The Enduring Appeal of Seeing Trump as Chess Master in Chief

Which makes the convergent evolution of a similar mythology among liberals all the more notable. In a marginal but influential liberal vision of the president — prevalent in Twitter-driven coverage and in discursive cable-news segments — his impulsive behavior and impetuousness are recast as steps in some sort of complex playbook. Their version of the theory doesn’t exactly correspond with its counterpart on the right, but the two don’t contradict each other, either. Maybe Trump isn’t a chess master, these liberals might suggest, but he’s at least a studied Machiavellian. In a viral Medium post in January emblematic of this mode of thinking, a Google engineer made the case that Trump’s botched immigration order was a “trial balloon” for a coup: that Trump could make use of the ban’s failure to mark a path to unchecked power.

The most common liberal version of the theory is less byzantine. It takes the form of what the journalism professor and critic Jay Rosen has called “distraction theory.” In this line of reasoning, the Trump administration’s production of chaos is not a result of incompetence or venality but, in fact, a series of targeted acts of diversion. These usually take the form of tweets saying something like: “Don’t be distracted by [breaking news story]! Trump is only trying to distract us from [long-simmering news story]! Stay focused.” Such claims are most often made about Russia: For example, distraction-master Trump diverted unwanted attention from that story in March by claiming that he was wiretapped by President Obama. The approach doubles as press criticism, which gets something right on the way to getting something wrong — identifying journalistic market failures but crediting them to a constantly unfolding and infinitely complex external master plan.

It should be said that chess theory is suspiciously well suited to the mediums on which it is most prevalent. On the right, it thrives in nihilistic,…

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