Politics as PR: Why Trump Can’t Control the Story Anymore

The never-ending Summer of Trump got off to an explosive start. It was almost two years ago in front of Trump Tower that Donald Trump announced his intention to run for president with a speech openly calling Mexican immigrants drug-dealing rapists, accusing the Obama administration of flatly lying about the “real unemployment rate,” and betraying a fundamentally outdated (when not blatantly incorrect) understanding of the global situation. It was bizarre, rambling, and bordered on incoherent.

It also made news.

That speech was the beginning of the cycle he perpetuated throughout the campaign and is still attempting to perpetuate to this day: say something inflammatory and ride the resulting press wave. This pattern kept up for the next eighteen months, each new offense earning him more media attention, more supporters, and giving him total control over press coverage. Deliberate or not, calculated or not, Trump kept the string of scandal going so hard and so fast that nothing was ever really able to stick to him, which meant there was never any need for damage control. Nothing hung around long enough to hurt.

But now that he’s president, that seems to be changing. And the firing of James Comey is another great example of Trump’s old strategy blowing up in his face. In my professional opinion, just as he rose, Trump will indeed fall, crash, and burn by the old adage, “no news is bad news.”

Once upon a time, all that mattered was his base of loyal supporters. And all he needed to do was stay in the news; that was enough. But as president, he’s in the news by default, and the story isn’t about inflammatory statements anymore. It’s about real-life policies and their very real-world consequences. He can no longer simply say a thing and move on, because his policies have to be implemented, which means for the first time, he can’t just pass the buck. He can and has been hindered, blocked, and held accountable.

He has, from the very first hours of his administration, found himself stymied at every turn. The largest protest in American history followed on the heels of (and dwarfed) his inauguration, and the White House Press Secretary deadpanned that Trump’s inaugural crowd surpassed Obama’s – and that only a hostile media dead-set on sabotage and distorting the truth could possibly explain the discrepancy between the White House’s account and the actual photographic evidence. Immediately faced with backlash, Trump tried to control the story the same way he always has. Except this time, it failed.

As before, this pattern has repeated itself; Trump commits some faux pas, issues some dangerous or asinine policy, and then tries to back out of the controversy by attempting to redirecting attention elsewhere. But fewer and fewer are still taking the bait. His antagonistic, self-glorifying Tweetstorms deflect blame for everything: his illegal executive orders are blocked by judges obstructing democracy, SNL should be cancelled, the DNC should be investigated for lax email security, Obama was spying on him, Hillary is a crook, Sally Yates isn’t trustworthy, the media is “unfair,” unfavorable polls can’t be trusted, “FAKE NEWS.” Sad!

Nothing is his fault. He has never failed. Every report to the contrary is suspiect (if not a deliberate and malicious conspiracy against him). The strategy is as utterly transparent as it is ultimately ineffective, a flailing presidency lashing out at critics and desperately trying to control reality; to poach the vernacular, this is a bad look.

So what happened? Why can’t Teflon Don keep criticism from sticking anymore? I think it’s that this time, he’s got nobody else to blame.

Oh, he’s trying. He’s trying incredibly hard (relative, of course, to Trump’s congenital predisposition to sloth) to find literally anyone to pin his failures on, be it Sally Yates or the “failing New York Times,” but it’s hard to talk about how you’ll #DrainTheSwamp when you can barely get your signature campaign pledges – Obamacare repeal and replace and a border wall which all signs indicate the United States will ultimately pay for – through Congress and your press secretary is busy ducking behind bushes while you scream at the TV; it’s even harder to talk about how you’ll “get things done” when your bold, decisive executive orders are deemed illegal again and again and again. Trump can’t control the story for the same reason the Keystone Kops can’t catch a thief; he can’t control himself, and with nobody to deflect attention towards, it all comes back to his fumbling incapacity to execute his office.

There’s nobody else to blame. You can imagine his sense of bewildered confusion; he’s depended on having scapegoats his entire career, whiles his own failures receded into irrelevancy; “sure, but he’s not president, and he just tells it like it is.” But that strategy doesn’t work when he is, in fact, president, a role that does indeed necessitate being a politician and a diplomat. The buck definitively, magnificently, emphatically stops here, and these kinds of problems won’t just go away with the threat of a lawsuit. It is painfully obvious he had not the slightest conception of the public responsibility he was being entrusted with. Suddenly, and likely for the first time in his life, people are holding him responsible for his actions, and he does not know what to do about it.

So he lashes out, like a spoiled child, angry and impotent, and every time he stomps his feet and bemoans how “unfair” it all is, he only makes the situation worse, demonstrating an almost startling lack of understanding for the power and influence of both himself and the office he now holds. Used to the authoritarian power of the CEO, the president now finds himself in a partnership with governmental branches who don’t always fall into line; the courts keep blocking him, and the Senate has no intention of taking up the House ACHA bill. And if the so-called “great dealmaker” can’t move anything forward, he has repeatedly told Americans to blame but one person: himself. “I will get it done! I and I alone can make America great again!”

Trump can’t control the story anymore; in fact, it seems he has very little control over anything at the moment. Getting on track will require a discipline he has never demonstrated to possess and a willingness to own and learn from his mistakes that first require the capability to even admit to them.

I am not optimistic.


Originally Posted on Huffington Post