Remember when Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton “our first black president?” In 1998, the noted African-American novelist provocatively observed “Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food loving boy from Arkansas.”
Well here’s your latest dose of cognitive dissonance: Donald Trump is America’s first Millennial president. Sure, he may be a 70-year-old tie-wearing rich dude with a taste for gold leaf, Florida estates and trophy wives, whereas the field guide for spotting Millennials emphasizes downtown cafés, knit beanies and endless gripes about student loans and the “gig-economy.” But just as a close study of a very white Clinton revealed his hidden identity as a black man, Trump similarly displays nearly every trope of the Millennial generation’s foundational relationship with social media: a rule-breaking, oversharing, booty-calling, sarcastic Twitterer thumbing his nose at stuffy traditionalism. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear he grew up watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
For all his faults and failings—and they’re admittedly legion—president-elect Donald Trump deserves recognition as the first legitimate messiah of the long-promised social media revolution in politics. Many politicians have boasted of engaging directly with the voting public via new media; the sight of Barack Obama tapping on his BlackBerry was as ubiquitous as those “Hope” posters during his 2008 presidential campaign. But once ensconced in the White House, Obama became as conventional as his predecessors. His BlackBerry use was dramatically curtailed by a fretful Secret Service. Daily press briefings still keep the White House press corps updated. He gives grammatically correct speeches comprised of paragraphs and complete sentences. And when he wants to bend ears in Congress, he works the phone. In short, he plays the game of politics the way it’s always been played. Not Trump.
He hasn’t even taken office yet, and Trump has already blown up the ways and means of political action with his hyperkinetic use of Twitter. Last week a single tweet from Trump convinced House Republicans to dramatically change course on a planned dismemberment of the Office of Congressional Ethics. He then expressed his displeasure with Toyota’s plans for a new plant in Baja, Mexico (“NO WAY!”) and threatened them with a “big border tax.” Political opponent and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer is now, according to Trump’s Twitter account, “head clown.”
Whatever you might think of Trump as a person or a politician, he has clearly changed politics forever. His policy-making tweets are rude, laden with exclamation marks and spelling mistakes and—like the standard booty-call—often posted late at night when no one’s thinking too clearly. It seems entirely in keeping with the relationship most Millennials have with social media. And it offers an unprecedented (or, ‘unpresidented,’ if you prefer) degree of transparency into the inner workings of the most powerful man on Earth. Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer admitted last week he has no idea when or why Trump will take to Twitter—it is a direct link between the president-elect and his public. Spicer has also been evasive on whether he will even hold conventional White House press briefings.
Plenty of politicians have sought to bypass the mainstream media in this way. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, eschewed press conferences and interviews, and instead provided “24 Seven,” a series of web videos offering a behind-the-scenes look at life in the PMO; more people probably saw the series’ many parodies than the real thing. Trump, in contrast, has delivered true, convention-busting change. Conversations that would once have been conducted behind closed doors or cloaked in diplomatic bafflegab are now out in the open for all to see.
The traditional media has thus been forced to yield to his will. When a tweet last month proposed significant changes to American nuclear weapons policy, the New York Times dutifully responded with a lengthy parsing of the 23-word statement, covering all possible meanings and their potential significance. The newspaper also noted the last time the U.S. contemplated revising its policy on nukes, it took a year of deliberations and a 64-page report. No longer. @realDonaldTrump is now the most important source of political discourse in America.
One final example of Trump’s transgressive use of social media. Following boasts from North Korea that it was preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile this month, Trump took the situation as another opportunity to toss an insult at China. “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!” To this school-yard level provocation, an official Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman grudgingly replied “We don’t pay attention to the features of foreign leaders’ behaviour. We focus more on their policies.”
Separating behaviour from policy might make sense when dealing with old-school world leaders. But with Trump, and the rest of the Millennial generation, there’s really no difference between the two. It’s all just one manic Twitter feed. China, and the rest of the hidebound world, better get with the times.