Commentary: Trump and the Communications Revolution | KBIA

Commentary: Trump and the Communications Revolution

Jul 11, 2018

Two of the marvels of the modern age have directly impacted the developing world.  One is the Green Revolution, using artificial fertilizer to dramatically increase crop yields and keep billions of people from starving.  The earth is severely overpopulated, but mass starvation is not currently a problem.

The second marvel is how cellphone technology emerged at a moment that kept the developing world from having to spend billions and billions of dollars to build telephone landlines and other infrastructure.  In Africa, Asia and South America cell towers and phones are making landlines redundant, if not obsolete.

This communication revolution made me wonder if another communication revolution that is the spawn of cell technology is an explanation for the Trump Phenomenon.  Before Barack Obama, presidents communicated with their publics through traditional media: televised speeches, news conferences, press releases – all of it mediated by professional journalists.  Obama was the first president to use social media, and he used it most effectively in his two election campaigns. 

Before Obama, it was Republicans who mastered campaign technology – in 2004 a Democratic candidate for U.S. Representative told me that Republicans were “twenty years ahead.”  But Obama hooked up with Silicon Valley, not only to raise a lot of money but also to recruit lots of techies to provide very sophisticated data analytic tools that leapfrogged over Republican technology and led directly to both his presidential wins.

During his eight years in office social media took off, especially Facebook and later Twitter.  Along came Donald Trump, who not only disdained traditional media but also had the perfect tool to bypass it completely: Twitter, which did to social media what cell technology did to the communications industry—skipped a generation and went right to the people, bypassing the traditional guardians.

Trump’s use of Twitter was criticized as “unpresidential.”  Trump replied by tweeting that it was “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL” (all caps, naturally), and who can dispute him?  It enabled his unfiltered messaging, especially to his base, and the 280-character limit required him to keep it simple.  Nuance and sophistication are not hallmarks of Trump tweets.

His base, hard as tungsten, and not shrinking, eats this up.  And their support goes beyond the “Trump is just saying what I would say” sentiment.  Trump’s tweets appeal to the rawest instincts of much of his base.  He does it seemingly without effort.  And the traditional guardians, especially in the media, are several steps behind.

Abbie Hoffman, the 60s radical, famously said “The first responsibility of a revolutionist is to get away with it.”  Who would have thought that Abbie Hoffman, the anarchist on the hard left, would fifty years later be the unwitting model for another anarchist, this one in the White House?

Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.