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Trump is winning

Trump is making us a little more like him, and politics a little more like the tribal clash he says it is.

President Donald Trump walks in a corridor after a meeting during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 25, 2018.
Denis Balibouse | Reuters
President Donald Trump walks in a corridor after a meeting during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 25, 2018.

There are two Trump presidencies.

One of them is the official presidency of Donald Trump, leader of the Republican Party, driver of the legislative agenda, head of the executive branch.

A year in, that presidency looks surprisingly normal. Trump has largely outsourced his agenda to the congressional GOP and their allies inside his administration. As a result, he has pursued policies similar to what Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush might have pursued: repeal of Obamacare, tax cuts for corporations, deregulation for the energy industry. When he goes to Davos — and, note, he goes to Davos! — he gives the kind of speech any Republican might give at Davos.

Ideologically disruptive forces like Steve Bannon have been forcibly ejected from Trump's orbit, and the president himself has abandoned his more heterodox views on taxes, trade, health care, and China. Trump remains an immigration hardliner, but of a sort that has long been represented within the Republican Party.

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Trump's opponents can take comfort in their success at resisting and wounding this incarnation of Trump's White House. Given the economy's performance and the GOP's dominance of Congress, it is surprising how little the Trump administration has achieved, and how steep the price has been. The effort to repeal Obamacare was a debacle. The tax cuts passed, but they passed while polling in the 20s and 30s — a disaster given that the policy, at least in its early years, is designed to shovel free money at families and corporations.

A comparison of Gallup tracking polls shows the severity of the GOP's problems: At about this point in Obama's presidency, with a brutal 9.9 percent unemployment rate, 50 percent of the country approved of Obama's job performance; Trump, with a 4.1 percent unemployment rate, is polling at 39 percent. The toxicity is spreading through Trump's party too: Democrats are up by more than 7 percentage points in polls asking Americans whom they will support in the next congressional election.

"He is a highly divisive figure," says George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M who studies presidential rhetoric. "He doesn't convince anyone on the other side. He doesn't move the public. He cannot reach out beyond people already committed to him."

But there is another Trump presidency — that of Donald J. Trump, reality television star and international brand. This is the presidency that I suspect matters more to Trump himself, the one that he pursues during his morning "executive time," the one he furthers with every tweet, the one he obsessively monitors on cable news. This is the presidency for which the measures of achievement aren't bills passed or jobs created but headlines grabbed and mindshare held.

This is the presidency that, for all its collateral damage, is succeeding beyond Trump's wildest dreams. This is the presidency that few have figured out how to resist.

Trump's law: attention creates value

The secret to Trump's success, the insight that has separated him from his competitors, is that he has cared less about the nature of the coverage he received than that he received coverage at all.

"Even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business," Trump said in his 1987 book The Art of the Deal. He goes on to recall the lesson he learned being attacked for a particularly gaudy skyscraper he sought to build. "The point," he says, "is that we got a lot of attention, and that alone creates value."

This is the law by which Trump lives his life. Attention creates value, at least for him. Before Trump, every politician hewed to the same basic rule: You want as much positive coverage, and as little negative coverage, as possible. Trump upended that.

His rule, his realization, is that you want as much coverage as possible, full stop. If it's positive coverage, great. If it's negative coverage, so be it. The point is that it's coverage — that you're the story, that you're squeezing out your competitors, that you're on people's minds.

This was Trump's true political innovation: He realized that presidential campaigns — and particularly presidential primaries — had become reality shows, and the path to victory was to get the most attention, even if much of that attention was negative.

In this, Trump either intuited or stumbled into a profound insight about the media: It's easier to get bad press than good press. There is an old line about the media: We don't cover the planes that land safely. Most politicians try to get media coverage while landing the plane safely. They stage photo ops at factories, give prepared statements, deliver carefully crafted speeches. The result is dull, predictable, normal — and ignored.

Trump dominates news cycle after news cycle by crashing planes into Twitter. He is everywhere, seemingly all the time. He says things no national politician in history would have dared say, things that the press covers because they are outrageous, controversial, unnerving, appalling.

Trump is demanding and receiving our attention, crowding out everything else, accepting that it's better to be hated than to be ignored.

"There is a range of Trump coverage and attention that a conventional politician would find devastating that Trump finds exhilarating," says Ron Klain, who served as chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden.

Every so often, someone will suggest that we just ignore Trump's words, his riffs, his tweets. But Trump controls a nuclear arsenal. His tweets are "considered official statements by the president of the United States," according to Sean Spicer, who served as Trump's first press secretary.

These are words that start wars, that drive deportations, that set policy, that end negotiations, that empower bigots, that reveal scandals, that represent our country. That the president of the United States is acting outrageously, or worryingly, or offensively, is important. As much as Trump might treat his presidency like a reality show, it remains a presidency, and lives are in the balance.

Yet in owning our attention, in driving the agenda, in setting both the terms and tone of the debate, and in doing so by generating constant negative attention, cultural conflict, and emotional alarm, Trump makes us a little more like him, and politics a little more like the tribal clash he says it is.

Trump is winning. The country is losing.

Two weeks ago, Trump, after much fanfare, held his "Fake News Awards." He had teased the event on Twitter for weeks, sending journalists into paroxysms of mockery and frustration. This was, as so much is with Trump, an exercise that was simultaneously ridiculous and dangerous, comic and illiberal. The "awards" turned out to be complaints about stories Trump had already complained about, tied to a fundraising plea for the Republican Party.

In response, many in the media played into his hands, joking that it was an honor just to be considered, lamenting that they didn't win, acting out of anger and exhaustion more like the opposition party he says we are.

"It says so much about our current media moment that the president would announce plans to shame news organizations with his first-annual 'Fake News Awards' and every reporter would be praying to God they made the list," wrote Kyle Pope, the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Trump drives his opponents to respond in kind, to adopt just a little more of his tone and language and pitch. Twitter swells with jabs and nicknames, cries of "Sad!" and "Fake news!" Even when it doesn't succumb to that behavior, the media is laser-focused on Trump's words, behavior, decisions, grievances. America ends up having the fights Trump wants us to have.

Trump understands this power. He knows he can wrest the news cycle back at a moment's notice. In September, amidst Puerto Rico's misery and bad news for the GOP's congressional agenda, Trump lashed out at kneeling NFL protestors, creating a multi-week firestorm that didn't have policy stakes, but drove a deep wedge into our cultural divisions

The whole episode was, again, a mixture the surreal and the scary. Here was the President of the United States choosing to ignite a racialized controversy, telling the mostly white attendees at his rallies that "people like yourselves" shouldn't have to see "those people" kneeling during the anthem. Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence to an NFL game with instructions to walk out if the players kneeled — which was exactly what happened. It was a transparent effort to distract us, to inflame our divisions, to lure us to have the fight Trump wanted to have rather than continue discussing his flailing governance.

And yet it worked. Coverage of this was everywhere — it dominated not just the political press, but also sports media. Trump's opponents were angry — the president was a racist, he was dismissing police brutality, he was turning us against each other. His supporters were indignant — the president was a patriot, he was defending the flag and the country. There were takes, late-night comedy bits, searching interviews, angry tweets, earnest explainers.

By the time Trump was done, the NFL, which had previously been viewed favorably by both Democratic and Republican voters, had become one of the most divisive brands in the US. Trump had successfully made us angrier at each other, he had absorbed more of American life into the tribalized war of our politics and he had done so on his terms.

The NFL skirmish was one of many clashes Trump caused during his first year in office. As this analysis from Echelon Insights shows, Trump dominated the national conversation on almost every day of 2017, and that was true no matter whether you looked at liberals or conservatives or political elites or everyone. The mindshare he occupies, the energy he consumes, is vast:

I say none of this from atop a soapbox. I am as guilty of it as anyone, and more guilty of it than most.

I find it hard to resist commenting on Trump's tweets. I find it hard to tear myself away from his daily outrages, even when I know they're less important than other things I could cover. I find it hard not to respond to him in kind, not to let his language, his energy, his approach, infect mine.

But there is a cost to this.

Part of the cost is political. Trump sees the world as zero-sum tribal warfare, and the way he operates, the way he acts, the rage and fear and shock he calls forth in his opponents, makes it more so. As my colleague Matt Yglesias observes, this seems, on the margins, to work for Trump — his approval ratings rise slightly in periods in which the news is dominated by angry clashes over his behavior, and fall when the story turns back to the more ordinary outrages of his policy agenda.

Part of the cost is social. Keeping politics at this pitch for four years is a terrible strain on an already divided country. Dozens of news stories have recorded psychologists reporting patients streaming into their office with Trump-related anxiety. Trump is deepening the threats we feel — and, in some cases, the threats we truly face — from each other; he is breaking us into warring factions in the hopes that that collision will strengthen his supporters' loyalty to him.

Some of it is an opportunity cost — there are so many other conversations we could be having, so many other stories we could be covering. It is hard, amid Trump, to see beyond Trump — to the technological changes transforming our society, to the international forces reshaping our world, to the leaders and doers who are building a better future.

There is a section of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury that has stuck with me. It speaks to the size of Trump's achievement, the unprecedented nature of his success, and it is true:

[I]t might be a central tragedy of the news media that its old-fashioned and even benighted civic-minded belief that politics is the highest form of news has helped transform it from a mass business to a narrow-cast one. ... Politics has gone one way, the culture another. The left-right junkies might pretend otherwise, but the great middle doesn't put political concerns at the top of their minds.

And yet, contravening all cultural and media logic, Donald Trump produced on a daily basis an astonishing, can't-stop-following-it narrative. And this was not even because he was changing or upsetting the fundamentals of American life. In six months as president, failing to master almost any aspect of the bureaucratic process, he had, beyond placing his nominee on the Supreme Court, accomplished, practically speaking, nothing. And yet, OMG!!! There almost was no other story in America — and in much of the world. That was the radical and transformational nature of the Trump presidency: it held everybody's attention.

This is, I think, Trump's true purpose in public life: to have everyone talking about him, looking at him, reacting to him. He cares more about his coverage than his impact; he is much more committed to what's said about him on Fox & Friends than what's written about him in the history books. Trump's Reality Show White House has been an unstoppable force, dominating our attention, coarsening our politics, making us angrier and more afraid and more distant from each other. In this, he's succeeding — winning, even.

It is easy to dismiss this dimension of Trump's presidency. Does it really matter if the president is heightening the conflicts in political life, if he is deepening our cultural divides, if he is activating and validating our tribal identities and hatreds every time he turns on his phone? It does.

In their book Why Washington Won't Work, political scientists March Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph identify trust as an essential component of functional political systems. The more we mistrust each other, the more we fear each other, the harder it is for politics to function, for politicians to justify compromise, for parties to accept the legitimacy of the other side.

"Partisans today are polarized not in their policy preferences but rather in their feelings about each other," write Hetherington and Rudolph. "As a result, political trust has polarized by party, leading to an absence of policy consensus and a gridlocked political system with little incentive to compromise."

This is a theme that Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt pick up in How Democracies Die:

When parties view one another as mortal enemies, the stakes of political competition heighten dramatically. Losing ceases to be a routine and accepted part of the political process and instead becomes a full-blown catastrophe. When the perceived cost of losing is sufficiently high, politicians will be tempted to abandon forbearance. Acts of constitutional hardball may then in turn further undermine mutual toleration, reinforcing beliefs that our rivals pose a dangerous threat.

Even before Trump, American politics was becoming dangerously angry, polarized, bitter. In this, Trump's rise is more symptom than cause. But his presidency has been an accelerant, and the consequences of it are yet untold.

There are three years left in Trump's term. It will not be good for the country if they all feel like Trump's first.