Presidential communications in 2017

January 31, 2017 Dave Karpf
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Mario Cuomo famously stated that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Our new president still displays the same (140-character) rhyme and meter that accompanied his unlikely ascent to the White House. The big question we all must consider during the first year of his presidency is whether his communications strategy will ever switch out of perpetual campaign mode… and what the repercussions will be if it doesn’t.

The difference between Donald Trump and all other first-year presidents comes into focus when we reflect upon Susan Douglas’s pre-election First Year essay, “Up Close and Personal.” Douglas offers four key lessons about media management. This is sensible advice, deeply rooted in the historical experiences of past presidents. But just as candidate Trump challenged and questioned nearly every established rule and norm of how one runs a presidential campaign, President Trump has spent the past two months of his transition violating every piece of established wisdom for how an incoming president is expected to behave.

Let’s consider Trump’s recent behavior in light of Douglas’s four recommendations:

“Know the tools”

Douglas suggests that effective presidential communicators have, throughout history, had to master the affordances of a new suite of media tools. She is, of course, historically correct. The development of presidential communications through time is a story of constantly mastering new communications and bending them towards the governance objectives of the presidential administration. But, in the same vein, Douglas recommends that the new administration must “be disciplined and prepared in using these media.”

During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump proved himself to be a social media savant. He deftly deployed social media to frustrate his opponents, seize the media agenda, and alter the public conversation. But “disciplined and prepared” he was not. Trump was brash and intemperate, striking out at Gold Star families and a former Miss Universe with reckless abandon. He also had a disturbing habit of retweeting the accounts of avowed white supremacists.

And lest we chalk this behavior up to a sort of brash poetry-of-campaigning, keep in mind that the transition months have offered no evidence that his operation has gained any discipline or forethought. Trump’s twitter tirades against Saturday Night Live, against China, and against Congressman John Lewis all display evidence of neither discipline nor preparation. Trump’s use of social media is more akin to an insult comic. It is a style that was surprisingly well suited to the crowded Republican primary field, but it seems a mismatch for the hard, grinding work of policymaking. 

Discipline and preparation have been a hallmark of presidential communications throughout the modern era. But at the dawn of the Trump administration, we appear poised for a test of just how important these habits are.

“Watch your front—and your back”

Douglas’s second suggestion relates to the ongoing erosion of presidential privacy. Here again, Trump’s peculiar background renders him a unique character. Trump began his presidential campaign with more than three million Twitter followers and a long history of tweets that were …colorful to say the least. His public persona was forged initially through 1980s and 1990s tabloid coverage, then built through fourteen seasons of The Apprentice on NBC.

If Barack Obama was our first social media president, then Donald Trump must be viewed as our first reality TV president. And the secret of reality television is that, while it provides the veneer of authenticity, that authenticity is heavily engineered and scripted. While Donald Trump’s public persona has produced endless material on Howard Stern and elsewhere, he simultaneously has enjoyed more privacy and secrecy than any presidential candidate of the modern era. His taxes remain unreleased. His business ties and conflicts remain unexamined. Even the details of how two of his campaign managers were paid remain unexplained.

We have never had a president so experienced in constructing and marketing his own public image and brand. We have also never had a president whose private entanglements were so well hidden (at least in the modern era). The question now is whether he will alter his attention-grabbing celebrity persona in order to prioritize the strategic goals of governing the nation.

“Traditional media still matters”

Donald Trump has launched an unprecedented assault on traditional media organizations. This began during his campaign rallies, where he revoked press credentials from mainstream outlets that didn’t provide fawning coverage and routinely called reporters “disgusting,” “dishonest,” “sleaze,” and “scum.” It continued in his first post-election news conference, where he refused to take a question from Jim Acosta of CNN (calling on a reporter instead), declaring, “you are fake news.” His administration has also indicated its intention to dramatically curtail press access and move the briefing room.

Traditional media do indeed still matter, and the Trump campaign managed to simultaneously demonize the press while also appealing to the press, keeping the candidate in the center of every news story. Will the Trump presidential administration maintain this campaign posture?  Will his communications team attempt to build bridges with the media in order to pursue their policy objectives, or will they continue to paint mainstream outlets as “fake news” while prioritizing alt-right conservative outlets like Breitbart? Here, once again, it appears that we are entering uncharted terrain.

“Beware mixed messages”

Douglas recommends that presidents “never use the media to stage events or promote positions that are at odds with actual policy.” Thus far, Trump’s cabinet nominees have repeatedly revealed that they disagree with Trump’s stated policy positions. Trump himself has quarreled with Republican congressional leaders on topics such as the Office of Congressional Ethics and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. He has also repeatedly used social media to make demonstrably false claims about jobs that he has personally saved, or to promise press conferences on topics such as Russian computer hacking and conflict of interest that he later cancelled.

Indeed, on the first weekend of his presidency, Trump sent his press secretary out to make demonstrably false claims about the audience size at his inauguration.

Instead of being wary of mixed messages, Trump appears to be continuing his campaign practice of always trying to assert dominance and win the moment. This is a style that worked very well for him during the long presidential campaign. But how will it work when he also has to govern?

Donald Trump has been a master of deploying social media for his combative presidential campaign. He ran an unlikely presidential campaign, one that political scientists, pollsters, and pundits repeatedly underestimated. His performance during the presidential transition continued with that same style. There has been no shift from the poetry of campaigning to the prose of governance.

The question we are now left to ask is whether the public persona Donald Trump has fashioned through the decades and perfected through the campaign will shift during his time in office. Will success be defined through achieving policy goals, or through picking and winning social media fights?

Or, put more simply, will the presidency actually change Donald Trump’s communication strategy, or will the Trump social media behemoth change the presidency?

Dave Karpf is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, where he teaches courses in strategic political communication. His primary area of research is on the Internet and American political associations. He is the author of two books: The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy (Oxford University Press, 2016). Dave was Miller Center Fellow in 2007-2008.