It’s well past time that we admit something obvious. Donald Trump is very good at this.
By this, I could mean “using Twitter to distract from an accumulations of fraud settlements and scandals that stink of the corruption he tried to pin on Hillary Clinton.” Or I could just mean “lying” or “trolling,” the catchall phrase that describes any sort of provocation on the Internet.
But what I mean is “propaganda,” which is “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view,” according to the Oxford Living Dictionary.
He has always been his own greatest propagandist, but now that he’s becoming president of the United States, the implications are stark and a bit terrifying — especially because Trump is so damn good at it.
Of course, he’s a master of self-promotion and demonizing his opponents, recently with a crucial assist of foreign hackers and the FBI. But his superpower is a totalitarian’s genius for occupying our political discourse with the sort of bullshit that feeds his fame and appeal to Americans who feel victimized by change.
It’s the distraction that makes it possible for him to do ever more terrible things.
Take the example of Trump’s response to Mike Pence attending the musical Hamilton, where some audience members booed the vice president-elect and he heard a brief, polite appeal by a star of the show at the end of the performance.
Trump’s tweet the next morning was a genius act of propaganda, because it produced exactly the response he hoped for.
The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
The left immediately jumped on Trump’s use of “safe and special place,” of course. Conservatives who despise “PC culture” have long mocked the notion of “safe spaces” on college campuses. The hypocrisy is too delicious too ignore, even as he ignores the hundreds of hate crimes that seem to have been inspired by his election.
Trump was attacked as “special snowflake” while spreading his charge of hypocrisy against the left to all his supporters. Meanwhile, this “controversy” overwhelms the massive settlement he paid out in a fraud suit to students who trusted his “University” to help make them rich. We’re not talking about how his business seems to be strong-arming foreign diplomats into staying at his hotels in possible violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause. And we’re barely talking about his plans to roll back the Wall Street regulations designed to prevent another financial crisis while engineering the end of Medicare as we know it as part of what could easily be the largest transfer of wealth to the richest in human history.
This isn’t to say that the president-elect’s abuse of his considerable power to intimidate artists by inventing his own victimization isn’t a story worth frisking. But again, he has warped our discourse for his own personal gain — and we have to face that responding to him as he hopes we will may be helping him.
In this way he resembles Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire who improbably became the prime minister of Italy.
“His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters,” writes Luigi G. Zingales, a finance professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “Mr. Trump is no different.”
Imagining Trump as our Berlusconi should make people optimistic, which is why the comparison seems to thrive. Yes, the prime minister’s tenure was riddled with scandal, conflicts of interest and economic disaster. But he was eventually defeated, twice, and stepped down.
Berlusconi lost, Zingales suggests, when his opponents treated him as a normal politician.
“They focused on the issues, not on his character.”
So there’s some hope.
A far more pessimistic assessment imagines Trump’s coming administration will resemble the rule of Vladimir Putin, an autocrat the president-elect has continually praised for strong leadership. This prospect is much harder to entertain because it involves recognizing that no one has yet figured out how to permanently extricate Putin from power.
The democratic institutions of the United States should be able to withstand much more duress than those in Russia, But again and again, observers have overestimated America’s immune system’s ability to fight off the Trump virus.
Assuming that our history will protect us may turn out to be as foolish as assuming the Internet would make us more tolerant or radio would make Germans of the 1930s more informed.
Trump — aided by his Satan-and-Dick Cheney-praising chief strategist and white nationalist provocateur Steve Bannon — won a less than convincing victory by impossibly thin margins, yet the Republican Party may be at a peak of its political power. He used Twitter to help make this happen — either by pure genius or pure chance. And his staff helped by keeping him off that platform when it mattered most.
Now, the left needs to start finding better ways of confronting Trump and the damage he’s about to do. This starts by recognizing that there’s an art to his madness. And that art may be getting us to focus on his madness.
If we can focus the debate on issues and how Trump has conned voters into voting for class suicide, there’s hope of getting the non-cultists who voted for Trump to see what they’ve done or, even better, inspiring the millions of voters who stayed home on November 8 to get into the fight.