“In the old days men had the rack. Now they have the press”
-Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism
And now they have Twitter. Donald Trump’s Twitter account played a pivotal role in the 2016 United States presidential election, becoming the go-to source for Trump’s opinion for both individuals and news organizations. His rapid-fire and contentious tweets spread quickly and easily throughout both social and traditional media. Critics of Trump point out that he is far better at utilizing media than he is at being a politician. In a Washington Post article criticising his campaign strategy, the author details how his campaign differs from that of a normal politician. He describes the campaign by comparing it to Hillary Clinton’s, showing statistics about staffing, spending on ads, and media briefing. He explains that before a speech on Trump’s economic policies, Clinton’s staff briefed reporters on the speech she was about to give and planned strategies for their support in the news coverage following the debate. The author compares this to Trump’s approach, saying he “travels the country, giving speeches–often wildly at variance with one another in their message. He calls in to TV news shows. He tweets… That’s not a campaign. It’s a vanity effort designed to pump up the Trump brand” (Cillizza). This reaction to his tactics praises the “traditional” political process and the way it interacts with the media: prepared statements, briefing reporters, etc. However, Trump’s methods are not unprecedented. My goal is to frame the modern media landscape in a way that shows that its chaotic and unpredictable nature is not as novel as it seems and that despite relying on new technologies for how it is produced and consumed, it is descended from ideologies about media that were in already place in America in the 18th century. I will be modeling my research on Russ Castronovo’s 2014 book Propaganda 1776, which contrasts late 18th century printscape with modern media. Specifically, I am accepting his assertions that medium, dissemination, and propagation are as integral to a piece of propaganda’s success as its message and that the success or failure of a democracy relies on the way its citizens interact with that propaganda.
In Propaganda 1776, Castronovo discusses the work of ate 18th and early 19th poet and newspaper editor Philip Freneau. Freneau frequently used his poetry to make ardent attacks on federalist like Hamilton, Adams, and Washington (Pattee lv). He championed the development of a new form of media informed by poetry that would distance the United States from Britain and its colonial past. His poetry was often criticized as being merely a vessel for his politics. However, Castronovo argues that “To say Freneau churned out propaganda is not to allege that he gave no thought to form. Rather, it is to say that he gave too much thought to matters of form as media” (165). Freneau was distinctly aware of the way his poetry could work as a political tool. He has largely been forgotten in the 21st century, but with the use of novel forms of media like Twitter in the 2016 United States presidential election, Freneau’s analysis of how form and genre intertwine and affect the political process are once again relevant. As Castronovo writes, “Freneau offers fresh insight by encouraging us to think of literary form as a matter of public relations” (164). By comparing the ideals of Freneau’s writing as espoused in his poetry and editorial work to the realities of today, I intend to show that Freneau’s medium–if not his message–has resurfaced through the use of technology and that the apotheosis of it is Donald Trump’s Twitter account.
Philip Freneau began editing the newspaper the National Gazette in 1791. He characterized it as “the vehicle of party spleen and opposition to the great principles of order, virtue and religion.” One of his poems published in the National Gazette read
“Virtue, Order and Religion,
Haste, and seek some other region;
Your plan is fixed to hunt them down,
Destroy the mitre, rend the gown,
And that vile b-tc-h—Philosophy—restore,
Did ever paper plan so much before?”(Pattee liv).
Freneau is deeply cognisant of the role print can play in politics and–as shown in this poem–is not afraid to use it to voice violent and radical positions. In this stanza, he is arguing that “paper” has the ability to tear down established religion to the point of “hunt[ing] down” the catholic church. We can apply Freneau’s logic about paper here to Donald Trump’s Twitter, and not just for its surface-level anti-establishment message. After all, did Twitter “ever plan so much before?” When Twitter was launched in 2006, it would have been laughable to think it would end up being a major factor in a United States presidential election and yet only ten years later, it has. What Trump and Freneau have in common here is the ability to be early adopters of new forms of media and use them to propagate their ideas. This may appear to be a facile similarity. Obviously, whoever embraces a successful form of technology will stand to gain from it, but what is especially important with this example is the way it reveals underlying and disconcerting truths about how an overtly populist, democratic, and open media can nevertheless be used to propagate authoritarianism and lionize counter-factual claims despite also continually making it easier to evaluate the validity of those claims. This is the paradox of social media. We are being shown that when everybody has constant and immediate access to encyclopedic knowledge, it only makes the desire for quick and easy answers stronger.
Freneau would not have been able to predict this paradox and his appeals to democracy reflect that. He believed very strongly in the concept of populist movements, especially in regards to media. He believed that the only way for a republic to succeed was to remove the “Conspiracy of Kings” through democracy and equality by broadening the audience that had access to news. In his aptly titled 1967 book Philip Freneau, Champion of Democracy, Jacob Axelrad writes “Freneau would never appease the men who believed that power belonged to the few… A proposal to levy a tax on newspapers, placing a premium on the people’s sole source of information, wrung from him a cry of protest seldom heard since the days of Peter Senger” Axelrad then quotes this satirical stanza from Freneau:
“The well-born alone should read the news;
No common herd should get behind the scene
To view the movements of the State machine.” (193).
Furthermore, Castronovo writes “For diehard republicans like Freneau and Warren, knowledge and information should not follow the same course as wealth in the new Republic” (152). If we accept that the current print and digital landscape is the apotheosis of Freneau’s ideals of equality in the media, then his beliefs have been proven to be too simplistic if not completely untrue. His medium, which emphasized the massive propagation of information, does not inherently result in the democratic values he thought it would. As seen in the 2016 election, social media directly influenced a shift towards authoritarianism, subverting Freneau’s beliefs about an oppositional genre creating an inclusive democratic process. In a way, what Freneau got wrong wasn’t that he believed in using poetry to influence politics, it’s that his assumptions about the way form interacts with its message were flawed. Castronovo asks “In the world of public opinion, is poetry an inherently oppositional form?” (158). If tweets are fulfilling for Trump the role poetry fulfilled for Freneau, then the answer is unequivocally no. Castronovo may be right by saying that aesthetic decisions are always political, but not all aesthetic choices correspond to their own politics. After all, some of the best poetry of the 20th century was composed by fascists like Ezra Pound.
Freneau’s goal with his newspapers always focused on dissemination. Regarding Freneau’s 1797 address “To the Public,” Castronovo writes “Emphasizing the matter of dissemination with metaphors of seeds and propagation, Freneau observed that widely sown knowledge would be ‘within the reach of every man who will but take up a spade or a mattock for the purpose of attaining it” (152). With the advent of social media, this dream has more or less come true, though the “knowledge” might be too partisan and fragmented even by Freneau’s standards. Donald Trump’s Twitter currently has 12.5 million followers, about 10 percent of the number of voters in the 2012 presidential election (Desilver). Readers might be quick to point out that despite this large number of followers, many voters on the left were blindsided by Trump’s victory, having seen little or no support for him in their own social media feeds. That is correct. About a month after the election, MIT’s media lab provided data to Vice News that showed the way left wing and right wing Twitter users “live in their own Twitter worlds” (Thompson). They provided an infographic showing a web of twitter connections between Clinton and Trump supporters that demonstrates that they not only have little connection to each other, but that Clinton supporters had no direct connection to Trump’s Tweets.
However, I don’t believe this is showing the whole picture. Trump’s tweets aren’t only easily disseminable to his internet-savvy supporters. Their brevity and hostility made them excellent fodder for even mainstream news outlets and therefore did not rely on readers to view them directly from Twitter. It allowed them to be quickly reported on by others in the media ranging from mainstream news networks, alternative news shows such as The Daily Show, bloggers, forums, personal Facebook pages, etc., greatly expanding the tweets’ reach. While left-wing shows like The Daily Show or The Late Show with Stephen Colbert used tweets to mock Trump, they were nevertheless fed to viewers on a nightly basis, about 3.62 million per night in the case of Colbert (O’Connell). And when dissemination is key, in Donald’s own words on Twitter: “Good news is Melania’s speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics especially if you believe that all press is good press!” (Trump).
Left-wing voters aren’t the only group who viewed Trump’s tweets secondhand. According to Pewresearch, 32 percent of internet users ages 18-29 frequently use Twitter, compared to only 6 percent of internet users age 65+. Fox News–who frequently report on Trump’s Twitter–has a viewership of 2.3 million with an average age of 68, extending the tweets’ reach. This is especially noticeable as Trump’s Twitter has become the go-to source for his opinions. Fox News published a piece in October 2016 about Rep. Paul Ryan’s struggle to reconcile his party affiliations while renouncing his support for Trump. In the middle of the article, the author cuts to a quote from vice presidential candidate Mike Pence from a live segment Fox News aired earlier on their morning show “Fox and Friends.” Later in the article, the author gives Trump’s opinion as well, but its source isn’t from an interview but rather his Twitter, saying he “blast[ed] the speaker last Tuesday, in a Twitter post, as ‘weak,’ ‘ineffective’ and ‘disloyal’”(Rosen & Pergram). This example shows how the readily available, simple messages Trump gives through Twitter can be effortlessly used in place of quotes given in an actual interview or press statement.
While Trump’s tweets are used to state his opinion in articles like this, they have the added quality of being easily dismissable when they prove harmful. Throughout the 2016 presidential debates, multiple fact checking sites used Trump’s Twitter to call him out on lies and incorrect information. For instance, in the first debate, Donald Trump denied Hillary Clinton’s claim that he “says climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese.” Politifact, fact checking the debate live on their own Twitter, quickly posted a Tweet Trump made in November 2012 that stated plainly “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Politifact goes on to give an explanation Trump later gave for this tweet on Fox and Friends where he said, less plainly, “And I often joke that this is done for the benefit of China. Obviously, I joke. But this is done for the benefit of China, because China does not do anything to help climate change” (Jacobsen). Trump easily denounces his Tweet as a joke and, crucially, there isn’t a conclusive way to prove otherwise. This pinpoints the value of Twitter as a medium that aligns with Freneau’s argument given in his poem “Contry Printer,” which reads “‘If he prints some lies, his lies excuse’ because the important consideration, indeed perhaps the final consideration, was not veracity but dissemination” (Castronovo 156). So long as the message was received, it succeeded. It could later be rejected on a more legitimate platform if it was determined to be detrimental with no ill effects.
A federalist writer once criticized Freneau by writing “Let us look into his merits. Is he a great politician…No!–but he is a poet” (Castronovo 160). This concept that Freneau’s politics and his poetry are somehow at odds with each other or detract from one another is similar to the way critics call out Donald Trump for his use of nonstandard genres for political discourses. Trump’s genre may be tweets, not poetry, but his method is comparable. Also similar to Freneau, his use of alternative media to express political views does not diminish its effect. As Castronovo points out about Freneau’s poetry, “Poetry exists as more than a crude delivery system for an author’s political objectives. The choice of form is paramount not just in conveying content but also in shaping it” (160). In the case of Trump, this means that he can express views using social media that would be too contentious or readily exposed as false if they were presented in a context viewed as more legitimate or mainstream, such as a presidential debate. This is evidenced by the way Trump’s statements have evolved as he has gotten closer to the presidency. He began moving away from his especially contentious opinions during the presidential debates, such as his stances on global warming as well as his theories about Barack Obama’s birth certificate (which Trump later claimed did not cause any awkwardness during his meeting with president Obama) (Stahl). After winning the election, he has backtracked even more. In the introduction to Trump’s November 13th interview on 60 Minutes, his first interview as President elect, Leslie Stahl introduces the segment by saying “What we discovered… was that some of the signature issues at the heart of his campaign were not meant to be taken literally, but as opening bids for negotiation.” Although this could be interpreted as hypocrisy, Trump almost seemed to gloat about it. When asked whether or not he regretted anything he had said about Hillary Clinton during the campaign, referencing his personal attacks on her, he responded “I mean, I’m sitting here with you now,” pointing out that his tactics worked regardless of their validity. He also tried to distance himself from his volatile image. When asked by Stahl ““Are you going to have the same rhetoric..or are you going to reign it in,” he responded “I think i’m a sober person. I think the press tries to make you into something a little bit different. In my case, a bit of a wild man. I’m not; I’m actually not.” Considering Trump’s control over his media representation and his penchant for theatrics, this attempt to describe himself as “sober” clashes with his previous defense of his smear campaign against Clinton, but that fits his character. Again, “the important consideration, indeed perhaps the final consideration, was not veracity but dissemination” (Castronovo 156).
The adoption of easily-accessible online media has become a topic of debate among politicians. On October 16, three weeks before the election, President Obama made a statement about what he called the “Wild West” media landscape (ironically, his analogy placed the time period about a century too late). The president called for action to “[create] places where people can say ‘this is reliable’ and I’m still able to argue safely about facts and what we should do about it” (Yahoo). News outlets have called it a response to Donald Trump’s campaign which relied on misinformation spread through new media. The president’s appeal harkoned back to the ideal of the 20th century newsman embodied by people like Walter Cronkite, who had a wide viewership across broad demographics with few alternative news sources to turn to. While Obama’s speech addresses a serious issue about the spread of false information and fake news, its appeal to an idyllic press is misleading. While this type of media existed for a period throughout the 20th Century, my research into Freneau shows that the ideologies that created the current media landscape that ultimately resulted in Trump’s election have precedents dating back to the beginning of the United States. This means that if a truly open and inclusive genre of media following Freneau’s model has been implemented and it has resulted in the election of Donald Trump, then that is a systemic flaw of the American democracy that has existed since day one. At this point, the dream of an inclusive liberal democratic media needs to be reconciled with the fact that it can produce decidedly non-liberal, non-democratic results. In essence, this is the same argument Freneau was having with the federalists and, two-hundred years later, Donald Trump’s win suggests that Freneau was wrong.
It’s easy to see this revelation as nothing more than reaffirming what everybody already
knows, that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” and that this is just another systemic flaw among thousands of others inherent in western democratic society. However, simply being cognisant that it is a systemic flaw is necessary if any serious attempt to undermine it is to be made. The focus needs to be attributed appropriately to the underlying ideological causes, not chalked up to luddite notions about technology making everybody petty and stupid. Pinning the blame on social media (and thereby the young generation) is an illogical and ineffective approach and is in many ways playing into the same good-old-days nonsense that Donald Trump prayed on with his “Make America Great Again” campaign. Although Freneau may have been wrong in predicting how his forms were to influence politics, they nonetheless provide a framework by which to judge modern media without resorting to conjecture and that is as good a legacy as any “founding father” could hope for.
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Castronovo, Russ. Propaganda 1776: Secrets, Leaks, and Revolutionary Communications in Early America. London: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.
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