This is a photo of Lucy the Elephant, America’s oldest roadside attraction. Think of her as a symbol of the year ahead in politics — endless exhortations to “look over there” at one meaningless distraction after another.
Trump’s constant efforts to divert attention away from whatever issue is currently generating negative headlines for him are certainly well known and well understood by now. Ezra Klein of Vox has referred to the distractions as “the core of Donald Trump’s political strategy.” The political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow was moved to pen a strip titled “Are Trump’s Distractions a Distraction From His Distractions?” just a couple of months after Trump was inaugurated.
The problem confronting us in 2020 is that Trump will be facing some of the most challenging headlines yet with both impeachment and an election campaign looming. That will mean not only more distractions hurled our way, but uglier distractions. And his track record in that regard is loathsome.
A classic case of ugly distraction from this past summer provides a good example. In early July, Trump’s old friend and playboy-in-arms Jeffrey Epstein was arrested for sex trafficking minors. As the headlines explored Trump’s past with Epstein, things took a really alarming turn for Trump when Robert Mueller was scheduled to testify before Congress. The confluence of bad news items led Trump to one of his most unseemly distractions to date — his infamous tweet calling on four Congresswomen of color to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Ugly. But effective. Epstein was indeed pushed off the front page. As it turned out, Trump needn’t have worried about Mueller in the first place since the special counsel’s appearance before Congress ended up far short of a headline grabbing performance.
Also last summer, Trumped lashed out at Elijah Cummings, the renowned chair of the House Oversight Committee, who had flayed acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan during a hearing about conditions at immigrant detention centers on the border. Trump tweeted that Cummings’ Baltimore Congressional district was a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” More ugly racism from the President of the United States, intended solely to rewrite the headlines.
The distraction strategy goes back to the earliest days of Trump’s maladministration. Very early only, Trump’s first National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign for lying about his interactions with the Russians. Within two days, Trump was back in the headlines with the announcement of a campaign rally — a reelection rally in the third month of his presidency! — suddenly scheduled to take place that weekend in Florida. The rally itself was certainly a headline grabber as it displayed the basic outline of all future Trump rallies: manic orgies of hate and racism.
Trump will have a lot of eager assistants in the upcoming distraction derby. There’s Rudy Giuliani, for instance, a walking, talking (ranting?) human distraction. And Lindsey Graham, who has gone so far to the Trump Side that he’s become the Darth Vader of Trumpism. And there are Congressional Republicans galore who stand at the ready to pull some kind of outrageous stunt, like storming a hearing room in the Capitol because they were “locked out” by an unfair process. And there is Fox News, the public address system of indignant outrage.
We all know what’s coming, of course. I’m just not sure that we’re at all prepared for the level of loathsomeness that awaits us, nor of the tremendous damage to our institutions it will cause.
Many Americans loved roadside attractions. They still would if the interstate highway system hadn’t pretty much killed them off. But Americans remain highly susceptible to attractions and distractions of all kinds. Trump knows that. His successful TV show, his campaign, and his presidency itself were and are roadside attractions.
The challenge for us in the coming months will be to stay focused — and to help our friends and family and the media to stay focused. Keep to the interstate, in the fast lane to ending Trump’s presidency.
Photo credit: Me! I took this picture on a trip east this past summer to attend a 50th anniversary reunion party with the folks I went to Woodstock with. A little bit about Lucy from Wikipedia: Lucy the Elephant is a six-story elephant-shaped example of novelty architecture, constructed of wood and tin sheeting in 1881 by James V. Lafferty in Margate City, New Jersey, approximately five miles south of Atlantic City. Originally named Elephant Bazaar, Lucy was built to promote real estate sales and attract tourists. Today, Lucy is the oldest surviving roadside tourist attraction in America. Lucy's home page can be found here.