Recall: Trump's strategy involves expanding, solidifying, and energizing what he considers to be his base and getting them to turn out to vote in hopefully unprecedented numbers come November.
How does Donald Trump hope to win? By selling outrage.
In practically every single campaign rally or press release or campaign statement or personal tweet, Trump says or does something that would in any other year be deemed outrageous, and possibly disqualifying, in a presidential candidate. It's almost impossible to keep up with his outrages. It's all very entertaining. There has never been a candidate quite like him.
He uses vague adjectives—"huge", "great", "bad", "the best", etc. He insults people—both politicians and celebrities and otherwise. He draws attention to protestors, demeans them, and even encourages his followers to boo them (or worse). He attacks the media covering his spectacles. He draws conclusions from demonstrably false assumptions. He recirculates rumors and gossip. He makes vague, veiled implications that can lead sympathizers to one conclusion about what he believes and critics to an entirely different inference (often referred to as 'dog-whistle' politics). He misleads and lies while at the same time, and often in the very next sentence, telling accepted truths and bromides that confirm the assumptions of prejudices of his followers. He is quite deft at these tactics.
And, I would submit, these are not gaffes. It doesn't matter whether what he says is true or false. You can keep your fact-checkers; for by the time they've broken down whatever he has said most recently and shown it to be false or misleading, he has moved on to another statement. Facts do not matter to Donald Trump. What matters is the outrage and controversy whatever he says or does creates. It is a carefully crafted marketing strategy, one modeled on a professional wrestling/reality TV model. Let me elaborate.
In my Twitter account back on July 31, I ran the following quote from the monogram called "On Bullshit" by moral philosopher Harry Frankfort:
What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.
This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicat the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby resonding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off; he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.Trump generates conflicts and controversies in his public appearances and statements because he knows they will draw attention to him. That is his true enterprise. It brings free television network coverage and large crowds to his rallies. Audiences attend and tune in in the hopes of being entertained in much the same way TV audiences and stadium crowds are entertained by fake, highly produced wrestling matches.
[N.B.: This is a very sly and savvy move on Trump's part because it plays into the structural constraints of corporate news broadcasting. The corporations who own the 24-hour cable news networks have a legal, institutional duty to make a profit for their owners and shareholders. In fact, it is singularly their principal duty. The way their news operations make money is by generating ad revenue. The costs of ads are determined by ratings in competition with their rival networks. Trump coverage—protestors at his rallies, outrageous statements, name-calling, etc.—brings ratings, drives up ad costs, and therefore increases their profits. It's often referred to as "earned media"—a ridiculous euphemism. It's a lovely synergy Trump knows how to take full advantage of—and does!]
So, Trump's outrages generate eyeballs on TV and put butts in the seats at his rallies. Butts in the seats and eyeballs mean ratings and popularity. And popularity and ratings bring further coverage and the chance of even higher ratings and greater popularity. The equation here is a simple one, really: Trump believes he can translate these TV ratings and large crowds into votes on election day.
Don't believe me? Take a look at this quote from Trump's interview on This Week with George Stephanopoulos where he makes this assumption explicit:
Look, I think the Republican convention was great or I wouldn't have had the bounce that I had. As you said, I had 3 million people more than she [Hillary Clinton] had on the final night. She had a Thursday, I had a Thursday, she had a speech, I had a speech, I had 3 million people more than she did. And I had a lot of people. There were a lot of people. I think I had 30 million. They had 27 million. I think we're going to do very well in this election."My speech had more viewers, therefore we are going to do very well in this election." Could Trump's assumption be spelled out any more clearly than that? That's the key metric animating his entire enterprise. [It is an assumption, however, that remains to be borne out in practice. For example, Mitt Romney and his followers made the same assumption four years ago to disastrous effect, as did John Kerry before him.]
Fearful of a world spiralling out of control? Angry at others who you feel are preventing you from achieving the American dream? Feeling humiliated both personally and by an America in decline abroad—whether in trade, sport, or war? Outraged by a corrupt Establishment—whether it's Obama and Crooked Hillary or Jeb and Lyin' Ted? Angry at the media for their complicity in this decline? Feel like this country needs a strong man who can fix all these problems? Well, frankly, you have bought the outrage Donald Trump and the GOP are trying to sell. You have been well and truly played by a consummate bullshit artist with designs on becoming one of the most powerful men in the world. And I've just shown you the powerful strategy he's employing to achieve it.