If we want him to keep doing what he’s doing, keep paying attention to him while he does it.
Over the Memorial Day weekend I got to spend some time with my two grandsons, ages three and six, and among the many benefits of their visit was the realization of how we, as a people, ought to be dealing with the reality of having Donald Trump as President of the United States.
As any parent or grandparent knows, children take their cues from what draws the attention of those around them. From their earliest cries, young mammals are biologically wired to demand attention; it’s a sound evolutionary strategy, as it makes it more likely that they’ll be fed, clothed and sheltered than if we forgot they were there.
This also means, however, that if you pay anxious attention when they whine, you’re likely to get more whining. Simply ignoring inappropriate behavior can have an even stronger effect than reprimanding it, because reprimanding it is also a form of attention. This is basic Skinnerian psychology that we all learned in college: you reinforce a behavior when it is followed by a positive stimulus; remove the stimulus and the behavior fades (at least in rats).
Psych 101 thus teaches us that we’re dealing with the Trump presidency all wrong. We are obsessing over his every tweet, every absurd non-sequitur, every cryptic, detail-free “policy” statement. We study his improbable hair and notice when his wife bats his hand away. We pore over his family’s web of conflicts of interests with Talmudic intensity.
Those who didn’t vote for Trump are even more guilty of this slavish attention to him than those who did. We’re desperate to document the full extent of his unfitness for the office, every cringe-worthy detail of it, in the misguided belief that by sheer accumulation of evidence some tipping point will be reached where everyone agrees we were right and he really shouldn’t have had any more than a TV show. It’s become a guilty pleasure to be fixated on Trump. We’re like crack addicts, and the news media, trapped in the twitchy, hyperactive news cycle they’ve created, are our equally addicted dealers.
This sort of continual, feverish attention is, of course, what Trump craves most, what he has always craved, what his entire adult life has been devoted to attracting. Now he has it, and if we want him to keep doing what he’s doing, keep paying attention to him while he does it.
Classic example: recently, while denouncing the “witch hunt” into his Russia connections, he tweeted the words “Despite the constant negative press covfefe”. This immediately fomented a storm of speculation as to what “covfefe” meant, with theories ranging from a covert (or misspelled) reference to a person, to simple incipient dementia. (My own theory is that he was reaching for the word “kerfuffle,” but it eluded him and spellcheck.) Then, within hours, he was tweeting gloatingly at all the “covfefe” speculation, obviously loving every minute of it.
This is what he lives for. But we can stop it.
I’m proposing a Pay No Attention to Trump Week.
Imagine, if you can, an entire week when not a single Trump tweet is mentioned in the printed press or on TV, when no one cares what Melania is wearing, when only what Trump actually does as a function of his role as President is reported, when only his actual executive and legislative actions are considered news-worthy.
Or better still, let’s have a week in which Trump is not mentioned at all, when he disappears from the front page and even the op-ed columns, when we interview only people who live outside the Beltway and even Alec Baldwin finds something better to do than try to caricature a man who is a walking caricature.
Would this Trump-free week leave us less informed about the world, about what matters to our country? Of course not, because Trump’s childish behavior has nothing to do with either one of them. Should we worry that if we withdraw our attention from him he might become frustrated, and throw a presidential tantrum by precipitating an international crisis? It’s a risk, but as any parent can tell you, the alternative is to continue to reward behavior that’s even more likely to lead to the same place.
Eventually we might extend this Trump-free week to a month, or perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, to an entire four years.
That first week would be the hardest, though. It would mean trading our schadenfreude for a sense of personal responsibility. It would mean a sparser political fare, a week without our daily Trump-bashing fix, a less churlishly fascinating week, perhaps, but one that might begin to re-educate us in what it means to be citizens of a republic with huge problems facing it, rather than voyeurs at a tawdry political peep show.
It would be a week that could conceivably begin to educate the president in our desire that he address his role in something like a thoughtful, serious fashion. It would be a week when we all might become more adult. Almost, perhaps, like parents.