Donald Trump sends out missives unbecoming of a president and we all just stare, dumfounded
Donald Trump’s inauguration is a little less than two weeks away, but his impending presidency is already creating a first-of-its-kind problem: how to handle the president’s unruly Twitter account.
It’s a sign of the times. Maybe William H. Taft’s tweets would have posed an issue in the early 1900s, but the service wasn’t around then. It’s here now, and the fact is Trump has some hot thumbs when it comes to venting his frustrations via the microblogging service, and it’s up to us to deal with the consequences.
First, some context. When you’re heavily engaged in Twitter it can seem like everyone is on it, but that’s not the case. Twitter boasts 313 million monthly active users globally, a fraction of Earth’s 7.4 billion citizens. (Facebook, by comparison, touts 1.79 billion monthly active users.)
Trump’s Twitter could be a sideshow — an embarrassing one, but a sideshow nonetheless — if it was simply relegated to the Twitter bubble and his 18.7 million Twitter followers. But his frequent tweeted diatribes cause seismic disturbances, tend to drive the national conversation daily, and are quickly redefining the concept of dispatches from the highest office in the land.
Barack Obama is the first U.S. President to tweet while in office, and his tweets are mostly measured and rarely, if ever, controversial.
That is in stark contrast with Trump, who long ago weaponized his Twitter account and uses the medium to mock, incite and provoke in short, 140-character bursts.
Furthermore, Obama’s Twitter — although his team uses his @BarackObama account, he tweets using the official @POTUS handle created in May 2015 — is an afterthought; he sent just 340 tweets in the last 20 months. For Trump, it’s his chief mode of communication. Since joining the service in 2009, he has sent more than 34,000 tweets and has tweeted more than 250 times since winning the election.
It’s not the frequency of Trump’s posts that’s cause for concern, it’s the tone. During the election, the New York Times compiled an index of all the insults Trump had lobbed on Twitter since declaring his candidacy for president and came up with a list of 289 people, places and things, from Hillary Clinton (“Crooked Hillary”) to “Saturday Night Live” (which he dubbed “boring” and “unfunny”).
These are not comforting transmissions from the soon-to-be-leader of the free world, although he has his moments, such as Friday afternoon when he tweeted his “thoughts and prayers” following the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting. Ofter his tweets are the sort of hateful, barbed insults you’d expect from a teenager – or Kanye West, the only other public figure with as incendiary a Twitter presence as Trump’s – but which are unbecoming of the President of the United States.
Take Trump’s tweet on New Year’s Eve: “Happy New Year to all,” he thumbed, “including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!” Note the pettiness, bitterness and sarcasm. Contrast it with Obama’s New Year’s tweet, sent the next day: “It’s been the privilege of my life to serve as your President. I look forward to standing with you as a citizen. Happy New Year everybody.”
Which is more presidential?
This isn’t about politics or playing favorites. This is about what to do and how to react when the president acts like an internet troll, because we’re currently handling it all wrong.
Here’s how it goes now: Trump tweets something inflammatory (gloating about his election win, nearly two months after the fact), potentially dangerous to the American people (praising Russian President Vladimir Putin as “very smart”), irrelevant (crowing out the low ratings of the new season of “Celebrity Apprentice”) or flat-out wrong (saying Jackie Evancho’s album sales have “skyrocketed” after her announcement she’d perform at the inauguration; they haven’t, and her album is down 41 spots on this week’s chart), and news outlets and the Twitter hive mind spend the rest of the day reacting. (All of those tweets from Trump came in the last week, by the way.)
Like clockwork, cable news panelists weigh in on the tweets, memes are made, replies are rifled off. The Twitter world and the media world grind to a halt every time Trump hits the “tweet” button. None of it matters to him; he never reacts, never recants and is on to his next tweet. He sets a fire and walks away while we all sit there and watch it burn.
And we — the internet, the media, America — take the bait every single time. (The engagement level on Trump’s tweets is robust; the New Year’s tweet garnered 82,000 replies, 143,000 re-tweets and 350,000 likes.) Is this what the next four years are going to be like?
It doesn’t have to be. There’s no rule that says we have to keep falling for Trump’s Rickroll shenanigans, and every time we do it only makes the tweets more powerful. If we stopped reacting, stopped retweeting and stopped talking about his tweets — and yes, stopped writing newspaper columns about his tweets, ahem — they would cease to have any power. Our engagement, our obsession with his missives make them stronger.
For those who engage with Twitter and find it an indispensable news tool, there’s a certain obligation to follow Trump. He is, after all, set to become our president Jan. 20 and you want to know what he’s talking about. His follower number has ballooned by at least 6 million since he won the election, though it pales in comparison to pop stars Katy Perry (95.1 million) and Taylor Swift (82 million), figures more suitable for Twitter’s quick-hit communication mechanics than, say, global leaders.
But at what cost does this all come? Trump’s tweets are disruptive, not only to those who value decency but to governments around the world. “Twitter shouldn’t become an instrument of foreign policy,” China’s state news agency, Xinhua, said this week in a written commentary about Trump’s Twitter habits.
Could Trump’s Twitter start a war? We’re in unprecedented waters. He’s not going to put his phone down anytime soon, which he recently told “60 Minutes.” So maybe we should put down ours.