Even before pulling off one of the great electoral upsets of American history, Donald Trump’s skills at manipulating the media were already the stuff of legend. In The Art of the Deal, Trump bragged about his ability to garner free media attention by staging outlandish public events. Many have credited Trump’s skill at deceiving the media for his electoral success. As a result, Trump’s public address—especially his tweets—are often interpreted as schemes for mass deception.
Lately, this has become a popular talking point among political critics. According to this line of thinking, Trump’s insulting reply to Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes was meant to draw attention away from the questionable ethics of the confirmation process for his cabinet. Likewise, Trump presumably tweeted falsehoods about flag burning or the margin of his electoral victory to distract the public from the conflicts of interest between his businesses and the presidency. In an article about Trump’s twitter feud with the cast of Hamilton, Paul Fahri of The Washington Post dubbed the president-elect’s tweets “weapons of mass distraction.”
Under this interpretation—which has been critiqued elsewhere—a self-policing discourse of rhetorical practice has emerged wherein citizens and critics assert what Trump does and does not want the public to talk about. Participants in this focus-shaming discourse admonish their fellow citizens and critics not to fall for Trump’s deceptions and instead to focus their public discussions on the things Trump supposedly wishes to suppress.
From time to time, the Rhetoric Referee will weigh in on the public discussion over what makes for good and bad political speech. Usually, but not always, such interventions will offer a corrective that cuts against the existing conversation. In that spirit: What is wrong with the assertion that responsible citizens should steer public conversation toward topics that Trump would prefer to avoid?
The Space Between His Ears
First, this position suffers from what W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley called the “intentional fallacy.” This concept was developed—and then abused—by mid-century literary critics. Yet at its core, it asserted an important truth: we simply cannot know an author’s intent with certainty. When Trump tweets, no matter how transparent the projection, we do not get a definitive record of what is going through his brain as he types. So, we cannot know what exactly he wants or does not want the following political discussion to be.
But beyond the problem of the unknowable, even if Trump were to directly declare the intentions of a particular tweet, his braggadocious rhetorical style and self-confessed history of using deception to manipulate his audience means that any such declaration would necessarily be suspect. He could lie about his intent. Thus, the attempt to divine The Donald’s intentions so that they can be subverted is fundamentally a fool’s errand.
The Politics of Spite
This focus-shaming discourse asserts that the value of political discourse is determined by the extent to which it frustrates the president elect. By this measure, discussion of the size of Trump’s hands would be among the best political speech his opposition can offer.
Of course, many of the pundits who are arguing for the subversion of Trump’s media strategy by discussing the topics he avoids would prefer a greater focus on issues like those conflicts of interest between Trump’s businesses and the business of the people or the sluggishness of his cabinet appointee’s ethics reviews. However, what Trump’s personal cruelties to Gold Star families and disabled reporters reveal about his character still carries implications for his presidency, as well as the condition of American political life. Those episodes should not be dismissed because Trump embraced them.
Most importantly, though, discerning the value of political discourse by its capacity to frustrate the opposition is the politics of spite. Ironically, those now advocating such an approach presumably voted against Trump in part as a rejection of precisely this kind of corrosive politics.
The Space Between Our Ears
In addition to the impossibility and irony of this focus-shaming position, it also makes for a strategically and ethically impoverished political strategy. Consider the logic: Step 1 is to frustrate Trump. Step 2 is unstated. Step 3 seems to be that a frustrated Trump will be less politically effective than he is now.
What happens during Step 2? Perhaps a frustrated Trump is goaded into doing or saying something politically unwise? The Clinton campaign repeatedly succeeded at provoking an impolitic Trump, but ultimately failed at their larger political goal.
Apropos of the Clinton campaign; if Donald Trump really is unstable and prone to overreaction, then a concerted effort to frustrate him is genuinely dangerous.
The big problem here, though, is that this focus-shaming insists that citizens and critics should formulate their politics around what interests Trump least as opposed to what interests them most. Although many of the focus-shamers are correct to argue that the threat Trump poses to certain categories of Americans, the free press, and the emolument clause, as well as his shadowy business dealings with a hostile foreign nation that aided his election deserve more attention than his latest meetup with Kanye West, those issues deserve attention for their own inherent importance, not because Trump would probably prefer to talk about something else.
Substituting the pursuit of one’s own political interests with the impossible and ironic pursuit of opposing someone else’s is one way to achieve the abandonment of representative politics, an increasingly less unlikely outcome that ought be the real focus of the budding Trump Resistance.