The word on everyone’s lips in Washington now — in newsrooms and advocacy groups, in congressional offices and embassies — is “firehose.” As in the high-pressure stream of White House orders. The daily deluge of Donald Trump’s tweets blaming “so-called” judges for future terror attacks and assailing Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s clothing line for poor sales. The tsunami of statements inflating the murder rate and hyping the terrorist threat, while aides mind-bendingly blame the media for not covering massacres in Bowling Green and Atlanta that never happened. With each new volley, drinking from the Trump firehose feels ever more like being drowned by a water cannon.
Perhaps that’s precisely the intent: Disrupt, distract, dissipate, and drown out independent voices and inconvenient realities while fulfilling his agenda with an eager Republican Congress. Critics and the press chase their tails in a tizzy, while Trump’s executive orders get signed and cabinet picks get confirmed, one by one.
Jeb Bush was prescient when he said Trump was “a chaos candidate and he’d be a chaos president.” That chaos seems both intentional and strategic, and it serves three purposes: functionally, disrupt the system; politically, signal the base that he’s delivering; tactically, overwhelm opponents and discredit arbiters of the facts like the media and experts (whom Trump considers “the opposition”), making their jobs impossible. Are you sick and tired of winning yet?
In three weeks, it’s hard to keep track. There was the reversal of environmental and financial regulations, including those protecting retirement accounts from conflicts of interest by brokers; the president’s threats to the judiciary that even his Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch yesterday called “disheartening”; the unprecedented National Security Council rejiggering to give a seat to Stephen Bannon, Trump’s political strategist with ties to white supremacists, displacing top intelligence and military officials.
Senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran and former POW, had the audacity to question the success of Trump’s first counter-terror operation. The Yemen raid didn’t kill the leader targeted and cost the lives of a Navy SEAL and civilians, including children, and an extra $75 million for a destroyed MV-22 Osprey aircraft. White House press secretary Sean Spicer accused McCain of insulting the fallen American. The president, who avoided fighting in Vietnam thanks to deferments, attacked McCain for “losing so long he doesn’t know how to win.”
Critics paint Bannon as the power behind Trump’s throne, and much has been made of his love of “The Art of War,” the ancient Chinese treatise. “All warfare is based on deception,” Sun Tzu wrote. “Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.” So is this all bait to confuse and crush perceived enemies?
Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, says Trump’s strategy is to overwhelm with a barrage of fact and fiction, a lesson learned from 24-hour cable media, where there’s constant information and no end to the news cycle. The result is that plenty of consequential White House actions barely scratch the surface of the news. The onslaught of information that’s true, untrue, and unknown makes it hard to tune out minor outrages and focus on more important ones.
Worryingly, a new Emerson College poll found more registered voters trust Trump than the media, despite relentless fact-checking by the press that often proves the president wrong. Forty-nine percent surveyed believe the administration is truthful, just a hair over 48 percent who do not. And 53 percent see the media as unreliable, versus 39 percent who say news outlets are honest. The results split on partisan lines.
When the FBI and counterterrorism officials don’t dare correct Trump’s incessant, inaccurate claims of record murders and foreign terrorist attacks, it’s hard for ordinary Americans to distinguish what’s true. Trump’s team is “comfortable putting out all sorts of stories and untrue things, anything to confuse,” Zelizer said, and the effect is numbing: “It normalizes behavior that shouldn’t be normal.”
Trump isn’t trying to win over those opposed him; he’s feeding “emotional and policy red meat” to those who brought them to power, Zelizer said. It’s an emotional rather than facts-based approach to governing. When the emotions he’s tapped into are distrust and fury with the status quo, some blame belongs to those who created the status quo; the line between fact and fiction doesn’t matter anymore to those who’ve rejected it.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.