How Trump is exploiting our scarcest resource
And making Biden disappear
Donald Trump is a master of exploiting our scarcest resource, with significant consequence for the 2024 election.
What’s that scarcest resource — the one thing you cannot get more of even if you had all the money in the world, which is rapidly becoming your most valuable asset?
Our brains can take in only a limited amount of stimuli at one time. Sure, we can multitask. But there’s a limit.
When I drive on an open highway with little traffic, I can easily talk with a friend at the same time. But when traffic intensifies and I have to make decisions about how to get where I’m going, I need quiet because I have to concentrate.
All conscious sensations (sight, touch, hearing, and taste) are filtered through to our brain’s thalamus, and then to our cerebral cortex, where we make sense of the cacophony. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re continuously filtering — choosing what to pay attention to and selectively processing it.
But demands on this scarce resource are growing. We commonly refer to them as demands on our “time,” but they’re really demands on our attention.
They’re not only from spouses, children, parents, friends, and employers — people who deserve our attention, to whom we want to pay attention — but from increasingly enticing and provocative sensory gushers of social media, podcasts, music, films, videos, emails, texts, and ideas.
Algorithms are learning quickly how to precisely tailor these stimuli for each of us — to arouse our curiosity, hunger, hopes, and fears, and satisfy our deepest cravings to be loved, amused, nourished, and excited. Advances in AI and virtual reality will make them even more personally alluring.
Those seeking our attention — advertisers, marketers, and politicians — are facing increasing competition to grab it. When they succeed, our attention shifts away from everything else.
This is why attention is becoming such a scarce resource. The more it’s attracted to one stimulus, the less of it we have for others.
Donald Trump is as devious and dangerous a politician as America has ever produced, largely because he knows how to grab and keep our attention. He wants to make it difficult for us to focus elsewhere.
It’s not so much what he says but how provocative it is, and how that provocation is amplified in the media. Provocation is the point.
I’m not suggesting that what Trump says is unimportant, but that a key to understanding his demagoguery is to see how he uses agitation to claim attention.
Some of us are outraged by what he says; some of us, amused; some of us, fearful; some of us, thrilled. But all of us are paying attention. (How many times have you asked or been asked: “Did you hear what Trump said today?”)
Schooled in reality television and New York tabloids, Trump is a master at provocation and agitation.
Notwithstanding his attacks on the media, top media executives love it because they’re also competing for attention, and Trump gives them the means.
As the 2016 presidential race heated up, Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS, said the Trump phenomenon “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” adding, “Who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? The money’s rolling in and this is fun. . . . I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
In 2016, Trump received more coverage than any presidential candidate in American history. As president, he continued to dominate the news, for much the same reasons. Now, as a candidate for president once more, he’s doing it again.
Trump will use his upcoming criminal trials — just as he is using their preliminary processes — as further opportunities to claim our attention. He’ll vilify prosecutors, judges, Democrats, and the Justice Department. He’ll find ways to link his alleged persecution to allegedly lax treatment of Mexican Americans, Muslims, and undocumented immigrants. He’ll extol authoritarian rulers who aren’t subject to such treatment. He’ll denounce the press, and, of course, Joe Biden.
The real danger for Biden is not that he will have to defend himself against the charge that he is persecuting Trump.
The danger is that Trump will capture so much of the public’s attention that he will appear to be the more dominant and stronger candidate, and Biden will be left with so little attention that he appears to be the more submissive and weaker of the two. If Trump dominates the battle of attention, Biden will effectively disappear.