Rutgers’ David Greenberg discusses the communication hits and misses of the Trump presidency so far

President Donald J. Trump

The first weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have been controversial – a fiery inauguration speech, disputes over crowd sizes at the inauguration, a constant flurry of tweets and an executive order on immigration. Rutgers Today asked presidential historian David Greenberg, who studies the relationship between presidents and the news, to reflect on President Trump’s first weeks in office. Greenberg, professor of journalism and media studies in the School of Communication and Information and of history in the School of Arts and Sciences, is the author of Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency (Norton, 2016), for which he has received the 2017 Goldsmith Book Prize from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Is spin is a necessary art in government?

Greenberg: Yes. Spin is the art of putting your best slant on the facts to advance an argument. That’s what politics has always been about since the days of the Greeks. We don’t expect our politicians to present the facts in a neutral, disinterested manner. We expect them to make their case for a particular position.

Clearly, President Trump's spinning ability has served him well in his business career. What has he learned about the media as an entrepreneur that might serve him well as president?

As far as I’ve seen, Trump hasn’t spoken about what he’s learned, except to assert his skill in cutting deals. But the skills needed to cut deals in the business world are very different from those you need in government. As president, you have a wide variety of players and institutions that constrain your power: the courts, Congress, independent agencies like the Federal Reserve – as well as the press and public opinion. Trump will have to learn on the job. It’s another reason not to elect people without experience in politics. In our misguided desire to bring fresh faces to Washington, we’ve now elected three consecutive presidents – George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump – who were among the most inexperienced ever to hold the office. Trump is the most inexperienced of all.

You have written that Franklin D. Roosevelt was the all-time champion of spin. Is it too early to rate President Trump as a spinmaster?


David Greenberg, professor of journalism, media studies and history.

Greenberg: I think it is too early to rate Trump. Remember, we don’t remember presidents as successful because they were good spinners. On the contrary, the ones we think of as good spinners are remembered that way because their policies made them popular. We’ll have to see where the country is in four years and whether Trump has been able to bring about positive change.

Obviously, President Trump appeals to a lot of America. What is it about his spin, or approach, that is so attractive to his supporters?

Trump’s supporters like his brash style and his willingness to flout the rules. There’s been a lot written about them in the press. Many of them are just regular Republicans with conservative politics. But his most enthusiastic supporters see him as a strong, determined outsider capable of shaking up the ways that Washington has been doing things. A lot of people who feel let down by both parties, by Obama and Bush before him, are drawn to Trump because he promises a different approach, a more aggressive style, and a more nationalist politics. All of the things that offend so many other people—his contempt for rules of civility and decency, the refusal to play by the rules (like releasing his tax returns or apologizing for blunders)—actually can make him more attractive, because they’re a badge of his willingness to take on the so-called Establishment.

What suggestions would you make to the president to improve his spinning?

Greenberg: Trump is in a difficult position. His appeal rests on being hostile to the whole system. It’s a blustery, take-no-prisoners style. But while this has propelled him to the presidency, it has also made him one of the most disliked politicians in American history. This paradox ties his hands. For him to moderate his message means risking the iconoclastic image he has cultivated. Yet I think that if he’s ever to expand his appeal, he’s going to have to learn to work in another register. Ronald Reagan also came to power on a campaign of anger, belligerence and bitterness. But once in office, he learned to adopt a softer style some of the time, a Jimmy Stewart persona, that helped him gain popularity with people who didn’t share his fire-breathing conservatism.

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