known for its manipulative sensationalism, it’s highly likely that his entourage knew exactly what they were doing when Spicer excluded CNN et al. from the informal press “gaggle.” Bannon himself is particularly adept at stoking the most virulent reactions possible from the media, having recently threatened it with a daily barrage of offences and “ideological fights,” so it’s barely a surprise that the administration whose strategy he’s presiding over is trying to get the media more worked up over its own fate than anything else. And it’s nothing less than a measure of his success that, on February 23, the Washington Post went so far as to print an article which at one point declares, “He wants to totally dismantle the media. He wants to break its back and leave it for dead by the side of the road.”

His and Trump’s strategy of distracting attention like this was also evident on February 3, when the White House issued a statement calling a federal judge’s decision to overrule the muslim travel-ban “outrageous.” A day later, Trump tweeted angrily about the overruling, referring to James Robart as a “so-called” judge, an immature act of criticism that was all-but unprecedented for a serving president. As can be imagined, his theatrical remonstrations drew far more media coverage than something that also happened on February 3 that was at least as — if not more — important.

This was his signing of an executive order seeking to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Act, which in 2010 imposed a set of controls on the financial industry to prevent it from suffering another Lehman Brothers-type catastrophe.  On top of this, he also signed a related order, this time looking to reverse the “fiduciary rule,” which stipulates that brokers must act in the best interests of their clients when providing retirement advice. Together, the signing of these orders poses a serious threat to the stability of the American economy and financial system, while enabling people within Trump’s bracket of society to make a quick buck more easily.

Unfortunately, rather than devoting as much print space as possible to this actual dismantling of financial protections (as opposed to the irrationally feared ‘dismantling’ of the media), and rather than informing people of the increasing possibility of a repeat of the Great Recession of 2008, much of the press was taken up with the ongoing saga of the travel ban. While this ban — which prohibits nationals from seven majority-muslim countries from entering the US — is undoubtedly an un-American and even economically unhealthy move, it’s most likely another Trump sideshow at heart. As with the Spicer press ban, the Trump administration must be aware that it amounts to an all-but inconsequential and tokenistic gesture, seeing as how no fatal act of terrorism has been perpetrated in the US since 9/11 by anyone from the seven countries it blacklists. Nonetheless, they went ahead with the ban regardless, and it’s very tempting to conclude that they did so precisely because they knew it and the tussles over it would keep newspapers, news readers and the American political system busy day after day after day.

And it goes without saying that this is very, very convenient for Trump, since it allows  him to continue being a self-serving President who doesn’t release his tax returns for the duration of his term. It allows him to maintain and embellish the scary yet questionable myth that he’s a totalitarian and/or fascist, when in fact he’s mostly a money-grubbing liar who’ll do almost anything to deflect and frustrate attempts to catch him in the act of transforming America into his own playground. Despite nominally handing over control to his sons and promising no new foreign deals during his term in office, he has failed to divest any part of his business empire, something which raises the distinct possibility that he’ll govern in the interests of it. Yet rather than watching and opposing him mostly in this respect, he and his administration have deviously engineered and played up to the impression that he’s a far-right authoritarian who’s out to ban immigrants and crush the free and independent press. In some respects, one can’t help but grudgingly admire him for being so cynical and Machiavellian in his fostering of such an impression, and for causing large segments of the media to fall right into his hands with their reports on his latest blusterings and tirades. Yet in many other respects, it underlines just why, even if he isn’t a card-carrying totalitarian, the new President is almost as dangerous, and certainly as worthy of being opposed at every turn.

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