(The Medium Is The Message or How Obama Taught Trump To Tweet)
“Information is power. Education is not power…Money is not power. Information is power.”
-- Dick Gregory
Control of the production and dissemination of information is the cornerstone of every successful, modern, mass political movement.
As far back as the invention of the printing press, information processing, including especially its mass distribution, has been a paramount concern of both the power elites and those who would displace them. Quantum leaps in information processing and control were signaled by, in quick succession, the advent of the telegraph, then the phonograph, radio, television, sound and video recording, and the Internet.
I f politics are about controlling the “social” aspects of people’s means and methods of achieving and maintaining a livelihood, then from their inception, “social media” are inherently “political.” Social media are overturning the “old” political media formats — buttons, posters, pamphlets, newsletters, newspapers, books, magazines, news reels, movies, radio, phone banks, direct mail, and even television itself — as the new (or at least latest) means by which the political is now effectuated….empowered. These traditional methods, though now seen as crude, even primitive, still operate, of course, but their roles are inexorably diminishing, giving over more and more political space to the new dispensation being ushered in by all social media.
This means political actors have no choice but to come to terms with Facebook (despite its current problems), Twitter, email, instant messaging, and any and all other emerging pathways and portals to getting one’s message across to supporters and would-be supporters.
There are as many and varied definitions, “schools of thought,” and descriptions of the “political” as there are political thinkers and philosophers. Marx (yes, that Marx) reduced both “politics” and the “social” to reflections or representations of the economic interests of the wielders of “power.”
Similarly, Max Weber (arguably the father of modern “sociology”) famously informed us that power itself is a mere matter of who controls the levers (social control agents and instruments) of physical coercion; and that therefore political power is ultimately based upon the “legitimate” or “authoritative” control and use of sheer physical force.
For my money, taken together, these two thinkers correctly identify the essence of politics and of the political: Power — either economic or physical, or in the case of “sovereign” nation-states, both economic and physical.
Obama’s Paradigm Shift:
Did you feel it? President Obama’s 2008 campaign shifted the entire political landscape by setting a different, new and higher standard for the entire process of reaching potential voters — a standard which must at least be met by certainly any national (and most state and local) political office seekers. Beginning as early as 2007 and long before the Democratic Party Primary Elections, Obama and his supporters put to work social media and their virtually infinite capacities to create overlapping, vertical and horizontal, saturating “social networks.” Team Obama created an at first under-the-radar “movement” which exponentially ramped up fledgling supportive local organizations, raised prodigious sums of money, provided rapid and pointed responses to “Swift Boat” tactics, and registered millions of new voters.
That Was Then….This Is Now:
After Obama’s history-making election, new websites harvesting the golden databases created during his campaign sprang up like mushrooms after a spring rain. As a result, a new and far-reaching ability to connect directly with the “masses” has obtained. Politicians may now bypass entirely special interest groups, lobbyists, the traditional news outlets and networks and take their case directly to anybody with Internet access. Now it is this online access that drives offline behavior. Folks are motivated and can motivate others to join the cause, to give the money, to forward the message with just a few taps on a keyboard, a couple of clicks with a “mouse,” or single-finger swipes across a cellphone screen.
Donald Trump, Commander-In-Tweet:
Although he will never admit it, Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and his relentless use of “the twitter machine,” followed the social media template constructed and executed to near perfection by ex-President Barack Obama in both his successful campaigns for that high office.
When Trump made his Mexicans-are-rapists-and-criminals proclamation of his candidacy, the Internet’s content police aggregated his most “embarrassing,” “ridiculous,” and “crazy” tweets, quite certain that exposure of his outrageous online record would immediately sink such an unorthodox bid for the Oval Office.
But contrary to all prescripts and warnings by the punditocracy and the usual suspects of “conventionally” wise men and wise women at that time, Trump not only retained but doubled-down on his online vulgarity, including, especially, his penchant for ad hominem snarks and insults.
Donald Trump knew and understood his audience (“base”) on an almost visceral level, much deeper and better than any of the political deep thinkers, TV and radio talking heads, newspaper scribes, and other “experts” could even imagine. He reduced the grand presidential political stage to a computer monitor-sized tableau whereon he, and only he, controlled access to the keyboard and mouse.
Trump’s Twitter account quickly came to dominate the entire Twittersphere. The Washington Post called it prolific, populist, and self-obsessed, and a “real-time message tester.” The New York Times appeared to be awed, even flummoxed by Trump’s paramilitary-styled command of “an online SWAT team of devoted (some say rabid) supporters who spring into action with stunning speed.” One political guru called his Twitter followership “a continuous Trump rally that happens on Twitter at all hours.”
Although impossibly early, the current presidential election sweepstakes are already shaping up to be different from 2016 by degrees and orders of magnitude rather than in kind. That is to say that Democrats and all others must beware: Again, following Obama’s lead, Trump has updated and sharpened and deepened the role of social media as the platform upon which power politics are played out in this nation-state. And if, as expected, he mixes in even more “foreign aid” than he did last time, plus just enough voter suppression in ridiculously gerrymandered but borderline, GOP-curious states, counties, and cities, then 2020 will will very likely not be much of a contest after all.