It is impossible not to watch: Every day of the Trump administration seemingly brings another plot twist, a new initiative, outlandish attack or bizarre reversal. Not since wartime has news been so riveting — and with the president fighting so many “enemies,” it is actually not unlike war coverage. The nonstop media coverage cannot be faulted for being uncritical: It is, instead, a detailed assessment of the wins and losses of a wild presidency. Yet is it possible that the media, and many viewers, are using the wrong metrics of success?
Traditionally, politicians have measured “success” or “failure” by public approval or the achievement of political goals. But these may be the wrong ways to assess a president who, in his heart, seems interested in a different metric: attention, or less colloquially, “mindshare.” While he may prefer winning to losing, he can still win by losing. For what really matters are the contests themselves — the creation of an absorbing spectacle that dominates headlines, grabs audiences and creates a world in which every conversation revolves around Mr. Trump and his doings. By this standard, Mr. Trump is not just winning, but crushing it.
A centerpiece is the media strategy of “continual warfare” that has characterized the presidency. Since assuming office, Mr. Trump has waged war on intelligence agencies, immigrants from Muslim countries, the federal judiciary, “professional protesters,” Barack Obama, Mexico, Australia and, above all, the media, the very “enemy of the people.” Every politician picks fights. But by any traditional measure it would be folly to pick so many fights at once, and those battles have already yielded some spectacular defeats that have cheered his opponents. Yet the warfare makes sense in so far as it gives the president what he really wants: a role in which he can fully employ his naturally abrasive energies to generate a riveting spectacle. As George Orwell put it, “It is necessary that the war should continue everlastingly and without victory.”
Beyond the combat, another key to the addictive nature of Trump-news is its unpredictable, erratic nature. A single day might include some random attacks, followed by a surprise policy reversal, like Tuesday’s promised compromise on undocumented immigrants, followed immediately by something shockingly normal, like his scripted address to Congress, which, illogically and unexpectedly, made no reference whatsoever to the earlier proposal. These kinds of random and rambling sequences create what behavioral scientists call a “variable reward schedule,” a key addictive ingredient in things like slot machines, social media and the Kardashian family. You don’t have to like it to get hooked, and the result is to keep the whole country, and much of the world, entranced, as if to a disco tune that has implanted itself in the global consciousness and will not go away. Indeed, a good sign that Mr. Trump is winning by his own terms is just how many of your private conversations somehow turn to him, compelled by the irresistible force of addictive media.
If Mr. Trump is winning the contest for mindshare, the more important question is whether he’s really winning — whether the fixation on attention is an astute assessment of where the real power lies in our times, or just the superficial and maybe uncontrollable pursuit of attention for its own sake. One possibility is that, for this presidency, whether anything is actually “accomplished” will end up being entirely beside the point. One doesn’t ask whether an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” or a season of “Survivor” accomplished anything. After four (or maybe two, or maybe eight) years of riveting developments and a blowout finale, the administration will be gone, leaving little in its wake, beyond the memories, occasional cast reunions and “where are they now” columns. The careless execution of some of the early initiatives supports the idea that this president views the trouble of actually following through as inessential. “Victory” can always be claimed anyhow, especially when facts are just props, deployed for dramatic effect.
But alternatively, and as painful as it may be to admit, the strategy may actually be a winning media strategy in 2017. Outsiders may think that the White House gets all the attention it wants, but even the Executive Office faces tough competition when trying to reach a highly distracted citizenry. Gone are the days where the president could turn to the radio for a fireside chat and expect, as Franklin Roosevelt did, 60 million listeners. President Obama also delivered a weekly radio address — but most radio stations declined to carry it, and online it clocked fewer clicks than some viral cat photos.
While Mr. Obama’s big televised speeches were widely watched, many of his policy initiatives were poorly covered, being worthy but not particularly newsworthy. Barack Obama was a celebrity, but by contemporary media standards, just too well mannered and predictable to grab huge attention.
Mr. Trump, to state the obvious, does not have that problem. Indeed, he has demonstrated that he can hold a news conference consisting of little more than shouting at his enemies for an hour and still dominate national headlines. Consequently, the Trump circus — thanks largely to Twitter and intense media coverage — has more of the nation paying more attention to the president than at any time in decades, and maybe since Roosevelt himself. The achievement is even more impressive given that Roosevelt had a built-in advantage: He was battling the Great Depression, then the Third Reich and the Japanese empire. Mr. Trump somehow draws similar attention fighting “bad hombres” from Mexico, immigrants from places like Sudan and Somalia and CNN.
While Mr. Trump’s methods are of our time, the goal of dominating mindshare is a classic strategy of influence, because the sheer volume of messaging allows the leader to transform minds, construct alternative realities and begin changing the rules of the game itself. As the philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote of propaganda, to be effective, it needs to be “total,” meaning that as much of the population as possible must be continuously exposed. Though we don’t have a state-run media, we do live in a society in which the president’s face and messages are sufficiently omnipresent to give Mao or Lenin a run for their money. When is the last time you went a day without seeing the “great leader”?
While the strategy — like an annoying advertisement — may be surprisingly effective, it may also hint at this president’s greatest weakness. If Mr. Trump is immune to ordinary defeats or criticism, he does, of course, have a desperate fear of being ignored. As the presidency progresses it may prove as much a slave to the ratings as any TV network. So if the public is bored by the Affordable Care Act (without Mr. Obama, there’s no “opponent”), might Mr. Trump lose interest and start a new battle somewhere else?
Being hitched to the twin necessities of constant warfare and the public’s limited attention span may yield a series of unfinished projects that ultimately amount to little. It also suggests that Mr. Trump’s eventual downfall may be less like Richard Nixon’s than Paris Hilton’s. To live by attention is to die by it as well, and he may end up less a victim of political defeat than of waning interest, the final fate of every act.