The ability to effectively communicate their messages to the American public has always been a key to the success of American presidents.
The primary means of that communications has steadily evolved thanks to technological progress, and the changing nature of those means has reshaped the nature of our national political discourse. They have gone from the printed word, in the form of pamphlets and newspapers, to the spoken word, broadcast by radio and television, to the new dimension of social media delivered over the Internet.
This new method for delivering political messages eliminates the previous barriers between the political candidate and the voters, undermining the political power of the traditional intermediates, such as newspaper editorial boards or broadcast news networks to serve as gatekeepers and interpreters of the political messages, passing judgement on whether they were accurate and acceptable or not.
In last year’s election, Donald Trump, an iconoclastic political outsider, discovered that he did not need to win the approval of the journalistic gatekeepers to get his message to the American people. His successful experience as a broadcasting showman taught him how to manipulate the media, forcing them to cover his campaign whether they wanted to or not. His campaign also discovered that the extensive penetration of the social media enabled him to use it to communicate directly with voters and even more effectively than through the accepted means. Furthermore, social media gave Trump total control over the content of his message, bypassing all efforts by the media gatekeepers to censor or modify it.
Donald Trump was able to win last year’s presidential election as a true political independent, free of the control of party leaders and the media establishment. Even more distressing to these gatekeepers, he has also been able to begin governing as president using largely the same methods.
This is a reason for the unusually bitter animus from the media and leaders of both political parties towards Trump, as well as their determination to bring down his presidency by any means necessary, fair or foul.
TRUMP’S OPPONENTS FEAR HE IS TRYING TO “DRAIN THE SWAMP”
His highly effective use of social media and his personal charisma enabled Trump to blaze a brand new trail to national power. Trump is rightfully seen as a political threat to the members of the Washington political establishment. They can’t afford not to take his promise “to drain the swamp,” meaning their longtime hold on power in Washington, quite literally.
This is the explanation for the unusually personal and nasty effort by the media to criticize and look for ulterior motives in everything which Trump says or does, question his honesty, sincerity emotional stability and, most of all, his ability to function adequately as president.
One main public feud is between Trump and the CNN cable news network. Its ceaseless attacks on Trump, and insistent accusations of collusion with the Russians during the campaign, are, apparently by design, the dominant and recurring theme of its national news coverage.
A long-running personal feud has also heated up in recent days between Trump and two MSNBC news commentators, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, hosts of “Morning Joe,” an early morning news and commentary program.
TRUMP CAN’T GET AN EVEN BREAK
Trump rarely gets an even break or honest reporting from The New York Times and The Washington Post. They have been actively competing with one another since the November election to publish the most outlandish accusations against Trump and his campaign team, invariably attributed to multiple unnamed sources leaking classified information, making the stories very difficult to verify.
The Washington Post was the first to report that Trump’s first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was dishonest with Vice President Mike Pence in December in describing his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. This ultimately led Trump to fire Flynn, despite the fact that he considered Flynn to be a close friend. Accusations by then-FBI director James Comey that Trump tried to influence him to be lenient with Flynn led to a separate line of inquiry into the propriety of Trump’s decision two months later to fire Comey.
The New York Times was the first to report that Trump’s transition team was under FBI surveillance, leading to Trump’s later claim that his Manhattan headquarters in Trump Tower had been “wiretapped.”
CNN FUELING “THE RESISTANCE”
While CNN did not originate these stories, it has been consistent and one-sided in bashing Trump on camera since he won the GOP nomination. It has played up every nasty rumor about his business activities and alleged ties to Russia, as well as every protest by the “resistance” and attempt to challenge his legal authority as president.
The accuracy of several CNN anti-Trump reports has been challenged. Last week, CNN was forced to withdraw one of those stories, followed quickly by the “resignations” of three CNN news staffers who were responsible for it.
In addition, a video shot by a hidden camera reporter documented a CNN news producer saying that the CEO of CNN had ordered his staff to concentrate on the alleged Trump-Russia connection because it boosted ratings and was “good for business.”
In the wake of those damaging revelations, Trump spokesmen at the White House have been unsparing of the network, accusing it of abandoning its own journalistic standards of objectivity in a cynical effort to boost its profits.
IMAGINED THREAT FROM A FAKED WRESTLING VIDEO
On Sunday, Trump tweeted a doctored version of a promotional video in which he appeared several years ago for his friends, Vince and Linda McMahon, who own the World Wrestling Federation TV franchise. Unlike boxing, those professional wrestling matches are widely known to be staged, and contain little or no real violence.
The original clip showed a younger Trump going through the motions of throwing down and roughing up an unidentified wrestler, who may have been Vince McMahon himself. In the doctored version Trump tweeted on Sunday, the wrestler’s face is covered by a CNN logo, suggesting that Trump had finally gotten the better of the network.
The doctored video spoof was pounced upon by CNN and other “outraged” media critics. They condemned Trump for allegedly inciting his followers to violence against the network and, by extension, all reporters who have been hostile in their coverage of his presidency.
A DOUBLE STANDARD FOR VIOLENCE
These are the same reporters and news organizations which have lightly dismissed much more serious implicit threats of violence aimed at Trump personally by members of the liberal entertainment community who backed Mrs. Clinton in last year’s election.
These include, among others, a comedian who publicly posed with a life-sized picture of what was supposed to be Trump’s bloody severed head, a version of Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, which features a bloody, extended stabbing death scene of a Trump look-alike on stage in New York’s Central Park, a movie actor who reminisced about the actions of fellow-actor John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, among many others. All of these recent implied threats against Trump were widely reported in the media, with, at most, minimal criticism for the “bad taste” of the performers responsible. Yet Trump’s video, which was obviously meant in jest and directed at one of his most persistent critics, was instantly decried by the media elite as unacceptable coming from a sitting president.
A PERSONAL FEUD WITH TWO ANCHORS OF “MORNING JOE”
The feud between Trump and the two commentators on the “Morning Joe” program is more personal in nature. It also highlights the blurred lines between news, entertainment and politics on network television today.
Joe Scarborough served three terms as a Republican Congressman from northern Florida. He was elected as part of the GOP’s 1994 midterm election sweep which made Newt Gingrich the Speaker of the House. Scarborough resigned his House seat, saying that he wanted to spend more time with his family, and after a brief stint practicing law, went to work as a political commentator for MSNBC. In 2007, he invited Mika Brzezinski to join him as a cohost for the new MSNBC Morning Joe program. She is the daughter Zbiegnew Brzezinski, who served as the National Security Advisor for President Jimmy Carter. She had previously worked as a reporter for several different TV news organizations, and gained brief national prominence as the on-site reporter for CBS News at Ground Zero immediately following the 9/11 attack. On the Morning Joe program, she provided the Democrat view, while Scarborough supposedly represented the Republican viewpoint.
FRIENDSHIP RUNS HOT AND COLD
Scarborough had positive things to say about Trump during the last half of 2015 and early 2016, and there were rumors that Trump was considering him as a potential vice presidential running mate.
But in May, 2016, Scarborough’s view of Trump apparently changed. He said on the air that Trump didn’t have what it would take to beat Hillary Clinton.
Last August, after Trump had won the GOP presidential nomination, Scarborough wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling on the GOP to dump him as its candidate because, “a bloody line has been crossed that cannot be ignored. At long last, Donald Trump has left the Republican Party few options but to act decisively and get this political train wreck off the tracks before something terrible happens,” Scarborough wrote.
The feud between Trump and the pair of MSNBC journalists was apparently patched up soon after the election. The two spent some time with the president-elect at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida in late December, and during the first couple of months of his presidency, Scarborough was much more forgiving in his comments about Trump than the rest of the liberal commentators at MSNBC.
But more recently, their relationship with President Trump soured once again. Last month, Scarborough and Brzezinski questioned Trump’s sanity and his fitness to serve as president. Aside from the name-calling, to which Trump has responded in kind, Scarborough and Brzezinski accused Trump of threatening to blackmail them with the publication of a derogatory article in the National Enquirer, a notorious scandal sheet published by one of Trump’s longtime friends.
The White House disputes this accusation. It claims that Scarborough initiated contact through Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, asking him to intercede with the publication to kill the story. Kushner declined, saying that Scarborough should ask Trump directly for his help. When Scarborough said that he couldn’t do that because of recent criticism of Trump on his show, Kushner suggested that he apologize to the president. Scarborough refused.
Trump tweeted about “low I.Q. Crazy Mika,” and “psycho Joe,” while also criticizing the quality of their program.
This falls into the category of celebrity gossip, rather than serious national news, but you would never know that from the huge amount of time that the national news media has spent focusing on the trivial details of this personal feud involving Trump.
Some say that Trump issues silly tweets as timely diversions for the media when Trump’s more serious policy agendas have suffered setbacks, such as the failure of Senate Republicans to pass an Obamacare revision bill last week.
It is clear that Trump has a very unconventional view of how he should conduct himself as president.
AMERICA’S FIRST TWITTER PRESIDENT
Many historians say that FDR was America’s first radio president, and that JFK was its first TV president. If that is true, then Trump is clearly the first Twitter president.
There have been upheavals before in the national political discourse, thanks to technological advances in communication, but never as rapidly as over the past two years since Donald Trump first announced his presidential candidacy, to be greeted with universal derision and scorn.
To better understand what is happening to national politics today, it is useful to recall how the political discourse in this country has changed over the past 150 years.
In the latter half of the 19th century, long before the advent of radio, television and social media on the Internet, the main medium for political communication was the public speech, or debate between candidates. Reports of what they said were distributed rapidly nationwide by telegraph and newspaper reports extending the audience for those speeches to voters around the country.
For example, the 1858 series of public debates between Abraham Lincoln, then an obscure Republican politician, who was challenging Stephen Douglas, the Illinois incumbent U.S. Senator, defined the issue of slavery which was to lead to the Civil War three years later. The debates were closely followed by voters across the nation through newspaper reports. Douglas won the senatorial election in 1858, but was to lose to Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election over the same issue.
In the 1890’s, Nebraska politician William Jennings Bryan was the most eloquent and famous public speaker of the era. As the Democrat presidential candidate in 1896, he invented the modern concept for conducting a national presidential campaign, touring the country to give more than 500 speeches. Even though he lost the presidential elections of 1896 and 1900 to Republican William McKinley, Bryan remained a dominating national political figure, and won the Democrat nomination again in 1908 based on the persuasive power of his oratory. Bryan lost that election to William Howard Taft.
FIRST NATIONAL RADIO NETWORK
The first experimental national radio networks were set up in 1924 to cover the Republican and Democrat national political conventions, as well as the main campaign speeches of Republican candidate Calvin Coolidge and Democrat candidate John Davis.
In 1924, commercial radio broadcasting was still viewed as a novelty. It was not until Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to the White House in 1932 that the full power of radio as a dominant national political medium was demonstrated in his famous “Fireside Chats” with the nation. The popularity of radio had grown quickly during the intervening 8 years. It enabled Roosevelt’s melodious voice to enter tens of millions of homes across the country to reassure the American people that he could bring an end to the economic crisis known as the Great Depression.
Then, on December 8, 1942, Roosevelt used the power of radio to rally the country once again when he asked Congress for a declaration of war on Japan in response to its devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, bringing the U.S. into World War II.
Virtually every American who was old enough to understand what was happening remembers Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” Pearl Harbor speech as a milestone in their own lives. It was the quintessential moment in this country’s radio era.
TV POLITICS COMES OF AGE
The development of television into a tool of national politics followed the same pattern as radio. The Republican and Democrat conventions of 1952 were the first to have “gavel-to-gavel” television news coverage provided by legendary radio news reporters such as Edward R. Murrow, who were still learning how to use the new medium.
It took 8 years until television was able to come into its own as the dominant new national political communications tool. The presidential debates of 1960 were the turning point.
Television was the perfect medium to launch the young, charismatic John F. Kennedy onto the national political scene, while Richard Nixon, who was playing by the old rules of political communications, found himself at a serious disadvantage.
The proof came from the political polls taken immediately after their first debate. A majority of those who listened to the debate on radio were convinced that Nixon had won, but most of those who watched it on television were easily won over by Kennedy.
PRESIDENTIAL NEWS CONFERENCES WERE OFF THE RECORD
Television also changed the way Kennedy governed as president. His predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, held the first live TV broadcast presidential news conference in 1955. Before that time, presidential news conferences were much smaller, private affairs held in the Oval Office between the president and a relatively small number of reporters from the largest newspapers and wire services.
Furthermore, those presidential news conferences were off the record. If a president said something he quickly regretted, White House reporters would allow him to edit or retract the statement before it was published. As far as the public knew, he never said it.
For example, during the early Cold War years of the Truman administration, Senator Joseph McCarthy was infamous for conducting well publicized hearings hunting for communist spies in the federal government. At a March 30, 1950 press conference, Truman reacted angrily to McCarthy’s latest accusations by saying, “I think the greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Senator McCarthy.” When one of the reporters commented that the quote would “hit page one tomorrow” in newspapers across the country, Truman asked those present to tone down his statement.
This led to a much more benign version appearing in the next day’s newspapers. Truman was quoted by all the reporters present in the Oval Office that day as having said, “The greatest asset that the Kremlin has is the partisan attempt in the Senate to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy of the United States.”
This level of cooperation and voluntary censorship on the part of reporters and their editors was common throughout the era. Another example was the fact there were never any newspaper pictures published of Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair or on crutches during his 13 years as president, to avoid reminding the American people of the extent to which he had been crippled by polio.
HOW JOURNALISTS LOST THEIR TRUST IN THE WHITE HOUSE
That cooperation finally came to come to an end. The process of disillusionment began at the end of the Eisenhower administration, when reporters learned that the American U-2 aircraft which was shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960 was a spy plane, and not a weather aircraft that had strayed off course, as the White House had first claimed.
Press skepticism grew during the Lyndon Johnson administration, when its statements about the nature and progress of the Vietnam War were discredited, and reached a low ebb during the Watergate scandal. The exposure of the lies which President Nixon told in that clumsy coverup destroyed what little was left of the White House credibility with the media and the American people.
Starting with the Kennedy administration, the media began holding the president to a much higher standard. Press conferences became much more combative. Every word the president said to reporters was subjected to much closer scrutiny, with no do-overs allowed.
Kennedy was up to the task. He had a lively sense of humor and enjoyed the give and take with reporters. He was able to think quickly on his feet, and rarely got himself into trouble with a careless remark.
Kennedy had a great TV image, and excelled whenever he stepped in front of the television news cameras. During his less than three years as president, before he was assassinated in November, 1963, Kennedy gave 700 speeches which received live or excerpted television news coverage. That was many speeches as his predecessor, Eisenhower, gave during his eight years in office.
HOW TV CHANGED THE PRESIDENTIAL SELECTION SYSTEM
Television also changed the political system itself. The violent fiasco at the 1968 Democrat National Convention in Chicago, which was broadcast live to the whole country on television, marked the end of “boss-controlled” politics and the practice of choosing of national candidates in “smoke-filled” rooms. From then on, nominations would be determined by the outcomes of the various state primaries and caucuses. National conventions were largely reduced to formalities, confirming the outcome of the primaries.
TV ADS BRING BIG MONEY TO POLITICS
The ability to run an effective paid television advertising campaign became the determining factor for any successful political candidate on the local, state or national level. Candidates had to raise huge amounts of money, mostly to pay for their TV ad campaigns. This made national candidates increasingly dependent upon big individual, corporate and organizational campaign contributors. The candidates were therefore beholden to their benefactors which decreased their concern for the needs of the individual voter.
The replacement of over-the-air news broadcasting by cable stations, which were devoted to 24/7 news coverage, helped to decentralize the presidential selection process. It also vastly increased the media influence of the network pollsters and media pundits. This further entrenched the media news establishment, whose leaders were in a position to manipulate the coverage to reflect their own internal political biases. They became Washington’s new power brokers, able to make or break any candidate just by the way their news coverage was slanted.
BREAKDOWN OF THE SEPARATION BETWEEN NEWS AND ENTERTAIN
As the traditional firewall between network entertainment and news divisions was being breached, journalistic standards of strict impartiality were being eroded. This led to the open political polarization of the news itself. The creation of grass roots conservative talk radio was the reaction to the liberal domination of mainstream media.
As the news itself became more polarized, leading to competing versions of “the truth” on many issues, open communication was reduced between the opposing political factions. The spirit of comradery which once was common between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, and their ability to disagree without becoming disagreeable, began to erode. It was gradually replaced by the “politics of political destruction,” which became dominant during the Clinton administration.
A FORMULA FOR PERMANENT POLITICAL GRIDLOCK
Legislative cooperation was replaced by two permanently warring camps which disagreed about almost everything. They deeply distrusted one another and were quick to suspect the other side’s motives whenever they suggested cooperation. This has led to more than 15 years of political gridlock of government in Washington.
The internet era of national politics began with Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign. His groundbreaking online operation enabled Obama to out-fund-raise the Clinton campaign, despite its big donor and special interest contributions. It also created a huge and strongly motivated grass roots organization of supporters which went on to help Obama win the nomination and the presidency itself.
Obama’s victories made everyone realize the importance of an effective online operation in a national political campaign. But it took another eight years before the Trump campaign showed that repeated, direct, online contact with individual supporters could change the dynamics of the campaign itself.
Trump’s campaign was different from the outset. It was, based upon his understanding of the dependence of the news networks on ratings, and his ability as a successful media entertainer to deliver those ratings using a new kind of mass campaign rally designed for a television audience.
By employing deliberately controversial tactics, attacking the personalities of his political opponents and by adopting highly provocative campaign issues, Trump was able to dominate the coverage in virtually every news cycle without having to pay anything for air time.
Where his opponents tried to limit their media exposure to safe, well-controlled settings, Trump was always available, and often said sensational things, which he rarely took back, to enable him to remain constantly in the headlines.
TRUMP TOOK ADVANTAGE OF HIS AMATEUR STATUS
Trump knew that, because he was a political novice, a lot of voters would let him get away with saying and doing things that professional politicians running against him would never dare to do or say. When they would complain about the things Trump did or said, that itself emphasized his basic point to the voters, that he was a very different kind of politician. Because many voters, at this point, knew that their interests had been betrayed by their elected politicians and the media elites supporting them, they loved Trump more, just because he was tweaking their noses.
Trump’s campaign, under the direction of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, came to realize that they didn’t need the traditional paid television campaign ads to beat his opponents. The free news media coverage Trump was getting because of his campaign antics was far more effective than any paid ads would have been.
Trump also correctly identified, very early in his campaign, Hillary Clinton’s vulnerability with working class and rural voters, especially in the Midwestern Rust Belt states which had suffered the most economically from the liberal free trade policies supported by the Democrats. Trump was very open about his strategy for going after these voters, while Clinton and the Democrats continued to ignore them until the very eve of the campaign.
The Rust Belt and rural areas were his winning constituency. They turned out in record numbers to fashion a historic election night upset which Democrats and their media pundit friends still can’t understand or accept.
TRUMP KEEPING HIS PROMISES
As president, Trump has tried to remain true to the campaign promises he made, even if those promises did not necessarily fit with tradition Republican-conservative ideology. Trump is also well aware that the political establishment he has ousted from power is determined to destroy him, by any means necessary.
As always, the entrenched mainstream media is the primary tool which the establishment is using to deliver its message, in this case, attempting to disqualify Trump to serve as president.
The so-called “resistance” to the Trump presidency is an attempted bloodless coup to overthrow the duly elected government in order to put the displaced establishment oligarchy back in power. They consist of entrenched professional politicians, bureaucrats, self-righteous journalists and self-important media pundits.
The last two categories include virtually all of the panelists, advocates and reporters at CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post among many others.
After Trump won the November election, many historians agreed that the 2016 campaign will be studied and analyzed in political science textbooks for decades to come.
It is apparent that Trump’s presidency will also be a curiosity for future historians, regardless of how well it turns out. Whether Trump succeeds or fails in meeting his ambitious goal of “Making American Great Again,” understanding his strategy and tactics for trying to realize that goal, are likely to prove just as fascinating as those behind his historic victory in November.