Already the unprecedented has become routine, the unthinkable has a pattern.
It goes something like this: The president-elect of the United States tweets something no president-elect has ever said, and certainly never tweeted, before. There is a flood of response — a mix of support, outrage, disbelief at the very fact of it, and warnings that the tweet is a distraction from something even worse.
Pause a few days. Or hours. Repeat.
All of this raises a number of questions as this president-elect becomes president: Is his unfiltered spew of thought really unprecedented? Is it in fact deliberate, or just instinctive? And does the difference matter?
As Esquire writer Jack Holmes put it: “Can Trump simply not control himself, or is Twitter his weapon of mass distraction to keep us away from the real story?”
Or, as late-night host Seth Myers asked less delicately: Are “these tweets … calculated distractions or just the ramblings of an unhinged narcissist?”
Those who view Trump’s pattern as strategic have a growing list of examples. Just before the controversial nomination of Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., to head the Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, Trump tweeted that flag burning should be illegal. When the intelligence community concluded Russia had been trying to help his campaign by hacking the DNC, Trump unleashed a Twitter tirade against Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe speech. The most iconic of the “tweets as distraction” was when Trump lashed out at the cast of “Hamilton” on the day he agreed to a settlement on fraud lawsuits.
“Wow the audience at Hamilton booed so loud that the news didn’t hear about Trump paying $25m to settle his fake university lawsuit,” “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah wrote on Twitter.
And Glenn Thrush tweeted: “Trump’s tweet storms aren’t impulsive. He wants us to be talking about Hamilton, not stories like these.”
It’s not just Trump critics who are spreading the master manipulator theory. Many in his inner circle subscribe as well. After the media spent several days writing about possible internal division over a potential Mitt Romney appointment as secretary of state, Newt Gingrich said on Fox News that Trump had planned for the press to do exactly that. “He understands the value of showmanship,” Gingrich said. “And, candidly, the news media is going to chase the rabbit. So it’s better off for him to give them a rabbit than for them to go find their own rabbit.”
A few weeks later, after Trump seemed to question decades of thinking on nuclear disarmament by tweeting that the U.S. must “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” Newt Gingrich told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday”: “I think it’s brilliant because … he’s able very quickly, over and over again, to set the agenda.”
Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer also suggested a method to Trump’s Twitter madness, telling David Axelrod on “The Axe Files” podcast: “He is a very, very strategic thinker. He understands the outcome he wants to achieve and kind of works backward and uses the tools at his disposal to achieve that goal. In some cases, yes, he’s sat down and said this is where I want to end up, this is what I am going to do. There’s many times when there’s a method or a decision behind something.”
But even those who say that “many times” the Twitter tirades are deliberate agree that many times they aren’t. Like the morning when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway sat on the couch on “Fox & Friends,” staring at the show’s host’s phone and watching in real time as her boss taunted Arnold Schwarzenegger for his poorly rated “Celebrity Apprentice” debut.
“He’s typing, well, good for him,” Conway said, in a tone that seemed somewhere between amusement and resignation, while waiting for his next tweet to appear.
The expanding universe of those who study Trump’s tweets, a world of academics, politicians and data geeks, has analyzed such things as the differences between the ones he types himself, on his Samsung Galaxy, and the ones crafted for him by staff, sent on his iPhone (his are angrier); the frequency with which he uses certain words (“badly” and “crazy” are favorites) and the time of day he is most likely to tweet (between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m.).
Their growing consensus is that while some of Trump’s messages are deliberately timed to distract, most are more instinctive spotlight grabs by a man who is happiest being the center of attention.
“He has learned over his whole adult life, not just this presidential campaign, that he can get attention for certain things by being outrageous,” says journalist Michael D’Antonio, author of “The Truth About Trump” and the new book “A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama.”
“I think that he just selects from his fevered mind a topic that has always interested him and says something provocative because he wants all eyes on him,” D’Antonio says. Often those impulses are retaliatory — fighting back against a statement by John Lewis or Meryl Streep, or a poll result saying he is unpopular, or a story he saw on the news. But others appear to come out of the blue.
Trump is proud of the power of his tweets (he has been said to describe himself, according to the Washington Post, as “the Hemingway of Twitter”), but he cares far less about the content of the tweets than the press does, D’Antonio believes. “While everyone is racing around trying to figure out what this means for future policy, he has no such thoughts. All he’s thinking about is the attention it gets. His view is, ‘If you supported me you know what kind of guy I am. I’m the guy at the end of the bar just spouting off.’ ”
What we have seen in this election, then, is that guy at the bar meeting his perfect communication tool, suggests David Greenberg, a Rutgers University historian and author of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.” Because it’s not his ability to bypass the press that is new, he says, as much as his understanding of how to use this new medium to do it.
“What people have been saying about Trump and Twitter is mostly wrong,” Greenberg says. “The thing I keep hearing is that Twitter gives him a chance to reach the public directly. Yes, it does. But so do speeches on television, or press releases, or forms of media that politicians have had access to for 100 years.”
Similarly, he says, he is not the only politician to use Twitter. Obama was the first president on Twitter. Hillary Clinton had a huge head start in number of followers at the start of the 2016 race. But just as FDR is credited as the first radio president, even though Calvin Coolidge actually gave the first radio State of the Union and inaugural address, Trump is the first real Twitter politician, even though others were there sooner.
“Coolidge just took his standard speech and gave it on the radio,” Greenberg says. “But FDR created speeches designed for radio. He was made for radio. Obama’s tweets were careful; Hillary Clinton, we learned, would consult with 14 staffers about what to say in each tweet. Twitter is made for short, impulsive, emotional outbursts. Whether he plans it, or just happened to fall into it, the result is it’s perfect for who he is.”
Greenberg says that the politician Trump most reminds him of in his use of the media of the day is Joseph McCarthy. “What McCarthy thrived on was the oxygen of media coverage,” he says. “The press knew they were being played, but they didn’t quite know how to resist it. He would make accusations with no proof, and journalists felt obliged to cover it because, of course, he’s a senator with an investigative committee.”
The final straw historically was the question asked of him at the Army-McCarthy hearings by opposing attorney Joseph Welch: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Twitter, however, rewards the opposite of decency. And that leads Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU and author of the blog Pressthink, to conclude that the question of whether Trump’s use of social media is “Machiavellian or monkey at the keyboard” is the wrong one. The better question is, why that use of social media is so effective — not how this person makes it work, but rather why it works so well for this particular person.
Rosen laid out this view in a series of tweets recently, saying, “I dissent from the view widely-held – by journalists and others – the Trump is some ‘master media manipulator.’” Instead, he wrote, the power of his tweets stems from a seminal, subconscious trait, specifically, “He cannot be shamed.”
“Everything explained by attributing to Trump some mastery of media arts is better explained by his indifference to being a clown figure,” he continued.
The difference is crucial, Rosen said in an interview, because the way a free press pushes back against “Manipulator in Chief Trump” should be different than “No Shame Trump.” In effect the current approach — pointing out factual errors and rudeness — is asking the equivalent of “have you no decency,” he and Greenberg both suggest. But his goal is not to be decent but to be provocative.
What, then, is the best approach to this provocation? Finding it will be the primary job of the press in the new administration. Rosen suggests it includes covering his tweets, yes, but with a dial-down in the temperature, finding a midpoint between normalizing the most unprecedented and giving them oxygen.
Some, like Pulitzer Prize winner and Trump biographer David Cay Johnston, believe it requires a new form of journalism entirely.
“Donald is the most masterful manipulator of the conventions of journalism that I’ve ever known,” says Johnston, author of “The Making of Donald Trump.” “Mainstream news organizations haven’t figured out yet that their well-developed ways of covering people will not do the job.”
Johnston is raising funds for a journalistic entity, DCReport, that would, pointedly, not cover what the new president says, because Johnston has concluded that the words do not actually state Trump’s intentions.
“For as long as I’ve known him he says things that he will contradict a moment later,” Johnston says of Trump. So rather than writing about each statement, Johnston believes reporters should focus on the internal workings of government, following paper trails of proposed policy changes and writing about them before they happen, when they can still be influenced.
“Donald understands that whenever news organizations react to what he says, what they’re not doing is focusing on what he does,” Johnston says. “Deliberate distraction, instinctive distraction. Whatever the cause, the result is we’re distracted.”
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