In the NBA and NFL, great coaches can cause their opponents to lose after they play them. A well coached team may win or lose that particular game depending on how much talent they have, but their opponents then tend to lose their next game. That's because great coaches expose a weakness nobody has seen before -- one that subsequent opponents see and exploit. Donald Trump is the mainstream media equivalent of a great coach. He is a genius of manipulating national attention, regardless of how clearly we see through what he's doing and hate him for it.
That's still a terrible toupee, but it's the terrible toupee of a puppet master.
While Trump has had more obviously successful years before, this year he exploited the weakness in the mainstream media that would define the Republican primary. He may have dropped out before anyone was paying attention to the race, but he spent the first four months of this year creating the blueprint for the GOP candidates who have dominated the news in the second half of the year.
He invented what I'm calling the Trump Law of Media Manipulation, which states that if you make ridiculous enough claims with a straight face, the media will be forced to cover what you're doing as though it's legitimate. Therefore, if you don't really think you can win, it's better to make a splash while being entertaining and shameless than it is to be a coherent, serious politician.
This works because the modern media is built on a logical fallacy: that "fairness" involves covering both sides of a story even if one of those sides is profoundly stupid. It also doesn't hurt that the modern media is driven by ratings and clicks, so they will give the advantage to whichever side makes the more sellable story.
The plainspoken pizza mogul with no prior political can take the lead in the polls because he will make outrageous claims, outline Sim City-inspired tax plans and generally be entertaining.
"I am exactly as good at politics as I am at making edible pizza."
When that guy gets accused of sexual harassment, suddenly the old fat guy who helped create the Clinton sex scandal (a brief period in the '90s when it was Christmas for an entire year at major news outlets) becomes a front-runner.
Trump has always been willing to do whatever it takes to create a story, and that seems to be what defines whoever is "leading in the polls." He knew exactly what he was doing when he made the preposterous accusations about Obama's birth certificate that were later disproved. The version of that story that is currently being repeated by the popular media is that Trump lost when Obama showed his birth certificate and promptly killed bin Laden. The fact that Obama felt the need to disprove Trump's absurd accusations is what we should take from that story. It's certainly the lesson that the most successful Republican nominees up to this point seem to have learned.
Gadhafi, in happier times, being shithouse crazy.
The overthrow of the Gadhafi regime provided what conspiracy theorists and therefore the media (see Trump Law of looky-here media manipulation) were so desperately seeking in the wake of bin Laden's death: visual evidence that someone had been brutally murdered.
The handheld camera phone footage -- a blood-drenched Gadhafi pleading for his life followed by a smash cut to his dead body being rolled over in the dirt -- arrived concurrently with the news that he was dead. Reports seem to indicate that Gadhafi is dead, and so does this video showing his dead body being paraded through the street by terrifying bearded men.
"I gun down dictators like I eat Cheetos, and I eat all the Cheetos."
As an empathizing Westerner whose family members were never raped or murdered by the General, I instinctively empathized with the underdog in this fight. I didn't want him to get away, but watching the video footage made my mind race for a better way to handle the proceedings. I mostly knew him from his hilariously rambling speech at the UN a few years ago and the caricature played by Fred Armisen on Saturday Night Live. But that's more than I could say for the guys surrounding him and firing machine guns into the sky.
The video didn't seem to set the Web aflame the way a photograph of bin Laden's dead body was supposed to. The production quality on the video could have been better, and the soundtrack of people shouting in Arabic left something to be desired, but I suspect the reason that the footage was so quickly digested and discarded by the public was that it was genuinely unpleasant to look at. Regardless of what our brain shouts at us, we don't necessarily want to see how our laundry gets washed in the dirty streets of the Middle East.
At the end of the day, what we really want are pictures of photogenic Arab men waving golden handguns.
We wanted Return of the Jedi, the heroic underdogs upheaving the coolly evil bad guy. We didn't want to see Darth Vader beg for his life, just like we didn't want to know that Episode VII of Star Wars would be a terrifying power vacuum in which the leaders of the rebellion were arrested and tortured by the military leaders who survived.
If Luke had sported a mustache like that, the Empire wouldn't have lasted more than an hour.
Answering the question "What next?" is a messy but important one in such a tumultuous year in international politics. Unfortunately, the question of "What just happened?" was the only one we seemed interested enough to pay attention to.
We lived this year in the wake of other years. Big stories with decade-long arcs came to a close. Things we'd been wondering about for decades finally shook out in the wash. The chickens came home to roost because the economy was tanking and they couldn't find a job to support themselves.
Steve Jobs, the guy who spent the last decade creating the next big thing, died of a terminal illness he'd been battling for years, but his death felt sudden. The technology blogs and consumers who had come to expect him to change their lives every couple years were forced to pull focus on how recently we were walking around with Discmans.
No man in history has had more of an impact on the way we masturbate.
The generation that grew up never knowing a world without iPods had a big year, as they were forced to face the end of Harry Potter and the third-act climax of the 9/11 story that had defined their generation more than most of us had realized. The wake they threw for bin Laden on the night he was assassinated was one of the more surprising events of the year. It was the first time those of us who were adults in 2001 realized how weird it would have been to have September 11 be a seminal experience.
With most people learning of his death on Twitter, every one of us was asked to participate in the story -- write our own eulogies. Some of us even succeeded.
Others not so much.
The speed with which we began creating conspiracy theories in the wake of the bin Laden announcement was remarkable. This was the year that the wake of old news stories was still echoing through our culture, while the wake created by new stories was disintegrating faster than ever.