President Donald Trump has many limitations, to put it mildly, but he is brilliant at the dark art of branding. Those seeking to hold him accountable had better study his technique — and learn to fight fire with fire.
Witness how Trump is trying to use the word “spy” as a weapon against the FBI, the Justice Department and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the election. The president’s performance this week has been totally dishonest — and, let’s be honest, quite effective.
Here is what actually happened, as far as we know: In 2016, the FBI saw what it believed were Russian attempts to interfere with the U.S. election, including contacts with three Trump campaign advisers. Alarmed and needing to know more — but not wanting to publicly investigate the campaign, which could be prejudicial against Trump — agents asked a retired college professor named Stefan Halper to touch base with those advisers to see what he could find out. Halper did so. Two of the advisers, Carter Page and Sam Clovis, have spoken publicly about the encounters and described them as innocuous.
Here is what happened, according to Trump: “Spygate!”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Trump has consistently and cleverly referred to Halper as a “spy,” rather than an “informant,” which is what he really was. And he has suggested, falsely, that the “spy” was “placed very early into my campaign.” Trump alleged in a tweet Wednesday that the “Criminal Deep State,” which for some reason is apparently persecuting him, has been “caught in a major SPY scandal the likes of which this country may never have seen before!”
Right-wing media and Trump’s political allies have joined the chorus, which is meant to sow doubt on the Mueller probe’s legitimacy. And I believe the campaign is having at least some success -- all because of the word “spy.”
According to The Associated Press, “Trump told one ally this week that he wanted ‘to brand’ the informant a ‘spy,’ believing the more nefarious term would resonate more in the media and with the public.” He was right. His supporters have gleefully adopted the term. Media outlets have called Trump on his distortion, but in order to refute the word “spy” it is necessary to use the term — which has the counterproductive effect of reinforcing the word, through repetition.
Trump’s success in making some people believe his campaign was “spied on” does not deter Mueller from his appointed rounds. But it can incrementally shake confidence in Mueller’s findings — unless he completely exonerates Trump, in which case the president will paint him as the noblest and finest public servant in the history of the republic.
None of this should surprise anyone. Trump had early success as a real estate developer, then made a series of foolish investments, especially in Atlantic City, that almost ruined him. He survived by transforming the Trump Organization into what is essentially a branding company that makes deals to put the Trump name on projects whose costs, and risks, are borne by others. He has long understood how perception can overwhelm reality -- and how the right turn of phrase can change everything.
As The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty wrote in January of last year, Trump came up with the phrase “Make America Great Again” on Nov. 7, 2012, the day after Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama. Five days later, Trump applied for a trademark. This was back in 2012. He’s good at this.
Of course you will recall how he branded his opponents for the Republican nomination with mocking nicknames — “Little” Marco Rubio, “Low Energy” Jeb Bush and the rest. It was juvenile and undignified, but it served to lump the other contenders together and diminish them all, while letting Trump set himself apart and above.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking minority member on the House Intelligence Committee, is trying to give Trump a dose of his own medicine. What Trump calls “Spygate” should really be known as “Lie-gate,” Schiff says, because it is built on falsehoods. Schiff should get points for making the effort, but he’s already a bit late.
Trump understands, and seizes, the first-mover advantage that comes from coining definitional terms. “Lie-gate” is a decent counterpunch. “Spygate,” by contrast, was a roundhouse sucker punch — not nice, not polite, but effective.
Beating Trump at his own game requires actually playing that game. This means acting instead of always reacting — it means defining the linguistic terrain before he can. And it means understanding, as the president does, that words don’t just describe reality. They shape it.
Reach Eugene Robinson at email@example.com.