Often the winner of the game is not the most talented player but the one who truly masters the rules.
For all the endless media chatter we’ve heard about Trump, few have really delved deeply into the phenomena of how skillfully he exploits the media even as it believes it’s challenging and ridiculing him. Like a virus in the system, he feeds on the media’s vulnerabilities in order to make himself stronger. And those of us who express our genuine outrage and disgust at Trump ironically end up feeding that virus.
Trump understands what drives media cycles and uses that knowledge to ride each succeeding wave. Whereas according to conventional wisdom, he should be losing and unelectable for saying so many controversial, stupid, dishonest, irresponsible and downright awful things, instead he has remained at the top of the Republican field for four months and counting.
How? Trump has hacked the media machine. He understands the modern media rules that:
- Any attention, even negative, is better than no attention at all;
- Coming across as an unpredictable rogue attracts more attention than appearing too conventional;
- Shock and outrage (not policy papers) drive coverage;
- Cable and social media encourage a snowball effect – so winning the media cycle means a huge bonanza of coverage;
- Apologizing or backing down will cut off the media frenzy.
Of course, conventional candidates try desperately to avoid negative coverage and stop the bleeding as quickly as possible – apologize, change the subject, do whatever it takes. What’s different about Trump’s approach is his effort to mine the media hype and outrage machine as a source of abundant energy. Like porn or video games, though, he has to keep getting more extreme and outrageous in order to keep the clicks coming.
The obvious question is how such a strategy could possibly be sustainable over the long term. Clearly, Trump is taking advantage of his current environment like the most opportunistic infection. The characteristics of that environment include a field so badly Balkanized that Trump has been the undisputed leader despite having about the same level of support that Bernie Sanders has maintained in his race (in which Bernie is behind by 20-30 points).
The other, much more commented-on feature that Trump has been exploiting is so-called anti-establishment fervor, as an alleged “outsider.” He is certainly not the only right wing demagogue playing that role, just the loudest and most made-for-TV. In this, he is very much playing to a Media Entertainment Complex archetype, the heroic rebel who takes on the evil, corrupt empire. Such a romantic role is certainly nothing new to U.S. politics, as it has been played in recent decades by a diverse range of politicians from Reagan to Carter to Perot to Obama.
Trump is different in how he plays the role to such an obnoxious extreme. He seems to have no interest – at least not yet – in moderating his image in order to appear, well, presidential. To the contrary, his campaign seems based on the premise that the media hype of the moment is all that really matters – as if caring about actually getting elected, not to mention governing, were somehow passé.
Perhaps he is so ensconced in the mass media bubble that he just can’t imagine anything outside of it. Or perhaps, along with modern terrorists, he hopes that he can leverage media attention to create a great enough mix of fear and brand recognition to unnerve his opponents, attract new followers and make his ultimate victory inevitable.
Either way, the success of his strategy up to this point makes me wonder how we can hack his hack. The point, I think, is to make it not ALL ABOUT TRUMP. First, while I wouldn’t tell anyone not to express their opinion of his racism, his extremism, his bald-faced lying, etc., I suspect we might be better served by spending more time noting how many of his ugly characteristics are shared by others in the GOP field.
For example, I find Trump’s embrace of conspiracy-monger Alex Jones absolutely chilling. Breaking bread with the type of despicable people who actually claim that the Sandy Hook shooting was all staged degrades American political discourse to perhaps the lowest point it’s ever been.
Yet how many other leading Republicans stand only a step away from this abyss? Ted Cruz recently held a hearing to strongly promote climate change denial conspiracy theories and has embraced the insane “Agenda 21” conspiracy theory that the UN’s harmless, voluntary sustainable development goals are actually a plot for world domination. (And his father and close adviser Rafael Cruz is even worse.)
Other Republicans are playing in the same sandbox. Failing to note that Trump’s opponents are also conspiracy theory-driven wacko birds only gives them the opportunity to portray themselves as the sane, rational alternatives to him.
Second, we need to keep talking about the actual Democratic alternatives to Trump and what they have to offer. Media Matters recently noted that ABC World News Tonight this year devoted 81 minutes of coverage to Trump vs. 1 minute for Bernie Sanders. This is the biggest threat of the media obsession with Trump – that it drowns out all other messages, including the hard work of Democrats to craft policy positions actually designed to deal with the nation’s problems.
So part of hacking Trump’s hack is leveraging his attention – saying, for example, that instead of listening to this loser Trump proposing to forcibly deport 11 million people, follow this link to Hillary’s immigration reform plan and/or this one to Bernie’s.
Because it’s not ALL ABOUT TRUMP. This election, like every one, is about electing the person with the best background, skills, policies, plans and party to lead the country in the right direction. The media circus may never end, but we can’t let it gum up the works of American democracy. Rather than propping up this ridiculous sideshow as spectators, we need to start working strategically to bring it down.