It was the best of tweets, it was the worst of tweets. “The Fake News Media hates when I use what has turned out to be my very powerful Social Media-over 100 million people! I can go around them,” President Donald Trump tweeted on June 16 at 8:23 a.m., preening again about his digital influence by picking a fight with the mainstream media. Twenty-one minutes later, at 8:54 a.m., the president followed up with more braggadocio, but this time about his policy record. “Despite the phony Witch Hunt going on in America, the economic &job numbers are great. Regulations way down, jobs and enthusiasm way up.” The tale of these two tweets reveals the fundamental dynamic driving the Trump Presidency: chaos and strategy.
On the surface, it appears as if the only guiding principle of the Trump presidency is chaos. His White House looks like a mess of contradictions and entanglements, a distracted president protected by surrogates he undermines daily. Just days ago Trump admitted he is the subject of an investigation, only to have his lawyer promptly deny it. Instead of carefully following a plan to deal with multiple ongoing investigations into Russian interference into the U.S. election, Trump’s approach is to spontaneously erupt about a “witch hunt” and lash out with ad hominem attacks at anyone who gets in his way. If it is surprising by historical standards, it is now common by Trumpian ones—for instance, the go-to-the-mattress warfare we all saw in the nomination race when he outrageously linked Ted Cruz’s father to the Kennedy assassination. Trump fights by making everything personal, attacking at all times and denying everything with counter-allegations that are exponentially more outrageous. In other words, he manufactures chaos.
The great mistake, however, is to believe that there is no plan behind the chaos. This is the so-called “madness of King George” analysis that pervades so much Trump criticism. Not only is it unhelpful, it misses the strategic formula underpinning the turmoil: chaos creates and controls coverage. That is the Trump rule. Coverage breeds ratings for news outlets which become a self-fulfilling feedback loop that has a life of its own. The news cycle is constantly filled with new and more scandalous Trump-generated memes that take over the conversation. Did senior advisor Steve Bannon really just say Sean Spicer was being hoicked from his job because he is “getting fatter?” He did! On and on it goes, tweet after tweet, until it is impossible to find a way back to the initial story, or the story that really matters, which is policy.
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This was exactly what Bannon meant when he told The New York Times that “the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while. I want you to quote this. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.” Is it any wonder why, this week, the press were banned from recording the White House “gaggle” briefings? If the press won’t shut its mouth, the White House will shut it for them. As Bannon likes to say, “politics is war” and the Trump administration is attempting to turn controversies into a form of direct and indirect media control. The President’s chaos is, as the cliché goes, a weapon of mass distraction. But a distraction from what?
That is the key point. While the twitter circus gathers big crowds, Trump is rapidly passing one of the most radical series of policies ever seen in U.S. politics, much of it coming in the form of deregulation. Trump ran on a deregulation agenda, so this is no secret conspiracy. In fact, Trump is proud of his goal, telling Congress that he is engaged in an “historic effort to massively reduce job-crushing regulations.” But he is doing it so quickly and amidst so much other self-generated chaos that it barely gets noticed. That is the strategy. How buried is the substance of the Trump administration? More than you might think.
A search of the Factiva media database, for U.S. news items about Trump and deregulation versus Trump and Twitter, is revealing. The amount of attention paid to Trump’s twitter feed dominates the coverage of his deregulation plans. Take the month of May, when Trump’s deregulation initiatives were coming on quickly. The term “deregulation” was mentioned in just 1,865 stories about Trump, while his tweets featured in more than 34,000 news items. The chart below is an illustration that the chaos distraction is working.
The ratios are startling. Those comparatively few mentions of deregulation reflect the healthcare debate, financial and environmental deregulation and many other items. You might argue that there has been plenty of coverage of the healthcare debate, but right now there are 13 male senators working behind closed doors on a new health care law that will affect hundreds of millions of Americans—on Tuesday, Sean Spicer was grilled about this at his press briefing, the first one he had given in eight days—but it rarely makes the headline news.
Meanwhile, financial deregulation is going on at a furious pace. The president received a report from the Treasury secretary proposing to gut the Dodd-Frank regulations by weakening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, something put in place after the 2008 economic meltdown to regulate the banks, increase transparency and avoid another too-big-to-fail scenario, in which citizens are forced to bail out billionaire bankers. After Wall Street sold subprime loans like economic crack, Dodd-Frank put bankers in political rehab, but rehab appears to be over and Wall Street is being let loose again, with little oversight. Trump supporters believe this will stimulate growth, while critics argue it will prime the pump for another round of addictive, highly toxic financial products. Does anyone seriously believe that the answer to economic growth is letting Wall street run wild again? This “destroy the village to save the village” theory is back in vogue. Prepare to pick up a big bill. Again.
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Environmental rules and regulations are also being wiped out to stimulate coal mining, oil drilling and more development. Beyond pulling out of the Paris climate accord, which made news, there are dozens of regulations that are already gone or are on the chopping block. This has gone virtually unnoticed. A regulation to protect whales and sea turtles from getting caught in fishing nets? Gone. There is a proposal to cut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 per cent. If that goes through it will have a direct impact on Canada because the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a $300-million-a-year program meant to keep the Great Lakes clean and fight invasive species, would be defunded. The Canadian government, some U.S. mayors, senators and even the former U.S. ambassador to Canada have all protested the proposal, but it’s on the way. This isn’t just draining the swamp, it’s turning the Great Lakes into great swamps.
None of this comes as a surprise. Naomi Klein has written about the “shock doctrine” for years, in which governments use the chaos around disasters or economic chaos to pass massive austerity or military agendas. She has a new book about Trump called No Is Not Enough that applies this theory to the current president. Her diagnosis is timely and spot on, even if you disagree with her Leap Manifesto prescription.
Trump has expanded the Klein shock doctrine by using his Twitter feed to hijack the media, all the while appearing to be in a fight against it. Trump isn’t at war against “fake news”; he has co-opted it, nourished it and used it as his animating force. It’s not hard to see. He tweets about it every day. We’re just not paying enough attention to the right messages.
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