It happens like clockwork now.
Donald Trump tweets something, and there are about three simultaneous freakouts that happen. The first is, “OMFG CAN YOU BELIEVE HE JUST SAID THAT?!?!” The second is, “Can everyone stop talking about this Donald Trump tweet? There are more important Trump stories that we’re overlooking!” The third is, “Don’t be fooled—Trump is trying to distract you from thinking about his evil!”
Freakout about how this isn’t an important story? Check.
And finally, there were a whole boatload of concerned tweeters warning us all that, yet again, Trump was just trying to distract us from more nefarious things we should be worrying about.
It’s this last, now near-daily freakout that I want to touch on. Whether or not people think Trump’s tweets are important—you can read my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore’s thoughts on that—can we please, PLEASE stop pushing this idea that our future president is some sort of scheming genius who’s trying to throw us off-balance through Twitter?
First of all, it presumes that Trump is wily enough to distract everyone to begin with—that he sits around just toying with the media, knowing that he can shift everyone off the “important stories.” What evidence is there of this?
It’s not that Trump has no media management skills. His ability to attract attention, and to exploit relationships with journalists from both New York tabloids and national outlets, has been very well-documented. But here, he’s not dangling access in front of Joe Scarborough or the New York Post to try to get favorable coverage. He’s not trying to sweet-talk anyone into pivoting on his behalf. He’s not even trying to intimidate people into covering him differently, like he did with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. He’s just tweeting. He happens to be very good at tweeting outrageous things that he knows will get people talking, but it seems clear that that’s as far as his strategy goes.
We’re talking about a man who has been showing us his profound lack of impulse control for nearly two years—a man who spent much of the night before his flag-burning tweet feverishly retweeting a random 16-year-old, and then distorting this child’s message so badly that he had to distance himself from Trump. All of a sudden he’s supposed to have this incredibly nimble social media mind?
Despite all the conspiracy theories, it looks like Trump tweeted about flag-burning because—surprise!—someone on TV was talking about it:
So much for his mastery of the dark arts. People need to deal with the fact that this is just who Trump is—and not only that, but that millions and millions of people like that about him. If Trump is doing anything with his tweets, he’s stoking his base to keep them happy.
Second, the “Trump is distracting us” theory presumes that Trump cares enough about the scandals journalists want us to focus on to think they need distracting from. This is a seductive thought. It lets journalists tell themselves that they’re very important people doing worthy things, and it requires a Trump who has enough shame to know he needs to divert attention from his misdeeds.
But, again, what evidence is there that Donald Trump has this kind of relationship with supposedly “bad” press coverage—or that he has any shame at all? Wasn’t one of the main takeaways from the election that the things elite journalists consider to be scandalous and the things Trump and his followers consider to be scandalous are completely different?
Take the notion that he’s trying to distract from stories about his and his family’s conflicts of interest, which is absolutely an important and scary thing we should be worrying about. Has there been a single moment where Trump has showed that this is an issue he considers to be a problem for him? On the contrary: he’s completely dismissed its importance. Trump can say one thing and feel another, but he just got through a campaign where he brazenly defied an endless string of political conventions that were considered to be sacrosanct. What’s one more to him?
Finally, all of these theories posit a universe where, without the Trump tweets, the media industry would be focusing on “what really matters” instead of the supposed fluff that Trump is putting out. What fantasy universe are these people referring to? No outlet needs prodding from Donald Trump to slide right by the meaty investigative piece on the way to the ephemera. For evidence, I turn to…the entire history of modern political journalism.
So, to recap: Trump is not savvy enough to try and distract us. He does not care enough to want to distract us. And we don’t need anything from him in order to get distracted. It would be nice if it were otherwise, but, too bad! The world really is that awful.