In 1920s Germany, a young man with a gift for oratory captivated his nation. Germans must have believed this man gave better speeches than any human who came before him, judging from the throngs of listeners shown on newsreels around the world. Listeners filled the streets, almost as far as the eye could see. The sea of humanity affirmed the speaker’s popularity, elevating it to near messianic levels.
Invisible to the cameras, a new technology made possible what had previously been impossible. The Nazi party pioneered the use of microphones and electronic amplification for public rallies, allowing an unlimited number of people to hear the words of Adolf Hitler.
But it wasn’t the oratory or the personality that enthralled the public. It was the modern magic of amplification. People saw with their own eyes something that seemed impossible — a crowd of people listening to a speaker who was almost a mile away. Into that gap between what seemed impossible and what no longer was impossible stepped Hitler.
Likewise, our 2016 presidential race features inexplicable popularity for candidates that experts long ago dismissed as unelectable — especially Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. If you detect a certain umbrage from those experts, it may be because they’ve lost their role as gatekeepers between the candidates and the public.
As households “cut the cord” from landline phones and broadcast television, the hegemony of news outlets has been disrupted. Candidates now can reach their audiences directly, no longer relying on editors and news anchors to get their story straight and into people’s living rooms.
Narrowcasting is not new, except for this. You may not have tuned into news channels and radio stations not targeted toward you, but you could. The intent may have been to narrowcast, but the broadcast technology itself hadn’t changed.
Narrowcasting’s most reliable vehicle, direct mail, was always expensive and cumbersome. In 2008, Obama pushed email’s capabilities to new lengths, but it was still direct mail — only cheaper and incessant.
This is different. A new mode of amplification has been invented, and our expectations have not yet adjusted. If Hitler had cupped his hands when he spoke, people might have believed he perfected the megaphone. Instead, he was doing something totally unknown, speaking to almost a million people at once.
Social media on smart phones gives candidates and supporters new powers that hadn’t been imagined only a few years ago. The results still seem impossible to us. Thousands line up around the block to attend rallies that other people have heard nothing about. Donations come from people who have never been involved before.
We have now what some would call a Kardashian Candidate — a celebrity who’s famous for being famous. We’ve sent an actor to the White House before, but never a celebrity. Only Dwight Eisenhower was a household name before he ran for public office, and that was because he led the Allied forces to victory in World War II.
You know celebrity has changed when a rat pulling a slice of pizza down a New York stairwell is watched by more people in a week than “60 Minutes.”
The media establishment can no longer protect voters from vanity candidates, flagrant falsehoods, and anything else that seems to lack presidential decorum. The parties themselves have lost leverage too. Trump is barely a Republican. Sanders is still not a Democrat.
Donald Trump draws huge crowds wherever he goes, as he constantly reminds everyone. He has more Twitter followers than most news anchors have viewers. He can drive media attention for two or three days with one strategic retweet and there’s nothing the media professionals can do to stop it.
Bernie Sanders speaks with refreshing candor that his presidency will be successful only if there’s a movement beneath and around him that upends the political status quo. He knows he can win only if he’s a guy with a microphone before most people understand what a microphone can do.
Every time a candidate does something that experts think is impossible, their success becomes less implausible.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) blogs at www.dksez.com.