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U.S. President Donald Trump (REUTERS)
U.S. President Donald Trump (REUTERS)

How President Trump uses shock value to his advantage

Trump steered the media’s focus before the 2016 election and is still doing it in 2020

Shortly after the 2016 election, Corey Lewandowski, President Trump’s onetime campaign manager and current informal political adviser, appeared at a conference of campaign leaders at Harvard University and scolded journalists for misunderstanding the newly elected president.

“This is the problem with the media: You guys took everything Donald Trump said so literally," Mr. Lewandowski said. “The problem with that is the American people didn’t, and they understood it."

Today, almost four years into Mr. Trump’s presidency and two months before Americans decide whether to re-elect him, that quandary remains at the heart of any effort to analyze President Trump: When should one take what he says seriously, and when is he merely toying with the press in a bid to control the agenda, or with his foes to bait them into responding in irrational ways?

Two recent controversies underscore the question—and illustrate the way the president’s approach complicates life for the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.

Case No. 1: Last week, the president told his supporters to, essentially, try to vote for him twice in this fall’s election, first by mail and then by showing up at a polling place on Election Day. By doing that, he said they could test whether mail-in ballot systems are as impervious to fraud as proponents say, and also ensure that they cast a vote that counts one way or the other.

Was the president seriously suggesting his supporters undertake what could be considered an illegal act by attempting to cast two ballots? Or was he merely using a shocking statement to underscore his argument about the pitfalls of mail ballots? More darkly, was he sowing seeds of doubt about the very legitimacy of the election to come?

In any case, if one of Mr. Trump’s goals was merely to ensure that his complaints about mail-in voting got prominent attention, he succeeded.

Case No. 2: In recent days, the president issued a memo ordering federal agencies to explore ways to cut federal funding to cities that, in his view, haven’t done enough to control unrest in the streets. As it happens, the memo mentions only cities with Democratic mayors—Seattle, Portland, New York City and Washington, D.C.—and none in swing states where a threat to cut off federal funds could backfire on the president’s re-election campaign.

Does the president seriously intend to try to cut off congressionally appropriated funds to major cities—a move of questionable legality and one certain to face immediate court challenges—or was he using a presidential memorandum to underscore a law-and-order message central to his re-election campaign?

In any case, the action left Mr. Trump’s critics sputtering with rage. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo responded by saying the president “better have an army if he thinks he’s going to walk down the street in New York." That response represents another characteristic of some of Mr. Trump’s verbal broadsides: They often get his foes to respond with such outrage that they appear to be the irrational ones.

There are an abundance of other examples, but they all have one common characteristic: They allow the president to exert a lot of control over the national political agenda. Much as Mr. Trump knew during the 2016 campaign that reporters wouldn’t ignore incendiary statements by a leading presidential candidate, he now knows reporters and his political foes can’t simply ignore statements by the leader of the free world. And he uses the power to his advantage.

“They take him literally when really they should take him figuratively in some cases," Mr. Lewandowski says now in an interview. “It drives the media story. It doesn’t always mean it’s the best narrative, but he’s driving the media story. This isn’t new, by the way. This has been going on for six years."

Mr. Trump’s supporters seem, in many cases, to be in on the deal. They often tell reporters they don’t take what the president says literally, but understand he uses bombast and exaggeration to make a point they want to hear.

The problem with this style is that there are times of crisis or duress when a president needs the country to take him both literally and seriously. If the currency of presidential credibility is devalued, it isn’t clear it can be revalued when it really matters, or that it can be used successfully to unite rather than divide.

All this represents a strategic problem for the Biden campaign. It has watched as Mr. Trump has used such tactics in recent weeks to move the agenda from the coronavirus to law and order and mail-in voting.

Can the Biden camp afford to simply ignore some of the things Mr. Trump says and stick to its own agenda? Mr. Trump’s foes have struggled with that question for years, without finding a good answer.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com

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