In Western politics, we no longer get to experience the fun of a revolution, but at least we get the occasional media revolution. In an essay out today at Politico, I argue that we’re at the start of the third big media makeover of modern political campaigns. First came radio in the twenties, then TV in the sixties. Now it’s social media that’s changing the tone and tenor of elections. The Donald may burn out soon, but the inability of both the press and his adversaries to make sense of the Trump campaign suggests that the rules have changed. The tidy narratives of TV campaigns are yesterday’s news.
Here’s a bit from the piece:
What’s important now is not so much image as personality. But, as the Trump phenomenon reveals, it’s only a particular kind of personality that works — one that’s big enough to grab the attention of the perpetually distracted but small enough to fit neatly into a thousand tiny media containers. It might best be described as a Snapchat personality. It bursts into focus at regular intervals without ever demanding steady concentration.
Social media favors the bitty over the meaty, the cutting over the considered. It also prizes emotionalism over reason. The more visceral the message, the more quickly it circulates and the longer it holds the darting public eye. In something of a return to the pre-radio days, the fiery populist now seems more desirable, more worthy of attention, than the cool wonk. It’s the crusty Bernie and the caustic Donald that get hearted and hash-tagged, friended and followed. Is it any wonder that “Feel the Bern” has become the rallying cry of the Sanders campaign?
Emotional appeals can be good for politics. They can spur civic involvement, even among the disenfranchised and disenchanted. And they can galvanize public attention, focusing it on injustices and abuses of power. An immediate emotional connection can, at best, deepen into a sustained engagement with the political process. But there’s a dark side to social media’s emotionalism. Trump’s popularity took off only after he demonized Mexican immigrants, playing to the public’s frustrations and fears. That’s the demagogue’s oldest tactic, and it worked. The Trump campaign may have qualities of farce, but it also suggests that a Snapchat candidate, passionate yet hollow, could be a perfect vessel for a cult of personality.
Here’s the rest.
Image: Dick Nixon reacts to the arrival of the TV era.