Politics as PR, Part 3: Trump’s Center Cannot Hold

Politics as PR, Part 3: Trump’s Center Cannot Hold

It broke yesterday that Mike Dubke, Donald Trump’s communication’s manager, has resigned, although perhaps you missed that in the kerfuffle over a tweeted typo. This resignation is not surprising; the Trump administration has been beset by an almost daily barrage of scandals which his communications and PR people have been unable to contain. Even ignoring the administration’s early issues like the travel ban, we’re in the midst of almost a month of an endless ratta-tatta-ratta of scandalous disclosures punctuated, like the Battle of the Somme, by the bursting of periodic bombshells. Also much like the Battle of the Somme, every effort to bring it to a speedy conclusion with losses at a minimum has ended ingloriously.

This is essentially where we are right now: a presidential administration best discussed via metaphors to one of the largest, most protracted battles in human history.

The Trump administration is in a bloody war of attrition with breaking news, tending inexorably toward something ominous and undefined. Impeachment? Resignation? A thumping in 2018? It remains to be seen; things at this stage remain dauntingly unclear. But the smoke – the smoke is hard to miss, and we can almost make out a fire if we squint.

So understandably, the administration is in damage control. The resignation of Mike Dubke, whether voluntary and self-initiated or an outright termination, signals as much; the president cannot be thrilled with the almost entirely unobservable results of his team’s efforts to contain the news and change the story. The entire communications team – especially Dubke and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer – have come under criticism from the notoriously blunt Trump; he believes he has been shortchanged by a staff of incompetents, famously musing that perhaps the daily press briefing should be done away with entirely.

The Profit Motive and the Common Good

The Profit Motive and the Common Good

I’m not someone who’s opposed to working for a living.

I’ve been working in one form or another my entire life, from delivering newspapers when I was 12 to working at the Army Navy Store my whole senior year of high school. I promoted my first New York Times-bestselling author before I was a junior in college, and at 24 I started a company out of my living room that grew into the eleventh-ranked public relations agency to work for in the country. In many ways, I’ve achieved the stereotypical American Dream of material success through blood, sweat, ramen noodles and all-nighters. I lived the “start-up life” long before it was an inspirational hashtag, and I’ve paid my dues along the way. So perhaps people will listen when I say that earning your way to the top shouldn’t be the non-negotiable cost of having a secure, decent, happy life.

I am not entirely certain why this is controversial.

But controversial is exactly what it is. We have an entire culture centered around the idea that you are worth your economic productivity and nothing more – where martyrdom is lauded and a lack of sleep and free time are held up like trophies where basic life-saving medical care comes at an exorbitantly prohibitive expense and a single misplaced step can throw your entire life (and that of your whole family) into financial chaos that can resonate for decades. For millions upon millions of Americans, the basic necessities of life are subject to the whims of an uncontrollable economy.

Which is, it seems, exactly how Donald Trump and many in the GOP seem to want it, at least if their budget and health plan are to be believed?

Last week, the administration unveiled its 2018 budget, called “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” featuring literally trillions of dollars in cuts to the assistance programs economically distressed Americans depend on most. This should surprise no one; since day one, Trump has been promising cuts in essentially everything save the military: defunding Obamacare, defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Cutting the NEA, the NSF, the EPA. Medicaid. The Departments of Energy and Education. Low-income energy assistance.

School lunches. Food stamps. Meals On Wheels.

And these are just the most high-profile of cuts to programs that provide necessary social services. The assumption behind each of these cuts is that private initiative can (and should) fill the gaps. It’s the expansion of charter schools. It’s the empowerment and enrichment of insurance companies. It’s letting corporations drive scientific research in directions that benefit them directly.

In other words, it’s about breaking down one of the core functions of what the government is supposed to do, supporting the common good, and replacing it with self-interest and the profit motive, and by extension, restricting a secure and good life (and access to the tools that make it possible) to the already well-off.

Politics as PR, Part 2: How Trump Fans the Fire

Politics as PR, Part 2: How Trump Fans the Fire

It hasn’t even been two weeks.

Hard to believe, I know. But it wasn’t even two weeks ago that Sally Yates and James Clapper testified before Congress in the ongoing Michael Flynn investigation. In that time, we’ve been witnessing a presidency implode on a scale not seen since Watergate, and at a clip never seen period. The firing of James Comey on May 8 set off a chaotic, scandal-ridden Rube Goldberg machine, with every day bringing about a new twist, a new wrinkle, a new turn that can’t be unmade.

And there at the center of the swirling and inchoate mess is none other than the sweaty, pulse-veined brow of a sitting president who has no idea how to contain the damage or avoid the perception, however correct, that he has committed the cardinal sin of his personal religion: losing.

For Trump, there is nothing worse. And it’s getting increasingly hard to avoid the implication, what with the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Comey firing and Russia connection (see Archibald Cox and Kenneth Starr, key players in previous scandals that ended, or almost ended, in impeachment). Trump finds himself unable to make a case for himself, and even the acting FBI director was uninterested in perpetuating Trump’s confused justification for terminating his predecessor.

Oh, but the president fancies himself a fighter, and in fighting, has done little but exacerbate the damage. His ineffective flailing has only thrown the White House into chaos as he undermined his own surrogates by flatly contradicting their justifications for Comey’s firing. And now their external PR campaign has entirely collapsed, leaving the administration with essentially no public voice to contain the damage.

None, that is, but the president’s terse, hostile tweets.

Let’s milk it, shall we?

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

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.”

The Failings Of Traditional And Social Media, The Destruction Of Fact, and the Election of a Demagogue

The Failings Of Traditional And Social Media, The Destruction Of Fact, and the Election of a Demagogue

In a post-election analysis, media research firm mediaQuant calculated that Donald Trump earned approximately $4.96 billion in “free” media – compared to just $3.24 billion for Hillary Clinton, and $1.15 billion and $0.7 billion from Obama and Romney in 2012 respectively. “Free” media refers to all media not directly paid for through advertising – examples include online articles, television and radio interviews, broadcasts of campaign rallies, print articles, blog and forum posts, and social media. However, no media is truly free – in Donald Trump’s case, much of his media attention was “earned” through his bombastic remark, abhorrent behavior, and ability to incite rallying cries with racist, xenophobic, sexist, and hateful rhetoric. The media chose to give Mr. Trump air-time because he brought in the ears, eyes, and clicks of the nation – some of whom found security and comfort through his fear mongering, many fearfully seeing him as a dangerous demigod comparable to history’s most horrific leaders, and yet others finding his efforts futile and humorous.

In terms of broadcast media, Trump just narrowly outgained Clinton in “free” media. Still, in a 24-hour TV news format, Trump’s coverage was enormous. According to The GDELT Project’s Presidential Election 2016 Candidate Television Tracker, Donald Trump’s name was mentioned by TV news stations at least three times as frequently as the next candidate since July of 2015. Clinton’s mentions would eventually catch up as we neared the general election, however Trump would on average have substantially more mentions than Clinton on any given day leading up to the election. In a conversation at Harvard University back in October, CNN’s President Jeff Zucker said he had no regrets about how his network covered Mr. Trump and acknowledged that his campaign was a ratings machine. As a bit of a half-measure, Zucker admitted that if he could change one thing about his network's spotlight on Trump’s presidential campaign, he would have shown fewer Trump “campaign rallies in those early months unedited.” He added, “I think in hindsight, we shouldn’t have done that as much.” While several news outlets did work tirelessly to reveal the lies and flip-flops of Trump’s candidacy, the oversaturation of seemingly non-stop Trump coverage helped launch and legitimize his candidacy and vindicate his supporters. Despite its role in Trump’s eventual rise to the presidency, he would nonetheless grow to despise and condemn the very same attention that made his victory possible, urging his supporters away from mainstream media.