Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins the White House, one thing seems sure: The U.S. will get a president with scant first-hand understanding of modern technology.
Clinton’s tech travails are all over the headlines, including the lax security of her home-brewed email server and her documented struggles with fax machines — and the recently disclosed hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails won’t do much to burnish her party’s image of cyber competence.
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But Trump’s hardly a candidate for the Geek Squad either, despite the prolific round-the-clock tweeting strategy he uses to dominate the headlines. He has boasted that he hardly ever sends emails — and, like Clinton, he often relies on staff to print news articles off the internet.
“I’m just not a believer in email,” Trump said during a news conference Wednesday where he criticized Clinton’s use of a private server when she was secretary of State.
The tech-aloofness of the two nominees marks a sharp break from President Barack Obama, who fought to keep a mobile phone when he entered the White House, spends downtime surfing his iPad and wrote about his awe at the power of the internet in his 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope.” That raises the prospect that the next occupant of the Oval Office — charged with making decisions on issues like encryption, the fight against a social-media savvy Islamic State, and the growing automation of the American economy — will be less familiar with consumer technologies than the average citizens who use them.
“These are two candidates who don’t have their hands on the technology, and that’s unfortunate, because without that it’s difficult to understand this stuff on a deeper, more visceral level,” said Peter Leyden, a futurist and former managing editor of Wired who was an early Obama backer in Silicon Valley.
Leyden gave the overall tech edge to Clinton, saying she has at least shown an understanding of her limitations and an eagerness to tap others’ expertise, while Trump has few friends in the technology industry.
Still, “both of these people are wildly unrepresentative of the population as a whole,” said Aaron Smith, associate director of research at Pew Research Center, which studies trends in American life.
“They’re much more like a Fortune 500 CEO than your parents or my parents,” Smith said of Trump and Clinton. “They have the luxury of a cadre of people around them who are able to do a lot of the things that people typically have to do for themselves.”
While heading the State Department, Clinton repeatedly asked her right-hand aide Huma Abedin for assistance working a secure fax machine, according to records released by the agency. Clinton also balked at agency guidance that she use a government-issued personal computer in her Foggy Bottom office, with aide Cheryl Mills explaining that the secretary was “not adept” at using a desktop computer to check messages, according to one official’s later deposition.
“Pls print for me and deliver to me,” Clinton wrote in the winter of 2013, attaching a web address.
“This links to the front page of the Washington Post,” the employee responded. “Is there a particular article that you are looking for?”
Trump, 70, has meanwhile acknowledged that he gets staff help with Twitter, at least during working hours, telling CNN in April that he transcribes his tweets via the “young ladies” on his office staff. “I’ll just shout it out, and they’ll do it,” he said. (“After 7 o’clock or so, I will always do it by myself,” he said.) News reports say aides bring in a laptop when he wants to watch a digital video, and they either clip or print out news articles so he can mark them up with a thick pen before sending them back to reporters.
Tech experts have questioned Trump’s grasp of the internet’s basic functioning, pointing to pronouncements such as his suggestion that industry leaders like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates “close up” parts of the internet used by the Islamic State.
Both candidates are out of sync with how the American public — including their fellow senior citizens — turn to technology today for everything from cultivating hobbies to booking plane tickets to looking for work. About nine in 10 senior citizens with annual household income of more than $75,000 go online, according to a 2014 Pew study.
The timing of the onset of the online era is likely a factor. When Americans were first taking to the internet in the mid-1990s, Clinton and Trump were each living in their own unusual bubbles.
At the moment Hotmail launched as one of the first popular web-based email services in 1996, Hillary Clinton was already first lady of the United States, ensconced in the White House. Trump was running his New York City-based real estate empire. (Obama, for his part, was a thirtysomething Illinois state senator.)
While in office, Clinton expressed excitement over getting an Apple iPad tablet (or “hPad,” as one aide called it) but did not appear to take to it quickly.
“Do I need to charge it?” she wrote the aide a full month later. “If so, how? I have no cords.”
But she also appears to have some self-knowledge about her tech limitations. During the drafting of a 2010 speech on “internet freedom,” she told staff it made her “sound like a techie.” That was a good thing, she wrote, but “a stretch.”
American presidents and presidential candidates have a rich history of seeming confounded by new technology. In 1992, news reports portrayed President George H.W. Bush as expressing wonder and bafflement at a grocery store scanner, though others on the scene countered that Bush was merely being polite.
In 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain, then the Republican presidential nominee, admitted that he wasn’t comfortable using a computer and that he stayed away from email. His team tried downplaying that comment. “You don’t necessarily have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country,” argued one of his campaign aides at a conference that summer.
But his opponent, Obama, pounced with an ad mocking the 72-year-old McCain. The Republican’s inability to use a computer and his disdain for email, it said, meant he’d be “just another out-of-touch president.”
Even without going that far, tech experts like Leyden say it’s important that the next president have an intimate knowledge of the technologies that his or her decisions will shape, and the role they play in the most consequential challenges facing the U.S.
“We’re on the verge of a fundamentally different economy that’s being absolutely transformed by the next wave of technology,” Leyden said. “It will have huge ramifications on society. And someone running the goddamn country has to know that.”