In 2018, Stephen K. Bannon summed up the strategy that helped get Donald Trump elected to the White House and was shaping his presidency. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon said. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with s---.”
Three years later, Trump is no longer president and the Democrats, especially President Biden, certainly do matter to Republicans. But flooding the zone is still their strategy, more than ever.
Want evidence it’s working? On Monday, President Biden signed one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in years, an infrastructure bill whose benefits will flow to every state and every congressional district, and one way or another affect the lives of just about every American. He succeeded where Trump failed. He even managed to get the support of some Republicans in both houses of Congress.
Yet it was treated in the news media like the fourth- or fifth-most-important story of the day. The fact that the disgraced Chris Christie has a new book out got nearly as much coverage. And everyone agrees that there’s almost no reason to think this accomplishment will provide political benefit to the president and his party.
One of the central promises of Biden’s 2020 campaign was that he could restore calm after the madness of the Trump years. He would be a reassuring presence, the nation’s friendly granddad, reaching out in every direction to bring Americans together.
“We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature,” he said in his inaugural address. “For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.”
Biden was wrong in one important way: Even if the president tries to be a force for calm, that doesn’t mean calm will prevail.
Not if you have an opposing party that understands the power of chaos, and has the means — a comprehensive and well-developed media apparatus — to create it.
What Bannon meant by “flooding the zone” was to create informational bedlam, throwing up so much attention-grabbing material — the more bizarre and outrageous, the better — that it would be impossible for sanity to gain a foothold. Trump’s 2016 campaign, Bannon said, “was pure anger. Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.”
But Trump himself misunderstood the dynamics of chaos. He intentionally created conflict and confusion, on the theory that he would be able to ride it to success. He lied incessantly, he warned that caravans of migrants were about to overrun the country, he started one Twitter beef after another with celebrities. It succeeded in focusing everyone’s attention on him, but it created an atmosphere that left the country profoundly unsettled.
If you’re the one trying to govern, that doesn’t help you, especially since maintaining power requires voters to be satisfied with the status quo and want to maintain it. So Republicans were swept in the 2018 midterm elections, Trump lost the 2020 election, and then as the cherry on top of his political failures, Democrats took the Senate in the Georgia runoff elections in January.
But now Republicans are succeeding, because chaos is fundamentally a strategy of opposition. Not only aren’t they bothering to offer policy proposals they might pursue if they took power again, but they also treat the Biden administration’s actual policies as though they’re beside the point.
Sure, if you ask a Republican they’ll tell you why the infrastructure bill is a socialist scheme to force you to drink clean water or drive on roads that aren’t crumbling. But they’d much rather talk about the fires of chaos: cries of “Tyranny!” around mask mandates, terrifying ideas being foisted on their children, elections being stolen, inflation supposedly out of control, dark conspiracies at work, everything that makes the world seem as though it’s spinning off its axis.
This isn’t about convincing anyone that Republicans are right about anything. All that’s necessary is to make voters feel unsettled and disturbed, and the president’s party will be the one punished.
That’s why the elected stars of the far right — including GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Paul Gosar (Ariz.), or Matt Gaetz (Fla.) — are so useful. They don’t win anyone to the Republican cause, but they create a steady supply of lunacy that contributes to the atmosphere of chaos.
The news media eagerly cooperates in this strategy, because it is always drawn to conflict, outrage and failure. “President Doing Pretty Well, All Things Considered” isn’t a compelling story; “President in Downward Spiral of Doom” is.
The central task of the Biden administration — designing, passing and implementing good policy — is no match, politically speaking, for that hurricane of havoc. Policies take time to roll out, people often don’t connect their effects to the government that created them, and it will always be easier to create dissatisfaction than satisfaction.
Perhaps this time will be the exception, and the administration will convince voters that the infrastructure bill is far more important than whatever people are shouting about on Fox News. Perhaps real-world events — continued economic improvement, the waning of the pandemic we’re hoping for — will give the president a boost.
But one thing’s for sure: Chaos is Republicans' strategy, and they’re sticking to it.