Trump, Twit­ter and a new po­lit­i­cal era

The Phoenix - - OPINION - Low­man S. Henry Colum­nist

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.

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.

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.

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.

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