‘Others will continue to fan the flames of extremism’: Political scientists on how Trump’s legacy will change America

Experts weigh in on how the Trump era of American politics will shape our society 

Graig Graziosi
Tuesday 19 January 2021 15:54 GMT
Trump encourages rally goers to 'march over to Capitol' before siege
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As Donald Trump starts his post-presidency life surrounded by sunshine and sycophants at Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the spotlight will shift to Joe Biden as he begins the unenviable task of unifying a fractured nation, countering a deadly virus, and attempting to repair a gutted federal government.  

And although Mr Biden will be the star of the show going forward, it's unlikely America has heard the last of Mr Trump.  

Whether his continued presence takes the form of a new media venture, continued rallies, primary challenges, a return to television or – pending the outcome of his impeachment trial in the Senate – a 2024 presidential run, Mr Trump has numerous options for continuing to inject himself into Americans' daily lives, to the joy of some and the frustration of others.  

Even without Mr Trump's direct influence, however, it is hard to imagine that American politics, society, or media will go back to "normal" anytime soon, if ever again.  

Perhaps the most widespread and obvious facet of American life that will continue to carry the mar of Mr Trump is the media.  

During his time in office, Mr Trump made an enemy of the mainstream press and elevated conservatives voices and fringe conspiracy theorists. Prior to Mr Trump, names like "Breitbart", "Steve Bannon", and "Alex Jones" were mostly foreign to the average American news consumer, even if they were conservative. The Epoch Times – an otherwise obscure, 20-year-old publication funded by a Chinese cult – is now a newspaper of choice for Mr Trump's loyal supporters.  

Even in the last months of his presidency, Mr Trump managed to lift upstart "news" outlets One America News and Newsmax to prominence after he believed Fox News betrayed him by reporting facts on Election Day.  

That's why Dr. Jennifer Hoewe, assistant professor of communication at Purdue University, believes one of the president's lasting legacies will be a renewed focus on teaching media literacy in the US.  

"We will begin to rethink what it means to be media literate. Americans have been taught to be critical of media content, and it has led some to exclusively consume and believe media content that agrees with their political perspective," Dr Hoewe said.  

She said Americans will need to break out of their information echo chambers in order to avoid falling prey to misinformation and biased news.  

"Instead, Americans will need to learn how to be critical of their own belief systems before selecting their media content," she said.  

More significant than helping to make formerly disreputable sources of information part of the mainstream, Mr Trump – through the use of his now-banned Twitter account – has led the charge for politicians bypassing traditional media entirely and speaking directly to the people, unburdened by pesky obstacles like fact checking or push back.  

Dr. Lilly Goren, professor of political science at Carroll University, said she expects to see Mr Trump's use of social media – minus, perhaps, the score settling and caps-heavy prose – to become the norm for many elected officials.  

"I don't know that anyone will use Twitter the same way Trump did, but what we have seen is elected officials use social media, especially Twitter but also Facebook, to communicate with constituents directly. They reference that communication quite regularly as well. They'll say something on Twitter or clarify statements they gave in another venue," she said. "We didn't see that kind of use nearly as much before Mr Trump."  

Public officials, from county commissioners and state reps to members of the House and the Senate, have increasingly adopted social media as a way to deliver their message directly to the people, but also a way to do so without having to engage with the press.  

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is extremely visible on social media, and has used her platforms like Instagram to hold town halls for the purpose of explaining Congressional processes and complicated policy issues while she cooks dinner. She has also used Twitch to participate in games of "Among Us" with prominent streamers to raise money for charity.  

"In the past, previous politicians had press conferences or spent an hour at night on TV doing interviews with reporters. Trump did all of that, but now there's this means for not just the president or presidential candidates but lots of other elected officials to speak directly to the people," Dr Goren said.  

However, only 22 per cent of Americans are Twitter users. Approximately 70 per cent of Americans have a Facebook page, but the site prioritises posts by friends and family over those by politicians, especially if you haven't followed them.  

What about the rest of the country, those who do not spend their days doomscrolling Twitter and engaging in drawn-out Facebook battles with people they haven't seen in fifteen years?  

Dr Goren believes even they may feel the reverberation of Mr Trump's time in office as time marches on.  

"One of the things that political scientists have been studying is that people have been more engaged and paying more attention to politics during this period, in part because it's really hard to get away from it," Dr Goren said. "It could be one of the lasting effects of the Trump period. Some studies indicate that people's political affiliation has become much more a part of their identity."

She said that increased awareness of politics also means Americans have a better understanding of how our democracy works.  

"I think Americans know more about political processes than they did four years ago. That the Senate and the House come together to count the electoral college votes on an obscure day in January – no one knew anything about safe harbor days or the fact that the votes needed to turn up in Congress before that," she said. "Now we all do."  

Perhaps Mr Trump really has changed the way Americans engage with politics, but has his demagoguery also changed the way American politics actually works.?

Dr Steven Farnsworth, professor of political science and international affairs at University of Mary Washington, said Mr Trump has made wielding anger and resentment as political cudgels acceptable to a huge number of voters.  

"Trump's political superpower has been his ability to channel and focus anger to advance his own political fortunes. While most Americans tell pollsters that they blame him for inciting the attack upon the US Capitol and say they will be glad to see him go, his angry base will remain after January 20, complicating efforts by President-elect Biden to move forward with dealing with the economic and health care crisis caused by Covid," Dr Farnsworth said.  

He said that extreme partisan divides will continue after Mr Trump leaves office, particularly among those who do not view Mr Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.  

Republicans will also contend with their own internecine conflict to determine the future of the party. Will it be the party of Trump, or will the traditional conservatives reclaim the GOP?  

"Trump's aroused followers likewise complicate the efforts by many Republicans to move beyond Trump, as many wish to do. Republicans who seem insufficiently loyal to Trump risk losing their next primary elections, which are decided by the most intense partisans who participate in those low-turnout contests," Dr Farnsworth said.

Without access to social media sites and without the power of the presidency to demand the attention of reporters, it is likely Mr Trump's ability to directly pull attention his way will begin to wane over time.  

But that does not mean his influence will not be felt.  

"The public focus Trump has enjoyed for the past four years will likely fade as his thoughts turn to the legal and financial troubles that await him as ex-president. As we have seen over the past two weeks, the president seems lost when it comes to communicating without Twitter and Facebook," Dr Farnsworth said. 

"But his movement will remain, and one of the struggles within the GOP is who will be the next leader of the movement. Sen. [Ted] Cruz and Sen. [Josh] Hawley will not be working to restore Trump, they will be working to replace him for 2024. They and others will continue to fan the flames of extremism as Trump himself has done."

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