He also bullied a journalist for his physical appearance; boasted about making up statistics in meetings with Canada’s government; live-tweeted his favorite TV show; fired his secretary of state on Twitter; lost his Veterans Affairs secretary, national security adviser, chief economic adviser, communications director and a personal aide whose reported gambling habit was deemed a security risk; hired a new national security adviser who has repeatedly called to bomb North Korea and Iran; lashed out at the special counsel, who is investigating the president for potential crimes; and threatened to beat up the former vice president of the United States until he cried.
That’s just a small selection of news from March 2018: one crazy month of one crazy presidency.
This inescapable, overwhelming and disorienting flurry of activity, which has become the new normal since Trump’s inauguration, begs two simple but profound questions: Can democracy survive information overload? And can it survive a president who knows how to use the resulting chaos to dodge democratic accountability?
Authoritarian rulers have long understood that controlling and manipulating information are crucial to subverting democracy and getting away with breaking the rules. That’s why dictatorial governments such as China and Russia not only work overtime to control media and censor inconvenient facts but also use troll armies to spew out 24/7 torrents of disinformation. Despite Trump’s obvious envy of such methods, he’s stuck with American democracy, so he has innovated out of necessity. He can’t shut down the press or censor Democrats, but he can blind the American electorate with a steady smokescreen of bewildering stories pouring out of the White House.
From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, any one of those stories above would have captivated national attention for weeks, or more likely, months. But with Trump, even the most scandalous topic soon disappears into a never-ending flow of revelations. By the time the morning news shows end, it’s on to the next spectacle of dysfunction. We’re living in a chronic state of whiplash.
The deluge of bizarre and jarring stories is overwhelming. Few citizens can keep up. For those who do, it’s an exhausting full-time job.
Which is, apparently, fine with the president. Trump not only revels in chaos; he exploits it as a political strategy.
Democracy requires “informed consent” of the governed. Citizens need to have some idea of what’s going on if they want to hold elected officials accountable.
But when five bombshells explode each day, citizens shrug in resignation, and soon they’re letting once-unacceptable behavior slide.
As information floods our lives and drowns out rational debate, it gets harder to tell what is a big deal and what is not, what is a real policy change and what is just Trumpian bluster – and, crucially, what is true and what is false.
As a result, the biggest challenge to democracy in the 21st century is that uninformed voters are being replaced by misinformed ones. Uninformed people rarely vote. Misinformed people do — and often vote to blow up the system based on their misconceptions of it.
Trump uses the resulting confusion to deflect negative coverage or block the backlash from his most polarizing actions. Major stories shrink to blips. Minor stories disappear. And outrage fatigue sets in among the electorate, who can only protest and call and write letters so much.
Trump has also figured out that chaos allows him to dodge unflattering questions. Take solo presidential news conferences, for example. George H.W. Bush held an average of 22 of them a year; Bill Clinton, seven; George W. Bush, six; and Barack Obama, eight. Donald Trump has held just one solo news conference — meaning that he’s on track to hold 0.8 per year, by far the fewest in modern American history.
But how do you draw attention to that ongoing dodge of public accountability when journalists — and citizens — are forced to act like impulsive golden retrievers in an overflowing tennis ball factory, figuring out which latest outrageous development to chase? A worrying lack of news conferences simply can’t compete with porn-star court drama or the digital humiliation of America’s top diplomat. (With the Stormy Daniels lawsuit, Trump managed to avoid commenting on it for so long by manufacturing more news to distract attention from it. He finally responded to the scandal for the first time yesterday.)
Usually, democracy withers when there is too little information, strangled by autocratic control or dictatorial censorship. Trump — that perpetual motion machine of news — is proving, day after crazy day, that democracy can also be suffocated by too much.