Reagan was the 'Great Communicator' but Trump may be a more powerful one

President Trump has been beset by criticism and controversies over his tweets and utterances since long before he took office.  But it’s time to give credit where it’s due: contrary to sentiments expressed by the media, Donald Trump is one of the most effective communicators to ever serve as president.  Take it from someone who worked for the man dubbed “The Great Communicator” himself.

Ronald Reagan, like his successor, Mr. Trump, had an uncanny ability to connect with his base of supporters, including a number of blue-collar Democrats, often to the great frustration of his critics in the media who liked to portray him as simplistic, unknowledgeable, or just plain dumb.  Sound familiar?  In Reagan’s case, these were grossly unfair characterizations, as I knew well.  But President Reagan didn’t care much about them – because he knew he was a skilled and savvy communicator who could easily go over the heads of the Washington beltway punditry.  In that, Reagan offers both parallels and lessons to the Trump administration. 

It is not a coincidence that the two greatest communicators in recent presidential history came from the entertainment industry.  Reagan, like Trump, spent many years in front of the camera, learning lines, hitting cues, and mastering the craft of self-expression.  Like everyone in the entertainment world, they paid close attention to ratings, because ratings meant either life or death for their respective programs.  This gave both men the talent of knowing what people wanted to hear, and how to make sure they were listening. 

As I saw firsthand, and detail in my book “Movie Nights with the Reagans,” President Reagan mastered the medium of television to convey his messages. His training as an actor and as a longtime television spokesman for General Electric Theatre gave him the skills needed to communicate big ideas to large numbers of people, as well as a technical appreciation for the stagecraft of the modern presidency.  Trump, too, was a skilled television presenter.  But he’s also mastered another mode of communication with which Reagan was obviously unfamiliar – social media.

How much else in common Reagan and Trump have is open to debate. It’s clear, however, that both relished the role of an outsider coming to Washington to shake things up and fundamentally change the way the government serves the people.

Donald Trump’s tweets earn a great deal of criticism, especially by folks in the media. But the point is often missed: the tweets are very effective.  They give Trump an international platform to say whatever he wants to say.  And he can change, or some might say manipulate, the global news cycle at will.  If Trump doesn’t like a storyline in the media, he can with one tweet change the entire narrative.  Reagan was a great communicator, but Donald Trump is an even more powerful one.

Think about it.  Through the sheer force of his ability to communicate, Donald Trump – a man with no political experience – was singlehandedly able to vanquish one of the deepest, most respectable and experienced benches of Republican presidential candidates ever – as then go on to defeat the seemingly prohibitive odds-on favorite in the general election. 

That happened because Donald Trump communicated.  Clearly.  And continues to do so.  We never wonder what he thinks. Trump is not afraid to let the country see how his mind works, and even his critics in the media begrudgingly praise his unprecedented allowing of live television coverage of some of the most important meetings of his presidency.

How much else in common Reagan and Trump have is open to debate.  It’s clear, however, that both relished the role of an outsider coming to Washington to shake things up and fundamentally change the way the government serves the people. And as demonstrated by Trump’s bold decision to meet with Kim Jong Un, he shares Reagan’s belief that when it comes to potential adversaries, it is always better to talk to people instead of about them.  Reagan believed that if he could just get his Soviet counterpart in a room and tell him, man-to-man, that the U.S. had no hostile intent, and would not tolerate any nation that sought to harm us, they could embark on a path to reduce the threat of nuclear war.  Evidently Trump believes the same thing about the North Korean. 

Reagan would probably advise Trump to relax a little, and instead of jetting off to Florida every weekend at great expense to taxpayers, helicopter to the nearby presidential retreat, Camp David, where he can watch a movie or two and just unwind.  After all, that worked well for one great communicator.

Mark Weinberg, former assistant press secretary to President Ronald Reagan, is the author of “Movie Nights with the Reagans.”