If you want to control the narrative, you have to control the visuals. Team Trump knows this and – to a certain extent – they were successful in doing this during Trump’s visit to Dayton and El Paso this week.
Eli Stokols, White House reporter for the LA Times, reported on Wednesday: “Travel pool was told Trump’s hospital visit was closed to pool because this is ‘about victims…not a photo op.’ But it took the WH just a couple hours to release its own video highlights and photos.” The victims do not appear in those pictures and video clips that were posted on both Donald Trump’s personal Twitter account and that of his Social Media Director Dan Scavino. Instead, you see Trump with hospital staff and members of local law enforcement. What is striking about this visual material is that everyone looks very cheerful, especially in the photographs, which all show Trump smiling like a Cheshire cat and giving the thumbs up. If you go back to those pictures in a few weeks, you won’t be able to tell what the solemn occasion was that led to Donald Trump’s trip to Ohio and Texas.
There is now also a photo on Melania Trump’s @FLOTUS account which shows the First Lady with a baby in her arms. Apparently, this is the little boy whose parents died, trying to shield him from the El Paso shooter. The child had actually been discharged from the hospital the day before and was brought back expressly for the presidential visit cum photo op. I very much doubt that the little boy signed a consent form for the release of this picture.
Trump may have been unhappy about the mainstream media’s coverage of his visit which – perhaps also as a result of Team Trump banning all the reporters from the inside of the hospitals – focused very strongly on the vehement anti-Trump protests outside, but his savvy social media team did not come away empty-handed from this trip. The pictures of people protesting Trump’s intrusion on the two grieving communities that have flitted across our TV screens will soon be replaced by the next news cycle, but Dan Scavino’s team has produced a high-quality promotional video – showing a rather presidential Donald Trump – that they can and doubtlessly will use to campaign with – all on the American taxpayers’ dime, regardless of party alignment.
This is not the first time this has happened. The Salute to America event, held on the Fourth of July this year, yielded excellent campaign material for the incumbent at no extra cost to the Trump 2020 campaign. When I scrolled down the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account to take another look at the impressive video compilation that was posted right after the event, it took me a really long time to get to July 4, and I realized – not for the first time – how much of the current president’s time and energy goes into his social media presence. This is Donald Trump’s playground and also his main battlefield, and he is supported by a veritable army of loyal foot soldiers, working hard to try and re-create his 2016 success. I can’t really see the opposition mounting a similar campaign or making a serious effort to scatter the army of clever social media manipulators and I find that rather disquieting.