Strategic Trolling: In the White House and in Business


donald-trump-2005343_1280We wondered whether Donald Trump would stop tweeting after the November 8 election. The answer was no. We wondered whether he would stop tweeting after the Inauguration. The answer is still no. And much of the nation does not know how to deal with a President who tweets and says anything and everything that enters his head.

We need to figure it out.

A few editorial pieces recently have begun talking about how to respond to the “alternative facts” and exaggerations and outright untruths that President Trump and his advisers have spoken or written. The partisans are trying to label everything as outrageous and respond to it all. The more thoughtful commentators are talking about the need to pick their battles.

On January 23, Russ Douthat wrote in an editorial titled “The Tempting of the Media,” in The Kansas City Star,

“. . . the press may be tempted toward—and richly rewarded for—a kind of hysterical oppositionalism, a mirroring of Trump’s own tabloid style and disregard for truth.”

The danger for the media, he wrote,

“is the same danger facing other institutions in our republic: that while believing themselves to be nobly resisting Trump, they end up imitating him.”

Only if the media, our politicians, and others who must deal with the new Administration keep our responses rational will we be able to influence the results effectively.

Also on January 23, Barton Swaim wrote for The Wall Street Journal, in “Trump, the Press and the Dictatorship of the Trolletariat,”

“few journalists have appreciated the degree to which Mr. Trump’s entire political and governing strategy depends on trolling them. They’ve mostly assumed his penchant for exaggeration and invention was the result of psychosis, or just ego. By now, though, it ought to be apparent that he’s doing it intentionally, and strategically.”

(“Trolling” he defined as “[deliberately kindling] acrimony by making outrageous, offensive or confusing remarks.”)

On the PBS NewsHour on January 27, David Brooks commented that President Trump’s style was unnerving business leaders, the political class, and mainstream Republicans. He said that there could be two explanations for the President’s behavior—either he is “an authoritarian figure who is twisting words in an Orwellian manner,” or “he a 5-year-old who has an ego that needs to be fed.” So Mr. Brooks uses labels similar to Mr. Swaim’s psychosis and ego.

Mr. Swaim suggested that we focus on what matters and ignore what does not.

How many people filled the National Mall during the Inauguration doesn’t matter. Calling the press dishonest human beings may rankle, but it doesn’t matter. Whether the CIA employees gave our new President a lengthy standing ovation doesn’t matter.

By contrast, the cost in dollars and international goodwill of building a wall along the Mexican border matters. How to revise and improve our health care system matters. How best to engage with the rest of the world on trade, on terrorism, and on many other topics, matters.

Mr. Brooks mentioned the civil servants in government and Congress as possible checks on the Administration’s proposals. As he said (in the most humorous line of the January 27 NewsHour broadcast), “civil servants have many ways to not do something.”

All this reminds me of a couple of high-level corporate executives I worked with, who also used “trolling” strategically, though we didn’t call it that then. Both of these individuals were masters at taking a meeting off on a tangent when they didn’t want to make a decision. They used offensive commentary about other employees, raised unimportant issues, and demanded answers on picayune points to derail the meeting.

But because they were usually the highest ranking employee in the room, calling them out on these tactics was difficult. Forcing a decision was practically impossible unless their boss was in the room, and even then could only be done by putting them on the spot, which usually wasn’t worth the later ramifications. The only way to deal with the situation was in another one-on-one meeting, where they didn’t feel put on the spot to decide and could debate the pros and cons without revealing ignorance or uncertainty.

Those around President Trump and those who need to confront him need to develop similar ways of responding to his trolling. He has a strategy that is working for him so far, and his opposition—as well as his friends—need to respond strategically also.

When have you had to deal with trolling executives?

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