Donald Trump is a true master of getting attention, and he has been for decades. Where other New York developers built buildings, Trump built a brand based on always being the center of attention. Trump is so good at getting attention that his 2016 presidential campaign was long seen as essentially an attention-grabbing stunt rather than a sincere effort to win. But one of the big lessons of the 2016 primary is that the ability to grab attention is a profoundly important part of winning a presidential nomination.
A general election is different. And, indeed, despite the fact that Trump won in the end, it’s worth recalling that he probably fared quite a bit worse than a more conventional Republican Party nominee with less baggage would have done. But now that the election is over, Trump is back to displaying his incredible knack for publicity, having within a few short weeks mastered a problem that has bedeviled incumbent politicians for years: How do you get people to pay attention to what you’re doing?
This is a real skill, and as long as objective conditions in the world remain roughly the opposite of how Trump described them — unemployment and crime low, incomes rising, ISIS on the defensive — it’a going to serve Trump very well and drive liberals batty. The problem for Trump will come where it comes for any president: when the going gets tough.
Cool Obama was forged in crisis
The final months of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign played out against the backdrop of a genuine crisis situation. Big companies were filing for bankruptcy, being nationalized, or seeking bailouts from various governments. The United States was bleeding jobs, and foreign labor markets were heading downhill as well. A genuine and nearly universal fear about the immediate future of the country dominated the Bush-Obama transition, which also featured a commitment by the president-elect to end an ongoing military presence in Iraq.
Obama delivered a transition, and a first 100 days, that was suited to the mood. It was not without its problems and hiccups, but at every margin it erred toward being boring and orderly. People were eager for change but fearful of chaos, and Obama brought a reassuring calm to a nerve-racking situation.
But as the economic situation normalized in his second term, calm became something more like boring and ignorable. His team would routinely offer the classic incumbent’s lament — why weren’t journalists ever interested in covering the myriad good things that were happening in any given week?
It’s not that Obama never bothered to come up with small-scale initiatives to help people or tour the country to tout signs of progress. But this is boring stuff, and it largely got ignored, just as Obama’s responsible, well-managed Twitter feed is routinely ignored.
Donald Trump sells the drama
Trump’s tweets, by contrast, are really “bad” by the standards of big-time politics. His feed features lots of vendettas, lies, and trivia that make it a fascinating antidote to the antiseptic, workshopped tweets of the typical politician. So people pay attention.
Every Trump live television appearance carries the tantalizing possibility that something awful will happen — maybe he’ll call for his opponent to be jailed or say something racist or simply false. Whatever happens, we can be pretty sure we won’t just get an anodyne stump speech. Unpredictability guarantees interest.
By the same token, Trump rather brilliantly turned the Carrier affair into so much more than a case of dickering over a single plant and ultimately settling for half a loaf. There was drama, there was conflict, and there was mystery. A more professional handling of the matter would have garnered Trump some positive headlines in Indiana and been ignored nationally. Instead, Trump dominated the agenda for days with a rather small initiative, inspiring overblown criticism about how his approach threatens to erode capitalism itself.
Rather than offering calm in dramatic times, Trump sells drama around small stories — driving massive interest among fans and critics alike, but ultimately focusing attention on what he wants to focus attention on. It’s a masterpiece, and it’s likely that when temperatures cool down, politicians from both parties will learn that there is an upside to Trump’s looser approach and a downside to the knee-jerk gaffe aversion that has taken over so much of politics.
The problem is there are going to be problems
The issue here is that for all that Trump painted an exceptionally dark portrait of the United States of America during the campaign, his attention-grabbing tactics work well primarily because the actual situation is pretty good. As Brian Beutler writes at the New Republic, “Against a backdrop of economic growth, climbing wages, and a quasi-stable global order, Trump’s weird, personality-driven industrial policy will be consistent with a story in which Trump is taking a decent situation and making it better.”
The Carrier deal isn’t remotely big enough to move the needle in terms of the macroeconomic situation. But as long as the macroeconomic situation is stable and improving, that kind of thing works as a powerful symbol of the president’s hard work on behalf of the American people.
Unfortunately, past presidents have generally learned that the problem of how to best claim credit for good times — though difficult — is not really the hardest part of the job.
The difficult problem is dealing with actual problems in a remotely satisfactory way. Whether we’re talking about a financial markets panic, a foreign crisis, or a natural disaster, the inevitable vicissitudes of life suggest that sooner or later a big scary story will dominate the landscape. Past presidents have found that when something bad happens, once-valorized personality traits become demonized. The relatable, comfortable-in-his-skin George W. Bush was viewed as passive and incompetent in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and a growing insurgency in Iraq. The calm, collected Obama was seen as cold and out of touch as ISIS stormed to power in the Middle East.
Trump’s frenetic, unpredictable personality makes him a fascinating attention magnet in a way that’s very useful in good times. But when all eyes are on the president and looking for a workable solution to a very real crisis, that same disposition is likely to seem unnerving and erratic. Maybe he’ll get lucky and nothing bad will happen while he’s in office. Or maybe he’ll surprise us and prove to be an astute crisis manager and student of public policy, who swiftly solves problems as they arise and keeps us on the path of peace and prosperity.
But most likely Trump’s publicity successes will thrill his fans and infuriate his foes (which will only thrill his fans more), right up until the moment disaster strikes — at which point we’ll all remember that showmanship isn’t really the most important part of the job.