How Donald Trump Wins by Losing
It is impossible not to watch: Every day of the Trump administration seemingly brings another plot twist, a new initiative, outlandish attack or bizarre reversal. Not since wartime has news been so riveting — and with the president fighting so many “enemies,” it is actually not unlike war coverage. The nonstop media coverage cannot be faulted for being uncritical: It is, instead, a detailed assessment of the wins and losses of a wild presidency. Yet is it possible that the media, and many viewers, are using the wrong metrics of success?
Traditionally, politicians have measured “success” or “failure” by public approval or the achievement of political goals. But these may be the wrong ways to assess a president who, in his heart, seems interested in a different metric: attention, or less colloquially, “mindshare.” While he may prefer winning to losing, he can still win by losing. For what really matters are the contests themselves — the creation of an absorbing spectacle that dominates headlines, grabs audiences and creates a world in which every conversation revolves around Mr. Trump and his doings. By this standard, Mr. Trump is not just winning, but crushing it.
A centerpiece is the media strategy of “continual warfare” that has characterized the presidency. Since assuming office, Mr. Trump has waged war on intelligence agencies, immigrants from Muslim countries, the federal judiciary, “professional protesters,” Barack Obama, Mexico, Australia and, above all, the media, the very “enemy of the people.” Every politician picks fights. But by any traditional measure it would be folly to pick so many fights at once, and those battles have already yielded some spectacular defeats that have cheered his opponents. Yet the warfare makes sense in so far as it gives the president what he really wants: a role in which he can fully employ his naturally abrasive energies to generate a riveting spectacle. As George Orwell put it, “The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous.”
这套做法的核心是这届总统特有的“持续对战”媒体策略。自上任以来，特朗普向情报机构、来自穆斯林国家的移民、联邦司法机构、“职业示威者”、贝拉克·奥巴马(Barack Obama)、墨西哥、澳大利亚宣战，尤其同媒体开战，称之为“人民的敌人”。每个政客都会挑起战斗。但是根据任何传统的标准衡量，同时挑起这么多战斗都堪称愚蠢，而且这些战役已经带来了一些可观的失败，令他的对手欢欣鼓舞。然而，战争是有意义的，只要它能给总统带来他真正想要的：一个角色，在这个角色里，他可以充分利用自己天生的粗暴能量，创造一个引人入胜的大场面。正如乔治·奥威尔(George Orwell)所说：“战争的目标不是获胜而是持续。”
Beyond the combat, another key to the addictive nature of Trump-news is its unpredictable, erratic nature. A single day might include some random attacks, followed by a surprise policy reversal, like Tuesday’s promised compromise on undocumented immigrants, followed immediately by something shockingly normal, like his scripted address to Congress, which, illogically and unexpectedly, made no reference whatsoever to the earlier proposal. These kinds of random and rambling sequences create what behavioral scientists call a “variable reward schedule,” a key addictive ingredient in things like slot machines, social media and the Kardashian family. You don’t have to like it to get hooked, and the result is to keep the whole country, and much of the world, entranced, as if to a disco tune that has implanted itself in the global consciousness and will not go away. Indeed, a good sign that Mr. Trump is winning by his own terms is just how many of your private conversations somehow turn to him, compelled by the irresistible force of addictive media.
If Mr. Trump is winning the contest for mindshare, the more important question is whether he’s really winning — whether the fixation on attention is an astute assessment of where the real power lies in our times, or just the superficial and maybe uncontrollable pursuit of attention for its own sake. One possibility is that, for this presidency, whether anything is actually “accomplished” will end up being entirely beside the point. One doesn’t ask whether an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” or a season of “Survivor” accomplished anything. After four (or maybe two, or maybe eight) years of riveting developments and a blowout finale, the administration will be gone, leaving little in its wake, beyond the memories, occasional cast reunions and “where are they now” columns. The careless execution of some of the early initiatives supports the idea that this president views the trouble of actually following through as inessential. “Victory” can always be claimed anyhow, especially when facts are just props, deployed for dramatic effect.
如果特朗普先生赢得了“注意力占有率”的胜利，更重要的问题是他是否真的赢了呢——对注意力的迷恋究竟是对我们这个时代真正权力的一种精明评估；抑或只是出于自身目的，肤浅而失控地追求受人关注。一种可能性是，对于这届总统来说，任何事实是否真正“完成”，最终都变得不再重要。人们不问《奥普拉·温弗瑞秀》(The Oprah Winfrey Show)或《幸存者》(Survivor)的某一季是否完成了任何事情。经过四年（或许两年，也或许八年）引人入胜的发展和精彩结局后，这个政府就将消失，之后留不下什么东西，只有回忆、偶尔的成员重聚，以及“他们现在在哪里”专栏。那些被草率执行的早期举措能证明这个观点：这位总统认为，实际跟进的麻烦是不重要的。不管怎样，总是可以声称取得了“胜利”，特别是当事实只是用来充当道具，摆出来只是为了增强戏剧效果的时候。
But alternatively, and as painful as it may be to admit, the strategy may actually be a winning media strategy in 2017. Outsiders may think that the White House gets all the attention it wants, but even the Executive Office faces tough competition when trying to reach a highly distracted citizenry. Gone are the days where the president could turn to the radio for a fireside chat and expect, as Franklin Roosevelt did, 60 million listeners. President Obama also delivered a weekly radio address — but most radio stations declined to carry it. While Mr. Obama’s big televised speeches were widely watched, many of his policy initiatives were poorly covered, being worthy but not particularly newsworthy. Barack Obama was a celebrity, but by contemporary media standards, just too well mannered and predictable to grab huge attention.
Mr. Trump, to state the obvious, does not have that problem. Indeed, he has demonstrated that he can hold a news conference consisting of little more than shouting at his enemies for an hour and still dominate national headlines. Consequently, the Trump circus — thanks largely to Twitter and intense media coverage — has more of the nation paying more attention to the president than at any time in decades, and maybe since Roosevelt himself. The achievement is even more impressive given that Roosevelt had a built-in advantage: He was battling the Great Depression, then the Third Reich and the Japanese empire. Mr. Trump somehow draws similar attention fighting “bad hombres” from Mexico, immigrants from places like Sudan and Somalia and CNN.
While Mr. Trump’s methods are of our time, the goal of dominating mindshare is a classic strategy of influence, because the sheer volume of messaging allows the leader to transform minds, construct alternative realities and begin changing the rules of the game itself. As the philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote of propaganda, to be effective, it needs to be “total,” meaning that as much of the population as possible must be continuously exposed. Though we don’t have a state-run media, we do live in a society in which the president’s face and messages are sufficiently omnipresent to give Lenin a run for their money. When is the last time you went a day without seeing the “great leader”?
While the strategy — like an annoying advertisement — may be surprisingly effective, it may also hint at this president’s greatest weakness. If Mr. Trump is immune to ordinary defeats or criticism, he does, of course, have a desperate fear of being ignored. As the presidency progresses it may prove as much a slave to the ratings as any TV network. So if the public is bored by the Affordable Care Act (without Mr. Obama, there’s no “opponent”), might Mr. Trump lose interest and start a new battle somewhere else?
虽然这个战略——就像一个烦人的广告——可能惊人地有效，但它也可能暗示了这位总统最大的弱点。如果特朗普对一般的失败或批评是免疫的，那他当然会极度害怕遭到忽视。随着总统任期的进展，它可能最终会同任何电视网一样，成为收视率的奴隶。因此，如果公众对平价医疗费用法案(Affordable Care Act)感到厌烦（没有了奥巴马，也就没有了“对手”），特朗普会不会就此失去兴趣，在其他地方开始新的战斗？
Being hitched to the twin necessities of constant warfare and the public’s limited attention span may yield a series of unfinished projects that ultimately amount to little. It also suggests that Mr. Trump’s eventual downfall may be less like Richard Nixon’s than Paris Hilton’s. To live by attention is to die by it as well, and he may end up less a victim of political defeat than of waning interest, the final fate of every act.
特朗普需要持续不断地发起战争，吸引公众有限的注意力，这种双重需要可能会导致一系列最终没什么价值的未完成项目。这也表明特朗普最终的倒台可能不会像是理查德·尼克松(Richard Nixon)，倒更可能像帕丽斯·希尔顿(Paris Hilton)。靠注意力而生的东西最终也将因注意力而死，他最终可能不会成为政治失败的受害者，而是因为日渐减少的兴趣而败亡，这是所有演出的最终命运。