Want to start a raucous political discussion? (It’s really not hard to do these days.) Ask folks what they think about Donald Trump and his compulsive use of Twitter. Responses will range from outrage over his periodic pronouncements, to a more thoughtful “I wish he wouldn’t do that,” to “tweets are the reason for his political success.”
While the occasional coarseness of the president’s tweets cause discomfort for some, his land-breaking use of Twitter to directly communication with his base and to control the day-to-day national political discourse are not only the reason for his success, but are in fact the latest evolution in political campaigning and governance.
As with any innovation or departure from the political norms Donald Trump and the new political Twitter era are not without controversy and endless parsing of the meaning, impact and future of the new normal.
In the early days of the Republic it was considered to be unseemly for a presidential candidate to personally campaign for the office. This tradition began with George Washington who remained above the fray. Over the decades campaigning was left to others, usually governors and member of congress who championed their party’s presidential nominee.
The first major departure from that tradition came in 1880 when James A. Garfield began receiving groups of citizens at his home. The James A. Garfield National Historical site notes a special train platform was built near his Ohio farm to accommodate visitors. The front porch campaign was elevated to an art form by fellow Ohioan William McKinley who welcomed a record number of voters to his home in Canton, Ohio.
McKinley’s campaign in 1896 marked the beginning of the next evolution of presidential campaigning. His close friend and campaign manager Mark Hanna developed the first comprehensive plan to divide Americans into specific sub-groups then prepare and mail or distribute broadsides specifically tailored to their special interests.
Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska that year and he threw tradition to the wind by embarking on a whirlwind of personal appearances. It was to no avail. Four years later McKinley was even more reclusive, but his new running mate Teddy Roosevelt hit the rails and literally took the nation by storm.
Teddy Roosevelt was a force of nature, and perhaps the predecessor most like Donald Trump in terms of being a dominating national personality. In 1900, now an incumbent resulting from McKinley’s death at the hands of an assassin, Roosevelt again hit the road ending forever the demur nature of American presidential campaigns.
The next big change in how presidential candidates and presidents interacted with voters came during the administration of another Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. Roosevelt struggled with limited mobility having been stricken with polio. But a new wireless form of communication known as radio had become popular and was now in many if not most American homes. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” helped ease the nation through the Great Depression and World War II.
Barnstorm campaigning, often by rail; high profile speeches, radio and of course the print media reigned supreme until the presidential election of 1960. That was the year when television came into its own. The infamous Kennedy-Nixon debates signaled the dawn of a new era. Polls show those listening on radio gave the debate win to Nixon. But the young, telegenic Kennedy wowed voters watching on television. That helped him to a narrow victory over Nixon in November.
The advent of 24-hour cable news solidified television’s dominant role. But in 2008 young Barack Obama made the first effective use of social media, building an on-line network of followers that helped him secure a win over John McCain, and then four years later to defeat Mitt Romney.
Obama used Twitter, but in a controlled manner with tweets generally carefully vetted by staff. Where Donald Trump departed from tradition was by having unfiltered control and use of his Twitter account. With tweets both entertaining and informative Trump built a following of millions with whom he could regularly communicate a message unfiltered by any media.
This, of course, displeased the media gate-keepers who suddenly found they no longer controlled the day-to-day news agenda. In what has become the closest parallel to the colonial town meeting, candidate and now President Trump can at will communicate with and receive feedback from voters.
The ability to type a few hundred characters into a smart phone and thereby control what the entire nation will be talking about has transformed Donald Trump into the first Twitter president. It is just the latest evolution in presidential communications and one which much if not most of the country has yet come to understand or appreciate.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])
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