From March 12, 1933 until June 12, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt undertook 30 radio broadcasts that were aimed directly at talking to the American people about his ideas and policies. Roosevelt had first used the medium of radio to talk directly to the people in 1929 when he was Governor of New York. The idea of the “fireside chat” was simple: Roosevelt’s political opponents controlled the newspapers, so he had to find a way to get his message heard by the average American without the taint of opinion journalism. Thus, unfiltered, Roosevelt circumvented the press and decided to use the growing new-media-market of the radio to communicate directly with the American people.
The tone of the fireside chat was conversational and the speeches were written in such a way as to allow the ordinary citizen to imagine Roosevelt was sitting in the living room having a quiet conversation. The early purpose of the talks was to convince Americans that they should be actively supporting his New Deal programs. The first “chat” was during the 1933 Banking Crisis that came only eight days after Roosevelt’s inauguration.
The impact of Roosevelt’s fireside chats cannot be overstated. It was the first time that the President of the United States could, routinely, communicate with the average citizen without an intermediary. Roosevelt used familiar speech patterns and analogies without “speechifying.” The chats were also an opportunity, later in Roosevelt’s presidency, to give updates on the progress of the War.
Enter new media and the 21st century. Even well-before he was President-Elect of the United States, Donald Trump was an avid connoisseur of Twitter and has had his finger on the pulse of American entertainment for the better part of the last forty years. Certainly as a celebrity playboy billionaire, Trump’s escapades made him a frequent (willing) participant in stories about his wealth and influence in New York City and beyond. Coupled with his hit television series, The Apprentice, Trump has been a household name and brand for decades. However, it is in new media where Trump has changed the political landscape of the United States.
There’s a sense in reading Donald Trump’s tweets that you’re getting to see the inner workings of Trump’s mind and the unvarnished opinions of what the billionaire-turned-President really thinks about issues facing the nation. Certainly his prior tweets and his willingness to get down into the mud with his rivals made for entertaining/embarrassing displays of public feuding, but the point was made: the American people would have an unrivaled look at exactly who they were selecting to lead them.
This was a point I made several times during the General Election campaign: compare Trump’s Twitter feed with Hillary Clinton’s. Clinton’s was sterile, groomed, focus-grouped and boring. Trump’s, on the other hand, was visceral, real, and sometimes bombastic. It was clear that Trump was actually talking with you while it was Hillary’s communications team drafting her manicured tweets.
Why does this matter? Politicians have been on Twitter for a decade, you might point out. That’s certainly true. However, like Hillary Clinton, the manicured nature of tweets and communications made the platform little more than an ongoing commercial of tried and tested political tropes rather than a look at the individual behind the Twitter handle.
Trump’s tweets, while sometimes eye-rollingly lacking in grammar, are “real.” And to the average American, whose friends and family are all on social media, the fact that the most powerful man in the world is sitting behind the keyboard talking directly to you has revolutionized the way in which voters are interacting with their politicians.
There’s certainly a savvy in Trump’s use of Twitter that transcends simply being a sounding board for his thoughts at three o’clock in the morning. Trump has roundly and routinely condemned his portrayal by the media as being biased and unfair. Objectively, he’s probably correct in this assessment. Therefore, rather than simply grin and bear it like George W. Bush and other Republicans, Trump has decided to actively engage with voters to let them know “his side” of the discussions.
Enter the President-Elect. No longer a mere candidate for office, Trump has ascended to the level of, but-for a calamity, the 45th President of the United States. Much to the chagrin of the same people who thought that tweeting during the campaign was unwise, Trump has continued to engage voters on Twitter with, seemingly daily, updates about the transition and his comments on public affairs. Trump’s post-election tweets have ranged from condemning flag burning to criticizing the media, to thanking supporters, and discussing his appointments. Again, he is providing his view of events directly to the American people.
The media has generally condemned Trump’s practice of using Twitter (maybe because he’s cutting them out?) and have insisted that Trump hold press conferences like his predecessors. However, with every morning flurry of tweets, the press narrative for the day is set. For instance, today, Trump tweeted about how he will step away from his business interests. The media will be covering that issue today.
Through the campaign, Trump showed an intense understanding of how to control the media narrative in the nation. Some attribute this to dumb luck and a for-profit media market that understood they could make money off of Trump’s celebrity status. However, even if this were the idea behind network executives giving Trump all the airtime he wanted, Trump used this relationship to hammer home his message and suck all the air out of his opponents’ campaigns.
In the end, Trump capitalized on the opportunities he had and continued to spin narratives on Twitter to keep the press focused on him. Now, as President-Elect, Trump continues to create stories and drive the direction of coverage of his transition.
It’s important to close with a word of warning that FDR realized and many will likely hope Trump takes to heart as well. While the fireside chat was an extremely effective use of the new media bully pulpit, FDR only made use of it 30 times in his presidency. The concern was that if he used it too often, it would begin to lose its effectiveness. Certainly Twitter and 140 characters is a different animal than a 15-45 minute radio broadcast, but the admonition is the same. Trump has a great deal of influence when he tweets and he is certainly within his right to talk directly to the American people. However, he should be sure that he uses the platform to make his case on issues rather than merely complain.
Obviously, we’ll post this article on Twitter…