Donald Trump is America’s first Twitter president. The tweet has become an accelerant for his bullying style. Tweets allow little room for argument and yet reach millions with every missive.
We shouldn’t fret over the obvious limitations of short messaging any more than we did over the arrival of cable television news a generation ago, or the arrival of television in the radio age. Twitter may be having business troubles, but short messaging is already a global phenomenon that is changing the way people work, communicate and govern. The drawbacks are obvious and so are the benefits. To tweet is a verb, just as to google. It is here to stay.
The wonderful thing about the digital revolution is that Trump has no monopoly on this vast and mighty tool; it is in everyone’s pocket. But Trump,with his 17 million followers, has perfected a powerful strategy. He uses tweets like a class bully with a spitball. The technique is to catch the intended target off-guard, hit them in the back or side of the head. How else to explain Trump’s strange desire to tweet insults at an Indiana union chief who criticized him for exaggerating the benefits of the Carrier jobs decision? Or to tweet demands at the cast of “Hamilton” or the executives of Boeing? Or a thousand other insults in recent years?
There’s something special about the melding of Twitter and Trump, and it was on full display with the attack on Boeing. He lamented in 23 words (and two numbers) that costs of a new Air Force One are “more than $4 billion” and “out of control,” then demanded, “Cancel order!” He didn’t say that he would ask Congress or the Pentagon to cancel the order — no space for that detail in a tweet. Nor did he bother to say that Boeing’s project has barely started and does not yet cost that kind of money — no space for that nuance on Twitter.
But the last two words are telling. “Cancel order!” is a demand, and demands from the soon-to-be leader of the free world are not to be taken lightly. Some people use Twitter to raise questions, express anger or make fun. Trump loves the imperative voice, and Twitter enables it nicely. The imperative is a special grammatical mood for commands, instructions and requests, and if you use an exclamation point, then the thought becomes a shout.
Mix this with Trump’s volatile moods, personal authoritarianism, high self-regard and loose command of facts, and you have a captivating form of political communication. It propelled Trump to the presidency. Sure, other politicians used it, but most of them were boring. Trump is a showman with the medium and has a serious grasp of how it works, with a single tweet repeated by millions more users and then amplified on all the other media, both news and social.
More than three years ago, Trump tweeted:
And four years ago:
Trump eschews complexity. Twitter has no room for complexity.
Trump loves a megaphone. Twitter is a giant amplifier.
His idea of being boss is throwing down his decisions — “You’re fired!” — but the presidency actually involves intricate relations with other parties. Twitter, on the other hand, is perfect: Why allow Congress or your critics to squeeze into your car when all you want is to be alone at the wheel?