Almost since the moment President Donald Trump set foot in office, critics have labeled him a “master of distraction,” whose impulsive and often inflammatory tweets are nothing more than an attempt to change the narrative from his own political missteps and scandals.
Now, political and media experts say the president’s latest Twitter bombshell — that the government will no longer allow transgender people to serve in the U.S. military — is more about politics than policy, and quite possibly an effort to distract from other issues like the Russia investigation, the Republican health care “fiasco” and Trump’s controversial attacks on his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
Steven Livingston, a professor at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, tells PEOPLE: “I think it is a distraction. Whether it’s purposeful or not is hard to judge with Donald Trump because he’s quite obviously a rather impulsive person who changes his positions from one day to the next and usually via Twitter … But its effect will certainly be felt in terms of being a distraction. And I think it’s important for us to see why in the context of his recent poll numbers.”
Gallup Daily’s tracking of Trump’s approval rating shows that 58 percent of Americans disapprove of the job he’s doing as president, up 13 percent from his inauguration.
Livingston also points to a July 13 Gallup survey that shows support for Trump slipping among four key groups in his base: evangelicals, members of the white working class, rural Americans, and the LDS (Mormon) community. While Trump maintains the advantage in those community types identified by George Washington University’s American Communities Project, his margin of support has shrunk in all four since the start of his administration — by 12 points among evangelicals, 20 points in working class areas, and eight points in both rural America and Mormon enclaves.
“So when you look at that, he is metaphorically bleeding in his support in all of these core constituencies of his,” Livingston says. “[This ban] is a perfect sort of issue for him to offer these core supporters a bit of a distraction, something to think about other than his Russia woes. It’s perfectly made for his core constituents and it certainly will grab their attention for a while.”
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Livingston says the announcement could also placate another group whose support for Trump has waned in recent days due to the president’s attacks on Sessions: his news outlets of choice, including Breitbart and Fox News.
“Breitbart and some parts of Fox have actually been critical of Trump over his attacks on his own attorney general. So this [ban] is tailor-made for him to sort of get back into the camp of his amplifier news sources,” Livingston says. “Fox, Breitbart, InfoWars, these kinds of right-wing or conspiracy theory websites will pick up on this and show support for him.”
University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket says Trump’s announcement is a “political tool” intended to rally the support of the base that got him elected in the first place.
“He may be at a point where he’s decided he can’t really become a whole lot more popular. Despite a strong economy, despite other relatively favorable political conditions, a fair number of people simply disapprove of him,” Masket tells PEOPLE. “Facing that situation, a leader has two main choices: One is to do things to try to appeal more broadly, and the other is to just stir up the passions of the people who are already with him and to rely on their enthusiasm and their energy to protect him.”
Masket says Trump’s use of Twitter to announce his decision to ban transgender troops, as well as the fact that it seemed to catch officials at the Pentagon and in the armed services committees on Capitol Hill off-guard suggest that “this is a political motivation, this is a political tool.”
Asked about the Twitter announcement, a Trump administration official suggested the ban might be an attempt to win Rust Belt states in 2018, telling an Axios reporter: “This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to take complete ownership of this issue. How will the blue collar voters in these states respond when senators up for re-election in 2018 like Debbie Stabenow are forced to make their opposition to this a key plank of their campaigns?”
“It’s interesting that when the White House was asked to defend this policy, they simply went to what they perceived as its political impact,” says Masket. “Which was fairly striking, but again telling that this was much more about pursuing a favorable political outcome than actually changing policy.”
Livingston says the ban will effectively divide parts of Trump’s political opponents.
“This is going to force some of Trump’s Democratic Party opponents who are doing their very best to pay attention to the Russia investigation, or the Republican repeal and replace fiasco with the Affordable Care Act, to focus on something else. And it’s going to put them potentially on the defensive. So that’s a way that this could be seen as a strategic move rather than simply Trump spouting off on Twitter.”
Masket acknowledges that Trump’s announcement could be an attempt to shift focus away from health care reform or the Russia investigation and onto “safer political ground” for him. But the political scientist says Trump’s military ban on transgender people “is not a distraction” from but rather “an extension” of what Masket sees as the president’s recently increased targeting of minority groups — including his remarks at a rally in Ohio on Tuesday branding undocumented immigrants as “animals” who “slice and dice” young girls.
“If there is a theme that Trump has been pushing in the last few days, it’s been to try to return to a motif that he was exploring during the campaign, which was to rally his base by demonizing minority groups,” Masket says. “Today it was singling out the transgender community, yesterday it was really rallying up a lot of anger at undocumented immigrants, suggesting that they’re completely predatory and murderous, and really not basing it on any facts in particular, just trying to appeal to the worst fears of the people attending his rallies.”
As far as Wednesday’s Twitter announcement being a distraction tactic, however, Masket has his doubts.
“I tend to be skeptical of the idea that Trump is trying to distract people,” he says, “because he seems honestly quite distracted himself.”