Trump, the great communicator

Historians tell us that Teddy Roosevelt created the modern presidency by using the office as a “bully pulpit.” Unlike earlier presidents, Roosevelt took his policies to the public rather than working through Congress. With public support, Roosevelt could then pressure Congress to adopt his policies through legislation. The president became the primary policy-maker, or at least a first among equals, rather than an executor of policy determined by Congress.

But Roosevelt communicated to the public through the press, and the press did not always present his arguments in a favorable light. The next step in the evolution of presidential power was the fireside chat of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR, unlike TR, spoke directly to the people over the radio, partly sidestepping the press.

Ronald Reagan (the original “great communicator”) revived this practice, but the world of the 1980s was different. The radio was not a central medium of communication, and radio stations felt constrained to offer Democrats a response. With the advent of the internet, this effort to speak directly to the public—even if repackaged as podcasts, starting with George W. Bush—was hopelessly ineffective. The historian Julian Zelizer, writing in 2011, had this to say:

President Obama has gone to great lengths to find new ways to reach the American people. But he is trying to achieve a 20th-century goal in a century when it is no longer possible. The reality is that presidents, Democrat or Republican, will have to find new ways to exercise what power they have and should no longer expect the opportunity to simply take their case to the public.

Time does not reflect kindly on this assertion. Trump has done just this, in his campaign, and as president-elect, and no doubt he will as president as well. Those of us who do not like Trump or his policies need to concede that he is a brilliant tactician. He has used Twitter to take his case to the public far more effectively than any president since at Reagan if not before.

How was this possible? Twitter, like communication technologies that came before it, features a winner-take-all quality: the people with the most followers gain still more simply by virtue of being the most followed. But unique among communication technologies, it plays to certain Trumpian strengths: pithy, simple statements that are (usually) brutal and (occasionally) humorous. Other politicians used Twitter as an outlet for carefully vetted presses releases rather than exploiting the unique qualities of the medium, which requires spontaneity or at least the appearance of it, and a willingness to sling mud at the slightest provocation (or none at all).

It is hard to say much in 140 characters but Trump realized that he could advance his agenda by linking to longer pieces in media outlets. People who wanted more elaborate statements of policy or reasoning could follow the links. Here is where Trump made another crucial innovation. Rather than link consistently to a respectable or semi-respectable outlet of conservative opinion, he linked to any media outlet—no matter how disreputable—that contained an item that supported his immediate goals. While in this way relying on the press (or “press”) like previous presidents, he also undermined its ability to stand as an intermediary between president and public by inserting its own views when it disagreed with the president. He links to a piece only when it serves his interests, and does not show loyalty to any particular outlet, which means that websites now struggle to publish things that will please him. They are passive wholesale content providers to the Trump media machine rather than retail outlets with any chance of building up a brand that is distinct from the Trump brand. Meanwhile, the respectable press helplessly republishes Trump’s tweets to an even broader audience. It acts for good journalistic reasons—he is president-elect and everything he says is news—and yet in the process further strengthen Trump and weaken their own position as intermediaries between the president and the people. While everyone frets over Trump’s specious threat to strengthen libel laws, it is his perfectly lawful use of Twitter than will damage the press more than anything else.

What are the Democrats to do? I suspect the only thing that they can do is find a “big man” (or woman) of their own, someone who will become the focal point of Democratic policies, and can tweet, on behalf of the Democrats, as effectively as Trump can, insults and all. Parties that are out of power have never been very good at rallying around a single spokesperson. Indeed, the Republicans did not rally around Trump until after he won. So I suspect that this person will not rise up through the Democratic party establishment but, like Trump, from business, entertainment, or the military. An age of personalistic politics is upon us.