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Trump’s Permanent Twitter Campaign

Far more than a diversionary tactic, tweeting lets the president-elect stay on the political offensive—and manipulate his press coverage.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty

A presidential transition is supposed to be a time of transformation, when the politician who campaigned turns into the executive who governs. But Donald Trump, who seemed as surprised at his general-election victory as anyone, shows no signs of shifting gears. In the weeks since the election, he’s remained the same old Donald Trump. Mario Cuomo famously wrote in The New Republic that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. For Trump, this can be modified to say that you campaign like a professional wrestler and govern like an accountant. Clearly, though, Trump prefers to stay in the ring.

Perhaps for this reason, he’s kept up many of the habits he developed on the hustings. Trump has been reluctant to get intelligence briefings, but eager to keep humiliating old foes like Mitt Romney. He’s been slow to divest himself of holdings that will create a conflict of interest once he holds high office, but impatient to return to giving large rallies (on Thursday in Cincinnati, he launches a “Thank You Tour” of the states he won). He’s been uninterested in even moving his family to Washington, but quick to keep up the incendiary tweeting that was one of his greatest innovations on the campaign trail.

A president-elect is supposed to try and unify the country after a divisive political conflict; relentlessly controversial tweeting stands that old idea on its head. Since his election, Trump has picked a fight with the cast of the musical Hamilton (accusing them in a now-deleted tweet of not just insulting Vice President-elect Mike Pence but, worse, of forgetting their lines). He’s falsely claimed that he won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He’s argued that anyone who burns the flag should suffer from a “loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

Such tweets raise a host of novel problems for journalists tasked with making sense of the incoming administration. On Tuesday, New York Times media correspondents ticked off some of the tricky questions we’re now confronted with: “How to cover a president’s pronouncements when they are both provocative and maddeningly vague? Does an early-morning tweet amount to a planned shift in American policy? Should news outlets, as some readers argue, ignore clearly untrue tweets, rather than amplify falsehoods further?”

Thus far, the press has mostly responded in two ways to the president-elect’s tweets: Some uncritically repeat them as “news,” which is blatantly irresponsible given the unreliability of the source. Some run Trump’s statements through a fact-checking wringer—an essentially important exercise, but one that doesn’t get us to the real context in which Trump is making false statements, and what he hopes to gain by them. Others fire back with outrage—Gabriel Serman of New York magazine, for instance, tweeted, “Trump’s Hamilton tweet is a terrifying glimpse of how he could attempt to suppress free speech. It should be openly condemned, esp by GOP.”

This is the exact wrong tack to take on Trump’s tweets, argues Politico’s Jack Shafer. For Shafer, the tweets are obvious diversion and bait, designed to sucker Trump’s liberal critics into a knee-jerk response they can’t resist. As Shafer argues:

For anybody who has read a half-dozen of Trump’s tweets, the pattern is obvious. He compiles these tweets precisely in order to elicit strident protest. It doesn’t matter to Trump that the cast of Hamilton was polite and respectful to Pence. It doesn’t matter that being rude to officeholders is an inalienable right—hell, a responsibility!—of all Americans. To Trump’s followers the content of any one of his rebukes matters less than whom it’s directed at—New York liberals and their fellow travelers in this instance.

Shafer’s analysis is spot on, but can be pushed much further. It’s not just that Trump is using Twitter to divert attention (including that of the liberal press) from genuine news stories. It’s not just that he’s perpetually creating a culture-war sideshow. It’s also the fact that his tweeting is the surest sign that Trump intends to turn his presidency into a perpetual campaign.

There’s ample reason for Trump to keep campaigning even though he’s won the electoral votes needed to be president. The 46.4 percent of the popular vote Trump won is not only less than what Clinton won (48.2), but also less than what Mitt Romney got in his losing 2012 campaign (47.2%). It’s no accident that Trump has tried to re-write history (via Twitter, of course) by dishonestly claiming that he’s the real popular-vote winner. For a politician who frames himself a populist, losing the popular vote is especially embarrassing. Sticking to campaign mode is in part a response to this failure—a way to refight the election that Trump and his team know they didn’t fully win.

But beyond the loss of the popular vote, Trump has to stay in campaign mode because that’s the only way his style of politics can function. He’s now in charge of a volatile coalition—with Paul Ryan’s belt-tightening budget at odds with Stephen Bannon’s desire for a new populist economics, and Mike Pence’s social conservatism at loggerheads with Trump’s own personal libertinism. During the election, this coalition held together out of a common hatred of “Crooked Hillary.” With Clinton now forever vanquished as a political force, Trump needs new enemies to rally the troops. Twitter fights are an excellent way to keep conjuring up a fresh set of left-wing demons.

The problems for the press—and the public we’re supposed to inform—go deeper. Trump’s tweets help get people talking about something other than Trump University, or his conflicts of interest. They manufacture distracting controversies. But they also, crucially, give him a powerful microphone to address the world without the interjection of critical voices. They are a form of press conference without a press, a social media rally with an audience in the millions.

Trump is using Twitter as a substitute for press conferences—as a means to make serious policy announcements in a safe space where he can spout off without being questioned or challenged. On Wednesday morning, for instance, Trump issued a string of tweets that, when strung together, announced: “I will be leaving my great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country in order to make America great again. While I am not mandated to do this under the law, I feel it is visually important, as president, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses.”

WCBV-TV in Boston, for one, published an Associated Press story on these tweets with the headline, “Trump leaving businesses to focus on running country.” The trouble with this headline is that it conflates Trump’s stated intent with what he is actually doing. In fact, Trump wasn’t leaving his company at all, and nothing had really changed: He’s still not liquidating his assets or putting them in a blind trust; he’s still giving more responsibility for running of the company to his children, who are also his closest political advisers. This in no way answers the problem of conflicts of interest arising from businesses and foreign government’s currying Trump’s favor by enriching his companies.

In the media’s rush to quickly report Trump’s tweet, the president-elect’s message got aired—initially, at least—without challenge. Once again, propaganda won over journalism. And even for those in the press inclined to look critically at whether his tweet actually meant anything at all, the result has been a news cycle spent shooting down those early, credulous reports, and ultimately establishing that ... nope, nothing has changed, and Trump’s tweet was substantively meaningless. Meanwhile, real things are happening—cabinet appointments that foretell massive shifts in American public policy, for instance. But they land on the back burner.

For all these reasons, the press must seriously re-think its relationship to Trump’s Twitter. A worthwhile political analysis of any Trump tweet (or comment, for that matter) means stepping back from both reflexive outrage and uncritical repetition. Parroting his tweets with no context or critical analysis is simply bad journalism. But so is reflexive liberal outrage—which needs to be replaced by more sober critiques, rooted in the fact that Trump is a political leader with a track record. We know he likes to gin up false controversies to avoid policy disputes. We know he is deeply dishonest. We also now know that he’s going to continue in the campaign mode as president-elect and, no doubt, as president.

That knowledge has to be applied to his covering his tweets. They should be analyzed for their real political intent.

Take the flag-burning tweet. A proper analysis would begin with the fact that Trump has shown no indication of introducing any laws to actually ban flag-burning. Nor is he likely to, since the Supreme Court has declared flag-burning to be constitutionally protected speech. This means the critique of the tweet is not just that it’s an outrageous suggestion, but also that it’s a flight from actual policy into the realm of fantasy politics. As such, it can be contrasted to the actual policy decisions that are already shaping up as Trump selects his cabinet. An analysis of this sort wouldn’t just notice that the tweet is a diversion, but also ask what it is diverting us from.

America has never before had a demagogic liar on the scale of Donald Trump as president. That means every one of his tweets has to be viewed with suspicion, as part of a permanent campaign—and as his substitute for communicating with the press in a more traditional way. The press has to treat this president as not just the holder of a high office, but as someone who is going to ardently pursue the same tactics of deception that won him the presidency.