The Civil War period of American history fascinates me for a number of reasons, not least among them the military campaigns. Any small amount of reading about the campaigns in and around Virginia will lead to the understanding that one of the reasons Robert E. Lee, despite having fewer men and resources, proved so successful was his ability to seize the initiative and force Union generals to give battle at locations of his choosing. Donald Trump shares a similar quality when it comes to manipulating the media and his opponents. The key difference—aside from one of these two men being a general—is that Trump doesn’t always choose winning battlefields.
“Trump Punks the Media” was the headline of Hadas Gold’s article on Politico yesterday evening. Claiming to have a big announcement on the Barack Obama birther conspiracy, Trump maneuvered networks to train their cameras on an empty podium before finally treating them to a plug for his new DC hotel and a showcase of his veterans’ endorsements before at last saying the Barack Obama was an American citizen and the conspiracy to claim he wasn’t had been started by Hillary Clinton. If Gold’s article is any indication there was a lot of media consternation over the whole affair (CNN’s Jake Tapper said the media had been Rick-rolled). But this is only half the narrative. Yes, Trump manipulated the media—as he’s done so well since his campaign began. But he just as successfully manipulated the Clinton campaign’s messaging.
Hillary Clinton’s return to the campaign trail Thursday was accompanied by an explanation that the rest of her campaign would be about ideas—about what she can do for the American people and about why they should vote for her. A cynic could doubt the motivation behind Clinton’s pivot—she did have a pretty rough week in the polls, after all—but not the pivot itself; while betting on her status as the less unpopular of two deeply unpopular candidates has looked like a path to victory, presenting a positive agenda and giving voters an affirmative reason to support her would help sew up nervous undecideds from bolting every time she stumbles. Clinton’s new focus would get a high octane boost Friday when both Obamas hit the stump for her. Could she stop the slide going into the weekend and reset the conversation—especially given the apparent short memories of voters this election cycle?
We may never get an answer to part of that question. Trump’s birther announcement led Clinton, Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and others to spend time speaking to the absurdity of the issue. What’s more, Friday coverage of Clinton and the Obamas primarily led with their response to the topic. Where was that positive ideas driven agenda Clinton tantalized us with? Not in any of Friday’s headlines. Trump had picked Friday’s battlefield; the media and Clinton camp obliged him.
The question coming out of Friday is whether this battlefield was a great choice for Trump—especially given his quickly repudiated claim of Clinton’s connection to birtherism. Would dipping his toe back into birtherism become as long running a catastrophe as his feud with the Kahns and his attack on Judge Curiel? Or would it be one more inflammatory eccentricity spouted into the wind and forgotten by the next news cycle? Trump’s nonsense on this topic isn’t exactly a recent development, and if he lets the matter die as he has so many other controversial things he’s said the cost in polls may be a minor one. Something new will happen Monday and in the meantime Trump’s robbed Clinton of the entire weekend.
When Robert E. Lee picked his battlefields there were strategic reasons, be them short or long-term, for doing so. Where political battlefields are involved, Trump’s no less adept at manipulating his opponents (and to a degree the media falls into this category) but the reasons—beside a seeming refusal to concede attention—are murky at best. If there’s a strategy at all, it seems to be as basic as denying Clinton oxygen—keeping her from breaking through to voters so that Trump is able to frame both her and her message. It could work, but it probably requires Clinton to commit more errors like “deplorables” or the pneumonia flap along the way. On the other hand, if Clinton stops playing by Trump’s rules—stops hitting back on his topics and his terms—she might be able to avoid Trump’s battlefield altogether and march around him to victory.