Trump Wants to Dominate, Not Persuade

Over the weekend Donald Trump continued to attack the media at a rally and on Twitter. I’ve hesitated to make this a focal point because, to assume this is all about a challenge to the free press misses the bigger picture of the media being just one group of people who are under assault from this president.

While zeroing in on how this affects White House reporters, Jay Rosen identifies the big picture of what’s going on. He starts by describing what we’ve come to expect as “normal” from a president.

We are used to nominees who, when they win the White House, try to bring the country together by speaking to voters who did not support them in November. This is normal behavior. This is what we expect from presidents of both parties.

Obviously, Trump doesn’t buy into “normal.”

His idea is to deepen the attachment between himself and his core supporters so that nothing can disturb that bond. The substitution of depth (of attachment) for breadth (of appeal) is confusing and disorienting to those who believe in consensus politics. This includes many of our most prominent journalists. They are stunned and confused by this exchange.

Among the consequences is that persuasion drops out of the calculus of success, meaning: Trump is not trying to win the support of anyone who is not naturally allied with him…

Once you remove persuasion from the equation many things tumble out of place. Plausibility itself becomes superfluous. Adjusting the claims of the White House to any common measure of reality breaks down as a discipline. What matters is the strength of the bond with core supporters, not the ability of the Administration to answer questions, parry doubts, or mount a convincing case for its program. This is one reason that lying has become a White House routine.

A recent tweet from Trump tends to affirm that, in his mind, it is all about strengthening that depth of attachment to his base.

This reliance on an attachment to his base explains why, as Martin recently wrote, Trump has been blind to it’s consequences in attempting to pass any legislation, like repealing Obamacare.

Trump put his health care agenda in the hands of conservative Republicans and then relied on a disunited party to act with complete discipline. This was a recipe for a bill that polls about as well as a case of genital warts and that cannot win passage because it is so heartless.

My one critique of Rosen’s analysis is that it leaves the impression that this is a thoughtful strategy being employed by Trump and his aides (i.e., Steve Bannon). But Josh Marshall puts it all in perspective as the type of dominance ritual that has been Trump’s modus operandi since before he brought it to politics.

We know that he sees everything through a prism of the dominating and the dominated. It’s a zero-sum economy of power and humiliation. For those in his orbit he demands and gets a slavish adoration. Even those who take on his yoke of indignity are fed a steady diet mid-grade humiliations to drive home their status and satisfy Trump’s need not only for dominance but unending public displays of dominance. He is a dark, damaged person.

Trump’s treatment of the press is really a version of the same game, a set of actions meant to produce the public spectacle of ‘Trump acts; reporters beg.’ ‘Reporters beg and Trump says no.’ Demanding, shaming all amount to trying to force actions which reporters have no ability to compel. That signals weakness. And that’s the point.

In the world view of Trump and his base, when the media signals that kind of weakness, they “win,” which deepens the president’s ties to his base and invites more of the same kind of behavior. That is why suggesting that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose supporters is the most honest statement we’ve heard from Trump.

Because our culture is so infused with the idea that dominance is the only form of power, what Josh is describing is the way in which Trump gains power by inviting the media to play the game on his terms via an attempt to change behavior over which they have no control. That is the equivalent of an abuse victim putting all of her energy into trying to change the one thing over which she has no control—her abuser’s behavior. It is a recipe for continued victimization.

Here is Josh’s prescription for the media:

The only way to grapple with this type of gangland White House is not to beg or demand but simply make clear that hiding, acting in secrecy is cowardly, a sign of hidden bad acts, simply unAmerican and let the Trump entourage live with that label…

I do not pretend that Trump’s crackdowns on access are unimportant. But they are not the critical things that journalists require to do their job. The blockbuster stories, the critical revelations don’t come from press briefings or pool access. They come from things that a President, at least for now, has far less ability to curtail. We should focus on those and report the reality before our eyes.

That is essentially what Rosen prescribed back in January.

When I say #sendtheinterns I mean it literally: take a bold decision to put your most junior people in the briefing room. Recognize that the real story is elsewhere, and most likely hidden. That’s why the experienced reporters need to be taken out of the White House, and put on other assignments.

That advice is helpful for all of us, not just the media. The way to continue to feel powerless and victimized by someone like Trump is to engage in his dominance ritual by trying to change things over which we have no control. A study of power dynamics tells us that the one thing we have the power to change is ourselves. When joined together in collective action (i.e., everything from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Gandhi’s movement to free India from British rule), that is the real power of the people.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.