We need to talk about the president’s tweets again.
What is interesting is that Trump’s more unhinged Twitter tantrums are occurring at the same time that his White House operation is being professionalized and de-MAGAfied, if you will. As Axios’s Jonathan Swan noted:
Staff who oppose the moderate immigration turn no longer have unfettered access to Trump, and nor do allies on the outside who, in the first six months of the administration, used to send text messages to Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller, and often receive a snappy callback from the president. Kelly now has real control over the most important input: the flow of human and paper advice into the Oval Office. For a man as obsessed about his self image as Trump, a new flow of inputs can make the world of difference.
I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that these two phenomena are related. The more that the
prime minister White House chief of staff weeds out the sycophants and malcontents, the more that the toddler in chief will rebel.
Trump is tweeting like a crazy old man for three reasons. First, he has little choice but to spend the next six months or so — at a minimum — on thorny issues that have little upside for him: North Korea, a longer-term lift of the debt ceiling, funding the federal government, dealing with the “dreamers.” All of these issues will require him to make compromises that are necessary but are of little benefit to him. In these circumstances, Twitter can function as a venue for him to blow off steam.
Second, in dealing with all of these issues, Trump will have to do things that will alienate the parts of his base that believed in him. In the past week, we have seen the likes of Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Mickey Kaus go ballistic about the possibility of a deal on the dreamers. The easiest way for Trump to counteract any criticism he gets from Trump-friendly pundits is to feed his base some form of red meat. Tweets about Hillary Clinton could do the trick.
Some of Trump's base is happy to let him cut deals with Pelosi and Schumer so long as he tweets gifs of Hillary and CNN logos. WWE BS.— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) September 17, 2017
Third, Trump possesses such an oppositional personality that he needs to find ways to rebel against the constraints that John F. Kelly has placed on his White House staff. As his sycophants depart, Twitter is the one place where he can quickly get a similar hit of flattery.
There are two ways to react to this dialectic. The first, alas, is to simply shrug off Trump’s more idiotic tweets. Yes, most of his tweets are outrageous, but they are also toothless. Some might argue that simply shrugging off deranged tweets is normalizing the Trump administration. The thing is, we are only nine months into the lamest administration in modern history. Outrage needs to be conserved as a resource for the important stuff.
The second reaction is to marvel at the ways in which Trump has neutered his presidency.
First eight months of Trump: 1. Gorsuch. 2. Tweet of Trump's golf ball hitting Clinton.— (((Harry Enten))) (@ForecasterEnten) September 17, 2017
We already know that he has not figured out how to use the presidential levers of power. As Zachary Karabell noted recently in Politico:
For the moment, the Trump presidency is looking tame and pedestrian, far more fettered by processes, precedents and laws than the continued outcries against the administration or the continued adulation of supporters would have us believe.Trump promised to restore muscle to the presidency and respect to America. Eight months in, he is a not-so-imperial president heading a government and a country that neither must nor will do his bidding, left to flail against democratic structures more resilient and far stronger than many of us suspected.
It is not surprising that Trump has not figured out how to run the executive branch. It is a little more surprising to see him squander the one tool he mastered during the presidential campaign. Back in January, his bravado on Twitter seemed genuinely menacing. In the run-up to Inauguration Day, he could tweet at a company and its stock price buckled.
What has changed in the past nine months is that Trump has been proven to be a weak and feckless president. Yes, his administration has racked up some accomplishments, but none that it can brag about in public. At this point, when Trump promises or threatens on Twitter, no one believes him. As he acts more and more hysterical online, he will further erode his ability to use social media to set the agenda.
It is sad and scary that Donald Trump is the president. But even as his Twitter behavior worsens, it also reveals his impotence as a leader. As insufferable as his tweets might be, it is his impotence that is worth remembering.