Inside Trump Tower early Tuesday morning, the president-elect was watching a Fox News segment about veterans protesting the removal of the American flag at a Massachusetts college after anti-Trump demonstrators burned the national banner.
Thirty minutes later, he tweeted his feelings on the subject: flag burning, a constitutionally protected expression of free speech, should be illegal, he asserted.
“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Mr. Trump wrote in a 6:55 a.m. Twitter post.
As it was two weeks ago when Trump whined about the cast of Hamilton preaching to the vice president-elect about American values or last week when he asserted without evidence that “millions” voted illegally, and as it has been from the beginning of his escalator ride into American politics, Trump’s willingness to flout the norms, to bulldoze political niceties has only solidified his standing with millions of supporters and forced his foes into their roles as pointy-headed, overly intellectualized coastal elites.
What’s different now, however, is that Trump is no longer a man vying for the office. He is the man building a government, and his addiction to Twitter and desire to communicate sans filter to his nearly 16.3 million followers are offering Americans a window into the mind of their president that they have never had before.
It’s also – apparently – creating the desired media effect: A tweet by the president-elect in response to a news story prompts a spate of new headlines and offers television producers more than enough fodder to fill their morning, afternoon and possibly their evening hours. As predictably as the sun’s rise in the east, journalists, legal experts and incensed Democrats spent Tuesday filling the airwaves and the Twittersphere with an obvious and fact-based response: America’s Constitution not only protects free speech but also prevents the government from expatriating its citizens. Varying degrees of outrage that the country’s next president might not understand or value such constitutional protections were also in abundance.
“The fact is Donald Trump was very successful with ‘The Apprentice.’ It was a remarkably popular show. He understands the value of tension, he understands the value of showmanship, and candidly, the news media is going to chase a rabbit. So it’s better off for him to give them a rabbit than for them to go off and find their own rabbit,” Newt Gingrich said Tuesday. “He’s had them fixated on Mitt Romney now for five or six days. And I think from his perspective, that’s terrific. Gives everybody something to talk about. He does not think of this as chaos, he thinks of this as creativity.”
In the three weeks since Election Day, it has grown abundantly clear—as it did again and again in the months before—that Trump himself is not going to change. He will not stop reflexively tweeting out his thoughts and feelings, be they prideful or hurt or otherwise, just because he is about to become the American president. And he is not about to stop stoking the country’s culture wars as he did so adroitly as a candidate even as he is promising to unify a public he has further divided.
“This magical vortex that he’s created is entirely new,” said Reed Galen, a GOP consultant in California and a veteran of George W. Bush and John McCain’s presidential campaigns. “Almost anything he says is getting the desired reaction out of the people he is trying to get a rise out of. And it further divides the people who like him from those who don’t—those who trust the media from those who don’t. And what it really does, unfortunately, it obscures the important issues we should be focusing on.”
In almost every situation thus far, the controversies created by Trump in 140-character bursts have served—intentionally or inadvertently—to distract the public from longer, more detailed and sometimes more damaging reports by the mainstream media. Trump’s tweets over the weekend alleging millions of people voting illegally coincided with a New York Times report about the unprecedented scope of conflicts of interest surrounding an incoming president with business projects and investments around the world.
If there is a unifying operational theory behind it all, it is a blend of manufactured chaos and can’t-look-away, reality-style entertainment. Not only does the Trump show upend centuries of White House precedent—this is hardly the gentility, tradition and outward-facing order the country is used to—it shrugs at the seriousness of the presidency, distracts from the issues the next president is sure to face and may ultimately diminish the grandeur of the institution itself.
“We saw the rise of this phrase in 2016, the ‘alt-right,’ but I think an even deeper phenomenon is the alt-reality Trump is trying to create,” said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. “These Twitter explosions—it’s not that he’s trying to describe the world in a factual way or even trying to be politically clever in aiding his agenda. He’s trying to demonstrate that he has the power to create his own reality and get sufficient numbers of Americans to live inside of it.”
“When he gets the press to react and exclaim how outrageous it is, it aids him in creating the alt-reality his presidency will likely be about. People who study authoritarianism in Europe mention this as one of most disorienting things about living in those regimes—the realities put forward that aren’t based on people’s real, lived experiences, but leader’s ability to create this reality is the point.”
Whatever the more short-term implications on his and his administration’s ability to dominate the media and drive a narrative, and whatever the longer term effects on the stature of the American presidency and the country, the constant tweeting from inside the Oval Office will offer the public a window into the president’s own real-time thoughts and feelings as it has never had before. The clarity with which the country will be able to see its next president, a flawed, deeply polarizing and larger than life media personality, stands in stark contrast to the opacity of his seemingly malleable policy positions and unformed legislative agenda.
“I think this is going to drastically change how media covers presidency—not just because it’s a clear window into his thoughts, but because he has so much contact with voters he doesn’t need the media as much,” said Michael Caputo, a Buffalo, NY operative who was part of a group that in 2013 urged Trump to run for governor.
“He told us back then that he was going to run for president instead and that Twitter would be his primary campaign tool. Not only did he do what he said he was going to do; I’ve seen the proof of how impactful it is. I have never in my life seen the engagement levels Trump has. He’s not impressing millions. He’s impressing billions.”
Trump’s command of his and his ability to manipulate his followers—supporters, detractors, journalists and world leaders alike—is unprecedented, given that Twitter barely impacted the elections of 2008 or 2012 and heretofore has been carefully used by President Obama, whose tweets have mostly been carefully scripted and filtered through several layers of staff for approval.
Beyond his pronouncements, he has offered at least a semblance of interactivity that is also largely unprecedented. As he scrolls through hundreds of tweets from people mentioning him, he often re-tweets the sycophantic words of average citizens that align with or advance his own views.
Just days after meeting with executives from news networks including CNN, Trump re-tweeted a supporter who had blasted CNN’s Jeff Zeleny as “just another generic CNN part-time wannabe journalist.” And he added, “CNN still doesn’t get it. They will never learn!”
It was a double whammy—a tweet explicitly trashing a specific journalist that was but one tiny bullet in a larger multi-platform war on the mainstream media itself. Although his presidency has yet to begin, many acknowledge that Trump is winning that war at the moment.
“You saw change in the level of trust of media over this campaign,” said Caputo, who now hosts a radio show on a conservative western New York station. Over the weekend, listeners weighed in on Trump’s compulsive tweeting. “Of 27 callers, 25 said they want him to keep tweeting,” Caputo continued.
“Trump’s use of social media has adjusted down America’s view of the media. Those who are crying for him to put down his Twitter are the ones who Americans have started not to trust.”
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