President Trump is right about at least one thing: No matter what he does, America cannot stop talking about him.
One thing that is fairly undeniable about Trump – love him or loathe him – is his understanding of how to manipulate the media and to perpetuate a symbiotic relationship with the press. During a post-Christmas interview with the New York Times, Trump noted that “newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes.”
And while newspapers and television channels certainly existed before Trump’s presidency, since the moment he announced his bid for the presidency Trump has dominated every inch of the news – and our nation’s discussions about current events – in a way that is genuinely unprecedented.
For each of the last four years, my firm Echelon Insights has analyzed Twitter conversation about current events, looking at the political issues that got people talking the most. In 2014, topics like Black Lives Matter, the Middle East, and Ebola were prominent in the national discussion, with mentions of then-President Barack Obama making up a relatively small slice of the discussion on news twitter.
From the moment Trump announced in 2015 that he was running for president, he became the number one topic in current affairs conversation in all but a handful of weeks out of the rest of the year. This was a level of dominance he would not cede to any of his presidential opponents at any point in 2016. Discussion of Trump in 2016 dwarfed discussion of Hillary Clinton, of Barack Obama, of almost every other major news story that emerged that year.
But in 2017, Trump’s command of our collective attention has not reverted to the sorts of levels we might expect from an incumbent president if we are using Obama as the baseline. Instead, Trump was tweeted about 10 times as much as Obama was tweeted about during his last year in office. Including Trump as a topic of conversation in our analysis absolutely drowns out all other issues, and Trump himself is the top topic throughout the year with few exceptions, such as when stories like the solar eclipse or Charlottesville, Va., topped the headlines.
Even in our analysis that excluded this year’s tweets specifically mentioning Trump, the top issue of the year was the Russia investigation, and issue deeply linked to Trump and questions about the actions of his campaign and transition team.
Even when we’re not talking about Trump, we’re talking about Trump.
Of course, Twitter is Trump’s medium of choice for getting his message out there. Political tweeting has increased sixfold on the platform since 2015 and that no doubt is driven in part by Trump’s use of Twitter to drive the news on his terms. (In the words of my colleague Patrick Ruffini, “Trump may be keeping Twitter afloat.”)
But Twitter isn’t the only place seeing a potential Trump effect. The traditional news media gave more coverage to Trump during the campaign than they did to his opponents, and covering Trump has not proven to be bad for business. CNN has proudly noted that 2017 is their most watched year in total day ratings, and MSNBC has seen large gains in the era of the #Resist movement. While newspaper circulation numbers continue to fall, major national newspapers have reported significant increases in subscriptions, especially digital subscriptions.
While it seems profoundly unlikely that President Trump’s full prophecy will come to pass – that the news media will cover him favorably in order to preserve him as a topic of coverage – it is undeniable that Trump’s ability to utterly flood the media with his message has been a powerful political weapon in his arsenal.
News consumption is on the rise, discussion about current events is on the rise. Will 2018 be the year everyone gets tired of talking about the same thing over and over? Perhaps. Yet we are two and a half years into the Trump era and there’s been no sign of it slowing. The topic we spent 2017 talking about was a pure stream of Trump, Trump, and more Trump. Don’t be surprised if 2018 plays out the same way.