In defense of Trump tweeting (but not what he tweets)

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP, AP, Getty Images (2)


As if this day in Washington could get much weirder (bars are opening early so you can get your buzz on while watching James Comey testify), it seems President Trump may live-tweet the Senate intelligence committee’s hearing if he feels the need to respond. Which means that, even as we watch Comey on TV, we could also be reading more half-literate outbursts from the Oval Office.

Comey told me I was best prez since Hamilton! Now lies to special council. SAD!

Trump’s already had himself quite a week online. Somehow, using only his thumbs, the president managed to enrage Britons by blaming the Muslim mayor of London for terrorism, severely damage his own Supreme Court case for a travel ban and plunge America into a confusing diplomatic crisis with a critical ally in the Persian Gulf. And that only got us to Tuesday.

And now pressure is building, not least among his own aides, for Trump to get off social media. The consensus argument is that a president can’t just sit around venting impulsively, 140 characters at a time, without having his statements vetted by lawyers and policymakers, the way it’s always been.

Fittingly, Trump rebuffed this argument in an angry tweet, directed at his favorite foil. “The FAKE MSM is working so hard trying to get me not to use social media,” he blurted this week. “They hate that I can get the honest and unfiltered message out.”

I certainly get the fear about where Trump’s Twitter feed might ultimately lead. The world right now — and especially the Arab world — feels like a leaky gas furnace; one reckless static charge can send the whole thing into orbit.

But I can’t help thinking that the president is actually right. If there’s one thing for which Trump deserves credit, it’s the way he’s thoroughly updated the office in the space of a few months, restoring its power to command the conversation in the age after broadcast.

Twitter is exactly the right medium for the modern presidency. It’s just that Trump continues to prove himself the wrong man for the job.

You may recall that after Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, there was all this talk of technological transformation. Obama was supposed to be the first 21st century president, personally connected to the voters.

And yet Obama and his communications aides failed to adapt the presidency to the digital moment. Mostly they complained a lot about how fractured the news environment was, and how hard it was to break through the noise.

They made Obama marginally more accessible by putting him on late night TV shows or in online comedy sketches, but not accessible in a way that spoke to the emerging demand for a more connected, less Olympian kind of leadership.

In fairness to Obama, though, he arrived in office at a kind of in-between moment, before social media had reached its critical mass. When I first wrote about Twitter and its looming effect on politics, in this 2009 essay, only a handful of politicians and journalists regarded it as anything more than a distraction.

“If Twitter doesn’t turn out to be just the latest political fad,” I wrote, “then it may just be the worst thing to happen to politics and its attending media since a couple of geniuses at CNN dreamed up ‘Crossfire’ back in the 1980s.”

I was both right and wrong, I guess. Twitter did end up reinforcing some of the worst trends in American politics — self-selecting realities, destructive and hateful discourse, ever more brevity and trivia.

But it also did something promising and long overdue: It opened a portal through which more adventurous leaders could speak directly and spontaneously to citizens. It shattered the hardened artifice of the television age, which had made politicians ever more remote, and voters ever more cynical.

It always takes time for new kinds of communication to permeate the presidency. Calvin Coolidge was the first president to speak on radio, but it wasn’t until Franklin Roosevelt and his fireside chats, a decade later, that broadcast became an indispensable tool of the office.

Harry Truman was the first president to deliver a televised address, in 1947, but what we really remember is that 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. After that, even Nixon understood that the demands of the presidency now included pancake makeup.

And so history will remember that while Obama broke new ground by tweeting a bunch of anodyne statements that influenced nothing, Trump was the guy who first tapped the massive potential of the new media. Thirsty for attention and inclined toward the outrageous, he was perfectly cast for the role.

He’s managed in these opening months to restore the bully to the bully pulpit, dictating his own coverage and dominating the news in a way Obama’s aides would have sworn was no longer possible.

It’s not just that Trump’s making policy in a tweet, or stirring up controversy, that makes his presence on social media so powerful. It’s that his eruptions are so demonstrably real.

You can actually picture Trump sitting at 4 in the morning, thumbs poised on the smartphone, anger seething through his pores, mind whirring with mischief. It’s precisely because he isn’t lawyered or vetted that his feed can send the entire media world scrambling for a headline. He publicly vents emotions in an age when personal testimonial is a form of mass entertainment.

There’s nothing inherently wrong — and, in fact, there’s much that’s right — with a president reaching voters in this kind of emotive, authentic way. If Trump had an actual governing agenda (which he doesn’t), his mastery of social media would exponentially amplify the argument.

The real problem for Trump — and for his coterie of devotees, and maybe for the rest of us, too — is that social media also tends to open a pretty clear window into who you really are.

If you’re sardonic or self-deprecating, that comes across in the way you share online and respond to critics. If you’re insecure or just plain angry at the world, if you’re lost or broken, if you’re possessed of any empathy — all of that, in the aggregate, becomes pretty self-evident over time.

And what Twitter tells us about Trump, what his lawyers and allies would really like to obscure from public view (along with whatever random statements might land him in legal jeopardy or start a war), is that he’s too small for the office. He doesn’t study issues, or consider other worldviews, or react to the hardships of others with any deep well of compassion.

His Twitter persona is real, but it’s strangely hollow. His voice is loud, but void of wisdom or grace. He cares about all kinds of things, but he is rarely careful.

No, Trump shouldn’t stop tweeting. He shouldn’t retreat behind the old walls of political convention. He’s right to see social media as a tool to revolutionize the presidency, to make it forceful and relevant in a cacophonous world. No one who succeeds Trump will see it as anything else.

Ultimately, though, the country is bound to conclude that the modern president ought to be someone who can reflect and inspire.

The last thing we need is another troll.

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