Donald J. Trump is following in the footsteps of his predecessors, playing the greatest political three-card monte trick on Americans, and rarely anyone, maybe not even him, is taking notice.
The news cycle over the past week has covered the many angles — and many stories — of the tragedy in Las Vegas. On Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, Republican senators, including John Cornyn (R-TX), Ron Johnson (R-WI), and David Perdue (R-GA), announced their potential support for a bill banning bump stocks, which the shooter used to maximize casualties.
While the main media narrative drove in circles around the events in Las Vegas, the Trump administration did a few things with little fanfare.
On Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo that announced that any government action would be considered illegal if it “ … compels an act inconsistent with … or substantially pressures the adherent to modify [religious] observance or practice.”
The memo followed the Trump administration’s release of two documents of “final rules,” which instructed the departments involved in enforcing the Affordable Care Act to heavily favor requests for exemptions from individuals citing “religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
Two days earlier, Sessions also issued a memo addressing U.S. attorneys, rolling back former Attorney General Eric Holder’s directive to include gender identity in the definition of gender pertaining to anti-discrimination in public sector employment, thereby reinterpreting the federal government’s enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Heavy executive action following a news cycle dominated by scandal or disaster is similar to Canadian author Naomi Klein’s theory of disaster capitalism, or “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events,” which she outlined in her 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine.”
In it, Klein bases disaster capitalism on the philosophy of economist Milton Friedman, who later formatted the tactic for political use, but first outlined it in his 1962 book “Capitalism and Freedom,” where he observed that “only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change.”
Some of Klein’s support for the popularity of this tactic discusses the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the concerted efforts of conservatives and the Bush administration to reform the Louisiana education system. The phenomenon, however, is not new to the 21st century.
In the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order expanding the House Un-American Activities Committee’s right to inspect excess profits and estate tax returns, and following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in late December of 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of Japanese Americans.
While America — and a majority of the mainstream news cycle — is focused elsewhere, the Trump administration is able to advance its agenda, avoiding much of the public discussion and debate that should accompany decisions that impact anyone under the jurisdiction of the American government.
The lesson of the 2016 election should have been that everyone in the United States has a voice. No matter where anyone lies on the political spectrum, there is an inherent value in a representative democracy that has critical debate and discussion with those voices. By letting President Trump and misleading media narratives distract from the necessary civil discourse, the public creates an environment that silences itself.
Head fakes accompany action
Donald Trump knows the power of media, particularly social media. A 2016 Pew Research study found that 62 percent of individuals get at least some of their news from social media: 70 percent of Reddit users, 66 percent of Facebook users and 59 percent of Twitter users responded that they get news on that platform.
With that audience of consumers, any narrative that dominates the news cycle, and by extension the news feeds of the majority of social media users, wields incredible influence. Donald Trump knows, from considerable experience during the election season, that a controversial tweet or a comment during a speech is likely to get a large amount of coverage.
Whether intentional or not, the president regularly creates the circumstances that his administration can take advantage of to be unilateral in its decision making and effective in its execution.
The past week was an outlier for certain, as the president was not responsible for the Las Vegas shooting, but the recent example of his speech to supporters of Alabama senator Luther Strange wherein he discussed football players taking the knee caused the ensuing week’s news cycle to circle around the issue.
In the week that followed, the Trump administration published an executive order on Monday, Sept. 25, five days after it was signed, that announced the imposition of sanctions and a trade embargo on North Korea.
The White House also published a presidential proclamation on Wednesday, Sept. 27, three days after Trump signed, announcing its intention to step up security protocols and look into what “additional information would be needed from each foreign country to assess adequately whether their nationals seeking to enter the United States pose a security or safety threat.”
Another example is an early one: when news broke that Acting Attorney General Sally Yates was dismissed by Trump after refusing to uphold the president’s first travel ban. That, combined with the news of an executive order that would deny sanctuary cities federal funding, dominated the cycle on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.
In that same week, the White House released executive orders and presidential memos that created expedited processes for environmental reviews on infrastructure projects, reduced regulations for domestic manufacturing and ordered the creation of a plan to defeat ISIS in 30 days.
Slate reported in May that the plan, which had been submitted by Defense Secretary James Mattis in February, still had not been looked at; the Washington Post followed in June with a story about a Pentagon plan similar to former President Barack Obama’s plan; and the Washington Examiner led with a headline on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 7, that read “ISIS is losing badly. Should Trump or Obama get the credit?”
When the Slate article was published, the dominating story was about the president’s displeasure with the House’s American Health Care Act, which had recently been passed. Health care still dominated the public sphere discussion a month later when the Post wrote its report.
Without social media and mainstream media narratives, potential topics for the civil discourse get buried under the more popular headlines.
What To Do Now
In Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 book “Democracy in America,” he wrote, “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”
A 2015 study published in Science — a research journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science — found that 20 percent of liberal Facebook users and 18 percent of conservatives have friends with different ideological alignments. Living in these social media bubbles can be dangerous for one’s ability to begin a dialogue.
A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found that only 13.8 percent of respondents considered social media to be the most important or trusted source of news. The results indicate that while the majority of people get some of their news on social media, they do not always trust that source. It would seem that, according to data, people are somewhat aware of our echo chambers, but the next step is to do something about it.
In his opening monologue at the Academy Awards earlier this year, Jimmy Kimmel gave some sage advice: “If every one of you took a minute to reach out to one person you disagree with, someone you like, and have a positive, considerate conservation, not as liberals or conservatives, as Americans, if we would all do that, we could make America great again, we really could. It starts with us.”
Tearing down the walls that keep us ideologically secluded requires a desire to do so. Popping our bubbles means developing compassion and understanding for people with different backgrounds and different opinions. Building a community starts with reaching out and engaging.
Jimmy Kimmel is right: it starts with us. We are reaching out to you to engage in the civil discourse. Are you ready to make your impact?