Media has yet to come to terms with the revolutionary change created by this man, writes Terry Prone
The funniest thing about the reaction to Donald Trump’s last press conference, pre-inauguration, was how astonished it was. Particularly on the part of media people who, in theory, should not be surprised by much, because it’s their job to be at astonishing events in order to write the first draft of history. But they were astonished, nonetheless.
This may be because of the ungovernable belief in improvability resident in humanity. We used to start improving babies in the cradle until Dr Spock and Co suggested that trying to teach a six-month-old a moral lesson by immuring it on its own in the dark mightn’t be that great an idea. But we’ve never given up on toddlers. Toddlers are there to be directed away from whatever they find most interesting to whatever an adult believes they SHOULD find most interesting. They exist to learn how to share. That’s the biggest virtue of toddlerhood. Sharing.
The sharing lesson works with the toddlers born with the altruism gene, who score highly on the marshmallow test and are generally good eggs. But show me a man who won’t stand his round, and I’ll show you a toddler who determinedly resisted all that sharing guff. You can see the 50 year old in the five year old. People change very little throughout their lives.
Which is why it’s so fascinating that people expect Donald Trump to change, now he’s on the verge of being President. Here is a man who has reached the top political job in his country by repeatedly doing a particular set of things. He is 70 years of age, which means he has put in a lot of practice. No evidence has ever surfaced of him ever having changed himself in any way, other than hair colour. The possibility of him seeing the light or being reshaped by the role, is remarkably slim, for two reasons.
The first is the hard-wiring of the brain. Thirty years ago, a man hired to write Trump’s ‘autobiography’ realised, after the first few aborted meetings with his subject, that the man was incapable of sequential thought, never mind sequential argument. He was equally incapable of devoting attention to anything for longer than twenty minutes. The writer, who had a considerable financial incentive, realised that he would have to invent a philosophy for the man and hang bits of his life to it, clothes-peg fashion. Trump was completely happy with this fictional approach. Rather more worrying is the world-wide acceptance of the resultant theory that Trump is driven by making deals. This is not true. Trump is driven by the need for public attention. Full stop.
Inauguration Day is turning out to be even bigger than expected. January 20th, Washington D.C. Have fun!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 15, 2017
The hard-wiring of the brain reveals itself, in each and every individual, in their patterns of speech. One four-minute interview will establish, for example, whether someone is an extrovert or introvert, a pessimist or optimist. Any analysis of Trump’s speech patterns, over the last several decades, would have revealed, had anybody paid attention, the incapacity for sequential thought and the shortness of his attention span.
The process of briefing a president is unlikely to be markedly different to the process of briefing a new minister. Having been privy to this in relation to dozens of ministers, here’s how it goes. In any department, key people are instructed to prepare briefing notes for the new minister. In recent times, the civil service has adapted this somewhat in deference to the increasing complexity of every brief, and perhaps also because they are cognisant of the decreasing amount of time politicians have to spend on the task. So instead of being handed green-covered folders of documentation hole-punched at the top and held together by a toggled string, incoming ministers may sit through presentations and be provided thereafter with back-up material. Every generation of politicians produces one or two who lack the commitment to read volumes of material or who have difficulty coming to terms with the subtlety of policy development. Civil servants can spot them a mile off, understand that they cannot do what they cannot do, and work around those realities.
Based on what we have seen thus far, Donald Trump is hard-wired not to absorb the details of his tasks. He could not, in this regard, stand in sharper contrast to his predecessor, although he may be an exagerrated version of George W Bush, who wasn’t great at it, either. He’s not going to change, because he couldn’t and can’t, any more than he is going to appear at a press conference, speaking perfect prose over a few minutes of lucid policy exposition. That’s the first reason he won’t change: he’s hard-wired not to.
The second reason is that what he has done up to now works. He specialises in the unstoppable vomiting of personal abuse directed at named famous people and nameless stereotypes. So Meryl Streep gets described as: “One of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood — a Hillary flunky who lost big.” Buzzfeed is called: “A failing pile of garbage.” Mexicans are portrayed as job-stealing rapists.
It was this instinct for florid abuse that made Trump a media darling during his reality TV days, and it was one of the key reasons he won the presidential election. He gives media — mainstream and social alike — what media likes: vivid, brief, personalised, emotive quotable quotes.
That links to a Trump trait media has yet to cope with: his complete inconsistency. Just a couple of years ago, for example, he told The Hollywood Reporter that, “Meryl Streep is excellent. She’s a fine person, too.” His voters couldn’t care less that he contradicts himself constantly. It’s entertaining.
The pattern is clear. Trump has given media what it wants and likes, yet media, having created him as a public figure, expected a Damascene conversion in the weeks leading to his inauguration, while still continuing to gain viewers, readers and clicks by reporting on his unchanged self.
That’s because media has yet to come to terms with the revolutionary change created by this man. Up to now, any president or president-elect who didn’t fess up his tax returns would have suffered as a result. Trump says, “Americans don’t care. I won.” And today’s potentially deadly issue serves only to take the attention away from yesterday’s potentially deadly issue.
All of the rules and all of the advice given by communications experts to presidents and politicians down the years have been rendered redundant by this man, including that oldest piece of wisdom: “Don’t go to war with people who buy ink by the barrel.” In other words, don’t attack media. Trump not only attacked media at his recent press conference, but played divide-and-conquer so brilliantly that when CNN were smacked into silence, other media were only too happy to fill their space.
The New York Times summed the problem up in one sentence: “The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented President.”
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