Trump + Twitter: Unfettered honesty or unchecked vitriol?

America’s next President uses 140 characters to set policy, but also malign his opponents. Whether he’ll be reined in is anyone’s guess.

George Rennie, University of Melbourne

George Rennie

Published 11 January 2017

Donald Trump’s ascendency to the White House has brought consternation from conservatives and liberals alike. This concern extends to his speeches and policy proposals, certainly, where he has proven erratic and inconstant. But it is his 140-character Twitter performances that have captured the public’s gaze – and worry – especially now he bears the moniker “President-elect” in his Twitter profile.

The question at hand, then, is whether these tweets are ‘unpresidential’, or merely representative of the promise of Trump: unfettered honesty in a world where politicians cynically offer their best bet at what the polls want, in exchange for ‘real leadership’.

Unfortunately, Trump’s Twitter actions to date have been in the former camp: he is often being ‘honest’ in the basic sense of the word, but his deeply inconstant record of policy statements shows his honesty extends only to where he believes the electorate will reward him. He has otherwise been petty and thin-skinned.

To be ‘presidential’ is to set a model example as leader, but by no measure has he done that. By casting aside the advisers who might counsel him to be more thoughtful and restrained in his 140-character prose, Trump is doing significant damage to the Office of the President.

Trump’s tweets in age of ‘fake news’

Trump shows an almost pathological inability to ignore slights, and when not suing for defamation – a tool he’s employed regularly in the past – he uses Twitter to vent. Long ago, it was Rosie O’Donnell who caught Trump’s ire, along with numerous other public figures that he described variously as ‘fat’, ‘slobs’ and ‘losers’ time and time again.

Donald Trump with Dave Letterman in 2012. Picture: Late Show With David Letterman/CBS

When Trump joined Twitter in 2009, he did so to promote his pending appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, but it didn’t long for Trump to start taking to Twitter to defend himself against the verbal slings and arrows of the internet. When, for instance, Trump felt that the ‘haters & losers’ of Twitter had given him a rather unpleasant nickname, Trump couldn’t help but respond.

Doing so gave attention and (to many) even legitimacy to things that otherwise might remain in the more salacious areas of the internet. This is also true of how Trump handles rumours in this social media driven era of ‘fake news’.

For example, by firing out a string of tweets in response to ‘fake news’ and the purported dossier of licentious activities recently published on BuzzFeed, Trump is ultimately providing extra attention to reports that might otherwise be dismissed or substantively disappear in time.

Presidents have in the past left the more scurrilous rumours alone, such as Bill and Hillary Clinton’s refusal to respond to the ‘Clinton murder list’ that made its way online in the 1990s. The rumour never took hold in the public conscious, in part because eventually it was easily shown to be false and bizarrely over-reaching, but also because President Clinton didn’t use Twitter.

Be it due to ‘trolls’, annoyed celebrities, or ‘fake news’, Trump appears to have a compulsive lack of restraint, and need to take the proverbial bait.”

This inability to let slights go is nothing new for Trump, but even as President-elect, he couldn’t help but respond to Meryl Streep’s most recent Golden Globes speech (apparently she’s over rated).

This begs the question, why would the President-elect bother with celebrity spats? The Queen of Hollywood is not the same thing as the Queen of England after all. His station is now amongst world leaders, but he can’t get out of the mud.

Sadly, the President-elect’s tweets extend so far beyond such celebrity tit-for-tat. Following the Orlando nightclub shooting, in which 49 victims were gunned down, Trump (then the assumed Republican nominee) declared he was getting lots of ‘congrats’, but left out any words of consolation for the aggrieved.

More recently, his bizarre New Year’s Eve message – worryingly portentous for 2017 – refers to his ‘many enemies ... losing so badly’. How is one to take it – as the stuff of horror or parody – when Mark Hamill is able to read such tweets voiced as the Joker (as in Batman’s arch-nemesis) so seamlessly?

These tweets are but a part of a pattern that no president before Trump could be reasonably ascribed to: the celeb-spats so beneath the highest of offices, the solipsism of the Orlando shooting tweet (and others), the pettiness over New Year, all these represent clear breaks from the form set by all of the 44 Presidents before him.

The hope in Republican circles, that Trump would curtail his more egregious behaviour once he assumed the role of party nominee and President-elect, have been dashed. Will he suddenly change once sat in the Oval Office? All signs point to ‘no’.

Bigger than the person

One possible defence for Trump’s id-like tweets is that they reflect his ‘honesty’, providing unfettered insights into the mind of the soon-to-be President. After all, is this not the ideal of democracy?

This argument is not without merit, but is ultimately ill-considered. The Presidency is bigger (and hopefully better) than one person. It represents an entire branch of the government, drawing the expertise from thousands of others in the Cabinet and executive departments. This expertise is a necessarily tempering force, and it exists to enhance, rather than censor, the views of the President.

Imagine if, rather than having to call his cool-headed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Nixon was able to send his thoughts to the world in late night, rambling tweets?

Kissinger once spoke of the midnight (alcohol-fuelled) ravings of his President, including the many times Nixon’s paranoia compelled him to push for the nuclear bombing of much of south-east Asia.

“If the President got his way,” Kissinger once remarked of Nixon, “there would be a nuclear war each week.’’

A wide apparatus of advisers and experts exist around the President for good reason: Trump’s unchecked messages are undermining the office he will soon assume.

Trump has already attacked Mexico and China, along with major corporations, in his tweets. While this may work some of the time, it only needs to backfire once to wipe out the painfully established economic, military, cultural and diplomatic ties that previous administrations have spent so long establishing.

The bully pulpit and the power to persuade

The extent of Presidential powers has always been greater than those explicitly set out in the US Constitution. Donald Trump will have command over the armed forces, diplomatic corps, much of the federal executive, and the ability to appoint key positions of power, including to the Supreme Court. But it is also his ability to speak – to persuade or coerce, inspire or scare – that will profoundly shape his country and the world.

Where would England be were it not for Churchill’s rousing words, nor America without Lincoln’s rhetoric, or Roosevelt’s?

The same is true for the converse: how many countries have suffered greatly where their leaders have been baser, and more insipid, in their proclamations and compellations?

The sheer power afforded to a President allows him to do great good or damage, but his role as a moral leader should never be underestimated. By his actions, and by his tweets, Trump has so far given licence to so many to be their worst versions of themselves.

With luck, this will all inexplicably change for the better on Inauguration Day, and Twitter will be left to the President’s staff. Hope, then, that there are those who can temper Trump’s basest instincts.

Banner Image: Donald Trump in his office. Picture: Josh Haner/The New York Times

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