In 2008, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told the Wall Street Journal, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Emanuel, it turns out, was a soothsayer.
At the time, the idea that people’s pain could be used as a political tool was unseemly. We have since shifted from when crises were managed into a period where crises are manipulated for political advantage.
We effectively have three political power centers in the nation right now – the president, Republicans and the Democrats. Trump’s power base is more personal than political. Therefore, his loyalty to traditional Republican policies, stances or platforms is weak. In effect, he’s become the Party of Trump. The GOP, however, is inexorably tied to Trump and fights daily to be with him before they end up against him while Democrats play an endless game of Clue. This reality has changed the dynamics of American politics so dramatically that the political parties are suffering from whiplash.
Consider the recent devastating hurricane that pummeled the Carolinas. Weather emergencies are generally opportunities for presidents to show their leadership skills and appear strong in front of the electorate. However, rather than focusing on mitigating Florence’s fury, Trump chose to relitigate the federal government’s response to another storm – Hurricane Maria - that nearly destroyed Puerto Rico a year ago.
Trump’s handling of Hurricane Maria has been widely criticized. The island still hasn’t fully recovered and nearly a million boxes of water were recently discovered sitting on a runway for the past year, while thousands have lived without clean water. Despite these findings, the President continued to assert his administration’s efforts in Puerto Rico were “incredibly successful.” Trump disputed the independent reporting saying “3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico” and the death toll had been inflated “by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible.”
And indeed, Democrats have used the death toll discrepancy to pound the president. Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal said the president’s claim of success, was “an insult to the brave men and women who everyday provide medical care and other first responder aid to people in distress situations.” While Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted, it was “a flat-out lie” and Sen. Bob Menendez tweeted, “You’re right, Mr. President. The Hurricane didn’t kill 3,000 people. Your botched response did.” Why is there a battle over who handles crises better?
In a 2009 study, leading communication researchers Arjen Boin, Allan McConnell and Paul ‘t Hart, analyzed how some leaders increase political support in times of crises while others become irreparably damaged. The successful ones, they said, have the ability to “exploit a crisis.” It appears we are now in a time when crisis exploitation is the political strategy du jour.
Wikipedia credits 61 different “controversies” to the Trump administration with a little over 600 days into the administration. The challenge for pols in this environment is to successfully guess what the next crisis will be and determine how to best take advantage of it. The fall election strategy appears to hinge on this phenomenon. The parties are no longer content to fire up their bases with policy initiatives, grand ideas for issue-based change or even a call to party loyalty. Instead, they seek to seize on the latest crisis and work it to their advantage.
To be fair, political parties have long used issues and events to motivate potential voters. What is new is the pace, the ferocity and the president’s proclivity to revel in controversy that has turned the political landscape upside down. Individual candidates and political parties in this Alice in Wonderland climate will have their crisis chops tested, tortured and tested again as they seek to gain political advantage from now until November.
Nowadays, it’s a political crisis to miss an opportunity.
Kathie Fleck is an expert in crisis and political communications as a public relations practitioner and faculty member. She was a deputy press secretary for Ohio Governor George V. Voinovich and served as communication director for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. She curently is assistant professor of public relations at Ohio Northern University.