Two days after the American people chose Donald Trump as their next president, he did what he has done so many times before: take to Twitter to express his displeasure. The object of his ire this time was the wave of post-election protests against him around the country. “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!” he tweeted. Then, a day later, a different message: “Love the fact that the small groups of protesters last night have passion for our great country. We will all come together and be proud!”
The tension between those two messages—the former classic Trump, the latter likely crafted by his team—was a common feature of his presidential campaign, such that his aides “finally wrested away” his Twitter account just days before the election, according to The New York Times. That tension has persisted since the election. In an interview taped on Friday for CBS’ 60 Minutes, Trump insisted of his Twitter use, “I’m going to do it very restrained if I do it at all.” Two days later, before that episode had aired on Sunday night, he went on a Twitter tirade against The New York Times for “their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the ‘Trump phenomena,’” calling the paper “dishonest” for reporting on Friday that Trump “has suggested that more countries should acquire nuclear weapons”—a factually accurate statement.
It’s not an absolute certainty that Trump’s erratic Twitter presence will persist once he’s president; one would hope that he’s too busy for that. Then again, Trump is incredibly busy now, as he faces the daunting task of staffing an entire administration despite his having no governmental experience whatsoever (in his meeting with President Barack Obama last week he reportedly “seemed surprised by the scope” of presidential duties). The fact that he is still ranting, amid all of this work, suggests he may not be able to resist the lure of Twitter—a compulsion millions of Americans can sympathize with, but one that’s worrisome, to say the least, in a president.
Which raises the question: What will it be like to have a president who regularly, personally tweets his thoughts and opinions? We saw the power of Trump’s seething tweets when he was the Republican nominee, and the ramifications now are far greater. Trump will be the Twitter President in the worst possible way, giving a whole new meaning to the term “bully pulpit.” And that’s a shame, because his use of Twitter has been politically revolutionary in a way that could have been harnessed for the greater good.
As the 2016 election proved, social media is a deeply contradictory social force. It spreads vital information quickly and provides an unfiltered platform for suppressed voices, but also disseminates misinformation and creates information bubbles. Twitter’s particular contradiction is its pace and brevity, which lends itself to memes, wit, and breaking news but also breeds misunderstanding, acrimony, and outright hate. It is as much a tool for harassment as it is for solidarity.
Though Twitter is often informal, a president’s use of it—particularly the prickly Trump—may thus complicate the line between official and unofficial statements. This is worrying. Leaders of nations have practical responsibilities, but also perform a symbolic function. It’s why the president’s reaction after a mass shooting, natural disaster, or act of terrorism is so important: Those words are meant to set the tone and tenor for the nation’s response. But given Trump’s history—such as his response to the Orlando nightclub massacre, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism”—his use of Twitter could foster a culture of bias and aggression.
Beyond all the obvious reasons for despair, there is also cause for disappointment. In other circumstances, the transparency of a president who personally tweets might have been a revelation. As we saw in the leaked Hillary Clinton emails, messaging by most powerful politicians goes through layers of approval, and is finessed by many hands. The sharp edges are shaved away, leaving language that is often devoid of life. Trump has revolutionized political messaging through his use of Twitter, leveraging the platform to break through the fastidious, tightly scripted politicking that defines contemporary politics. It was vital to his image of authenticity, and no doubt many Americans voted for him as a way of rejecting today’s overly calculated political rhetoric.
The modern relationship between politics and mass media has produced a strange situation in which we all acknowledge there is a difference between the public discourse of politics and how it is practised behind closed doors. We know that lofty campaign speeches bear no resemblance to the profanity-laden arguments in backrooms where power is truly exercised. Statements are crafted this way because of how they move through the media machine: often taken out of context, then used to reductively characterize position, moral character, and ideology. The public vacuity of modern politics is inseparable from its media corollary.
A president who took to a public platform to chip away at some of that disparity—even if it was just to relate personal, emotional statements rather than polished political narratives—might have helped the public believe that the government was acting out of a genuine interest to lead, rather than couching specific, ideological goals in a language meant to obscure them. Instead of relief from empty campaign statements, though, we got a president who uses social media to enact revenge, spout conspiracy theories, and self-aggrandize. Donald Trump will likely reign as the Twitter President, and he will do so like the worst of Twitter itself—primed for outrage, and quick to react with only the barest amount of thought.