Trump’s election was a shocking surprise to many–Democrats and Republicans alike. Explanations for the upset have ranged from the benign to the sinister. What few have focused on is how Trump’s understanding of a transformed media environment enabled an unlikely candidate with no political experience to ride to victory.
In 1964, the media scholar Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “The Medium Is the Message.” McLuhan’s insight was that the qualities of communications media themselves are more important in shaping the social environment than any particular content. Conversely, the great communicators understand how to craft the form and style of their messages, irrespective of content, to the media by which they will be transmitted.
To take an example outside politics, Bing Crosby was the first popular singer to understand the new medium of radio. Unlike the vaudeville singers before him, Crosby recognized the intimate space created around the radio receiver, crooned into the microphone and transformed popular performance style forever. Franklin D. Roosevelt had the same skill. The informal and direct style of his Fireside Chats conditioned the electorate to expect a more personal relationship with their leaders. Twenty-five years later, it was JFK’s cool television-friendly style, so evident in his first Presidential debate with the dour and sweaty Richard Nixon, that was widely cited for its contribution to his 1960 victory.
In 2016, the candidates once again faced an unprecedented media environment. Social media, Twitter in particular, made it possible to communicate with the electorate completely without the intermediation of the press. Using a constant stream of tweets (one that has hardly abated since the election), Trump was able to hammer out his message, including epithets for his opponents (#crooked Hillary, #lying Ted) worthy of Homer.
There is no doubt that Trump’s unlikely candidacy changed the rules of politics, I suspect permanently. Many commentators have observed that Trump’s masterful use of social media was a significant component of the Trump phenomenon. What they overlooked, however, is that Trump’s mastery lay in his ability to frame his message, both on and off Twitter, in a form and style adapted to a society whose very habits of perception have been transformed by internet communications. Scholars are still working through what those transformations might be, but some obvious ones that resonate with what we saw in the Trump campaign include the short-circuiting of logical argument, indifference to fact, compressed syntax and gleeful attack. Did the “content” of Trump’s message matter to his voters? Of course, but the way he said it mattered as much.