Essay: Presidential use of communication

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  • Presidential use of communication
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01.02.2019.

Political communications between the American people and the American President have evolved dramatically since the foundation of the Republic, and the scale of communication has grown exponentially. With the growth and evolution of both political communications and the American Presidency, the current president, Donald J. Trump, is now harnessing relatively new forms of interaction to not only personally and immediately convey messages to his supporters at any time, but is also using political communication channels to directly present Presidential views and decisions to the American public. The central research question of this essay is to ask: is Donald Trump’s use of political communication represents a fundamentally new approach to the ways in American Presidents use political communications? To answer this question, the paper will analyze forms of political communications by American Presidents from the late 1800s and show how Presidential political communications have changed over time as newspapers gave way to radio, which gave way to television, which gave way to the early Internet. This provides a necessary historical context to the current period. In so doing, it will demonstrate that Donald Trump’s Presidential communications are primarily aimed at his core electoral base. They are not aimed at the broader American population. In particular, Trump’s use of Twitter allows him to immediately and authentically address his base, without any third parties mediating his communications.

Trump is the first president whose in-the-moment 140-character thoughts can be read by millions of people around the world; such immediacy was not possible in the age of newspapers, radio, television or even the early days of the Internet. Moreover, Twitter allows Trump’s supporters to immediately articulate their support for his political positions; the unmediated relationship between Trump and his supporters witnessed in his tweets reinforces his tendency to present immediate and unilaterally-decided policy decisions, without the advice of counsellors, and then expect his staff to scramble to react. This allows Trump to be the center of attention, which is a trait that he has displayed since his days as a star of reality television. His approach to political communications thus in fact reinforces his autarchic approach to policy-making, because Trump is able to introduce policies independently of his advisors and directly present them to his followers on Twitter in real time. This matters because historically presidential communications were mediated by outside counsel so that what the President said was carefully stage-managed in order to increase his appeal to a broader swathe of the potential electorate and to build a consensus in support of Presidential actions. Indeed, in the past the purpose of Presidential political communications was to increase support for the President by making him more likeable, human and seemingly accessible to American citizens, but Trump has changed this traditional approach to being presidential political communications.

Presidents have historically used communications tools to interact with people across the country. The first prevalent form of communication tool used by presidents were public speeches delivered in-person to an audience of spectators who received the speech. An example of this would be Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which demonstrates a key aspect of early Presidential communications: the need to be seen to be communicating directly to the people. Indeed, this helps explain the character of American presidential campaigns in the latter-half of the 19th century: the whistle-stop train tour was done in order to be seen to be directly communicating with Americans.
The second communications tool used by Presidents was the newspaper. During the years between 1869 and 1928 newspapers were the prime source of the American public’s news and political information (Gentzkow et al. 2981). The newspaper was the physical embodiment of the spreading of information across the country. Newspapers were the way that the American public could keep up with the president and his dealings, and presidential public images were strongly influenced by the portrayal of presidents in newspapers. At the same time, Presidents could use newspapers to recreate the historic need to directly interact with Americans, but with newspapers the interaction was mediated by both the staff of the newspaper and the staff of the President. Nonetheless, newspapers permitted some semblance of interaction between the President and the public, albeit at a distance. It was through newspapers that presidents tried to introduce his plans for the country. For this reason, the newspaper was a key factor in political campaigns for the presidency; “in the years 1869-1928, one additional newspaper increases presidential turnout by 0.3 percentage points” (Gentzkow et al. 2981). Thus, newspapers were an immensely important factor from which presidents sought to secure support, if not indeed control, because they mediated the relationship between the president and the public in a way that could build support for the Presidency. Newspapers built and maintained the infrastructure of information in the United States and held on to this position for close to 70 years. “The opening or closing of newspapers has long been linked to the health of democracy” (Gentzkow et al. 2980) and they maintained the relationship between the people and the president.
In the 1920s the introduction of new technologies brought with it new communications tools that would change how people received, interacted and discussed information. The introduction of the radio gradually reduced the importance of the newspaper, especially as they came down in price, because news spread much more quickly and immediately over the radio than was the case with newspapers. “Radio coverage of presidential campaigns began in 1924 and expanded dramatically in the 1930s” (Gentzkow et al. 2986) and the first president to publicly communicate to the country in real time was Calvin Coolidge, in 1923 through the use of the radio (Morgan RealClear.com).
Public expectations of presidents changed with the introduction of the radio. During the golden age of American newspapers, public expectations of presidents were distinguished by the way they looked and what they were said to have said. With the introduction of radio, public expectations of presidents began to be shaped by how they talked and how they were perceived to behave, through speech. This changed the character of the presidency. “Public expectations of presidential communication formed in conjunction with the development of a more public rhetorical presidency at the beginning of the 20th century” (Scacco and Coe 302) and have continued to operate since that time. The concept of a rhetorical presidency is derived from political communication theory and is argued to be witnessed when “a decline in party strength and a changing media environment led presidents to bypass the bargaining processing in DC and “go public” with their policies instead” (Pluta 2). Rhetorical presidencies began in the 1930s, when Roosevelt, facing strong Congressional opposition to the New Deal policies that he was espousing to defeat the Great Depression, used radio to create a stronger relationship with the American people by appearing to be open, upfront and honest with them. Roosevelt’s rhetorical presidency accelerated in World War II, when Roosevelt used the radio to recreate the direct and immediate communication modes of earlier presidencies. However, while Roosevelt’s fireside chats and radio addresses were direct and immediate, they were also tightly scripted in order to garner ever-deeper support for the American war effort. In this way, presidential communications remained, as they had been with newspapers, heavily mediated.

The next transformation in communications tools would be the emergence of mass market television two decades later, and this too would alter the character of presidential political communications. Television not only had live news coverage but had the capability to visually stimulate and inform the viewer. This meant that public expectations of presidents changed, being now distinguished by the way they looked, what they were said, and the way that they said it. The television became an official tool of presidential communication when Harry Truman publicly addressed Americans through the medium in 1943 (Morgan 2016). From the period of the end of World War II and over the succeeding 40 years television would enter into more and more people’s homes. As access to television increased “survey evidence from the 1950s-1970s shows that roughly twice as many people chose television as their most important source of information about presidential campaigns as chose newspapers” (Gentzkow et al. 2986). Television was pivotal in the 1960 presidential contest, when the image of a sweating and stubbled Richard Nixon contrasted with that of John F Kennedy during the Presidential debate. The telegenic Kennedy thereafter used television as a nationwide platform to bring the president and the people closer together and garner support for controversial policies like the Bay of Pigs, the race to the moon, and the Vietnam war. When the far less telegenic Lyndon B. Johnson regularly used television as a tool of presidential political communication, it indicated that this form of media was now the pre-eminent tool of political communication. Television allowed the president to seemingly directly speak to the people and be able to communicate important policy decisions such as Johnson’s decision not to seek a second term – the first time such an announcement had been made. To this day “American U.S. consumers watch more TV at an average of 3.8 hours per day” (Miller and McKerrow 68) and its impact affects the political landscape, due to television’s widespread ability to showcase information and present the president live. However, despite the appearance of a direct line of communication between the president and the public through television, such is not the case. As with radio, television appearances by the president are heavily scripted by speechwriters whose role is to present the President as an inclusive, accessible, friendly and reasonable person, whom the American public should consider supporting. In this way, the interaction between the president and the public is strongly mediated.

Through the 20th century presidents have used communication tools to create and manage an image that he hopes will boost political support for him, his administration and its policies. This building of image through communication tools has been vital to the presidency because it allows the president to build public acceptance and generate public consent when making decisions that could affect the country or the world. However, communication tools between the president and the public are designed to craft a relationship between the president and potential supporters, and in seeking to craft a relationship are managed by the Presidential staff so that communication tools present the President to the public in the most favourable light.

In the late 1990s the world wide web started to become the media platform that was most central in people’s lives. The Internet fundamentally transformed political communications. Websites dedicated to forums of political conversations between diverse sets of people eventually gave way to web-based political conversations between people of similar or indeed identical political views. At the same time, conversations could be carried out in real time but on a much bigger geographical scale: the state or indeed the country. Finally, the quantity of information of all stripes exploded; the sheer volume was historically unprecedented. The creation of Facebook in 2004 in turn served to change the character of the world wide web by introducing the world to social media, which has become the most important means by which people connect to each other, including when it comes to matters of politics.

The Internet age has created an entirely new platform for presidential policy communications and has changed the relationship between the president and the American people. As I have sought to argue, early presidents sought to directly communicate with the American people. Using social media, “a President can communicate his thoughts at any time, on any subject, without the vetting process traditionally used by, to one degree or another, other modern Presidents” (McKechnie 3), a vetting process that served to mediate the relationship between the president and the public in an effort to maximize potential support for the president. Social media allows the president to become a personal figure that people can view in a different, more immediate way than was the case prior to its development. The fact that social media allows the citizen to now seemingly directly contact the president instantly places the president in a different relationship with potential voters.
This became clear when Donald Trump took charge of the Oval Office in January of 2017. “What FDR was to radio and JFK to television, Trump is to Twitter” (Gabler Billmoyers.com) because Trump has changed the rules of presidential communication through his use of social media, especially his Twitter account. Trump, who is notoriously not literate when it comes to computing, has nonetheless been able to master Twitter because of its key features: it has a simple website, is easy to use, and is easy to operate. However, Twitter encourages the user to be spontaneous; people on Twitter write whatever comes to their mind, regardless of whether it is true or civil. Trump too uses Twitter spontaneously to engage his followers, to annoy his opponents, and to create a reaction to what has been written that places himself in the middle of the reaction. In this process, it is well documented that Trump pays little attention to facts but instead seeks to galvanize his supporters while simultaneously enraging his opponents. President Trump is thus the first president that uses a major communication tool for presidential communication to reinforce preexisting views, opinions and bias, rather than reaching out to build a bigger constituency of support. “Trump’s lexicon is simple and repetitious… and Trump’s Tweets are overwhelmingly “negative in connotation” (Ott 64). These tweets are often compliments either toward himself, directly aimed at his supporters or insults and vulgarity directed at his political opponents. As Trump is always trying to put himself at the center of attention, he does not use Twitter to directly address the entirety of the country; he acts not as if he is President of the United States but as if he is President of the Trump Supporters in the United States. His use of Twitter for personal ends and not presidential advancement are denigrating the importance of the presidency.

Trump use of Twitter is his most widespread tool to spreading his messages, but his relationship to previous tools of presidential communication have also not been like that of previous presidents. When newspapers publish facts, views or ideas that negate Trump’s personal image he uses his major form of presidential communication to insult and attack those that work in newspapers. A Trump tweet that creates conflict and undermines the legitimacy of the newspaper industry can be seen in a tweet like “Failing @NYTimes will always take a good story about me and make it bad. Every article is unfair and biased. Very sad!” (Trump Twitter.com). This is just one example of the type of simple yet impulsive language that is sent into the Internet by the President for the world to see. Presidential communication has been a way to discuss and engage with the people of the country, but Trump has forgone that. Trump tweets without the thought of consequence and continues to use his platform to polarize politics and the discussion of politics, which does not help to spread the democratic conversation.

Trump has also devalued another form of presidential communication, the radio, which he does not seem to use at all. In terms of television, Trump has only had one official televised address to the nation in the two years he has been president, so live public conversations are activities he avoids. The only time Trump likes to be on television in real time is when he is on what he perceives to be a politically supportive channel, such as Fox News. As with his social media posts, his appearances on partisan US television adds fuel to the flame of partisanship and creates even more polarization among the people of the country. Trump encourages people to dispute fact and call it fiction by only watching news that is aligned with their political beliefs. Indeed, such is Trump’s aversion to most television that many outlets have to follow the president’s social media to extract news and stories. “Twitter and its underlying logic will continue to supplant television and its underlying logic as the dominant epistemology of the moment” (Ott 66) for the president because it is something that places him in total control of an unmediated message to those that support him. This divisiveness is being creating by this partisanship politics that stems from social media and television and this hurts the nation because divisiveness creates conflict which escalates into situations that can damage the lives of innocent people.

Comparing the president’s use of communication to former presidents showcases the startling differences between Trump and presidents of past. “In the past, if a President was drafting remarks to be delivered through traditional mediums and the remarks referred disparagingly to a particular individual, defamatory language undoubtedly would be stricken or wordsmithed” (McKechnie 3). This would obviously be done to maintain the image of the president and these messages would have been looked over by an adviser charged with helping the president communicate in a fair, non-aggressive and inclusive way. An example of a president like this was Barack Obama. Obama did not control his own social media, but instead had a campaign team operate the official President of the United States (POTUS) Twitter account. Obama signed off on the tweets accredited to the POTUS account, which were never uninterrupted trains of thought and in-the-moment partisan messages (McKechnie 8). This maintained the image of the president, while still showcasing his ability to communicate to the entirety of the population of the United States, instead of just his own supporters.

These points have been made to argue that Donald Trump is using presidential communication for the benefit of himself and to solidify his support among his core base. Trump though does have a legion of followers that agree with him and would disagree with what this paper has argued. An example of a rebuttal that the Trump base would argue for is that the ‘fake news” that Trump points to do really have preconceived bias towards the Democrats and will only support them. This occurs not only in the newspapers, but on global television networks that he believes is biased against him. That reasoning is his explanation for only appearing and giving interviews to the networks he likes, such as Fox News, so he is able to converse without interruption. This reasoning continues when discussing the use of his preferred communication technology, Twitter. Arguments for the president when it comes to Twitter are that he doesn’t lash out against his opponents, but speaks the truth, which he is allowed to do as a citizen. Indeed, some see this “as a positive hallmark” (McKechnie 2) of the age because Trump is able to speak freely and not be controlled by his advisors. Rebuttals like this are clear and can be debated, but what cannot be debated is that the president focuses his use of social media towards his base and that he is not concerned about trying to broaden that base to any great degree. These rebuttals show that Trump just requires an audience, as he did when he was a reality-television star, which is not exactly presidential.

As is clear, Trump has flipped around the notion that presidential political communications are about reaching out beyond partisan boundaries to try and talk to be broadest group of the American public. Trump does not care if his presidential political communications generate a negative image of the president, which has certainly contributed to Trump having a historically low approval rating of 28% (Enten CNN.com). Modern presidents have almost unanimously acted in ways that are consistent with the concept of a rhetorical presidency by using new communications tools to create a stronger connection with the public. Obama was, in this regard, a typical rhetorical president as he used media technologies to communicate inclusively to the general public, as a way of trying to narrow the divide between both sides of the political spectrum in the United States. He may have not been successful all the time, but it still created a greater sense of unity during his presidency. Trump has turned the inclusiveness of Obama’s “rhetorical presidency to a ubiquitous presidency, the latter characterized by frequent communication in a variety of (non)-traditional settings” (Scacco and Coe 302), Twitter being the most apparent.

The change in political communications under Trump has led to a disregard of the consequences of the communications that are made; when the President can say anything over social media, and Twitter in particular, whether it be disrespectful or unprofessional, it demonstrates that the purpose of political communications is to speak to Trump’s core base of support, and not the American public more generally, in an effort to garner support only from among the base for the President. In this way, political communications under Trump have not promoted cohesion across American society, they have promoted division, and this could fundamentally change the relationship of the Presidency to the American public in future generations.

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