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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is distraction caused by Trump’s sideshows a problem for Democrats?

Washington Post syndicated columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr. has a perceptive take on Trump’s politics of distraction, media enabling of it and what means for Democrats. As Dionne sees it:

Good reporters and editors labor mightily to be fair-minded in their reporting of episodes and events, and I’ll defend them to my last breath. But the larger battle, captured by the phrase “winning the news cycle,” involves a fierce competition to push reports that help your own side to the top while sidelining those that serve the interests of your opponents.

In the Trump era, this clash has fundamentally changed because the president and his lieutenants have realized that lying works; shameless dissembling is now standard operating procedure for the White House. Partisan outlets go with President Trump’s versions of events, even when they are demonstrably false. Mainstream outlets feel duty bound to report them, even as they debunk the lies.

Moreover, our chief executive instinctively knows what Alexander Hamilton taught long ago: that the despot’s “object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’ ” If the news gets troublesome, Trump and his minions create all manner of controversies and distractions that consume a lot of media space and time.

Dionne adds that “His latest discovery is how his pardon power can be a big news-cycle hit, especially when a celebrity is blended in.” Dionne notes other recent distractions, including the disinviting of the Philadelphia Eagles to the white house and blasting NFL players for their take-a-knee protests. You can add a few, if you like, including insulting his own Attorney General and heads of state who have been among the staunches allies of the U.S., hiring bomb-throwers like Giulani, announcing plans for a Soviet-style military parade and unrelenting tweets designed to provoke controversy and distractions du jour, to name a few.

Trump’s distractions can be divided into two categories: deliberate distractions, like those noted above, and his Administration’s numerous spontaneous eruptions of incompetence, such as ignorant comments about Canada’s responsibility for the white house burning down in 1812 or the anniversary of D-Day reminding us of our great relationship with Germany, keep the media in a tizzy, just trying to keep up. Too often, big media gets suckered into giving the sideshows far more coverage than the incidents deserve. But mostly, the press can’t just simply ignore the distractions, or their competitors will provide the coverage and dominate the market.

It’s gotten so bad that, as Dionne notes, “the sheer volume of corruption reports — starting with would-be Chick-fil-A spouse and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt — means that they start to drown each other out.” There is still a growing problem of false equivalence reporting, which often distorts the reality in a way that lets Repubicans off too easy. As Dionne explains,

Then there is the challenge of balance. So much of the journalism about Trump is negative because of what he does every day and because hard-working reporters and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation regularly turn up embarrassing facts. Therefore, journalists feel obligated to make sure that everyone knows they can be just as tough on Democrats. Looking “partisan” is a grave transgression. Trump and the Republicans try to paint this scarlet letter on the media almost daily.

Hats off to those members of the media who don’t fall for the distractions, and continue to report in-depth about the critical political issues, such as health care, pollution, war, racial discrimination and others. As for the enduring ‘divided Democrats’ and ‘the Democrats have been taken over by the extreme left’ themes frequently parroted by the more easilly-distracted journalists, Dionne clarifies the reality:

Lord knows, Democrats have their problems. Their own politicians regularly point them out by way of scoring points in the party’s factional wars. But with this year’s primaries nearly over, let’s at least shelve certain story lines that are simply wrong.

Contrary to a popular meme, the Democratic primary electorate is not veering sharply to the left. Left-wing candidates did not fare particularly well because rank-and-filers aren’t interested in ideological warfare and are choosing on the basis of personal qualities — it really helps to be a woman this year. Democrats cast pragmatic primary ballots in large numbers because they devoutly want to end their powerlessness.

This pragmatism is what allowed Democrats to avoid catastrophe in California on Tuesday.

Because of the state’s appropriately nicknamed “jungle primary,” the top two finishers in the first round compete in November, even if they are in the same party. Although a couple of races were close, it appears there will be Democratic candidates on the ballot this fall in every target district. Democratic voters successfully identified their own strongest contenders, and party-supported advertising pummeled Republican candidates who threatened to shut the Democrats out. A gang we thought couldn’t shoot straight actually hit the mark.

Dionne concludes by noting that “Trump tests journalists and news consumers in a way they’ve never been tested before. Like would-be autocrats elsewhere, Trump is pursuing a strategy of disorienting the citizenry with a steady stream of provocations, untruths and diversions. We cannot afford to treat any of this as the usual spin or garden-variety politics.”

The daily distractions pumped out by Trump and his Administration remain a difficult obstacle for Democrats, who are trying to get more media and public attention focused on the critical issues facing America, especially those that favor their party. The not so unrealistic hope is that ‘Trump fatigue’ is spreading to the point where enough of his support will evaporate by election day to give Democrats a House majority.

For Democrats, urging the media and voters to address the major issues, instead of the daily distractions, is a continuing challenge — and it’s one Dems must get better at meeting to build an enduring majority.

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