Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from Thursday's Fox News Channel debate was treated like a bombshell, a surprise move from a candidate who has patented the mid-week swerve. But it was entirely predictable.
Trump draws attention for two reasons. The content of his pronouncements are often out of bounds, violations of the staid conventions of American political discourse. But the way he makes them — the medium — is just as important. "He is a constant disrupter of narrative," said Nicco Mele, a Los Angeles-based content strategist and entrepreneur.
Today, Mele notes, campaigns derive momentum from the passions around a moment in time as much as they do from narratives. This fits nicely with the way we consume media today. It rejects the longer, slower thinking associated with a traditional narrative, a narrative of the way a race is supposed to go, or the story a person is supposed to represent. Trump is a man of moments and instant gratification. If the pronouncements don't connect together to form a coherent whole, so what? Voters, at least for now, seem to eat it up.
"By announcing that he will not debate, Trump likely will dominate news coverage and deny Ted Cruz and other opponents a face-to-face confrontation before Iowa Republicans go to caucus," noted The Washington Post.
Whether Trump's gamble is disastrous or brilliant, NBC News noted, "it essentially freezes a race that he's leading." Exactly. Trump's bombshells reflect a mastery of the way we process politics, which Douglas Rushkoff, a keen observer of technology, calls "present shock."
"Our ability to create a plan — much less follow through on it — is undermined by our need to be able to improvise our way through any number of external impacts that stand to derail at any moment," he writes.
Our present, mediated by the Internet, is a haze of conflicting claims, narratives, and demands on our time and attention. Trump has figured out — or just intuitively gets — that to control this race, he has to keep our attention constantly. He cuts through the haze.
Connect that to his basic message — I will bring us out of this weird, aggrieved present — and Trump has all the narrative he needs.
Trump's opponents hope that voters will move away from the present when they move into the privacy of the ballot booth. Their perspective turns prospective. They'll be thinking, again, in narratives. That might give the candidates with an established story an advantage. But we shall see.