Donald Trump is the first digital age president — not chronologically, of course, but in terms of fluency. It's a strange thing to say about a man in his 70s who has never shown much interest in Silicon Valley, much less created a single line of code that we know of. He plays golf, not Fortnite, and may have been born wearing a necktie.
Whether by instinct or by analysis (and this is one of the great polarizing mysteries of Trump), this president behaves in ways that acknowledge and exploit some of the most salient changes in this brave new world. I don't mean this as a compliment, nor do I mean it as criticism. I just think it is true, and I'll give you three examples.
One: Trump is the first president to make full use of digital media to go around established intermediaries such as the Washington press corps and the political parties. The smartphone in his hand allows him to broadcast his own messages unfiltered by interpreters, on his own schedule and in his own words.
Presidents have dreamed of this power for ages, but Trump was the one who realized that the same digital principles Amazon used to disrupt retail and Airbnb leveraged to upend the hotel business could be applied to political communication, given enough name recognition to get the ball rolling. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Post.)
Perhaps this digital savvy is somehow related to Trump's reading allergy. Harry S. Truman once said that "all leaders are readers," but this president is an exception. I spent time with him once on his campaign jet and watched as he picked at a mountain of news clippings, briefing papers and reports on his table. He would choose a random document, attempt to concentrate on it, then let it drop as his focus flitted away. Trump is drawn to screens rather than pages.
Which brings me to ... Two: This screen-savvy president groks that the television era is over. By which I mean, the era in which television was the unifying force of American society. Back then, limited broadcast spectrum created a nation tuned to just three commercial networks. By today’s standards, the nets were virtually indistinguishable — three versions of vanilla aimed at building the largest possible audiences by offending no one. They were middlebrow, middle class and middle of the road politically.
In the digital world, media choices are seemingly infinite, and the strategy of moderation is for losers. Channels today succeed by appealing intensely to niche audiences. Food channels appeal to people passionate about food; sports channels serve sports fans; "Grey's Anatomy" lovers stream endless hours of "Grey's Anatomy."
Trump's Twitter messages and rambling rally speeches aren't aimed at a broad, moderate audience of all Americans. Rather, they seek to engage the intensely focused audiences of the digital age. In a news environment mainly composed of partisans, he commands attention by igniting passions, firing up one side while stoking the outrage of the other. Whether people love or hate him, he has us in his grip, leaving limited space for an opponent to break through.
Three: Trump has a strategy — a disturbing, nihilistic strategy — for dealing with the radical transparency of the digital age. Those vanguards of the future, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, taught the world's leaders that digitized information seeks to be free. In the days of paper, Manning could never have smuggled nearly 750,000 pages from her workspace, nor could she have shared them easily with the whole world. In digital form, though, the same material could fit on a flash drive no bigger than a knuckle and reach its audience through WikiLeaks.
Governments have always sought to keep secrets and control the flow of information. The Internet threatens that power. Totalitarian systems such as China's are dealing with the problem by exerting iron control over the Internet within their borders. By erecting a Great Digital Wall, China shields its secrets and makes their transmission difficult.
America leans in the opposite direction. Our Internet is a wide-open Gomorrah that makes Vegas look like a Sunday school picnic. Trump is dealing with this uncontrollable flow of information by discrediting information across the board. Published secrets lose their sting if the public is unsure whether to believe them.
Trump says one thing today and something different tomorrow. He veers wildly from topic to topic and crisis to crisis, recasting enemies as friends and friends as enemies. And he promotes conspiracy theories while disputing facts. The result is a gradual erosion of the public's confidence in anything we hear.
Sowing doubt and discrediting truth is destructive in the long term. Unfortunately, the digital age — so far, anyway — roars ahead heedless of consequences. It’s no wonder Trump fits in.
David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine, and is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”