JAN. 6, 2017 — It was Jan. 3, the first official workday of the new year, and Donald Trump was busy in his role as president-elect of the United States — on Twitter. His typed outbursts for the day included:
•A threat to punish General Motors with an import tax for building cars in Mexico.
•A slap down of House Republicans for playing politics on ethics.
•An insinuation that America’s intelligence agencies are not fully trustworthy.
Yes, on just one head-spinning Tuesday in early January the president-elect used social media to pick fights with three American institutions of industry and government, each conflict having potential long-term impact for Trump’s presidency and the nation. Tweets are 140 characters maximum and readable by anyone with access to a computer. Here is what Trump shared with the world on his Twitter feed:
6:30 a.m. — General Motors is sending Mexican made model of Chevy Cruze to U.S. car dealers — tax free across border. Make in U.S.A. or pay big border tax!
9:03 a.m. — With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority.
7:14 p.m. — The “Intelligence” briefing on so-called “Russian hacking” was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!
In the olden days of presidential politics — in other words, before Trump’s election — we imagine that any one of those policy pronouncements would have dominated headlines and analysis … for days. The president-elect is willing to engage in a trade war with America’s own automakers? He’s strong-arming House Republicans? Dissing the CIA? Let’s discuss.
The country may yet find time to focus more intently on what Trump said Tuesday, but by Wednesday he had moved on to new topics, including a puzzling series of tweets in apparent support of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is viewed by many people as an enemy of America. When the Assange and hacking tweets were criticized, Trump defended himself, on Twitter, by blaming news coverage: “The media lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan!” Also tucked into Trump’s Twitter feed were a Wednesday shout-out to Jackie Evancho, a classical singer scheduled to perform at the inauguration, and a Thursday zinger directed at Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (Trump typed that Schumer is the Democrats’ “head clown”).
We’ll catch our breath now, and state our worries about the incoming tweeter-in-chief. Pardon us, but this will take more than 140 characters:
There is nothing wrong, nothing unpresidential, about using Twitter as a tool of governance. If used judiciously, it can be effective. Trump recognized the power of social media to propel his campaign, and he seems unlikely to switch off his feed after taking office.
Every modern president, fighting a constant battle for control of messaging, has used mass media to speak directly to the nation. Before Twitter there was television and before television there was radio: Days after President Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, he embarked on a series of “fireside chats” on radio to talk the country through the Great Depression. In the television era, presidents used the Oval Office address as a tool of persuasion.
Twitter is Trump’s bully pulpit of choice. The immediacy and novelty are captivating. Americans have never experienced a president thinking and leading in real-time. Incoming White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Wednesday at an event in Chicago that he wakes up not knowing what his boss has tweeted. “But I do look there first, because it drives the news.” That’s because whatever a president says, however he says it, is significant.
The obvious difference between a speech and a tweet is time and space. Presidents typically work on speeches for weeks, carefully aligning word choices with policy objectives to deliver full arguments. Tweets can be bashed out in a few seconds by a president alone with his predispositions. There’s no room for detail or nuance. Instead there’s emotion and an invitation for immediate reaction — by political friends and foes, the public and foreign governments.
Trump’s quick takedown of House Republicans was shrewd politics. It caught them off-guard, forcing them to abandon plans to gut a congressional ethics board. But a lot of what he types is unformed or reckless, a reflection of the impetuous, needy side of his nature. The president-to-be on Twitter is throwing digital spaghetti at the wall. Some of it will stick. Some is bound to create messes for his administration and the country. But in 2017, all of it is state of the art.