Wait... what were we talking about?
The first time I noticed a dead cat was after the CNN-sponsored Republican debate on February 25, 2016. Pundits agreed that Donald Trump performed pretty poorly that night, looking uncomfortable on stage as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz kept him on the defensive. But the Republican frontrunner had an ace up his sleeve: the very next day he announced that he’d nabbed the surprise endorsement of New Jersey governor Chris Christie. It was a shrewd distraction tactic, instantly and successfully shifting the news cycle away from what would have otherwise been, for him, a rather disastrous one.
I’ve watched Trump use this technique numerous times since then, from accusing the media of rigging the election in the wake of multiple sexual assault allegations against him, to calling out the cast of “Hamilton” as he settled three lawsuits against Trump University, and more recently his nearly incessant obsession with the Green Party-led recount. And guess what? The New York Times just published an exhaustive report on Trump’s business ties to foreign corporations, raising obvious concerns about conflicts of interest in his future administration.
The Times of London’s Kate Maltby explains:
“There is a story, popular among British politicians and attributed to the Australian strategist Lynton Crosby, known as ‘The Dead Cat.’ A CEO is confronted with poor statistics at a board meeting, and to divert attention from this unpleasant news, he suddenly pulls out a dead cat and throws it onto the middle of the table. In the words of Boris Johnson, now the UK foreign secretary: ‘There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the table ― and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point is that everyone will shout, “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!” In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat ― the thing you want them to talk about ― and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.’”
Trump apparently has an endless supply of dead cats, seemingly able to conjure them from insignificant news stories and throw them on the boardroom table by way of an angry tweetstorm. The media loves this because they know that people eat it up, whether they’re Trump supporters who share his “rage” or critics who are repeatedly appalled by his antics.
Important news stories ― like Trump’s aforementioned foreign business interests, or the fact that his daughter Ivanka, who will be running his company while he is president, is serving on his transition team and has been sitting in on meetings with foreign leaders ― can’t compare to sensationalist-yet-empty headlines like “TRUMP CLAIMS MILLIONS VOTED ILLEGALLY,” which ran at Politico on Monday. (Politico’s headline was later changed to “Trump’s Baseless Assertions of Voter Fraud Called ‘Stunning’.”)
The fact that Trump lies regularly is nothing new, but let’s face it: real news is boring when compared to the audaciousness of the president-elect’s lies, and easy to bury by throwing some ridiculous red meat out on Twitter to be devoured by liberals and conservatives and neo-fascists alike.
We can’t rely on the media to stop sensationalizing Donald Trump’s baseless, yet ratings-boosting, rhetoric. We, as informed citizens, need to recognize Trump’s distraction tactic for what it is, and focus on the important news that actually affects how our country will be governed for the next four years. We need to stop talking about the dead cats in the middle of the table, and concentrate on the man who’s tossing them there instead.