“TRUMP TWEETS IN ALL CAPS!! OOOO, I’M SO SCARED!! IT’S ALL JUST A DISTRACTION FROM HIS TREASONOUS HELSINKI APPEARANCE.”
Humans are pattern-making creatures. It’s natural to look at the man who is president and figure that he is acting according to some plan. Trump won the election after all. Most people look at a success like that and figure he must have an idea what he’s doing.
The truth, though, is that there’s little evidence that Trump knows what he’s doing — and even less evidence that using one crisis as a distraction from another crisis is an effective political strategy. On the contrary, Trump’s constant, erratic lurching from crisis to crisis has hurt him badly. It doesn’t distract the public. Rather, his media strategy reminds voters why they don’t like him.
Midler is not a political analyst, obviously. But many journalists agreed with her that Trump was trying to pull the media narrative away from his disastrous meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Chris Cillizza at CNN declared that Trump’s tweet about Iran shows that the president “is a master media manipulator.” Mark Landler at The New York Times similarly reported that those close to Trump believed his belligerent tweet “was driven almost entirely by his search for a distraction from questions about Russia.” Max Boot at The Washington Post made the same argument. Freelance writer David Leavitt added vehemently, “Iran is a distraction from RUSSIA,” a sentence he repeated seven times in a single tweet.
The strongest argument for the distraction theory of Trumpian behavior was made by Berkeley cognitive science professor George Lakoff more than a year ago. In March 2017, Lakoff argued that “Trump’s tweets are strategic.” In particular, Lakoff pointed out that, just as scrutiny about Trump’s Russia connections was heating up, Trump tweeted a nonsense, evidenceless conspiracy theory accusing Obama of wiretapping Trump tower.
“The media is still focused on the false accusation, not on the investigation of Trump’s Russian connections and the treason issue,” Lakoff said. He concluded that Trump’s tweets were “not crazy or manic,” but were an effective, smart way to get the press to focus on what Trump wants them to focus on.
No matter how he blusters and stonewalls, it’s him up there on that pulpit.
There are a couple problems with Lakoff’s argument. The most obvious one is that, a year and a half later, Mueller’s probe continues to generate weekly revelations and intense media attention, while the Obama wiretapping story is barely mentioned even by hardcore partisans, who have largely moved on to other talking points. Trump did not derail the Russia probe, nor did he prevent the media from reporting on it. Maybe he hoped to use his tweets in a strategic manner, but the strategy appears to have failed.
The second problem with Lakoff’s distraction theory is that he picked one moment where Trump really did exhibit at least a modicum of canniness. Trump was under attack, so he attacked Obama. Politicians often go after their opponents to make themselves look better. Generally, it’s more advisable to focus on accusations that are at least vaguely true, but any port in a storm.
Many of Trump’s “distractions,” though, are a lot less competent than that. Trump’s Iran tweet is big news not because he convinced people that Iran is a real danger or a real enemy. It’s big news because, in the tweet, Trump comes across as an out-of-control warmongering toddler with his finger on the nuclear button.
Trump isn’t distracting people by getting them to think someone else is awful. He’s distracting them by reminding them that not only might he have colluded to steal the election, but also he is prone to terrifying and out-of-control nuclear brinkmanship. How does that redound to his benefit?
In late 2017, Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight noted that Trump’s poll numbers were dismal, especially considering that the economy has been strong throughout his presidency (through no fault of his own). Some six months later, the economy is still generally stable, and Trump’s poll numbers continue to hover in the low 40s.
Maybe Trump is an undisciplined, lazy man who likes to rant on Twitter and doesn’t think much about what he’s saying. Maybe he really does think that he can make himself look good by pretending Obama wiretapped him, or by yelling at NFL players, or by threatening war with Iran. Maybe he tweets random ugly nonsense for both of those reasons, or for a third reason, or for no reason.
But whatever his thought process, or lack thereof, the fact remains that if Trump’s tweets are meant to distract people from his weaknesses, they are failing. Analyst Nate Silver found that Trump’s tweetstorms are correlated with periods of lower approval for the president. More to the point: Trump, throughout his presidency, has lurched from one shiny, ugly disaster to the next. The public hasn’t been distracted. It still doesn’t like him.
Journalists and people who follow the news closely see Trump’s presidency as a series of emergency alerts — one horrible tale of corruption, malfeasance and vindictiveness piled on another until it seems impossible to keep up. But most Americans don’t follow the news that closely.
If you’re not paying close attention, the story of the Trump years isn’t a series of “distractions.” Instead, it’s a fairly consistent narrative. Trump is incompetent, lazy, corrupt, angry, hateful, cruel and unfit for office. The scandal of the day may be warmongering, kowtowing to dictators, colluding with Russians or paying off mistresses. But it’s always something.
Trump can use his bully pulpit to try to change the conversation, but no matter how he blusters and stonewalls, it’s him up there on that pulpit. He’s a bad president and a hateful man. For better and worse, he can’t distract us from that.
Noah Berlatsky is the author most recently of Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism.