• 57°

Diversionary tactics: President throws critics off his trail

By Leonid Bershidsky

Bloomberg View

President Donald Trump’s executive activity has been frantic in the first days of his term. He has moved to keep a number of the scary promises that were easier to dismiss as unfeasible during the campaign than to accept as actual policies in the real world. But the big stories he has generated have had nothing to do with these actions.

According to data collected by BuzzSumo.com, the most widely shared CNN news story about Donald Trump since Jan. 21 was one about his press secretary, Sean Spicer, attacking the media for their reporting on inauguration attendance. It was shared 169,700 times on Facebook. A story on Trump’s executive order to start rolling back Obamacare clocked just 71,100 shares. On The New York Times’ website, the most widely shared story debunked Spicer’s “alternative facts.” It showed up on Facebook 170,900 times. The New York Times piece about Trump’s executive order abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership got 44,600 shares.

This is the result of a manipulation strategy described long ago by Noam Chomsky: “Keep the adult public attention diverted away from the real social issues, and captivated by matters of no real importance.” Leftists such as Chomsky argue that this is what capitalist elites do, but I know it as a common tactic of kleptocratic regimes such as Vladimir Putin’s in Russia.

There’s even a term for the tactic: “diversionary conflict.” Faced with economic difficulties or other problems potentially threatening to its survival, the regime starts a war somewhere or sharpens domestic ethnic divisions. Since the oil price plummeted in late 2014, the Putin regime has kept Russians on a steady diet of war news from eastern Ukraine and Syria (Russia and its allies have been winning). With the Syrian operation, Putin sharply raised his international standing, but a big reduction in protests against worsening economic conditions has probably been more important to him. …

Trump doesn’t need to start wars: He and his team know how emotional many Americans are about him. He can choose what he wants to be hated for — preferably for something silly and unrelated to his actual priorities at the moment. He used this to his advantage during the campaign: His alleged sexual misconduct took up so much more media time and public attention than issues like his business history, his tax returns and his proposals.

As the inauguration attendance argument played, Trump has been busy. Apart from starting the Obamacare rollback and withdrawing from the TPP, he has frozen a reduction of mortgage insurance premiums, allowed the Keystone Pipeline to go ahead and prepared to sign an executive order to begin construction of a border wall. Well aware that some of these important actions might cause indignation and targeted protest, Trump has tossed out another meaningless football for the media and the public to fixate on.

“I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and even those registered to vote who are dead,” he tweeted. Sure enough, at the time of this writing, the CNN story about this was the most shared in the last 24 hours, with news about the border wall order coming a distant second.

Just as it was unimportant how many people attended the inauguration, it doesn’t matter at all at this point whether undocumented immigrants actually voted last November and whether any votes were cast for dead people. No one is challenging the results of the election. The wall and the Keystone Pipeline matter, yet are much smaller stories in terms of readership. Trump and his team are already showing a flair for diversion. Is it enough to discourage the kinds of mass protests that such aggressive moves on lightning-rod issues might spark? We’ll know in the coming days and weeks.

Trump’s and his team’s communications look awkward, inept, gallingly primitive. It’s time to wise up: These people know what they’re doing. They want their political opponents to be confused, to flail at windmills, to expend emotions on meaningless scandals to distract them from any targeted, coordinated action against specific threats. There are going to be many of these: Trump appears intent on keeping his promises. Calm concentration is needed to counteract dangerous policies.

Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.

Comments

High School

High school football: Some anxious moments, but Hornets win state title

Local

Photos: Salisbury High Hornets win big in 2AA championship game

Local

County manager outlines projections for the upcoming fiscal year budget, suggests uses for stimulus money

Business

Miami-based Browns Athletic Apparel opens second screen printing location in Salisbury

News

At funeral, fallen Watauga deputies remembered as ‘heroes’

Coronavirus

COVID-19 cluster identified at Granite Quarry Elementary

Coronavirus

More than half of North Carolinians have now taken at least one vaccine shot

Local

City hopes to cover expenses in 2021-22 budget with surplus revenue generated this year

Local

Fallen tree proves to be a blessing for local nonprofit Happy Roots

Local

Quotes of the week

Coronavirus

Health department drops quarantine time from 14 to 10 days

Crime

Blotter: More than $100,000 in property reported stolen from Old Beatty Ford Road site

Local

City fights invasive beetles by injecting trees with insecticide

Local

City names downtown recipients for federal Parks Service grant

China Grove

China Grove Town Council weighs 2021-22 budget priorities, supports buying body cameras

Education

Educators reflect on Teacher Appreciation Week

Education

Livingstone College wins $30,000 Home Depot grant

Education

Shoutouts

News

Shield-A-Badge With Prayer program enters 26th year, accepting volunteers to pair with officers

Education

COVID-19 infection, quarantine numbers in Rowan-Salisbury Schools reach new highs

High School

High school football: Offensive line came together for Hornets, who play for state title tonight

Local

Pro baseball: White makes pro debut and says, ‘It felt amazing to be out there’

Education

West Rowan Middle eighth grader wins investment writing contest

Local

YSUP Rowan invites agencies to participate in youth-focused training