This November, Donald J. Trump made history. I am not just talking about his election to the Presidency of the United States, which defied the predictions of almost every pollster and pundit in the world. I am talking about his decision, on November 14th, to have dinner at a Manhattan restaurant unaccompanied by the press pool which has traveled nearly everywhere with every sitting President since World War II.
Journalists and their advocates have had no easy time with Mr. Trump since his campaign began, and their protests that Mr. Trump should grant them access to his daily movements for the sake of openness and transparency have not helped their cause or provoked any substantial public outcry.
The decision to evade the press seems like an odd one for Trump, whose candidacy has succeeded in large part because of his craving for and management of public attention. But in our disintermediated age, it makes perfect sense.
As a tool for giving the public direct access to the President, the press corps appears to be in need of a new strategy. Just as President-elect Trump has changed the rules from his vantage point, the smart ones among the media will do the same. Trump’s own narrative is that he was elected in spite of the press and is not beholden to their goodwill—and that there was never a chance that he’d get it anyway. It was his disintermediated connection to a loyal public that allowed him to do an end run around all the normal gatekeepers that a candidate must pass by, from the machinery of the Republican party, to the approval of opinion makers, and major figures in industry and government. By using social media, Trump has gone around the gatekeepers, at least in this round of American politics.
Trump’s follower count on Twitter is 16.5 million, comfortably more than Hillary Clinton’s 11.4 million. His Facebook followership is 15.7 million, far more than Hillary’s 9.7 million. Even allowing for duplicate followers of his various accounts, his total direct reach into the American population could be as high as 29 million people.
For comparison, viewership of the nightly news on NBC, ABC, and CBS is about 7 million each, and cable celebrities like Anderson Cooper (with a nightly audience of 1 million) and Bill O’Reilly (with a nightly audience of about 3 million) command audiences of a fraction of that size. The same is true for top-rated shows like Face the Nation (3.75 million viewers), Morning Joe (744,000 viewers), CBS This Morning (3.58 million viewers) and Good Morning America (4.74 million viewers). By sheer numbers, Twitter is doing a better job of connecting Americans to their future President in a direct and unfiltered way than any other channel.
Even taking into account the valuable role the press plays in filtering out unreliable information, it is inarguable that social media is where our attention—and the influence that comes with it—is moving. According to Pew, a full 44 percent of Americans use Facebook as a news source. That’s about 145 million people on just a single channel. No network or newspaper in history even comes close.
The takeaway from all this is that everything you’ve ever been taught about how Washington works is now up for grabs. For any institution or person that wants to monitor or influence the success of the Trump administration, it won’t be enough anymore to work only inside the Beltway, with lobbyists, journalists and bureaucrats. Everything that Beltway insiders say and even sincerely believe can be overpowered by the lightning flash of the mobilized, disintermediated followers of Mr. Trump or those that master the same strategy. The successful companies of the future in any industry or group, not just the media, will be the ones that understand this as part of their overall strategy. This is just the latest iteration of a trend I identified years ago—we live in an age where you have to take your case directly to the public.
As the wave of upsets, starting with the success of Angela Merkel’s far-right challengers in Germany last winter, to Brexit, to the success of anti-immigrant parties in Hungary and possibly France in its Presidential elections this coming May proves, the rules are being rewritten.
That story, more than any particular failure of pollsters or candidate foibles in the U.S. election, is the takeaway from this November.