FDR was the first “radio” president. JFK emerged as the first “television” president. Barack Obama broke through as the first “Internet” president.
Next up? Prepare to meet Donald Trump, possibly the first “social media” and “reality TV” president.
Everyone is focused on the news that retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has slipped past the celebrity billionaire in Iowa. But Trump is still the national front runner — placing first or second in every GOP poll taken this year.
The political elite needs to face the facts: a Trump presidency is possible. Just look at history. In every generation, the triumphant politician is the one who first masters his era’s media tools.
FDR’s “fireside chats” are now legendary. And yet we forget how innovative they were. Here was a president using the most cutting-edge technology of the day to speak directly to millions. His radio persona did not simply mask his physical limitations. You could argue that his physical limitations forced him to develop the rhetorical genius perfectly suited to a radio era.
Polished, handsome and energetic, JFK first captured America’s heart through the power of television. He was only outdone when an actual screen actor rose to the highest office in the land: Ronald Reagan. The Gipper’s televised charisma helped earn him the moniker “the Great Communicator.”
More recently, we witnessed Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign pioneer new ways to use the Internet to convert grassroots passion into volunteer energy and small-dollar donations. But it was Barack Obama who perfected the art. His 2008 and 2012 campaigns leveraged email, online video, big data and some social media tools to create a game-changing force.
The winning strategies all look so obvious in hindsight. But in their time, all of these innovators — FDR, JFK, Reagan, and Obama — were criticized, misunderstood and underestimated.
Now, the same thing may be happening with Trump. And it is the reason he could win.
Americans who listened to the 1960 Nixon vs. Kennedy debate on radio famously declared Nixon the victor. But the millions watching the first televised debate picked JFK. The rules of the game had changed, and the spoils went to the person who figured it out first.
The Trump phenomenon flabbergasts pundits like me. We thought the billionaire was leaving the world of Entertainment, climbing over a wall and joining us in the sober domain of Politics. But in fact, the opposite happened. “Trump, The Entertainer” stayed exactly where he was. Instead, he pulled the political establishment over the wall and into HIS domain. The political class is now lost in the world of reality television and social media.
In the old system of carefully controlled images, going wildly off message with bombastic statements would terminate a campaign. But not on a reality TV show. There, saying and doing crazy stuff just makes you more famous.
Under the old system, extreme narcissists turn voters off. On reality TV, braggarts get sky-high ratings.
Under the old system, scathing attacks on individuals and ethnic groups would scare away voters. But on Twitter, insulting people and throwing rhetorical bombs doesn’t cost you followers. It usually gains you followers. Lots of them.
Under the old system, proudly declaring that you do not know specifics but will hire a smart team would have been political suicide. But today, it shows authenticity that voters have come to expect from everyone in public life.
Under the old rules, retweeting an attack on the sanity of early state voters would send a campaign into a tailspin. In Trump’s world, he can simply blame a phantom “intern” and move on. Nobody even demands to interview the “intern.”
No wonder almost every time we predict Trump will collapse, he only grows stronger.
Trump is not breaking the rules. He is playing by a new set of rules.
These are rules that everyday Americans have been living under (and adapting to) for more than a decade. The American pundit class, apparently, is late to this kind of a party.
I find Trump’s racist fear-mongering and anti-worker economic policies horrifying. And I truly hope that the juvenile tone and terrible substance of what he is saying will bring him down, eventually.
But every political era is shaped by the media environment of its time.
The most successful politicians have an innate understanding of that environment and the skill to act on it. In our era, that could be Trump.
The reality-show president could soon become reality.