Donald Trump has left an indelible mark on American politics, but not on American policy. National populists had high hopes for a new conservative agenda after the 2016 election, but they were disappointed. The president’s only significant piece of legislation was a tax cut. His longest-lived legacy will be a federal judiciary sourced and supplied by the Federalist Society and by Mitch McConnell, a man who began this administration as a living lightning rod for the wrath of the MAGA Right. The only thing conservatives have gotten from President Trump that they wouldn’t have gotten from President Jeb or President Rubio is a candidate personally flawed enough to jeopardize his own policy wins by losing a winnable election. He will go down in history an ordinary Republican with an extraordinary ability to squander the good will of others.
But in spite of the dearth of policy innovation we saw under the Trump presidency, he has been a revolutionary innovator in another area of public life: communication. The president has fundamentally changed the way politicians communicate with voters. Over the course of his presidency, he’s tried to cut out the middleman of media reporting at every opportunity, speaking directly to the voters whenever and wherever possible. His Twitter feed is the most obvious example of this, but he has taken opportunities to expand upon his own control over communications throughout his presidency. Towards the end of the campaign, he brought giant screens with him to rallies in Pennsylvania so voters could watch clips of Joe Biden’s statements about banning fracking. Around the same time, he released his own unedited cut of his 60 Minutes interview in order to head off dishonest or manipulative editing. Time and again during his presidency, Trump went over the heads of the media when he had something to say.
Not to sound more like a Marxist than I absolutely must, but the mainstream media have controlled the means of production of public information for most of the last century. They have been the ones to decide who reads and hears what and why. The benefits of this monopoly were obvious: With only three networks and two national newspapers, Americans had common reference points for every political debate and common forums in which to conduct them. So, too, however, were the drawbacks. This old model concentrated power over the distribution of information in the hands of a few, who were by no means disinterested in the debates they facilitated. Technological advances and the division of labor in mass media have allowed more voices to be heard but have also incentivized parochial and partisan coverage of major issues as Americans retreat into bespoke information siloes.
And so Trump’s pioneering efforts to transform the presidency into a one-man media conglomerate are likely to have mixed effects. The media have proven that they can’t be trusted, but then so has the president. The question remains as to whether this proliferation of direct access to voters will result in a more informed electorate or in an even more fragmented country in which partisans are further estranged from one another.