When Americans elected Donald Trump in November, they created a dramatic shortage in a valuable global commodity: attention.
The sheer attention Trump absorbs — on Twitter, on television, in culture, and in the anxious dreams of American citizens and the country’s allies and enemies — draws away the lifeblood of everything from the launch of new apps to new social movements. Attention is the currency not just of American attention-seekers from Kim Kardashian to Amazon, but also of the other great geniuses of attention-seeking over the last decade: terror groups like ISIS, and opponents of the postwar social order like Julian Assange.
Trump hoards attention. He dominates it. Quantitatively, he is discussed on Twitter 10 times as much as the entire Kardashian family combined. Even the people just in Trump's proximity or carrying out his message dominate our attention — neatly evidenced by the stratospheric attention paid to Sean Spicer's resignation and television-friendly Anthony Scaramucci's entrance as White House communications director. Over in old media, Trump has been on the cover of the New York Daily News every third day since his election. And it’s not just in the United States: He’s already been on the cover of German weekly Der Spiegel five times this year.
"It's just harder for most products and people to get a word in edgewise," said Stu Loeser, Mayor Mike Bloomberg's former press secretary, who now advises a range of businesses on media strategy. Loeser said the media context reminded him a bit of the months after the September 11th terror attacks. "Stories that might be fun in a different environment may come off as frivolous today."
BuzzFeed News reporters and editors on six continents have examined how attention-hungry subjects are responding to this new shortage of their favorite commodity. We found that Trump’s dominance is not fully global. While he has captivated North America and Europe to varying degrees, a few places have entirely resisted the narrative: such as Brazil, captivated by its own crisis, and India, focused on its own battles.
But in the US — and the many parts of the world whose politics have long existed at least in part in relation to Washington — savvy attention merchants are responding dynamically to a disrupted market.
Some are shouting louder. American politicians curse more now. Global aid groups say they are relying on increasingly unorthodox stunts such as the “Famine Food Truck” the aid group Oxfam has been driving around Washington, DC, in an attempt to call attention to what it describes as the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of World War II: a food crisis spanning South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen causing extreme hunger for 30 million people.
“A crisis of this magnitude would usually warrant significant media attention, and we’ve tried a number of tactics with only sporadic results,” said Laura Rusu, media manager at Oxfam America.
Others are streaming in Trump’s wake — most literally, the media figures and companies who are gaining a following by racing to reply to Trump’s tweets.
This is, perhaps, most visible in continental European politics, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s blunt hostility to the US president has solidified her support, and where newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron held an impromptu press conference immediately after Trump announced that he was pulling out of the Paris climate agreement. Macron spoke in French and English (a big deal in France), and days later launched a website called “Make Our Planet Great Again,” inviting US-based engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs working on climate change to move to France.
Macron has continued trolling Trump, describing their intense handshake as a “moment of truth.”
Closer to the center of the storm, Washington lobbying firms have shifted from drawing up crisis plans for responding to Trump tweets to trying to figure out how to fit their clients into his “America First” paradigm, lobbyists told BuzzFeed News.
“We understand the importance of centering the message around America and the American worker and economy and putting America first, and we're advising clients to consider that,” said John Murray, partner at Monument Policy Group, who previously worked for former House majority leader Eric Cantor.
Indeed, everyone is looking for a Trump connection, however thin.
Brooke Hammerling, a longtime Silicon Valley PR person, said that if she’s pitching a sleep product, she might look “to people feeling stressed about [the] political climate. If a fitness product, the writer might look at it as being fit is a good escape from the stress of the day and news.”
“It does have the feeling right now that things there is heavier stuff people are focused on than product launches — so it's harder to break through,” she said.
Some approaches are blunter. Airbnb Director of Public Affairs Nick Papas recently framed a pitch on the company collecting state taxes in Wisconsin and Michigan as “News Unrelated to Senate Testimony.”
“Trump dominates the conversation, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy since everyone believes that the only way to get attention is to talk about Trump, so they talk about Trump,” President Obama’s former communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, said ruefully. “Rinse, repeat.”
But none of these strategies can completely work. The reality is that everything that is not Donald Trump is simply getting less attention. The defining American social movement of the last few years, Black Lives Matter, has struggled to find its feet in a Trump world in which a continued drumbeat of well-documented police shootings no longer dominates social media. The startling dashcam footage of a police officer opening fire on Philando Castile, for instance, would likely have dominated headlines last year; this June, Trump tweets about a Georgia election and North Korea dominated headlines.
In Silicon Valley, whose product launch cycle has for two decades been grist for the global attention machine, Eric Feng, a former CTO at Hulu, launched Packagd, his new video platform, on the day of former FBI director James Comey’s testimony to Congress.
“The reality is that we just don’t really matter,” he said, taking small solace in the fact that the Comey testimony ended a few hours before his company’s launch. “What we can hope for is the soft spots in the news cycle and if something happens you just tighten the seatbelt and hope it works out.”
And god forbid you’re trying to sell a book these days.
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, whose memoir Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember was published in February, recalled interview requests from mainstream news outlets that never turned into stories.
“They were doing Trump coverage,” she said, adding that “the publishing industry is very forgiving of book sales right now.”
“With this administration and the news swings on a daily and hourly basis, it’s been a little more problematic for nonfiction books in particular,” said Marie Coolman, senior director of publicity and communications at book publisher Bloomsbury, who added that she thinks some fiction titles are winning out as “a respite from the news.”
Of course, not everyone on the global stage is looking for attention. For some domestic and global players, this distraction is a nice environment in which to get things done.
“The news cycle is so fast and so overloaded that the silver lining is that some of the negative narratives tend to dissipate much more quickly than before,” said Matthew Hiltzik, a veteran New York corporate and crisis communications consultant. “There are certain clients who prefer not being covered and so that helps!”
Indeed, for those who don’t want attention, this is something of a golden age.
The media and political glare on Trump has given rogue actors abroad an opportunity to pursue their aims without attracting too much attention. During the years when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president Iran was an international pariah, with the UN and EU as well as the US rushing to heap on sanctions. With soft-spoken cleric Hassan Rouhani now Iran's president, Tehran often goes to lengths to sound like the adult in the room. Meanwhile, Iran continues to fire off ballistic missiles, train and arm gunmen across the region, and confront US allies.
When Obama was president, Iranian censors struggled to suppress all of his peaceful overtures and public addresses to Iran. Now, whenever Trump or even Sean Spicer is about to give a press conference, Iran state television goes live to Washington.
"Iran can say, 'America really has a bad guy in charge. Look, he's under investigation,'" a former US intelligence operations officer who was based for years in the Middle East and remains active in the region, said. "In the States, we just arrested some Hezbollah operatives affiliated with Imad Mugniyah's old component. Nobody paid attention.”
"Trump is the best distraction," he said. ●
Ryan Mac is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on the intersection of money, technology and power.
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