Wednesday, September 23, 2015

It's Time to Starve Donald Trump

Donald Trump in an uncharacteristically mild mood
In one of the weirder episodes this campaign season, on MSNBC last night, professional talking head Lawrence O’Donnell repeatedly interrupted an ongoing interview with writers for the National Review and Huffington Post, legitimate writers for legitimate partisan opinion journals, to report Donald Trump’s latest live tweets inveighing against Fox News host Megyn Kelly. This happened multiple times. With serious op-ed journalists before him, O’Donnell preferred to read The Donald’s tweets aloud over interviewing legitimate experts.

Sadly, despite its unapologetically weird texture, this circumstance isn’t unusual this year. Trump has openly antagonized journalists, mocked legislators, called his opponents nasty names, and figuratively shat upon his party during live televised debates. He’s gotten up onstage for supposed policy speeches and, plainly operating without a script, punted on saying anything substantive or specific. His campaign has combined the decorum of a Don Rickles routine with the coherence of a fifth-grader off his Ritalin.

The defining characteristic of Trump’s campaign, though, isn’t his slovenly bombast. It’s the legitimate news outlets’ willingness to televise, document, and reproduce his weird tirades. Trump has needed to perform far fewer speeches, town halls, and press junkets than other Republican primary contenders, because journalists interview him in his Manhattan skyscraper, and broadcast these interviews, replete with softball questions, with unedited adulation. Donald Trump doesn’t need to seek news coverage; news coverage willingly seeks him.

These same journalists then complain that other candidates can’t get coverage because Trump is “sucking the oxygen out of the room.” This expression has become cliché with repetition; everyone from Glenn Beck to Lee Camp repeats this phrase to describe the situation. This seemingly implies that Trump is something which has happened to a passive, defenseless America, like Hurricane Katrina. Fact is, Trump hasn’t sucked up the oxygen; journalists have fanned the oxygen toward him.

Trump has learned that, to get prime coverage on major news networks, he need only say something bigoted, misogynistic, or pig-ignorant. Even conservative outlets which once endorsed him, Fox News chief among them, have condemned him for race-baiting, ad hominem attacks, and dismissing women as unnecessary for their looks. But in drum-beating against him, his critics inevitably give him time more suitable for candidates who have something important to say. This narrows our national debate.

Donald Trump is a classic narcissist, a self-aggrandizing blowfish who requires validation from others, and demands our attention by doing something stupid. We all had that classmate in middle school who interrupted boring lectures by demonstrating his ability to fling paper wads with Nolan Ryan-like accuracy or fart le Marseillaise on command. Remember what happened when the teacher publicly reprimanded that kid? It provided the attention he so desperately needed. Donald Trump is that kid.

The negative reward doesn’t just cover Trump, however. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes the Availability Heuristic, a now-common principle of perceptual psychology. In brief, whatever concepts come readily to mind, whatever ideas we perceive as most immediately available, seem more relevant to whatever topic we’re discussing than ideas which require some effort to recall. Wall-to-wall Trump coverage keeps him prominent in American minds, making him and his weird opinions seem more important than he actually is.

Consider just one example. During the 2014 midterm elections, when politicians and journalists extensively covered the Ebola outbreak, Ebola ranked high on polls of priorities Americans wanted candidates to discuss. After the elections, discussions of Ebola went quiet; now the disease doesn’t even place on similar public opinion polls. Because Ebola scares sprang readily to mind when pollsters asked, it seemed a very important and urgent public policy issue, right until the moment it didn’t.

For voters who don’t follow issues closely, the more coverage Donald Trump receives, the more readily available he seems. He’s successfully pushed the term “anchor baby” from policy wonk call-in shows to mainstream news coverage, and forced other, more moderate candidates to weigh in on building border walls. The more coverage he gets, the more mainstream his opinions seem to part-time politics watchers. He isn’t just sucking up the oxygen; he’s sucking up good sense.

Our solution with Donald Trump, as with that middle school pinhead, is to stop giving him facetime. If he desperately craves attention, don’t give it to him. Treat him like mainstream media once treated Lyndon LaRouche or Dennis Kucinich, as too extreme to justify valuable print space or broadcast time. If we starve him for attention, he’ll go away, because he needs adulation, and if he needs to go elsewhere to find it, he’ll go.

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