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Trump didn’t invent obnoxious behaviour on social media, but he is the most high-profile Twitter user in the world.
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Trump's use of social media has provoked outrage, but like many of his predecessors, the president is a symbol of the age. 

“My use of social media is not Presidential - it's MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL!”. The tweet from President Trump’s social media account in July 2018 was typical of the provocative, bombastic pronouncements that have defined his use of the medium.

But although polls show a majority of Americans feel their president’s online attacks are inappropriate for the commander in chief, Trump is correct to imply that his combative style is unprecedented in American politics. His aggressive insults directed daily at world leaders, actors and celebrities are a unique departure from the staid and formal behaviour associated with the presidency.

A new article by Professor Steven Casey of the Department of International History sets Trump’s behaviour in a wider historical context of how America’s leaders have responded to, and shaped, their era through their use of the media.

Charting media changes throughout the 20th century, the article details the first press conference pioneered by Woodrow Wilson, the ‘fireside chats’ Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcast to the radio-owning masses, and John F. Kennedy’s use of television to address the nation.

Trump’s chosen medium is social media, exploiting it far more ruthlessly than other politicians.  He describes himself as the ‘Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters’, due to the coverage and fallout from his tweets, and is apparently delighted with the way his social media insults are amplified by the traditional media, which faithfully reports his every word.

Professor Casey says: “It’s long been established that the president is a newsmaker in chief. When the president makes a major speech, whether it is Kennedy on space travel or Reagan denouncing the Soviet Union, it has always been at the centrepiece of the news agenda. But Trump’s need for attention and controversy has made him a more central figure than most other presidents.”

President Trump’s social media use is a sharp departure from his predecessor, Barack Obama. During his term, Obama also used the medium effectively, as a way of receiving donations, organising supporters, and communicating positive and often serious messages to the American public.

Obama's era seems like a distant memory in 2018, where Trump’s Twitter style reflects the tone and aggression of much of the debate on social media. Trump seems to excite his most ardent supporters and disregard his critics, similar to the way many users disappear into their own filter bubbles on social media and avoid alternative views.

Another way in which Professor Casey finds Trump’s media profile as embodiment of the present moment is the way that expertise is drowned out in the cacophony of online voices. He says: “Social media has allowed everyone to have a voice and an opinion; qualified experts given equivalence with all the other voices.”

“When Trump says things like “I’m sceptical about climate change because I have an instinct for science”, he embodies the anti-expert, amateurism that is common and seems to appeal to a certain section of society.”

The next question for American politics is whether Trump’s communication style is a mere aberration or becomes the new norm in public life. Professor Casey says this hinges on whether he is rejected by the voters in the midterm elections in November 2018 for the House and Congress.

“At the root level, politics is all about winning or losing. The midterms will be a real test for Donald Trump’s politics. If there is a wave of support for the Democratic Party, I think the dynamic will change very quickly.”

A loss of voters will force Trump’s Republican colleagues to ask questions his electoral prospects and the damage he is doing to the party. It may also trigger a Republican primary challenge to the incumbent president (something not seen since 1992 when George H.W. Bush lost the White House) from a candidate who defines themselves against Trump.

After the midterm elections, the Democratic Party will turn its attention to the nominations for the 2020 presidential election.  The Democrats would be emboldened by a big defeat for Trump; and if they settle on a candidate early, it will give the opposition an official figurehead they can unite around to lead their criticism of the president.

Professor Casey says: “The Democratic challenger will help to set the tone of the debate over the next two years.

“My own hope is that we have a Democratic nominee who can embody America’s best values and instincts, after we have had two years of some of the worst. Trump didn’t invent obnoxious behaviour on social media, but he is the most high-profile Twitter user in the world. And he has become, like many of his predecessors as president, a symbol of the age.”

Behind the article

The Unprecedented President: Donald Trump and the Media in Historical Perspective by Professor Steven Casey is published by by ISSF in October 2018. 

Professor Casey's most recent book is The War Beat, Europe: The American Media at War against Nazi Germany, published by Oxford University Press in 2017. The book won the American Journalism Historians Association 2018 book of the year.