If your only source of information about the United States in 2017 were the tweets of its president, you'd probably conclude the country was a dictatorship governed by a deranged tyrant.
President Trump threatens journalists and judges who defy him. He retweets the inflammatory videos of a far-right anti-Muslim hate group. He attacks private citizens for engaging in protest against the government. He singles out minorities for special abuse. He makes sweeping pronouncements as if he possesses the power to make major policy changes by fiat. He antagonizes foreign leaders, whether they're geopolitical friends or foes. And through it all, he shamelessly praises himself without restraint or even a minimal grounding in political reality.
Now obviously, the president's tweets are not our only source of information about the United States. Still, even when we place them in the broader context of American political culture, their role and purpose are hard to pin down.
Nearly a year into Trump's presidency, what are we to make of his increasingly unhinged tweets?
Before Trump, leading politicians had Twitter accounts, but the content nearly always seemed to be managed by political staffers pushing a centrally planned communications strategy. It was possible to imagine a president breaking free from these constraints and tweeting personal statements, perhaps to demonstrate a "common touch" with average Americans. But it's hard to envision any president other than Donald Trump using tweets to troll the country and the world.
That places those of us who work in the news media in a strange and difficult position. Judged by historic norms, a president's words carry enormous weight. Just about anything he says is considered newsworthy. That's even more so when he says something unusual, let alone shocking. But pretty much everything President Trump tweets is both unusual and shocking when compared with the statements of any previous president. Does that make his tweets more newsworthy than the statements of past presidents? Or less so?
A number of critics have made the latter claim since Trump ascended to the White House. The most recent is anti-Trump activist Amy Siskind, who over the past few days has several times tweeted variations of the following message in the minutes following a Trump tweet:
A year ago, I found such pleas unpersuasive. As a journalist, I thought to myself, "If you want to ignore the president's tweets, go right ahead. But we're in the news business. When the president says something, it's news, even if it's absurd, insulting, or a form of incitement." But after a year of Trumpian madness, I'm no longer so sure. Practically, I have a hard time imagining individual Americans ignoring the president's outrageous tweets, let alone news organizations actively deciding not to report on them. But that doesn't mean the country and the world wouldn't be vastly better off if we did.
Trump's tweets don't advance a consistent policy agenda. They don't make a cogent case for the administration's position on this or that topic. They don't articulate a direction for the nation's foreign policy or communicate a coherent message for the wider world. They exist solely to antagonize, provoke, and polarize. Only his most extreme, uncritical admirers like these outrageous assertions. Everyone else ends up appalled — and that negative response ends up being a good part of why those extreme, uncritical admirers liked them in the first place. It's all about reaction, all the way down.
In this respect, the president's trollish tweets are a form of propaganda, albeit in a postmodern guise. Whereas propaganda traditionally seeks to advance and defend a unified, coherent "line" on a policy or even the government's entire agenda, Trump's postmodern variant takes the opposite approach to the same goal of enhancing the power of those in charge. Instead of advancing and enforcing a single point-of-view that grows out of the administration's agenda, Trump's tweets constantly stir the pot of public discord, roiling the body politic, asserting positions that provoke critics to adopt equally outrageous stances in opposition. The result is a rising tide of chaos in civil society that diffuses dissent, fracturing it, drowning it out in the clamorous roar of the crowd.
Instead of seeking strength through unity, the president acts to divide and conquer.
A political culture that focused solely on news of what the Trump administration and its enablers in Congress are doing would almost certainly be more measured than what we have now, when journalists, public figures, and foreign governments are constantly distracted by the need to report on and react to the president's incessant tweeting.
Too bad it's so difficult to imagine depriving the president of both his adulatory and angry audiences.