Shortly after winning the election last November, President-elect Donald Trump appeared on 60 Minutes and promised to be more careful in his Twitter use than he was as a candidate. “I’m going to be very restrained, if I use it at all, I’m going to be very restrained,” Trump swore. Given the important role tweeting played in his political success, this seemed like a pledge doomed to broken. And it was. As president, Trump has not only kept up tweeting, he’s done so with a new level of venom and destructiveness, amplified beyond measure by the fact that he’s now the most powerful man in the world. Since assuming the presidency, Trump has used Twitter to go after a former president (Barack Obama is a “Bad (or sick) guy” on par with “Nixon/Watergate”), companies that irk him (Nordstrom was “very unfair” and “terrible” when it stopped carrying Ivanka Trump’s wares) and the media (with the “failing” New York Times spreading “FAKE NEWS”).
What’s the best way to respond to these Twitter tantrums? There’s an emerging consensus that Trump’s tweets should be ignored. NBC News’ Peter Alexander reports that Obama himself thinks that the focus should be on Trump’s actions, not his words. According to a source close to the former president, Obama “is much more concerned by President Trump kicking people off their health insurance, not staffing the government, not being prepared for a crisis, rolling back regulations so that corporations can pollute the air and water and letting mentally unstable people buy guys with no problem whatsoever.” By contrast, tweets are a lesser concern. Obama “cares about all those things much more than what President Trump tweets at the TV each morning.”
Vox’s Matthew Yglesias argued recently that Trump’s tweets are part of a circus that’s “irrelevant” compared to his governance. “The real-world consequences of Trump’s governance matters enormously, and so does the pushback Trump is getting,” Ygelesias contended. “But the Trump Show itself— the series of tweets, speeches, interviews, and provocations undertaken by the president of the United States in lieu of governing—is tedious and irrelevant. It’s time to start learning how to tune it out.”
Writing from a very different ideological perspective, conservative Ben Shapiro came to the same conclusion in National Review. “Instead of treating Trump’s rhetoric seriously, wouldn’t America be better off if we did ignore it?” Shapiro asked. “What if instead of going nuts over a half-baked Trump tweet for a week, we all just recognized that the tweet is what it is: a half-baked Trump tweet? What if we returned to the notion of the president as a constitutional officer with prescribed duties?” Shapiro framed his proposal nostalgically, calling for a return to the practices of the early republic, when what a U.S. president said carried little weight. “Sure, Americans knew about President Washington’s Farewell Address,” Shapiro acknowledges. “They heard about inaugural speeches. But nobody much cared about the day-to-day verbiage uttered by the occupant of the White House.”
By evoking the distant past, Shapiro makes apparent the limits not only of his argument, but those of Yglesias and Obama. For the very nature of our modern world, and the United States’ supremacy, makes it impossible to dismiss an American president’s word. The U.S. is a nuclear-armed superpower, with a commander in chief who presides over the world’s largest economy. Millions of people all over the world pay careful attention to what a president says, making their own plans based on the words coming out of the White House—and they will continue to do so whether or not the press corps and political class in Washington somehow agree en masse to ignore Trump’s tweets.
“Toyota Motor said will build a new plant in Baja, Mexico, to build Corolla cars for U.S. NO WAY!” Trump tweeted in January. “Build plant in U.S. or pay big border tax.” Toyota’s stock promptly fell, as has the stock of other companies caught in Trump’s Twitter crosshairs. Because his tweets move markets, businesses are developing strategies for how to handle a presidential social media attack. There’s even an app that lets you know when Trump has tweeted negatively about a publicly traded company, so you can sell quickly if needed. Another company created a lightning-fast Twitter bot that automatically short sells such stocks. It’s called “Trump and Dump.”
Something similar is happening in foreign policy: South Korea has a military officer tasked with the responsibility of monitoring Trump’s tweets and assessing what they mean for Asia. Meanwhile, in China, state media has criticized Trump’s “Twitter foreign policy.” And when Trump used Twitter to criticize a “so-called judge” who blocked his Muslim travel ban, a judge on the Supreme People’s Court of China penned a blog post admonishing him for not respecting judicial independence. “Even if you control the armed forces and have nuclear weapons,” He Fan wrote, “your dignity has been swept away and you are no different than a villain.” Little by little, Trump’s reckless tweeting is costing America the moral high ground in international affairs.
Trump’s wild accusations against Obama weren’t just words that flickered across Twitter. They had real consequences in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Trump’s staff was caught off guard and had to scramble to prepare a response, thus furthering the sense of chaos in the administration. “Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts, viewed with amazement outside the West Wing bubble, often create crises on the inside,” the Times reported. “That was never truer than when Mr. Trump began posting from his weekend retreat at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida shortly after sunrise on Saturday. His groggy staff realized quickly that this was no typical Trump broadside, but an allegation with potentially far-reaching implications that threatened to derail a coming week that included the rollout of his redrafted travel ban and the unveiling of the Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.”
Trump’s tweets also have a ripple effect in Washington. Trump’s staff has had to walk a tightrope of standing by their boss without quite saying that they believe him. Republicans on Capitol Hill have been walking a similar tightrope. House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, a staunch Trump supporter and member of his transition team, told reporters on Tuesday, “A lot of the things he says, you guys take literally,” but then later said the president had raised “valid questions.”
The idea that Trump’s tweets can be ignored is based on a facile distinction between words and action. But a president’s words are themselves a form of action, because words spoken in high office carry great weight. This is perhaps even more true of an unconventional leader like Trump, whose words set his agenda because he’s not driven by party orthodoxy or a coherent ideology. As Trump’s former campaign manger, Corey Lewandowski, told The Washington Post, “Donald Trump’s Twitter account is the greatest bully pulpit that has ever existed. In 140 characters, he can change the direction of a Fortune 100 company, he can notify world leaders and he can also notify government agencies that business as usual is over.”
Like them or not, Trump’s tweets are consequential. Ignoring them won’t change that. “The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan argued a half-century ago. Today, we can take this further by saying the man and medium have merged: Trump’s presidency and his tweets are one.