"After all, He Who Must Not Be Named did great things – terrible, yes, but great.”
As Ezra Klein points out, Trump the president is a massive failure. Trump the reality show star however is a much different picture.
The secret to Trump’s success, the insight that has separated him from his competitors, is that he has cared less about the nature of the coverage he received than that he received coverage at all.
“Even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business,” Trump said in his 1987 book The Art of the Deal. He goes on to recall the lesson he learned being attacked for a particularly gaudy skyscraper he sought to build.
“The point,” he says, “is that we got a lot of attention, and that alone creates value.”
This is the law by which Trump lives his life. Attention creates value, at least for him. Before Trump, every politician hewed to the same basic rule: You want as much positive coverage, and as little negative coverage, as possible. Trump upended that.
His rule, his realization, is that you want as much coverage as possible, full stop. If it’s positive coverage, great. If it’s negative coverage, so be it. The point is that it’s coverage — that you’re the story, that you’re squeezing out your competitors, that you’re on people’s minds.
This was Trump’s true political innovation: He realized that presidential campaigns — and particularly presidential primaries — had become reality shows, and the path to victory was to get the most attention, even if much of that attention was negative.
In this, Trump either intuited or stumbled into a profound insight about the media: It’s easier to get bad press than good press. There is an old line about the media: We don’t cover the planes that land safely. Most politicians try to get media coverage while landing the plane safely. They stage photo ops at factories, give prepared statements, deliver carefully crafted speeches. The result is dull, predictable, normal — and ignored.
Trump dominates news cycle after news cycle by crashing planes into Twitter. He is everywhere, seemingly all the time. He says things no national politician in history would have dared say, things that the press covers because they are outrageous, controversial, unnerving, appalling.
Trump is demanding and receiving our attention, crowding out everything else, accepting that it’s better to be hated than to be ignored.
Eat your heart out, Machiavelli.
So what do we do about the Tangerine Tyrant? That's just it, no matter how much you despise the man, he's still the guy running the executive branch.
Every so often, someone will suggest that we just ignore Trump’s words, his riffs, his tweets. But Trump controls a nuclear arsenal. His tweets are “considered official statements by the president of the United States,” according to Sean Spicer, who served as Trump’s first press secretary.
These are words that start wars, that drive deportations, that set policy, that end negotiations, that empower bigots, that reveal scandals, that represent our country. That the president of the United States is acting outrageously, or worryingly, or offensively, is important. As much as Trump might treat his presidency like a reality show, it remains a presidency, and lives are in the balance.
Yet in owning our attention, in driving the agenda, in setting both the terms and tone of the debate, and in doing so by generating constant negative attention, cultural conflict, and emotional alarm, Trump makes us a little more like him, and politics a little more like the tribal clash he says it is.
This is the real damage Trump is doing to America and will continue to do.