The Twitter Presidency

BY DAN DASKAL

President Trump’s Twitter feed. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

In the wake of the social media revolution, a short string of words, often no more than 140 characters long, can be harnessed to create lasting change in the world. Coupled with the awesome power of the American presidency, the possibilities of this technology appear boundless. Throughout Donald Trump’s tenure as president, his tweets have wiped away billions of dollars of Amazon’s market capitalization, insulted North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un by sarcastically exclaiming that he would “NEVER call him ‘short and fat,’” and demonstrated his antipathy for CNN with a doctored video of him attacking its logo. Although President Trump’s social media strategy is certainly unorthodox, it has at times proven to be a largely effective, though controversial, method for communicating with the public.

Throughout history, politicians have utilized various approaches to engage their constituents and deliver messages to the public. While many in the past have relied heavily on the large audiences drawn by assorted media outlets, President Trump is certainly not the first politician to eschew the mainstream media in favor of new means of communication. During the 1930s and early 1940s, President Roosevelt employed the radio, a fairly new technology at the time, to conduct his famous “fireside chats.” Much like President Trump’s use of Twitter, the fireside chats granted Roosevelt the opportunity to present his policy proposals to the public without the filter of the media. These candid conversations proved to be extremely popular, providing a great boon to Roosevelt as he served a record four terms as president. While Trump is not the first president to use Twitter, with Obama having found much success on the platform as well, President Trump’s tweets, unlike Obama’s, have exceedingly high news values. The often controversial, unpredictable nature of his tweets demands attention, and as the old adage goes, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.”

President Trump himself has attributed his successful campaign to Twitter, stating in an interview conducted in the Oval Office that “Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here…” While it is impossible to determine the precise influence of President Trump’s use of Twitter on the election, online interest in then-candidate Trump was three times that of Hillary Clinton. Moreover, a September 2016 Gallup poll found trust in the mass media to be at historic lows, with only 32 percent of the American public saying that they have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in it. By communicating directly with voters, Trump was able to successfully circumvent this issue. Nevertheless, subsequent to his electoral victory, President Trump’s Twitter habits have proven to be far less popular with the public.

According to a June 2017 Politico/Morning Consult Poll, 69 percent of voters and 53 percent of Republicans believe that President Trump uses Twitter too much, and 51 percent believe that his use of Twitter hurts U.S. national security. Whereas Roosevelt largely used his direct access to the public to quell fear and explain his New Deal policies during the height of the Great Depression, President Trump has exhibited far less discipline with his use of social media. Rather than calming the public, President Trump’s tweets have often sown chaos and discord throughout the country, instead. For example, in September he threatened North Korea’s leaders over Twitter, leading many to fear a possible response from the hostile nuclear power. His tweets have also derailed portions of his agenda, having been cited in court rulings blocking his travel ban, as well as in a more recent ruling to temporarily block his proposed transgender military ban.

While President Trump’s use of Twitter likely served as an impetus for his ascendance to the Oval Office, it is imperative that he alter his social media strategy. As a presidential candidate, amassing publicity and attention was crucial for his campaign; however, these efforts considerably hinder his ability to govern. President Trump should heed the public’s sentiment regarding his Twitter habit and sharply reduce his usage of the platform. By more carefully evaluating the messages he delivers, President Trump will be able to decrease public anxiety regarding his statements and may even improve his historically low approval ratings. With regard to his Twitter habits, a shift to the adage of “Nothing good ever happens after midnight” is certainly in order.

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