Among myriad concerns surrounding a Donald Trump presidency, somewhere right in the center of the list — maybe just slightly closer to the bottom than the top in terms of importance — is his relation to the press. Or more accurately: the way in which he uses it. Depending on whom you ask, Trump is either a masterful manipulator of the media, or an unhinged lunatic with an itchy trigger finger hovering millimeters over a big red button that says “TWEET.”
In The Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency, historian David Greenberg chronicles a century-long history of the executive branch and the reporters that cover it. Reading it, I was, in some vague way, comforted by the extent to which Trump resembles his forebears. A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt was coddling reporters in off-the-record meetings, blacklisting those who didn’t cater to his agenda, and taking flak from the old guard for using his celebrity as a war hero to further his political aims. “To criticize Roosevelt for love of the camera and the headline is childish,” philosopher John Dewey wrote at the time, “unless we recognize that in such criticism we are condemning the very conditions of any public success during this period.” It’s a defense that, verbatim, applies to Trump today. Has social media really changed the way that leaders like Trump operate? Over the phone and email this week, I asked Greenberg about the new frontiers of presidential communications; what follows is an edited transcript of our conversations.
Obviously there’s a lot of talk about Trump and the way he uses social media to … get his thoughts out there, for lack of a better phrase. In the grand scheme of things, does Trump’s use of the media and social media differ that much from presidents past?Well, I think that piece has been overstated. There’s definitely stuff to talk about and write about, but I think that’s not mainly what Trump is about. I think Trump is about particular ideas and style, which, obviously, the media convey. So, he’s a demagogue, and, you know, we had demagogues in the age of radio and we had demagogues in the age of television. He’s a demagogue for the age of social media, but I don’t think those things are so fundamentally different. I don’t think Trump never could have succeeded were people still getting their news from the three networks, for example. I think those kinds of claims, or constructs, are not very persuasive.
I do think there’s a lot to talk about and think about about how he has used and exploited the media very effectively. And, in some ways, differently from other candidates and other politicians. First, obviously, is Twitter. One thing people will say, and he is wrong, is that Twitter gives Trump a direct pipeline to the public to express his view. Well, look, presidents and politicians have always had that. They’d go on TV, they could go on radio, they could give speeches, they could issue press releases. And, especially once they held office, that was actually a pretty direct channel. And yes, the media then sort of learned how to kind of fight back and offer an interpretation to the presidential message. When presidents first started giving prime-time Oval Office addresses, you didn’t have the kind of postgame analysis that they learned to develop as a way of making sure they weren’t just stenographers, that they weren’t just conveying the presidential message without due skepticism, and critique, and interpretation and so on.
But that’s not what’s distinctive about Twitter. What’s distinctive about Twitter, I think, is the form. One thing that we know Twitter for is “Twitter wars.” It’s a format that is particularly friendly to short, angry bursts, back-and-forth volleys — quick, often unreflective outbursts. That’s something that Trump has done that’s different. Obama had a Twitter feed and there were pieces about how significant it was that this was the first presidential Twitter feed, but you’d be hard-pressed to think of a single tweet of Obama’s that was really memorable. So Trump is using it differently. In my book, I write about how Calvin Coolidge doesn’t get credit as a great radio pioneer even though he had the first radio inaugural address, the first radio broadcast nomination acceptance address, first broadcast State of the Union address. Because his were basically regular speeches to which you hooked up a microphone and a wire and could reach California and that was significant. But it was Franklin Roosevelt who, with “fireside chats,” actually wrote speeches for radio, wrote shorter speeches, wrote speeches using colloquial language, made them very policy-specific. He perceived of the whole project as a radio project. That’s, I think, what was different.
How does the perception that Trump isn’t focus-testing his communication change how it’s received? Do you think it’s permanently changed how presidents will communicate/altered conventional understanding of presidential decorum?
I have a lot in my book about “authenticity.” This is kind of a bullshit word, because it’s used to mean a lot of different things. But since Theodore Roosevelt — and even more so, I’d say, since Jimmy Carter — we’ve put a premium on politicians and political speech and behavior that seems genuine, heartfelt, honest, and reflective of who the person really is. People are fed up with a lot of different aspects of politics, from the failure to get stuff done to the failure to speak plainly. Trump harnessed his unfiltered, shoot-from-the-hip style to a message that was also about change and shaking up Washington (Obama had done the same in 2008; McCain, too; and so had many others before them). People liked the straight talk because it seemed to cut through so much of the spin and obfuscation that they felt was standing in the way of political progress. Now, authenticity is often contrived, at least in part. I have an anecdote in the book about Eisenhower throwing away his prepared speeches to speak from the heart and getting rave reviews (How many movies have had their heroes doing something similar?). It was a stunt. And we know that Trump was never wholly spontaneous in his communications — he worked with Kellyanne Conway and Roger Stone and others long before he went to run. I’ve heard that he doesn’t do all his own tweeting, either. He obviously can be calculating and deliberate in his messaging, and he is a champion flip-flopper (flip-flopping is allegedly the antithesis of authenticity — authenticity requires consistency).
Will this change presidential communication? It’s hard to say. I think that for decades we’ve been moving to a more informal, even populist style of presidential communication. And so I think this continues that trajectory. That doesn’t mean everyone in the future will talk like Trump — they won’t — but we will adjust to a president who angrily insults other politicians and public figures, who denies that he said what we heard him say, and so much else. And so we won’t recoil in the future in quite the same way from other politicians who do these things. Trump will normalize, to a degree, his undecorous, unpresidential habits of speech and behavior.
Do you think Trump’s Twitter style serves a primary purpose? Is it primarily to sell his political persona, advance an agenda, distract reporters? All of the above?
Not sure what he strives for with it. He does all those things with his tweeting. I think he goes online when he wants to command the headlines in a quick and easy way. It’s easier than convening a news conference or issuing a press release or a formal statement.
What is the history of the notion that if the president says something it is inherently news? Where did that come from, and is that outdated?
I think it’s something that thoughtful journalists have for a while, for 40 or 50 years, recognized as outdated but have not been able to wean themselves from. If you look at 19th-century presidents, presidents really didn’t say that much. They weren’t constantly issuing press releases. They weren’t weighing in on every policy or development. And, one thing that makes Theodore Roosevelt so remarkable, and it’s why I start the book with him, is that TR really pioneered this notion of going around the country giving speeches on a particular topic and getting press for it. I don’t want to overstate it, but most previous presidents thought, well, news happens. That they go about their business, and they give their speeches and they would make decisions. And when they did those things they would get news coverage, but they weren’t floating trial balloons and they weren’t engaging in public relations and they weren’t arguing for policies through the press. And that’s what Roosevelt starts to do. I think by Wilson and certainly by the ’20s you have White House photo ops. Hellen Keller comes to the White House, and there’s a story about it, this sort of soft news, the president capturing the public eye is already the case.
By the late ’60s early ’70s, journalist are starting to realize that they’re overdoing it. There are so many White House beat reporters. Do they all need to be there for every routine announcement? So there are people in that period, in the early ’70s, it’s a period where there’s a lot of questioning of journalistic routines going on. But they never can quite figure out how to redefine the role.
When I started off, I was a journalist for several years before I went and got my history degree; I worked for Bob Woodward as his assistant. He felt like you [journalists] do way too much of this beat reporting. You should pare the beat reporting to the bone and just have people do investigative projects, long-term projects, enterprise reporting, and the proportions of a reporting staff of a major newspaper should be refigured. That’s still a problem that journalists are wrestling with. These problems are not new with Trump. I think for 40 or 50 years, journalists have been aware of the superfluousness of a lot of what they do in terms of the daily coverage. But they haven’t quite found a way to say, “Well, I don’t need to do this.” There are things that journalists, and newspapers, do decide not to cover. So I’m not sure why Donald Trump’s tweets need to go into the must-cover category rather than the sometimes-cover category.
I wanted to ask about a popular sort of theory that has been floating around online is that, that Trump times his tweets to distract from some damaging news story that’s come out. Do you think that’s the case at all? Or is that people just seeing conspiracies where none exist?
Well, I wouldn’t call that a conspiracy exactly. I think that’s an old trick. Theodore Roosevelt learned to announce bad news on Friday so it would be kind of buried in the Saturday papers. For years we’ve heard stories about presidents or politicians making an announcement to try to steal the thunder from something else. I don’t think there’s actually anything wrong with it. It’s really the job of the press to judge for themselves whether they should run with the new “Trump said” story or stick with the story they meant to cover. I mean, the first time this occurred to me was when Trump lost the Iowa caucus and it seemed like — for the first time since he made his comments about Mexicans being rapists — the spotlight was off him and on Ted Cruz. Even though he had sort of disavowed the issue he suddenly comes out with the Cruz birther issue. He didn’t really care about that issue, he sure was done with it in a few days, but it served his purpose in that it got everybody talking, and I was just amazed by how many people were suddenly talking about the Cruz birther issue. It totally got people focused back on Trump.
The one thing I was going to mention before is, I think, without overdoing the comparison, there’s a strong element of Joe McCarthy and his M.O. here. If you read the way that journalists wrote about McCarthy, wrote about their experiences covering McCarthy, they describe something similar. McCarthy would level an accusation that so-and-so is a Communist and everybody would go chasing after it like a bunch of dogs chasing after the tennis ball. And they would then ask this person, “Are you a Communist?” and they would dig into the story and they’d find no, the person is not really a Communist, maybe they’d been in the Communist Party when they were like 22 for six months or whatever. But then, by that time, McCarthy would be onto another accusation, you know? He sustained attention. The fact that these previous accusations didn’t pan out didn’t seem to teach the reporters that, “Maybe, let’s just not report it.” They still felt, “Well, he’s got his committee, you know? He’s a major figure. We still have to report it. It’s still news.” So they struggled with this question of: Is it news? It’s a very similar kind of question, I think, that people are dealing with in the case of Trump.
Do you think he’s better at deflecting controversy than past presidential figures?
He doesn’t really deflect it. He just kind of rides it. I do think he’s got a level of Teflon that probably would make Reagan envious. I’m hardly the first one to say this — that anyone that insults every single ethnic group, who says with McCain “I prefer soldiers that don’t get captured,” who insults the Pope and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and sort of one respectable figure after another and doesn’t really pay a price for it — has a certain kind of Teflon. On the other hand, he does pay a price for it. Despite being elected president, he has these very low approval ratings. People don’t necessarily like these things about him. Even people who voted for him don’t necessarily like him. Maybe it’s because he does a good job of sort of playing the anti-media card but that’s something that Nixon did and Bush did and a lot of, even some Democrats have done. I guess I would say that he does seem to be especially adept at it. I don’t know if he’s in a whole other league or just seems to have found a way that worked well for him.
It’s been sort of mildly encouraging to read your book and realize that the issues that I’ve been hearing about for the last year — people complaining about some sort of unprecedented failure of the press — don’t seem to be all that new.
Right. Obviously I wrote it before Trump burst on the scene, but I did sort of want to convey that with the book so I’m glad that comes through. I don’t think it’s unprecedented and new. At the same time, I do think we are in a kind of dangerous place that we haven’t been since Watergate; even Watergate was different because Democrats had a lot more countervailing power.
There are obviously certain things about his election that are unprecedented, you know? Nobody had so little experience in politics and became president. We had generals, but that’s a kind of politics. And a lot of the norms of behavior that he just kind of shredded seemed to have fallen by the wayside in ways that they didn’t during Nixon and they didn’t during McCarthy. So I think you’re drawing the right conclusion from my book, and, at the same time, since writing the book, have felt like there are clearly some ways where we are in uncharted water.
This piece has been updated to fix minor transcription errors.