It doesn’t matter whether Trump is a genius or an idiot: his media strategy works

The president is channelling a chillingly effective approach to information warfare.

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Donald Trump is a uniquely tiring politician to follow, and the wall-to-wall coverage of his state visit to the UK makes you wonder how Americans aren’t completely exhausted.

Before he had even touched down on British soil, he had told the Sun newspaper in a recorded interview that Meghan Markle was “nasty”, then insisted he had said no such thing, before later telling his mate Piers Morgan that it was “OK for her to be nasty”. Within his first 48 hours in the country he said that the National Health Service would be “on the table” in any post-Brexit trade negotiation, and then that it was something he didn’t “consider part of trade”.

Much has been written about Trump’s ambivalent relationship with facts, and seemingly tenuous grip on reality. Some suggest he is playing 4D chess, skillfully manipulating the press into addressing his manifestly false statements seriously. Others think he is just an idiot, who isn’t aware of what he said yesterday, let alone whether it was true.

The thing is, of course, that none of the above matters – because wherever it comes from, Trump’s approach to what he says is pretty astonishingly effective. It not only distracts a media unused to dealing with such blatant untruths from what’s actually going on; it also creates such uncertainty about what is true and what can be trusted that the public, even those resolutely opposed to and distrustful of Trump, begin to doubt their own sense of what is real.

The approach was excoriatingly described by Lauren Ducca in an essay for Teen Vogue entitled “Trump is gaslighting America”. The verb to gaslight is more normally applied to abusive relationships in which one party – normally a man – would “psychologically manipulate a person to the point where they question their own sanity”. It is, as Ducca described it, “a buzzy name for a terrifying strategy currently being used to weaken and blind the American electorate.”

Gaslighting is a good way of describing what Trump does, but the tactic was explicitly laid down as a political strategy years earlier, by, of all people, a Russian. Vladislav Surkov has served in the Kremlin since the turn of the century, and is thought to currently be a close political advisor to Vladamir Putin. One of his central theories about how Russia could extend its power was “non-linear warfare”, which argued that controlling the information battlefield was at least as important as the physical one. That was done by stoking “conflict to create a constant state of destabilised perception, in order to manage and control”. While everyone else is trying to work out what the facts really are, those who don’t care get on with doing what they want.

Surkov went as far as to create entire movements opposed to Russia’s leadership, only to later reveal that he was behind them all along. His theories are credited with helping Russia successfully annex the Crimea while avoiding international action.

Surkov is undoubtedly far cleverer than Trump – but it is almost more terrifying that the president is able to so effectively carry out the Russian’s prescription without really realising it. So while we’re all trying to work out whether or not Trump did actually insult the Queen’s granddaughter in law, Trump’s team continues to make judicial appointments that will long outlast his presidency at a record pace.

More terrifyingly still, there’s every chance that the evolution of technology that has so helped Trump is on the verge of placing us in a permanent state of non-linear warfare. Concerns about the growing sophistication of “deepfakes” – artificial videos of people that can be created by computer with almost no reference to reality – normally revolve around the prospect of bad actors hoodwinking the public with videos showing things that have never happened. But it could be that the mere knowledge that deep fakes are possible could have an even more destabilising impact. When we are all aware how easy it is to produce a faked recording, Trump and every other dishonest huckster will feel even safer labelling evidence of their misconduct fake news.

Trump is only the most prominent expression, and successful execution, of a new approach to subduing the public that has been brewing for years, whether he knows he’s doing it or not. That feeling of frustration and disbelief with which most of us greet his pronouncements is only going to grow more familiar. 

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.