Donald Trump likes to tweet. As a candidate, many of us looked on bemused as he ranted about non-existent sex tapes at 3:00 AM. Since winning the Electoral College (but not the popular vote), that bemusement has turned to abject horror as the President-Elect of the United States has continued to tweet like a 20-year-old loner in his parents’ basement. Some, such as Kate Maltby at CNN, have suggested that Trump’s tweets are a “dead cat” meant to distract us from the true issues at play, like his fraud settlement in the Trump University case or his overseas business interests.
I disagree, and wholeheartedly cosign what ProPublica’s Jessica Huseman said to the Washington Post on Monday:
If he had said something similar in a press conference, no one would be concerned that journalists are getting distracted by his absurd language. But because it was a tweet, that’s somehow different? Unfortunately, this president-elect has decided to make Twitter his main means of communicating with the American public, and the American public listens deeply to things that he says on Twitter.
Given Trump’s distaste for the mainstream media and reluctance to sit down for rigorous, adversarial interviews, Twitter is likely to become the primary mode of communication between the President-Elect and the American people. As such, we should listen deeply to what Trump is saying on Twitter, because it tells us a lot about his character – and how he will govern.
For example, let’s look at four tweets he’s sent since 8 November:
These sample tweets all demonstrate Trump’s contempt for the First Amendment. The first Tweet, sent just this morning, calls for criminalising flag burning. We can debate the ethics or morality of burning the American flag, but the act—the speech—of burning a flag is protected under the First Amendment. Flag burning has long been a jarring act of protest used to demonstrate profound disagreement with the government of the day. None of us should want to criminalise an act of demonstrating opposition, no matter how repugnant we may ourselves find it. And certainly no reasonable person believes Americans should be stripped of their citizenship for burning a flag. Stripping people of citizenship isn’t what America does; it’s what the Third Reich did.
The second and third Tweets illustrate Trump’s complete disdain for peaceful dissent. The protests that organised in cities across the country were largely peaceful and a normal, rational reaction to the campaign promises Trump made on the trail. They were representative of the majority of Americans who didn’t want Trump to be president. But beyond that, they were a perfectly lawful and constitutional assembly. Similarly, Trump’s tweet about the cast of “Hamilton” shows, in his own words, that he thinks dissent is harassment. This is a dangerous characteristic for a president, who has the vast resources of the Executive Branch to survey and punish opponents and dissidents. If you think this can’t happen, I need only remind you that President Obama is leaving a massive surveillance apparatus to Trump, and that in our history, we’ve seen J Edgar Hoover gleefully violate civil liberties for Presidents Johnson and Nixon.
The fourth tweet is about the fourth estate, and it shows a deeply troubling penchant more reminiscent of autocracy than democracy. Trump thinks that any coverage that is less than fawning is biased, corrupt, or unfair. There is no law that says the White House must brief journalists, and autocrats routinely refuse access to reporters and news outlets who they deem opponents. It is incredibly difficult to do your job as a journalist if you don’t have access, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that Trump could deny access to the Times, the Washington Post, or any other outlet critical of him. Hell, it’s already happened on the campaign trail. Even when he doesn’t outright deny access, he sends his hordes of followers after journalists he doesn’t like; MSNBC’s Katy Tur had to be escorted out of a Trump rally by the Secret Service after he lambasted her at a rally.
Given the fact Trump is likely to continue communicating primarily in 140 characters or less, at least for the foreseeable future, covering his tweets – and taking them at face value – is deeply important. This isn’t a distraction from other important stories, but rather an important story in-and-of itself that should be covered along with policy and personnel decisions. For the time being, at least, we will have to walk and chew bubblegum at the same time.
We should also pay close attention to how Trump’s Twitter habits change (or don’t) over the coming weeks. Following his election in 2008, President Obama was made to give up his Twitter and Blackberry for national security and legal reasons. Obama does now have his own Twitter, which I assume will be turned over to Trump come 20 January. How he uses the official presidential Twitter, though, remains to be seen. So far, there’s no reason to believe that Trump will temper his tweets and rise to the occasion of the office he holds. Which means soon, the President of the United States could be a man who officially endorses curtailing the freedoms that have made this country great.