The British called it “Window”; the Luftwaffe dubbed its version “Düppel.” For the Americans, “Chaff” was the code name for the top-secret weapon that, in July 1943, allowed the US Army Air Forces to obliterate Hamburg in broad daylight. For the past two weeks, the Trump administration has been using a Chaff approach to media management—and if we don’t learn how to deal with it, we may suffer the same fate as Hamburg.
In the early months of World War II, scientists in Britain, the United States, and Nazi Germany were all working on the same problem: Radar, the technological breakthrough that turned the tide in the Battle of Britain by giving the Royal Air Force early warning of German raids, also made Allied bombers much more vulnerable to antiaircraft fire. Joan Curran, a British physicist, came up with a solution: thousands of narrow strips of aluminum-coated paper dumped from the sky to create a massive cloud of decoy images, blinding German radar and rendering their air defenses useless. Overwhelmed by a blizzard of potential targets, the German gunners didn’t know where to aim.
And now we have Trump, with his barrage of outrageous and offensive comments, his waves of unqualified or conflict-ridden nominees, and his daily assault on the most vulnerable among us. The first temptation is to respond to everything, to protest everything—which, while satisfying in the short run, eventually leads to exhaustion and despair. The second temptation is to panic—to interpret all Chaff as enemy incoming and assume we’re facing an overwhelming attack. If you’ve been reading any of the sometimes frighteningly plausible, and often well-intentioned, articles claiming that we’re on the verge of some kind of coup, then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
But hold on a minute: Trump has the White House. The Republicans control the Senate and the House. In a few months, they’ll have another seat on the Supreme Court. Why bother with a coup when they already have power in their hands? Instead of reverting to fight or flight—Canada? New Zealand? I’ve even heard of people whose grandparents fled the Holocaust applying for German citizenship—we need to start thinking strategically.
How can we effectively respond to Trump’s weapons of mass distraction? First, by distinguishing the signal from the noise. Since the inauguration, my Twitter feed has been a torrent of outrage over Trump’s pronouncements (or, in the case of Holocaust Remembrance Day, nonpronouncements), horror over his firing of an Obama Justice Department appointee (who would have resigned anyway), agonizing about Russian influence, ridicule of the absurd claims that the media suppress reports of terrorist attacks, and triumphalist predictions about when the impeachment proceedings against him will begin.