Media and the Trump Whirlwind: Mistaking Boredom for Chaos

Caveat: It’s indisputable that there’s going to come a time when something truly important happens and this article will no longer be relevant. However, this is meant as a reflection of current (August 1, 2017) events and the media climate.

The Lay of the Land

Way back in the 2015-2016 Republican Primaries, Jeb(!) Bush had a famous/infamous attack on then-frontrunner Donald Trump: “He’s the chaos candidate.” The line was scripted and designed to get the most play in a media environment completely controlled by Mr. Trump and his narrative. The idea was simple: make people think that the constant swirl of movement surrounding Donald Trump wasn’t strategy, but rather, was chaos. The inference has far-outlasted Jeb Bush and has continued into Mr. Trump’s tenure as President of the United States.

Just look at the past few weeks and, the story goes, how could you not see the White House, and by extension, the country, in a state of chaos? The White House brings in Anthony Scaramucci as Communications Director which prompts Press Secretary Sean Spicer to resign. Then, the White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus is forced out while the new Communications Director unleashes a foul-mouthed rant about the other advisers to the President. The President brings in a new Chief of Staff, retired Marine Corps General and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security John Kelly, who promptly fires Scaramucci.

In addition to the shakeup in the West Wing, the Senate’s best chance to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)– something almost every Republican has campaigned about over the past seven years– went down in flames and North Korea tested an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.

All of this has been reported, breathlessly, by the 24-hour news as a kind of public calamity as if the government is spiraling out of control. Here’s a counterpoint: what if it’s not?

Let’s remember something at the very outset of our discussion: news outlets are concerned, principally, about profit. That’s not to undermine the reporting of journalists, but, at a point, what gets promoted to “front page news” are the things most likely to get clicks and ad revenue. While this, naturally, seems like an indictment of the modern press, it’s really just an update of the “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism that’s embodied the coverage decisions of the American press corps for decades. Now, given the plethora of possible sources, the decision on what to cover is further distorted through the prism of editorial (or sensational) writing to cater to a particular audience.

America Surging

Stepping back from the intense swirl of the media narratives, let’s drill down into what, exactly, is going on in the world right now. Starting at home, the economy is doing well. Growth in the first two quarters of the year has been solid. Sure, it’s not the rocketing to four-or-five percent GDP growth that hardcore optimists had wanted, but those sort of predictions were well-outside the mainstream. Rather, growth has been respectable, wages are rising, unemployment is around a decade-low, each of the major stock market indices are at-or-near record-highs, and the Fed noted that they aren’t seeing inflationary pressures that would otherwise cause them to raise interest rates (though another increase is expected in September).

The President’s party has swept competitive Federal special elections across the country. A Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch, was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and now sits on the High Court. The President’s media-maligned immigration pause, though held up by lower courts, was allowed to go into effect by the Supreme Court. All the while, the President has signed significant rollbacks in Obama-era regulations in order to improve American business’ productivity and green-light investment.

On the foreign policy front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS/ISIS/ISIL) has been declared dead in Iraq by that country’s Prime Minister after Iraqi and American forces retook the City of Mosul. Raqqa, the de facto capital of the once-sprawling terrorist Caliphate located in Syria, is besieged and in the process of being retaken. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) met with Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Saudi Arabia last weekend and discussed the disbanding of Shiite militias in Iraq. This news, which got almost no press among the domestic American media, was enormous news and represents a major blow to Iranian influence in Iraq– a major fear of American diplomats.

Vice President Mike Pence is currently abroad visiting some of America’s most vulnerable NATO allies in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. He will also travel to Georgia, where American and Georgian forces will have joint combat exercises, before visiting NATO’s newest member, Montenegro. In a speech in Tallinn, the Vice President asserted the American commitment to the Article 5 protections of the NATO charter (an attack on one is an attack on all) and stated that the President would sign tougher sanctions legislation against Russia (passed overwhelmingly in Congress).

Perhaps more important than any of the foregoing is (and here’s where we strongly knock on wood) that there hasn’t been any large-scale or coordinated terrorist attack against the United States in a significant stretch of time.

The Problem With Success

Donald Trump, while still a candidate, made it clear, much to the consternation of the press and the ire of commentators, that he would not discuss strategies that he would intend to deploy in the foreign policy arena. The American military, in concert with partners across the Middle East, has succeeded, without fanfare, in crippling the Islamic State. The President also expressed his desire to work together with Russia, China, and America’s traditional foes to find common ground in addressing problems around the world.

The problem with success, especially Donald Trump’s success, is that it’s just not “sexy.” If the “chaos candidate” narrative no longer fits for Mr. Trump, then, what’s left? Of course, not all of the blame for advancing the chaos narrative falls on the media (and, by extension, the American people as consumers of controversy). The President and his team willingly feed the narrative by their larger-than-life personas and willingness to jump into the spotlight. In addition, the President’s openness on social media, in particular on Twitter, gives him the power to shape an entire day’s worth of news coverage.

Chaotic… Like a Fox?

There are two competing theories about the President’s “chaotic” style. The first is that he’s a hot-headed bumbler whose divisive rhetoric plays to the visceral nature of the electorate, and, like an unleashed animal, is totally beholden to his political id– vacillating wildly from emotion to emotion as he governs the nation. The other theory is that the President is one of the most media savvy individuals in the country. This theory contends that the President’s public persona– his feuds, his rants, his Tweets — are geared towards controlling the media narrative and, even when coverage is negative, making sure all eyes are where he’s pointing.

The most likely scenario is that reality falls somewhere on the spectrum between both of those extremes. However, we’d posit that the truth is far closer to the latter, a tailored persona, than the former, true chaos. Despite this, media analysts are critical of Mr. Trump for “stepping on his own narrative.” What this means, in media parlance, is that, especially since Mr. Trump has become President, has a bad habit of letting a controversy overshadow good news (or the storyline– like “infrastructure week,” etc. that the White House communications team wants to push). This lack of coordination is seen as, at best, uncoordinated, and at worse, undisciplined.  But is that really what’s going on?

Boredom Doesn’t Sell

“So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Rev. 3:16.

There is no denying that the Trump Administration, in its first seven months, has had to deal with some flareups. Certainly, there is growing concern about the bellicose actions taken by the government of North Korea and the Russian government’s intransigence in Syria. Domestically, the failure of Obamacare repeal legislation marked an embarrassment for the President and the Republican Party.

However, let’s take a proverbial “chill pill” here. Obamacare took until December of 2009 to pass, originally. As much as we’d like a repeal to spring, Athena-like, fully formed from the mind of Mitch McConnell, that’s just not how the legislative process works. North Korea has been a pariah nation for nearly-seventy-years and we’re trying not to get hundreds-of-thousands of South Koreans and Japanese people killed. Finally, relations with Russia are strained because Democrats are gleeful about Trump’s associations and are willingly cooperating with hardcore neocons in Congress and the media who would like nothing more than to resurrect their Cold War-era playbooks.

Those flareups notwithstanding, there has yet to be a true national or worldwide crisis that the Trump Administration has had to deal with. We are not rooting for one to happen, but, statistically, it’s only a matter of time. The George W. Bush Administration had the 9/11 attacks, the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. The Obama Administration had the financial crisis, the rise of the Islamic State, Russian intervention in Ukraine, and the Syrian Civil War. It’s wrong to compare the geopolitical crises of eight year Presidencies to the not-even-eight-month-old Trump Administration, but, just seemingly by statistics, a crisis will come.

So, despite the fact that things are, actually, going pretty well in the United States (sure, it could be better, but most indicators are pointing up), especially after a bruising election fight, neither the media nor the Administration really want for the swirl of news to dissipate.  The “swirl’s” benefit to the media is easy to see: high ratings, lots of clicks, and increased ad revenue. The “swirl’s” benefit to the Administration is less-obvious, but more important. This benefit is most pronounced in the routing of ISIS and stability returning to Iraq. While it would be easy to try to trumpet these successes from the rooftops of Washington, the fact is, in order to actually achieve success, you can’t have people reporting on it all the time.

In a sense, then, making “chaos” out of what’s otherwise a fairly boring narrative (“The President hires people” and “Senate Embarks on Long-Term Legislative Process”) is a response to the reality that, when you take a 30,000 foot view of the current news landscape, things are actually fairly calm.

The Media Trough

When you look at a wave, the period between the crests is called a trough. As applied to our conversation, this is the “boring time” between true crises. We shouldn’t assume that just because things are boring doesn’t mean that there aren’t true, ongoing emergencies in the world. Certainly the opioid epidemic in the United States, refugee and migrant protection internationally, and political crises (like the one in Venezuela) are tragic. However, and this may be distressingly cynical, the reporting on likes of the opioid epidemic really has only two storylines: overdose death or a call for increases in enforcement/education/funding. The issue is tragic, but bipartisan.

While we are at a nadir for news, it’s important to think about, and to prepare for, the flashpoints around the world. Certainly, a market panic or an economic downturn could be something on the horizon. Terrorism remains a major fear despite efforts taken by the Trump Administration to vet people coming into the United States. A political crisis, like the one in Venezuela, spiraling into a full-fledged civil war would also be a calamity that would, necessarily, draw the United States in as an arbiter. On a larger scale, Russian incursions, surreptitious or brazen, against the Baltic States or resumption of hostilities in Eastern Ukraine would dramatically escalate tensions between Washington and Moscow.

The Lesson to Learn

News and media have never been more accessible and more widely-consumed as they are today. The advent of social media along with public interest have combined to magnify narratives and storylines. Politicians and journalists have developed symbiosis with the perception of chaos. Even when the actual situation is remarkably boring, the characters, and those reporting on them, understand that over-the-top rhetoric leads to engagement.

On the cynical side, the President, or at least his aides, understand that galvanizing the base is secondary, at this point, to pushing radical Democrats further to the left. The more Democrats embrace identity politics and hard-left views, the more centrist Democrats are left to choose whether to follow their Party over the ideological cliff or whether to shrug and support Trump (and his candidates for Senate in 2018) as the economic moderate.

Despite the hollering and the calls of chaos, let’s remember that things, overall, are on a steady trajectory at the moment. There are long-term issues that need attention and improvement as well as potential flashpoints that need care and concern. However, it’s probably best to stay clear of anyone who is screaming that the sky is falling, because, in reality, they’re probably just looking for a rain of cash.

Matt McDaniel

Attorney and Political Commentator

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