Trump has done more than become the most prolific social media communicator in political history. He has discovered the Holy Grail of presidential-media relations: the ability to ignore the whole damn Fourth Estate. This is a new paradigm for political power, one that at a minimum pushes the media another circulation drop closer to irrelevancy. Oh well, they’ll always have the weather and sports to report. Craigslist already took the classifieds away.
The latest online thrust by Trump has been a series of tweets directed personally against a reporter who said the president-elect claimed without evidence his popular vote total suffered because of extensive voter fraud. Jeff Zeleny, CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, said Trump was a “sore winner,” adding the president-elect had “zero evidence” to back his claim he won the popular vote. Commentators agreed with Zeleny, saying Trump’s ego couldn’t accept the insult of losing the popular vote.
Trump responded with a series of tweets and retweets condemning Zeleny. All of the tweets saw “likes” in the tens of thousands, and endless websites excerpted and embedded them out to an even larger audience. Just another episode in the Trump reality show, right?
As the media missed the overall populist appeal of Trump right up until election night, so are they missing the populist power he is wielding and likely will continue wield via social media for the next four years.
While Obama claimed the title of first “Internet president” by virtue of his online fundraising, brilliant datamining, and seeding of the 24-hour news cycle, the bulk of his efforts were essentially repurposing technology to do the traditional things politicians have always done, albeit faster and better. Evolution, not revolution.
Trump has discovered something much, much bigger: he does not need to depend on the media to communicate to the electorate. As the once-upstarts such as HuffPo, Buzzfeed, and the Daily Beast pushed the TV networks into the background, so now is social media Trump-style stepping forward.
Sure, OK, the Internet is a powerful tool for global communication, social media blah blah blah, Kanye something something Instagram, this stuff’s taught now in Communications 101: The Modern Age at community college.
But social media for Trump is not simply a display board to pin policy statements to as Obama has used it. Social media is a tool that first allows Trump to bypass everything and speak to individual citizens/voters, and then force the traditional media to amplify what he says as part of its own thirst for “content.” There really isn’t any news anymore when Trump has it on Twitter as his own scoop. Ignore the tweets so as to starve the beast? The worry is more that the audience will ignore you because they can read the tweets themselves.
Every president who’s left a record has expressed some level of disdain for the media of his day, and a desire to circumvent it. But no president could afford to ignore them, or to truly anger them. Influence them, of course: presidents would leak juicy stuff to one reporter, cut off another, but at the end of the day media and the president needed each other to do their respective jobs. A president would once upon a time have had to be careful chiding a columnist for the New York Times to her face for fear of being slaughtered on the editorial page. President Lyndon Johnson, after hearing CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite had spoken out against the War in Vietnam, famously said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”
Access now only has to be courted one way. Trump can afford to insult reporters because he no longer has any real need for them, except perhaps as foils for his anti-establishment rhetoric. He treats them with contempt because in his mind, all they really do is retweet him. Who cares what CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, thinks of you? How many followers on Twitter does he have anyway? Zeleny = 135k. Trump = 16.3 million.
Trump has also mastered, via social media, the art of Internet logic. His tweets often read like the “Comments” section on some political blog. Make a bold statement unsupported by facts. When challenged, demand the challenger provide proof you’re wrong (often meaning to prove the negative) and then mock them if they don’t respond. Dispute sources, not facts — X can’t be true because it was reported by a media outlet that favored Clinton. Attack ad hominem, and goad others into doing the same. The enemy isn’t just CNN, it is Jeff Zeleny himself. Then stand back and disavow what happens, up to and including death threats. And, for the triple score, issue an appeal for calm with a conspiratorial wink.
Social media Trump-style also offers the unprecedented ability to control the agenda. Should a troublesome story appear, a handful of bombastic tweets changes the conversation. If no one seems to be listening after some rude remarks about the musical Hamilton run their course, just yell louder — flag burners should lose their citizenship! All in real, real time; Trump is no stranger to sending out 140 characters of white noise at 3 am.
With its reliance on “friends” and “followers,” social media also creates a personal bond between Trump and individual Americans not really experienced since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Depression-era fireside chats. As those radio broadcasts brought Roosevelt into the living room, Trump’s tweets put his policies, opinions and rants into the same feeds as Aunt Sally talking about Christmas plans. It creates intimacy, and by association (who doesn’t like Aunt Sally), may increase trust.
And make no mistake about it; unlike most politicians’ social media, which sounds like robotic ad-speak, Trump’s tweets come from Trump. It’s him talking to you. Look at many of the responses to Trump on social media; people are writing back to him in the first person, using the informal language of the web. This is a personal connection. He is part of your world and part of your day. And unlike TV, you can speak back to him, and maybe get an answer of sorts; Trump has been known to retweet messages from his followers.
While many will advise him to tone it down, or perhaps switch his Twitter to a more “presidential model,” it seems unlikely Trump would set the whole thing aside when the clock strikes midnight on inauguration day. These are very powerful tools. They played a significant role in electing Trump. They will allow him for four years to pick and choose how and when, or if, he wants to engage with the traditional media. With that on one side of the scale, and with Trump being both the president, and, well, being Trump, who is going to make the argument that pulling back is in Trump’s interest?
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