CAMBRIDGE – President Donald Trump’s critics have consistently underestimated his political communication skills, perhaps because he is so different from predecessors such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Both FDR and Reagan, after all, were known as “great communicators.”
Although large segments of the American population hated them, FDR and Reagan addressed the American people as a whole and tried to appeal to the center. Trump, by contrast, has appealed primarily to the minority that elected him. His inaugural address sounded like a campaign speech; and, after taking office, a series of false statements and provocative executive orders has undercut his credibility with the center but reinforced it with his base.
Trump’s communication skills were honed in the world of reality television, where outrageous and provocative statements entertain audiences and boost viewership. He used that approach during the Republican primary to dominate attention among a crowded field of 17 candidates. By one estimate, Trump received the equivalent of $2 billion of free television advertising, swamping the $100 million in paid advertising raised by his Republican rival, Jeb Bush.
After he won the Republican nomination, many expected Trump to follow the traditional path of moving to the center for the general election. Again, he defied expectations and focused a populist campaign on segments of the population that had lost jobs to global competition; and/or resented the cultural changes that had occurred over the past few decades. This populist appeal was effectively targeted, and he won the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote by nearly three million votes. But for 100,000 votes in three rust belt states, he would not be president.