I think this next four years is going to fly by, and at the end of it, people will be looking around asking themselves where all the time has gone.
That’s my way of saying the opposite of “It’s going to be a long four years,” or words to that effect.
And I mean it. What the Trump administration is doing in the public communication realm is very interesting to watch. It upends expectations. It’s got just about everyone off guard.
I don’t think the Washington establishment or the majority of pundits in general really understand what they’re seeing. They think, for example, that what they’re seeing is the Trump administration being thin-skinned or incompetent, or both.
But what they’re actually seeing is the Trump administration not doing what they expect it to do, based on their premises about what communication ought to be, and ought to be for.
Without suggesting that what Team Trump is doing is “right” – I stipulate up front that I’m not saying that, and I’m not going to waste any more time on that caveat – I do suggest that simply being upset with Trump, for not sharing your premises about communication, will hamper your ability to grasp what’s going on.
It’s not about being thin-skinned, nor is it about not knowing how to answer the media. It’s about Trump fighting for his main policy effort, using communication as a principal collateral effort. It’s about being on offense and not defense. It’s about not ceding the initiative, and not letting an adversarial media or political party set the terms of the debate.
I know Ronald Reagan did things differently. He often disarmed the media with humor. I would love to have those days back again. But that’s not in the cards – and not just because Reagan is gone. It’s at least as much because the media can’t be trusted to act in good faith.
Let’s start with the example on everyone’s mind at the moment: the now-infamous debate over the comparative crowd sizes of the Obama inauguration in 2009, and the Trump inauguration last Friday.
In this very silly contretemps, I stipulate up front that Trump’s crowd was smaller. But that’s not what matters to the communication battle the Trump administration is fighting. What matters is that in setting the stage for the debate, the mainstream media initially made a deceptively exaggerated comparison, and implied that that comparison was definitive and politically telling.
We don’t know what Team Trump or anyone else – e.g., Trump partisans in the blogosphere – would have done if the crowd comparison had been made more straightforwardly from the start. It wouldn’t have been difficult to do. The tweet that got everyone’s panties in a wad compared the Obama 2009 crowd at its full strength to the Trump crowd at less than its full strength. An honest comparison would have put apples up against apples.
Eventually, NPR presented a fair comparison with a time-lapse video. It showed that the Trump crowd was smaller than Obama’s in 2009. The difference was visually significant. But it also showed that the Trump crowd was larger than the one in the viral tweet.
The more accurate comparison didn’t make quite as juicy a visual as the less accurate one. On Twitter and Facebook, the side-by-side images I continue to see circulated are from the original tweet. Clearly, the people excitedly forwarding that pair of images around are interested in something besides accuracy.
Team Trump has identified such prejudicially inaccurate themes as a problem to be addressed. Crowd size isn’t the basic issue; the issue is prejudicing the terms of the public debate. For years, the MSM have been getting away with slanting the terms of the debate in just this way: using little deceptions that seem too silly to bother calling them out on. What presidential administration wants to be involved in disputing crowd size, and the time at which photos were taken? How embarrassing, right?
But here’s the key. Team Trump’s deportment isn’t importunate and whining, as if it’s begging for more fairness from media that hold the high card. Nor have its spokesmen offered mere analytical criticism of the media’s methods.
Team Trump is going on offense. It’s taking the initiative; forcing the issue, instead of letting it go, because the principle at stake is not crowd size. The principle is what the media get away with, in terms of dogging and hobbling a presidential administration’s ability to communicate about policy.
Team Trump is fighting. This is what fighting looks like. It doesn’t look like the standard rhetorical set-pieces in which Republicans have an assigned role, and it’s always to be the chumps.
Notice, again, that I didn’t say Trump is doing it “right” here. I said he’s fighting, as opposed to not fighting.
I’ll say it one more time, with all the emphasis word processing can muster. Trump isn’t fighting about crowd size. He’s fighting about what the media expect to get away with.
What the mainstream media expect to get away with is their strategic center of gravity – and Trump is attacking it.
The MSM have been treating communication as a kinetic political war, with winners and losers, for decades. Instead of ineffectually declaring himself above all that, Trump is counterattacking on offense – not symmetrically or merely in reaction, but according to a strategy based on his own goals.
Yes, there is potential danger in that. If the MSM today were honest brokers, the danger might be imminent and grave. But they’re not. The danger is second-order and theoretical at the moment, because the mainstream media are not honest and trustworthy.
It’s not honesty they’re being attacked for; not even in this silly little matter of crowd size. That makes the decisive difference.
None of this means that Team Trump is handling things the right way, using the right methods, picking the right battles, and so forth. It does mean that Team Trump is acting according to a deliberate strategy and waging a fight it intends to wage – on Trump’s terms, not the media’s – because it sees that fight as important.
Trump’s voters think it’s important too, and that’s who Trump sees himself as accountable to. And while I sympathize with the bigger-picture perspective that there are other ways to come at this problem – ways that are less linear and pugnacious – I’m compelled to observe that no one can point to one that works.
Messaging on the embassy move in Israel
The other example from the first few days is the seeming blow-off Sean Spicer gave in his Monday presser to a question about moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. I’ve heard from friends that they really thought Trump missed an opportunity there. On this contentious issue, they were hoping for more of a definitive stake to be driven at the outset. Some are now worried that Trump’s prior determination to move the embassy is being walked back.
Without disputing that a more categorical statement would have been good, I would warn against parsing the administration’s communications on this or any other matter in the conventional way.
Moving the U.S. embassy would be a significant strategic action, and I predict Trump is going to prosecute it with the integrated approach of a military operation. That means he is going to choose when to go on offense with his communication effort.
He doesn’t feel obligated to respond on cue, whenever other people want to talk about it. In fact, doing that can be a trap. He won’t be hounded for timelines he isn’t ready to commit to, or give the many opponents of the move a series of interim moments to organize against.
When it’s time to move decisively, he will move – and his communication effort will be integrated with his operational plan. He’s not going to put statements out there to be gnawed at and distorted, months before he’s ready to act. Trump is a tactical communicator, as I’ve said before. Communications are tactics to produce kinetic effects with.
Now, it’s legitimate to object that statecraft is normally conducted less like a military campaign. Speaking for myself, I’m a big fan of the way the last three Republican presidents did things: responsibly stating U.S. interests up front, using the conventional terms of diplomacy, and outlining clearly what the American people and our allies and third parties could expect.
But let’s not pretend that Barack Obama conducted foreign policy that way. Compared to Obama on foreign policy, Trump is communicative, straightforward, and readily interpretable.
The next four years
I’m not so sure the mainstream media with its biases and bad patterns will outlast Trump. In 1981, almost everyone on earth would have said Soviet communism would outlast Reagan. But it didn’t. He got to see its ultimate demise, even though he was out of office by then. The main reason the unthinkable happened is that Reagan attacked the Soviets’ center of gravity: their political legitimacy, as conceded by decades of Western policy. Everything else in his rollback policy mapped back to that.
Trump shows a disposition to attack the Western MSM’s center of gravity — and to insist that the battle must be fought, even on seemingly insignificant terrain. I think it’s a mistake to assume that nothing can or will change as a result of this effort.
I wouldn’t necessarily do things the way Trump does them. But for his critics on the right, it’s salutary to acknowledge some reality. It might seem like proper virtue-signaling, to disdain Trump for fighting back on something as silly as Crowdgate. But in recent years, virtue-signaling on such things has emphatically not been a winning method in American politics. It arguably lost 2008 for McCain, and 2012 for Romney.
The final point here is the one that matters. There will never be political opportunity for limited-government republicanism again, if the media can continue dictating the terms of public debate, using bias and deception. If Trump’s approach is wrong, what is the right approach?
I certainly agree that it would be preferable for presidential administrations to not engage in smackdowns with the media. Instead of that, who should be doing what, to get our media problem under control?