Whether you love him or hate him, and there appears to be few in between, you have to admit that the chaos created almost daily by Donald Trump is infinitely interesting. But setting aside the entertainment value, it is important to understand what Trump is doing.
Is he crazy, or crazy like a fox? It is the failure to understand the answer to that question, more than any other, which has caused so many Trump opponents to play into his hands. So if we need to first understand Donald Trump, what better place to start than by examining the movie Bull Durham? O.K., perhaps that requires some explaining.
If you haven’t seen Bull Durham, it is a great movie. In a nutshell, Kevin Costner is an aging catcher who is acquired by a minor league baseball team so that he can mentor Tim Robbins, a young pitcher with a “million-dollar arm”. Costner is intelligent, savvy and experienced. Robbins, while talented, is immature, self-centered and lacks emotional control. There are two scenes in the movie that go a long way toward explaining what Trump is doing.
In the first scene, Costner, having conditioned Robbins into following his lead, calls time out in a game and then approaches the mound. He tells Robbins that with his next pitch he should hit the team’s mascot, standing 30 or 40 feet away from home plate. Robbins doesn’t understand why, but goes along. The next pitch is straight at the mascot’s giant costumed head, knocking him down. The batter is understandably shocked, Costner starts laughing and then:
Batter: “This guy’s crazy”
Costner: [laughing] “Yup, I wouldn’t dig in there if I were you. The next one might be at your head.” Then earnestly, “I don’t know where it’s gonna go. Swear to God”.
The rattled batter then doesn’t dig in – or presumably do anything else he is supposed to do – and promptly strikes out.
Sound familiar? Trump’s team may, or may not, know where his next pitch is going to go, but so long as the rest of us believe that he’s crazy and might do anything, then we will be off balance. We won’t dig in, making our actions easier to disrupt, to Trump’s advantage.
Trump also employs a variation of good cop, bad cop, but even then he has a twist. In attacking Trudeau after the G7 he was clearly bad cop, but at intervals he is also good cop. He praised Trudeau a short time later in another tweet, saying he liked him and calling him a friend. Then, bad cop returned with a tweet that Canadians will “pay dearly” for Trudeau’s mistakes. What will Trump do next? Who knows? By simultaneously attacking and praising, Trump sows confusion as he pursues his goal, whatever it is. If he gets it, perhaps good cop will reappear.
Another scene that channels Trump occurs a bit later in the movie, once Robbins concludes he has much he can learn from Costner. During a long bus ride, he asks Costner: “Teach me something new man. I need to learn”. Costner then instructs him on how to “interview”, by teaching him a series of clichés he can respond with, no matter the question asked of him.
Clichés are pure Trump. Everything he approves of is “great” or “huge”, the “biggest or best” ever, with equivalent denouncements when he disapproves. But that’s not why the cliché scene is important. The essence of what Costner teaches Robbins is what to say to accomplish his goal; in the movie that’s to escape the interview without giving anything up. But there is no discussion, or even consideration, about the truth. Are the clichés true? Who cares – the unstated premise is that all that matters is whether they are effective.
And clearly that is the core of the Trump playbook. What does he need to say, or more likely tweet, to bring about the result he desires? Whatever it is, he’ll do it. And it often isn’t clear what he’s doing, as he frequently tweets something outrageous to create a new controversy simply to change the channel. Time and again he has used that technique to deflect attention from some other scandal which was damaging Trump or his agenda.
In this paradigm, truth isn’t just insignificant, it is irrelevant. Trump appears so comfortable lying, that it is not clear whether he can tell the difference. Falsehoods become so commonplace that they are no longer news. That means they have little to no “cost”. Having created that state of affairs, the only question then is what he needs to say to achieve his goal in the moment.
In a strange way his lies work better than the truth. As Trump’s opponents fixate on the lies, and debate why anyone believes him or why the lie isn’t the story, they ignore completely the tactical reason for the lie. It is the political equivalent of not “digging in”; of being unprepared for the pitch. Sadly, Trump’s shtick will continue so long as it works. Only by responding with an effective counter can his tactics be neutralized.
With some history now to look back on, many of Trump’s most oft used tactics are simply variations on bullying. That is important as it suggests the correct response. Bullies are, at their core, cowards. It’s not that they respect force – they are afraid of it.
So what is Trump afraid of? It’s not tariffs. Those won’t affect Trump personally. It’s not the fight. He lives to fight. But he is afraid of losing. He’s afraid of being embarrassed. He’s afraid of being exposed.
Figuring out how to take advantage of those fears means ignoring what appears crazy and focusing on what would be effective in response. Look, if you care enough to stand up to Trump, care enough to do it right. Don’t rise to the bait, that’s what he wants. And don’t vent just because it feels good. Above all avoid the temptation to preach to the converted. That makes you and them feel better, but it accomplishes nothing.
Start with a plan. Comment thoughtfully and without anger. It’s trite, but critique ideas instead of people. Ridicule convinces no one. Create balanced commentary that is more accessible to the undecided – only those who are already onside enjoy reading a rant.
This advice goes well beyond Trump and applies to all parties. But if Trump is your project, ask yourself: what was Trump trying to accomplish? What channel was he trying to change? Those are key questions in formulating a response. Answer them and you can figure out how to stay on the “channel” that Trump seems desperate to get away from.
It’s not actually a new approach. Staying “on message”, has been the gold standard of political communication since campaigns were invented. But it demands discipline and focus. Above all, it requires that you acknowledge, at least to yourself, that Trump is not crazy. Most everything he does has a purpose. Recognize that and you can safely “dig in” and respond with purpose. Do that and you just might start improving your batting average.