The New Age of American Politics
The election of Donald Trump represents myriad transformations of our culture. Shifts in how we engage with institutions, brands and public figures stand foremost, shepherding with them tremendous developments in presidential campaign communication.
The most effective way to gain a vote remains the firm handshake and look in the eye. That much has never changed. But for even the earliest presidential campaigns, at the turn of the 19th century, our nation was already too vast for meaningful “retail” campaign craft.
The campaigns of this era epitomized Tip O’Neill’s “all politics is local” aphorism of two hundred years later. Voters rarely saw or heard directly from candidates. Local supporters gave the speeches and distributed pamphlets of quotations. Commerce had a similar local flare. What you didn’t make yourself, you bought from local producers or port-city traders.
By the late 1800s, a second age emerged. Advances in transportation brought politics and commerce to the front porch with the first mail-order catalogs and barnstorming politicians. Other candidates brought the voters to them. William McKinley’s campaign famously delivered 700,000 supporters — the equivalent of one-in-ten of his election-day voters — to hear him speak from his Canton, Ohio, front porch in 1896.
The last whistlestop runs of FDR and Truman faded into misty nostalgia as a third era took hold. The broadcast scale of radio and television eclipsed one-on-one connections. The packaging of candidates became no different from that of primetime stars or boxes of soap.
The 20th century closed with a fully wholesale process: political messages delivered more widely through 30-second ads and soundbites than handshakes or speeches. Unless you lived in the dwindling battleground, candidates became unapproachable celebrities and “brands” more than individuals. Commerce grew equally impersonal, with small shops squeezed out by big box stores, global brands, and online shopping. News consumers similarly began gravitating from local sources to national ones for all but the weather.
Recent years, however, introduced a new technology-fueled compromise: the impression of personal contact without sacrificing scale. Amazon’s algorithms tailor virtual shelves to our tastes. Netflix uncannily predicts the movies we want to watch. Social media feeds deliver a new front page that prioritizes well-liked content over editors’ journalistic judgment. Even the largest corporation can appear to be the bartender who always remembers your drink.
Into this paradigm stepped Donald J. Trump of New York, empowered by the distinctly real-time, public, conversational nature of Twitter. His use of the platform exhibits an agility with core pillars of effective social communication: engagement, immediacy, relevance and diversity.
Candidate Trump’s engagement was often little more than a retweet, a subtle act still poignant enough to convey “I’m listening” to millions of followers. A 2011 study found such engagement has for many groups the same impact as meeting a candidate in person.
His tweets rarely hew to the antiquated “news cycle” of six o’clock deadlines and consumer information diets determined by transmission or delivery radiuses. He delivers an immediacy that connects followers to events as they unfold, bypassing journalists’ contextual perspective — or what his supporters would claim to be filtering bias.
Those who dismiss as “unpresidential” Mr. Trump’s tweets about live television miss the popular impact of engaging when most relevant. CNN or Fox News pique curiosity in magnitudes of more Americans than the best GAO report. Diversity in non-political topics creates bonds with those who distrust one-dimensionality. His oft inability to stay on message confounds traditionalists but contributes to an “own man” mystique among supporters.
Just as architectural pillars support a more pronounced form, these demonstrated pillars of social messaging buttress an essential perception of authenticity. They provide a sense of connection the electorate has hungered for, and delivered the one-on-one handshake on a national scale for the first time. A 2013 study found the most telling predictor of engagement with politicians on Twitter was whether users believed the candidates did their own tweeting. Mr. Trump’s tactical success made his Twitter profile among the platform’s most visible. His tweets were viewed more than one billion times per month during the campaign. That’s more than the ten most-followed celebrities combined.
This scalable connection forms the fundamental theme of a new, fourth age of presidential campaign communication. The perception of authenticity now trumps truth, partisanship, and policy. The president’s persona, as seen in the immediacy, relevance and diversity of his Twitter engagement, stands in contrast to the more cautious and impersonal front of the Clinton campaign. Her polished packaging, a textbook execution that would have seen success in the prior age, distracted from her potential impact in critical communities throughout 2016.
For such an archetype of 20th-century-styled TV stardom, it may be surprising that Mr. Trump adapted so readily to this age in which his opponents struggled. Perhaps it’s the previous era he adapted to; the new one is a more natural fit. Today’s culture yearns for the manufactured intimacy with which his innate approach aligns, where perceived authenticity in the messenger is more critical than any content of the message. The Trump brand has indeed always been one of the individual, his golden moniker emblazoned across every façade.