Donald Trump and the Shiny Object Strategy


Is Donald Trump using his Twitter outbursts about the popular vote to distract us from this week’s real news: the vast conflicts of interest between his business empire and his upcoming presidency? This question is getting a lot of attention today.

The answer is no. I mean yes. But no, not really. On the other hand, maybe a little bit yes. I’m sorry, what was the question again?

The real answer is the same as it was during the campaign: Trump is dedicated to creating constant uproars all the time. Is this because it’s just who he is? Or is it part of an instinctive strategy to keep us from ever paying attention to anything for long, aside from the fact that Trump is in the limelight? I can’t say for sure, but I’d put money on the latter.

My belief in this comes mainly from an observation about the campaign: Trump, it turns out, is fully able to focus on something for months at a time if he wants to. And the thing he focused on was “Crooked Hillary” and her emails. That was a constant theme of his campaign, which he hammered on  relentlessly for months. And the press assisted, covering every new email revelation—big or small, meaningful or trivial— in blazing headlines on the front page.

And it worked. Sure, he needed a lucky break at the end when James Comey released his letter, but he had set the stage to take advantage of it. This constant drumbeat on a single issue was spectacularly successful.

Trump engaged in a high-risk-high-reward strategy by creating a strong brand identity—for Hillary Clinton. And as any brand manager can tell you, this is crucial. The relentless focus on Hillary Clinton’s email hurt her badly by confirming the sense that she was at least mildly corrupt. Trump’s scandals were different. The press did cover them, but it was something new every week. This didn’t confirm any particular view of Trump aside from his being a bit of a loose cannon. And within a week, each previous scandal was barely remembered. By November, the whole Access Hollywood thing—which was only four weeks old—might as well have been ancient history. It had been practically forgotten.

Donald Trump knows how to focus and he knows how to throw up lots of chaff to keep himself front and center. Does he mean this stuff to be a distraction? Beats me. I suspect it’s all intuitive with him. The only good news is that he can wear out his welcome doing this. In his previous life, that wasn’t a big problem because the press didn’t want to cover him 24/7 anyway. Now they do. He is likely to find that after a few months of this, even his most fervent supporters are a little weary of it.