The Art of the Spin: Trump’s flawed communications strategy
Perhaps more so than any previous president, the Trump administration has put the art of political communications into the limelight. The department that is intended to connect the wonky world of policy to the political messaging delivered to the public has broken the fourth wall and become a source of fascination in its own right. While the Trump administration is all for breaking political norms and pushing the rules that govern life in Washington, the messy, mixed-message rollout of its political communications department is dangerous not only to the political life of those inside the White House, but to the legitimacy of the American government as a whole.
Political spin, or the biased presentation of policy and events, has been a part of politics since its beginning. It became codified with the Reagan presidency, which was notorious for having strict guidelines of media management. The first spin room post-debate was established by the Reagan campaign in the 1984 election, and since then it has become an infamous but necessary part of the politics of campaigns, and ideally to a lesser extent governing. When speaking as a government representative, there is a fine line between the presentation of policy and fact and the need to maintain an image of constant success. It should regardless be a source of facts, even if they are creatively presented. The job of the communications staff is to defend the office of the president, but not to defend the president’s every personal shortcoming. There is a threshold of things the White House is essentially above responding to, which is a limit the current administration’s communications team has yet to establish.
The rocky first month of the Trump administration has demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding within the communications staff of the role that they must play. Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer are both from the purely political world, and are meant to bring that political expertise to the policy rollout process. This emphasis on policy has been desperately lacking from the confrontational, excessively defensive and barbed interactions of the Trump communications staff with the press. Rather than try and put a positive spin on controversial policy, the emphasis seems to be lying to defend the president. Perhaps this is what we ought to expect in the uncharted waters of a government led by a reality TV star and staffed by party faithfuls, but what the staff must realize is that there is a time and a place for politics, and a time and a place for governing. The first 100 days should be the easiest for the staff to move through their policy agenda with confidence, yet the communications team is playing personal defense to shield a massive presidential ego. This fearful, Trump-centric approach to defending the president’s policies by any means necessary is telling of larger problems in the White House. As Paul Baegala said, “The Titanic didn’t have a communications problem, it had an iceberg problem.”
The role of spin on a campaign is drastically different than the role of spin after winning an election. While campaigning, everything is about the candidate. The media gets personal, and attacks move far from policy. As candidates enter a new level of limelight, all of the skeletons in their closet come out and the personal becomes the political to an extreme. In that case, the communications team is the first role of defense for the candidate as a political personality. This is why Brian Fallon portrayed the Clinton e-mail investigation as a political witch hunt. Political communications from the White House briefing room come from a different voice. There is an emphasis on facilitating coverage and public knowledge of administration’s policy and activity, and ought be equally proactive in setting the agenda as it is reactive. Here, the communications team falls short. They stick to the reactionary mentality of a campaign, and thus everything that they say has a political spin to it.
The political spin coming out of the White House at the present can hardly be classified as traditional. It is far more blatant than, say, the Obama administration’s presentation of quarterly job numbers. More often than not, Trump’s spokesmen have purposefully misrepresented the facts. No matter how the administration tries to spin these as “alternative facts,” they are lies. The problem compounds when numerous talking heads go on the networks or into the briefing rooms and try to “spin” the same story, but in completely different directions. The lack of coordination makes the public even more aware of attempts to spin facts to them, and is frankly offensive to an electorate that is arguably more tuned into politics now than ever before. Failure to coordinate on defensive rhetoric creates a downward spiral of spinning lies that were told in attempts to spin the initial story, and eventually you end up with frazzled lies that discredit the administration. Foremost among these is the Bowling Green Massacre, which is certainly a day that will live in infamy. The line between spin and lies should not be as fine and hard to maneuver as it has apparently become, and that is an incredibly dangerous line for the administration spokespeople to tiptoe.
The purpose of spin is to place your team in the best light and to maintain a sympathetic image in the press. The improper implementation of this technique effectively puts the administration in a 180 counter-spin, and makes the press secretary and communications team unreliable, turning most media against them. Blatant spin is offensive to the press and to the electorate, and is more likely to result in SNL mockery than a favorable profile in the Sunday Times. The White House is a podium from which to govern, and when spin moves from a political facilitator to personal promotion, it is toxic to the people it seeks to support. This has become the case in the Trump Administration, where the failure to spin and emphasis on lies has placed not just the president himself, but the entire administration on dangerous footing.
The use of the bully pulpit to manipulate the press pool and promote personal brand rather than build up political capital with the intention of governing is harmful to American interests. Actions have consequences, and those consequences are hundredfold when coming from the briefing room as opposed to the back of a campaign jet. It takes one of the most stable democracies, one which touts itself as the democratic champion of the world, and makes a mockery of it. Maintenance of the White House as a reliable source of information, if occasionally delivered with tactful spin, is necessary for America’s image at home and abroad. If the American public can not trust the administration to prioritize policy over presidential ego, how can the world?