But alternatively, and as painful as it may be to admit, the strategy may actually be a winning media strategy in 2017. Outsiders may think that the White House gets all the attention it wants, but even the Executive Office faces tough competition when trying to reach a highly distracted citizenry. Gone are the days where the president could turn to the radio for a fireside chat and expect, as Franklin Roosevelt did, 60 million listeners. President Obama also delivered a weekly radio address — but most radio stations declined to carry it, and online it clocked fewer clicks than some viral cat photos. While Mr. Obama’s big televised speeches were widely watched, many of his policy initiatives were poorly covered, being worthy but not particularly newsworthy. Barack Obama was a celebrity, but by contemporary media standards, just too well mannered and predictable to grab huge attention.
Mr. Trump, to state the obvious, does not have that problem. Indeed, he has demonstrated that he can hold a news conference consisting of little more than shouting at his enemies for an hour and still dominate national headlines. Consequently, the Trump circus — thanks largely to Twitter and intense media coverage — has more of the nation paying more attention to the president than at any time in decades, and maybe since Roosevelt himself. The achievement is even more impressive given that Roosevelt had a built-in advantage: He was battling the Great Depression, then the Third Reich and the Japanese empire. Mr. Trump somehow draws similar attention fighting “bad hombres” from Mexico, immigrants from places like Sudan and Somalia and CNN.
While Mr. Trump’s methods are of our time, the goal of dominating mindshare is a classic strategy of influence, because the sheer volume of messaging allows the leader to transform minds, construct alternative realities and begin changing the rules of the game itself. As the philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote of propaganda, to be effective, it needs to be “total,” meaning that as much of the population as possible must be continuously exposed. Though we don’t have a state-run media, we do live in a society in which the president’s face and messages are sufficiently omnipresent to give Mao or Lenin a run for their money. When is the last time you went a day without seeing the “great leader”?