Of all the strange contortions involved in trying to rationalise Donald Trump’s most recent racist tirade, one of the strangest is the idea that Trump is actually making an extremely smart PR move. Why have we all become so obsessed with these Dead Cat tactics? And why do we see them everywhere we look?
In dying midway through an eight year prison sentence for sexually assaulting young women and girls, Max Clifford’s lasting legacy is all but cemented as a serial sex offender.
It’s an unfortunate end for someone who looked set to be better remembered as a public relations maestro who once made himself immensely rich and powerful by aggressively and amorally protecting the reputations of some of the world’s more repulsive Z-listers.
Instead, he’ll now be known to future generations as a disgraced paedophile. Such is life. But there’s a lesson that we would do well to learn from the life of Max Clifford, before Operation Yewtree went and clapped him irons. A teaching that might help us make a little more sense of our current era of confusion.
The story of Max Clifford’s safe.
If you don’t already know it, the legend was that Max Clifford owned a safe in which he kept all of his ‘insurance policies’. These weren’t formal policies with any reputable broker. They were photos. Videos. Covert recordings. Evidence of his clients in compromising positions. Explosive secrets he knew that, if released, could cause an unprecedented amount of reputational damage to certain individuals.
No-one knew for sure exactly what was in this fabled safe – only that, whatever it was, it had to be dynamite.
The point of such a safe, you’d think, would be to act as a nuclear option. Something you could smash the glass on if your back was ever up against the wall. Emergency material with which to negotiate your way out of a catastrophe – or, at the very least, explode everything to fuck in a final act of malice. Your ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card.
Yet when the moment came for Max Clifford, and he found himself up in the dock answering to multiple charges of indecent assault against girls as young as 14 (all while testimony was flying back and forth about whether or not he had a medically recognised micropenis) what was the best thing he could offer up to spare himself from seeing out his days in nonce jail?
A character witness statement from Pauline Quirke…
So where was the safe in all of this? Why, in his hour of need, did it not provide for him?
The most likely explanation is that the safe didn’t exist. Or, if it did, it didn’t hold any decent blackmail material (just undeclared cash payments made to him by unregistered clients).
Yet even if that safe sat completely empty, the myth of it alone was invaluable to him. The idea – the very plausible idea – that Max Clifford was sat atop a huge stockpile of receipts and could destroy careers with the flick of a wrist? That was what gave him his edge. Of course he was going to let a legend like that spread. Why wouldn’t he?
Clifford wasn’t the only one to have a safe like this. There was another equally fabled one at the News Of The World. Like Clifford, NOTW traded on its reputation that it could sink any uncooperative celebrity it set its sights on. It revelled in rumours that it was sat on just as many stories as it published, and did nothing to dissuade people that it was squirrelling the real dirt away in their safe for a rainy day.
Yet what good did any of it do when NOTW became the primary focus of the phone-hacking scandal? Just look at the hundreds of millions that their parent company is still chucking at minor showbiz names just to get them off their back. Whatever their safe held (if it even existed at all) wasn’t enough to stop these claims – or to avoid the shutters being brought down on the whole paper.
And no-one’s heard a word about that safe ever since.
It’s a strange time to look back on. In the early 2000s, when Popbitch first started, Clifford and the News Of The World seemed practically invincible. Both were apparently able to make things extremely unpleasant for their enemies; both were apparently armed to the teeth – yet both ended up falling without much of a struggle when push came to shove. The secrets that were supposed to be their safety net failed to materialise at the critical hour.
Where are they now? Dead and disgraced.
If we sound like we’re being wistful for the days of these mythical safes, that’s not our reason for bringing them up. It’s more that we’ve noticed that (aside from the one that Putin allegedly keeps the piss-tape in) you don’t really hear much about them nowadays.
They appear to have been replaced in the public’s imagination with a different story; another bit of wildly overblown bullshit we’ve been hearing an awful lot about these last few weeks.
The Dead Cat Tactic is a political manoeuvre, credited to the Australian political operative Sir Lynton Crosby. Crosby – who has had a long career of advising suspect political campaigns in Australia, America and the UK – is best known on these shores as the man behind Boris Johnson’s two successful mayoral campaigns and the 2015 General Election that lifted David Cameron out of the Lib Den coalition and into a Tory majority.
Though you probably already know what the Dead Cat Tactic is, the basic gist of it is this:
If, at a dinner party, you become unhappy with a turn that the conversation has taken, a quick and effective way of quickly changing the topic is by tossing the body of a dead cat into the middle of the table. In doing so, you are guaranteed that, no matter what people were talking about before that moment – no matter how engaged or enraged they were – all anyone will want to discuss afterwards is the Dead Cat centrepiece.
In political terms, a Dead Cat is simply a spectacular distraction, designed to allow you to wrest control of the day’s news cycle – no matter how disgusting, outrageous or unhygienic it is.
The tactic itself is not new, but the nomenclature is relatively recent. The first major mention of it in print – assigning the phrase to Lynton Crosby – dates back to 2013, when a grossly overpaid Telegraph columnist chose to let the Dead Cat out the bag by writing about it in his weekly column.
Much like Max Clifford’s Secret Safe, you’d think that a tactic like this would only be effective if the general public didn’t know about it – and that the quickest way to stop it from ever working again would be to let people in on the secret.
Yet in practice, the exact opposite appears to be true.
Tipping people off to the existence of the Dead Cat Tactic has its own curious benefit. Because armed with this touch of insider knowledge – one that seems, on the face of it, to explain so much about our modern world – suddenly all a person can see is Dead Cats. Dead Cats everywhere. Even when there aren’t any.
Boris Johnson himself provided a perfect example of this a few weeks ago.
Earlier this month Boris gave a very weird interview to TalkRadio in which he spoke about a rather unusual hobby. (The same interview we had cause to mention while we were dissecting the rumours that Boris had been shagging Instagram influencer Bip Ling a few weeks back.)
In it, Boris revealed that he liked to unwind by painting wooden wine crates to make them look like London buses. This answer set the British public reeling.
At first, the nation was gripped with incredulous laughter; no-one quite able to credit that even Boris Johnson would be so absolutely fucking cuckoo.
Then came a wave of people who felt convinced that he must have been lying about it, but couldn’t quite decide why he’d consciously make up such a bizarre story about himself.
That same train of thought soon developed into a something of a conspiracy theory. One that suggested we had all just been fleeced by a master tactician.
IT WAS A DEAD CAT!
The whole reason that Boris had started talking about buses, these theorists claim, was in order to clean up unflattering search engine results about him – and we’d played right into his hands.
Not only was everyone now talking about it (DEAD CAT!) it meant that anyone who ran a Google search for “Boris Johnson Bus” would no longer be treated to stories about that big Brexit bus with the discredited ‘£350m For The NHS’ slogan written on the side of it. Now, after that seemingly unhinged answer, all anyone was going to see would be stories about his goofball bus painting habit.
DEAD CAT! DEAD CAT! DEAD CAT!
It makes for a pretty neat theory, but it really doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny.
Firstly, that £350m Brexit Bus story was old. Years old. Photos of Boris standing next to that slogan had long since flooded the internet and, by mentioning buses, he only risked dragging all those old stories up to the surface again, long after they’d been laid to rest.
Second, if he was actively trying to scrub over any unfavourable “Boris Johnson Bus” results on Google, all he ended up doing was adding some fresh new ones to the pile. Now there are stories online which make him look either:
– Inept (for his widely criticised reintroduction of boiling hot Routemaster buses as London mayor in 2012)
– Dishonest (The £350m Brexit bus slogan in 2016, over which he was threatened with a private prosecution in 2019)
– Posh, drunk and insane (painting wine crates)
Most importantly though, Boris Johnson had already confessed to this hobby before, under zero pressure, in an interview in 2011.
A full two years before he started holding forth about Dead Cats in the pages of the Telegraph, he had mentioned his love of painting old brie and camembert boxes in the Metro, in exactly the same way he said he likes to paint wine boxes.
So unless this Dead Cat slam was almost a decade in the making, a more likely explanation is that Boris Johnson actually does genuinely choose to paint wine boxes as his way of unwinding – and he is every bit as soft in the head as that makes him sound.
And this is the trouble with the Dead Cat Tactic being public knowledge.
Rather than giving us a key to understanding and identifying political manipulation, what the Dead Cat Theory has done is scramble our minds. We drive ourselves wild with theories that we must be getting outsmarted at every turn, because it just doesn’t seem feasible to us that our elected officials could be so startlingly stupid. We convince ourselves there has to be some greater game plan afoot. We insist there must be hidden levels that we’re just not seeing.
Like with Max Clifford’s safe, offering this tiny glimpse behind the magician’s curtain has given us a half-idea that makes us believe there must be more. An all-powerful Machiavelli in control, guiding these things around.
Once people start to view things through the prism of a Dead Cat, they begin seriously assigning genius to genuine gaffes.
And nowhere is that more evident that with Donald Trump.
Method v Madness
Imagine for a second that an old acquaintance of yours – already a convicted and registered sex offender – gets himself arrested on two new charges of sex trafficking minors.
To make matters worse, this same acquaintance is a guy you have previously gone on record as saying is “terrific”,”a lot of fun” and “likes beautiful women as much as I do, many of them on the younger side”.
This guy has an illustrious track record of mixing with high-profile perverts and predators. He’s someone you’ve been filmed cavorting with a gaggle of much younger models in your private club. Someone who was named alongside you as a co-defendant on a lawsuit which accuses the pair of you of both sexually assaulting a 13 year old girl.
You probably don’t need the blanks filling in here, but this little thought experiment was designed to put you – dear reader – into the size nines of Donald J Trump: a man who is currently feeling the heat as his former friend (the famed paedophile, Jeffrey Epstein) faces down some serious jail time after being arrested on child sex trafficking charges.
Already the situation has generated some devastating headlines and there’s been a lot of analyst chatter about how badly this is all going to reflect on Trump, going in to the 2020 election.
Elsewhere, a lot of this week’s news has been dominated by the days-long racist tear that Trump recently initiated against four minority Congresswomen (Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley). In a series of tweets, Trump told them, in no uncertain terms, to go back to their own countries – despite the fact that all four of them are American citizens, and three of them were born in the United States.
This is a huge and noteworthy story too, and marks a definite ramping up of Trump’s racial rhetoric ahead of his re-election campaign. But there seems to be a certain strain of media story using its time and attention to ponder on whether these two stories are somehow connected. If this isn’t all actually just another masterstroke from the media-manipulator-in-chief to wrest control of the day’s news cycle.
It’s true that headlines like this are exactly the type that Dead Cats are usually dropped to deflect from – so it would make sense for him to try it.
By their very nature, Dead Cats are also supposed to be shocking and unpalatable. A week-long racist tear against four high-profile women definitely fits that bill – so is that what’s happening here? Is Trump deliberately dropping a racist Dead Cat to distract from the Epstein story?
We asked some PR professionals of our acquaintance if they could ever envision a situation in which they’d recommend their client behave in a more actively racist fashion.
The general consensus was, no, they couldn’t – and that answers only became more emphatic when we asked if they thought it might be a good way of stopping their clients from looking like a potentially guilty paedophile.
Tempting though it is to assign some PR savvy to this move (especially now that new polling suggests certain Republicans are viewing Trump in a more favourable light after his tweet-storm; and the crowd at his rally in Greenville, North Carolina last night felt inspired to chant “Send Her Back! Send Her Back!” when Trump started laying into Ilhan Omar) that’s not what’s happening here.
Like Boris Johnson with his brie-box painting in 2011, if this truly was a Dead Cat tactic, then a hell of a lot of groundwork has gone into setting it up. We could double the length of this article by listing all the times that Trump has banged exactly these same drums over the last decade, whether it was insisting on seeing Barack Obama’s birth certificate, calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers, standing up for the avowed white nationalists in Charlottesville, calling African nations “shithole countries”…
You get the picture.
If we attributed every single one of Trump’s grouchy racist outbursts to Dead Cat Strategy, he’d be going toe-to-toe with the Croydon Cat Killer in terms of a body count by now. Clearly that isn’t what this is.
So why does the idea of this being a huge PR pose seem so appealing to the commentariat?
Because now that everyone is clued in to the Dead Cat tactic, Dead Cats are something that pundits, columnists and readers all feel they have to consider each and every time a story like this crops up. And rather than the Dead Cat providing the distraction, it is now a meta-discussion about Dead Cats and their place in politics that ends up distracting them instead.
It’s understandable to want to seek out method in the madness. We are programmed to look for patterns, even where there are none – and no-one likes to feel as if they’re being duped (especially by someone as outwardly wacky as Boris Johnson or Donald Trump) – but it’s exactly this habit that the Dead Cat feeds on.
For like the safe of Max Clifford, the myth is more powerful than the truth.