How Donald Trump is changing presidential communication

An argument can be made that Donald J. Trump is unlike any president-elect in history. Between claiming that “millions of people” voted illegally in this election and tweeting what could be read as the seed of foreign policy in Cuba, his communication style, at least, is nothing if not unconventional.

We asked John Wihbey, assistant professor of journalism and an expert in new media, and Greg Goodale, associate professor of communication studies and a former lawyer, lobbyist, speechwriter, and congressional aide, to analyze Trump’s communication style and how it might shape the way future presidents communicate with the public. They addressed what we can and can’t read into Trump’s tweets, “dog whistles” in political speech, and why tweets are perhaps the next evolution of how presidents will engage directly with the public. Here are the highlights.

Broadly, what can be read into Trump’s tweets and what cannot? In other words, can you take the tweets from his account at face value or is there more to his method?

Wihbey: The president-elect has absolutely realized the power of unfiltered access to the public through social media. He’s charting a new course for political figures in terms of how they speak publicly.

I think he’s still testing out what his communications strategy is going to look like. What we cannot yet know is what will happen when he actually assumes power. Will there be a strong connection between the tweets and the policies? Will a late-night tweet about the need, say, for mass deportations end in a real roundup of unauthorized immigrants the next day? Or is Trump just using Twitter as a kind of digital “bully pulpit”—a way of shaping public opinion and doing agenda setting? That, in some ways, is a big question for the country—perhaps even for the world.

Goodale: One of the reasons so many Americans voted for Trump is his consistency. Voters expect politicians to act one way in public and another way behind the scenes, an expectation that Hillary Clinton met perfectly. But with Trump, there is a consistency in his messaging. “Trump” is a brand and he is smart enough to know not to tamper with it. So the tweets should be taken at face value.

Given your respective experiences and backgrounds, what are you looking for in Trump’s communications? Are there any words, phrases, or syntaxical elements that serve as “tells” for you that signal something else in his messages?

Goodale: There was a time during the campaign when there were two Trumps tweeting. The campaign staff tweeted from an iPhone and most of those messages were about the campaign’s schedule and official message. Trump tweeted from an Android phone, and most of those tweets were aligned with his self-branding. Now that he is the only one tweeting, his tweets will continue to be rough-edged and plain-talking. I don’t expect nuance or diplomacy. Consistent with the Trump brand, I do expect anger, conspiracy theories, and the expression of grievances.

Wihbey: First of all, you may recall that Northeastern professor David Lazer and his fellow researchers have been very precisely analyzing patterns in Trump’s tweets. We have seen some repetition over time—words like “great,” “failed,” “nasty,” “weak,” and “winner”—and of course the expression of the year—“sad!” Let’s all watch careful semantic research efforts like that one to see if there are indeed meaningful patterns.

More ominously, there are what are called “dog whistles” in political speech—certain turns of phrase that are sort of “shout outs” to ideological or cultural sub-communities. They are coded messages that only certain segments of the public “hear” clearly. I think public leaders these days need to be responsible and careful, even if they think it’s amusing at some level to provoke opponents.

Do you think the way that Trump communicates will change the way future presidents or presidents-elect communicate? Do you see a movement away from more standard press conferences?

Wihbey: He’ll do it idiosyncratically, in his own idioms of speech and expression, but overall I think he’ll just accelerate trends that were already in motion. All of the presidents in the 21st century seemed to have moved away from press conferences and even from televised presidential addresses.

Goodale: There has been a long history of presidents getting around the media filter by directly addressing the nation. Think of Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats or Ronald Reagan’s television addresses. More recently, presidents have used the internet to directly reach the public, making journalists increasingly irrelevant—and that’s not a good thing for a democracy. Trump’s use of Twitter is more evolution than revolution. It’s his language that is revolutionary, and I suspect that language will permanently alter political communication styles.

Throughout the campaign, Trump was often critical of the media—a theme that seems to be continuing post-election. How do you think his relationship and his administration’s relationship with the press will compare to that of past presidents and what impact do you expect this relationship will have on his coverage?

Wihbey: To the extent that any of this rhetoric emboldens unhinged and unlawful persons, I would say this is a whole different relationship between a president-elect and the news media. I am very worried about harassment and threats against journalists. There has been some terrible mistreatment of people just doing their jobs as professionals. It’s unacceptable and needs to end. And social media companies and law enforcement need to get involved in a serious way. Period. We are a democracy that has enshrined a free press in its Constitution. A free press doesn’t just mean avoiding direct censorship. An atmosphere of coercion and fear is not free.

That said, it is worth pointing out that candidate Trump was doing almost unheard-of amounts of interviews and Q&As with reporters during the early campaign. Now, he’s dialed back on that. There’s a strategy here. Media is being used with some calculation.

What are the benefits to Trump’s communication style? What are the drawbacks?

Goodale: In a purely political sense, Trump’s communication style is a winning style.

Trump’s rhetoric—and it is rhetoric—has exposed democracy for what it is—a myth that has worked for the past two centuries. One drawback is that 2016 is likely to be remembered as the year when democracy’s failures became clear for all to see. A basic premise of democracy is that a well-educated public will vote rationally. Evidence from scholars in multiple fields and from election results in Colombia, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, and the United States has destroyed that premise. For the immediate future, democracy will hang suspended in mid-air, waiting for the rules of gravity to bring it down. In the long-run, things are going to get messy. Thankfully, Northeastern is producing the next generation of leaders and they will have to tools to clean up the mess.

 Jack Schafer, of Politico, wrote in a column about covering Trump, “Let a billion FOIAs bloom!” Do you foresee the Freedom of Information Act having a more prominent role during Trump’s presidency?

Wihbey: I like Schafer and John Dickerson’s idea that we might expect many dissenters in the entrenched bureaucracies of the federal agencies. If there are radical changes in policy and direction, expect lots of leaks and whistleblowers—and long document trails waiting for discovery through information requests under FOIA.

I love the Freedom of Information Act and think it’s terribly important for democracy. I hope it is not just journalists filing them in the years ahead. Everyone should. Targeted transparency is a real virtue in very complex systems like our federal bureaucracy, where we can’t keep track of everything but where we want to be able to do spot-checks of government functioning and performance.

Do you expect the Presidential Records Act—an Act that mandates the preservation of all presidential records—to impact the way Trump communicates once he’s sworn into office?

Goodale: Trump’s tweets are public and seen by over 11,000,000 people, including plenty of reporters and citizen reporters, so I would imagine any effort he might make to delete a tweet would fall into a gray area of the law. The tweets will be preserved in the historic record even if they disappear from Trump’s feed. That’s the nature of social media. Nothing is permanent, but everything is preserved.