The more I learn about Trump’s Washington, the more nauseated I become.
I recently came across an article in the Washingtonian, looking at the ways in which Trump’s Presidency has changed lobbying.The lead-in to that discussion was a report detailing another “Trump effect”–his negative effect on tourism.
The development, Dow explains, was rooted in several forces, including a stronger US dollar, economic weakness in Latin America, and dirt-cheap airfare in Europe. But there was another factor, Dow says: “the Trump effect.” The 2017 executive order blocking entry to citizens from six majority-Muslim countries, and the President’s hostile proclamations about immigration, had signaled to foreigners they weren’t welcome here, even if they only wanted to spend money in Times Square and go home.
Understandably, travel agencies and their lobbyists wanted to “change the rhetoric.” In previous administrations, the lobbyists would have started with the bureaucracy, whose officials the lobbyists usually knew.
In Trump’s government, though, the rhetoric came from the President’s own gut. Sharing policy insight with an agency functionary wasn’t going to help. They had to plant their talking points in front of POTUS himself. But how?
The coalition hired S-3 Public Affairs, one of the many DC lobbying-and-media-consulting firms scrambling to adjust to the city’s new power structure. In prior years, says S-3 partner Amos Snead, the firm might have designed an “outside-in” approach—collect letters or petitions from industry backers around the country, bring them to Washington, and use the testimonials to influence lawmakers, agency officials, and other thought leaders. Trump’s Washington, Snead believed, required a different approach. He sensed there might be a more direct path into the President’s head, via one of his favorite mediums: Twitter.
They followed Trump’s movements and sent their ads to IP addresses that covered wherever he was. This is what’s known in the industry, as the “audience of one” strategy—and according to the article, it’s become a staple of the business of Washington under Trump.
We may be critical of bureaucracy, but individual bureaucrats typically know a great deal about their particular area of governance. Lobbyists who want to be effective have to pitch their arguments to people who can immediately spot the weaknesses, ask pertinent questions, and “vet” proposals before sending them on up the chain of command.
Not in Trumpworld. He Who Knows Nothing responds only to flattery, so lobbyists now bypass informed underlings (to whom Trump doesn’t listen anyway.) Now…
During at least the first seven months of the new administration, staffers in the White House communications department compiled flattering news stories about Trump into packets, which they delivered to the President twice a day. According to a former White House aide, as the packet made its way to the Oval Office, additional officials inserted other news articles they wanted the President to read. “It would typically be, like, Stephen Miller putting his latest race-baiting story in there,” the former White House aide says.
When consultants and lobbyists learned about the folder, they saw a fresh opportunity. One Republican consultant told me he was able to plant stories favorable to his corporate clients in Breitbart News—the far-right outlet once run by Trump’s former strategist, Steve Bannon—and then pass those stories to a friend in the White House, who in turn slipped them into the daily packet destined for the Oval. “If you have a friend in there who can get something on the Resolute desk,” the consultant says, “it doesn’t really matter what the source [of the information] is anymore.”
And then there’s television…
The cornerstone of the audience-of-one strategy, though, is Trump’s love affair with television. After the election, consultants began buying commercial time during Fox & Friends, the conservative morning show that the President is known to watch religiously. But how do you get a 72-year-old man with no interest in policy to watch a commercial on ethanol subsidies? Well, the influencers decided, you find old footage of Trump discussing the issue on the campaign and make him the star of the commercial.
“The President’s favorite topic is himself,” says a Republican consultant. “What better way to get him interested in a message than by providing him with the thing that he’s most obsessed with?”
There’s much more along these lines in the article. Those of you with strong stomachs should click through and read it. I’ll just warn you that the policy process in Trumpville looks nothing like the one I’ve been teaching for twenty years.
As for me–I’m just going to go throw up now.