Last week brought the resignation of Trump’s economic advisor Gary Cohn and Trump’s imposition of widely opposed steel tariffs. The drama from the week before last was the resignation of long-time aide Hope Hicks and the downgrading of Jared Kushner’s security clearance. I could chronicle all the scandals of the Trump presidency thus far, but that would make this piece into more of a book than an article. Raging tweetstorms, advisors filing out of the West Wing, and rumors about the Russia investigation all imply chaos in the West Wing. What causes this culture of chaos? The systematic leveraging of transparency on the part of President Trump. How? Trump masterfully doles out doses of transparency and thus chaos, monopolizing the attention of the country.
Trump’s tweets give the public up-to-date access to his unfiltered thoughts. From criticizing his Cabinet members to engaging with unflattering rumors, Trump ensures both sides of the aisle give near-constant attention to the constant drama of his Twitter account. In doing so, he manipulates the subject of news coverage. Entire news segments are dedicated to analyzing the two hundred and eighty characters of the hour. Reporters heckle over proving that Trump starts his day by watching Fox News. As he dispenses measured glimpses behind the presidential veil, Trump puppeteers a news cycle on his terms, founded in speculation rather than fact.
Many appreciate the accessibility of Trump’s thoughts. After all, most politicians funnel their words through layers of speechwriters, editors, and spokespeople, ensuring their voters only ever see them speak with polish and poise. Trump’s rejection of this tradition is what drew so many voters to him to begin with: many voters found his condemnation of political correctness refreshing. They were attracted to his lack of sophistication, which, to them, conveyed relatability. Others perversely enjoy Trump’s rampages, pouncing on new opportunities to pick apart his fallacies.
Trump is pioneering the digital age duties of politicians. His incessant use of social media keeps supporters and critics alike tuned in to his opinions. This widespread loyalty to his tweets is pure gold by the metric of “all publicity is good publicity.” Sure, Trump has ostracized many potential allies, including those in his Cabinet, but all follow his tweets with bated breath because they have no other choice--the president’s tweets are the central news of each day. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan joked in October, “every morning, I wake up in my office and and scroll [through] Twitter to see which tweets I will have to pretend I didn’t see later.” The president, with a midnight stroke of two-hundred and eighty characters, will define that day in politics, whether other politicians want to address the tweets or not.
Trump thrives on his attention monopoly. Twitter grants him publicity autonomy, removing the need for reporters in reporting news. The Trump administration even went so far as to embargo footage of White House press briefings last summer, treating the media as a pest to be controlled. In November, upon the release of Mark Updegrove’s book, The Last Republicans, reporters asked Trump what he thought of the former Presidents Bush criticizing Trump in the biography. Trump saw the bad publicity bait for what it was and discarded it, saying, “I don’t need headlines. I don’t want to make their move successful.” This is the brilliance of the Trump approach to politics. He does not wait for headlines to come to him: he makes headlines on his own terms, from the safety of his Twitter account, shut away from the traditional media.
So, this approach serves Trump well, but does it serve the American people well? Trump has spearheaded a system of trickle-down news, with himself at the top of the resource heap, determining which issues will flow down the news hierarchy.
The clickbait consumption culture of social media and Trump’s sensationalist tendencies make a deadly combination. To salvage national dialogue and bipartisan progress, we ought to reconsider the ways in which we consume the news. I am not advocating the pursuit of a twenty-first century Walden, shutting oneself in a cabin in which to ignore the world. Isolation is the monster here. By limiting dialogue to pithy tweet attacks and by hanging on to Trump’s every word, we are playing directly into his hand.
In the past few years, media coverage of political developments has grown obsessive and petty. From right-wing fixations on signs of physical weakness from Hillary Clinton in 2016, to liberal outlets scrutinizing Trump’s consumption of cheeseburgers, media on both sides have taken to focusing on unflattering minutiae about those on the other side of the aisle. These potholes of trivial obsessions deteriorate discourse. Who is to blame for this decay? The actors here are the subject of news, news outlets, the social media sites that deliver their content to readers, and we the consumers of the news. We cannot control the source of the news, and in our capitalist system, news and social media outlets ultimately respond to consumer desire. Which leaves the consumers.
A recent study by MIT researchers published in Science Magazine looked at the spread of news on Twitter over the past decade, finding that lies spread faster than truth. These researchers concluded that it was us, news consumers, who were the dangerous part of the equation--not bots or Twitter. We were the ones who time and again turned to the outrageous story over the less shocking, true one. Yes, Trump catalyzes this news cycle with teases of transparency. However, the responsibility of liberation from this fixation on disinformation rests on our shoulders as well, as evidenced by this MIT study. We are the ones buying in to this culture. Click after click on stories about Trump’s KFC-heavy diet sends the message to social media and news sites alike that we want more drama, less substance.
So, just as you vote with your dollar in a store, why not vote with your click on the internet? Refuse to play into Trump’s hand, and leave behind the world of clickbait rabbit holes by instead paving the way towards a future in productive and engaged political discourse.
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