Julian Zelizer: Trump's tweets should be treated as political acts -- not mere distractions
Particularly since the President is using his tweets as a rhetorical means to divide, insult and spread false information, writes Zelizer
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
From the start of his administration, President Donald Trump has used presidential tweets as a wrecking ball that divides, insults and spreads false information – confusing the nation in ways that potentially benefit his administration.
And this weekend was no exception. With residents of Puerto Rico struggling to survive a humanitarian disaster, the President sent out a barrage of hate-filled tweets, invoking racial stereotypes and fueling division in the body politic.
It would be a grave mistake to ask, as the media often does, whether this is another “distraction” from the serious issues confronting the Oval Office, an effort to shift public attention away from the President’s more serious problems like the collapse of health care legislation or the growing tension with North Korea.
But presidential tweets are in fact serious business, and they should be considered political acts of the first degree. Since the founding of the Republic, and even more so in the age of radio, television and now the Internet, presidential rhetoric is one of the most powerful tools that the commander-in-chief has at his disposal. The bully pulpit, a concept which Trump takes literally, allows the president to pit social groups against one another or to unite them, to convey critical information to help in times of trouble or to spread false information that skews public conversations, and to assist allies or delegitimize opponents.
In other words, presidential rhetoric, including tweets, are incredibly significant, and every 140-character missive should be treated as a deliberate political move.
What has President Trump done with his power to tweet? The most important use of this medium has been to stir social and political divisions, aggravating deeply rooted cultural tensions within the national psyche. We have seen this at numerous points in this presidency, including recently with his tepid response to white racist protesters in Charlottesville and his blasts against African-American players protesting racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem. These are not “dog-whistles,” but megaphones, which he uses to get across his message loud and clear. And in his latest tweet about Puerto Ricans, he appears to be comfortable using his words to reinforce obvious social stereotypes about their being lazy or “uppity” that are extraordinarily damaging.
President Trump has also used his Twitter power to spread false information that strongly influences the national conversation. He understands that in the 24-hour news media environment, it is almost impossible for reporters to ignore what he says, and once they start discussing his latest attempt at shock and awe, it is hard to stop.
As a result of several of his tweets, we have had national conversations – and an official commission – about massive voting fraud despite there being no evidence this has been a problem. We’ve also debated whether or not President Barack Obama wiretapped Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, a claim that FBI officials dismissed.
And during the health care debate, President Trump frequently made misleading claims about the legislation being considered, such as his promise that Medicaid spending would go up under the proposed bill. He later blamed the failure of the health care legislation on the filibuster, even though it was being considered under the rules of reconciliation which only require a majority vote – a number the Republicans simply could not meet.
Trump has also used the tweet as a bludgeon against his opponents. The tweets of this sort have ranged from his ongoing smear of the media as “Fake News” to his attacks against fellow Republicans in Congress, who he accuses of incompetency.
And when it comes to foreign policy, we have seen some of the most dangerous effects of his tweets, as his escalating war of words with North Korea has heightened the potential for a serious military conflict in the near future. Just today, as news broke that the administration is trying to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis in North Korea, the President tweeted: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man….”
When the President tweets, the world hears about what he has to say, and people are listening to a person who holds tremendous power and authority. Make no mistake about it, the words that a president chooses to use can matter as much as public policy. Those words can have long-term political and policy consequences.
Never have we seen a verbal barrage like what we have witnessed since January. When historians look back at this presidency, Trump’s Twitter feed will be the first thing they examine, an x-ray into the troubling soul and strategy of our Commander-in-Chief.