Trump’s High-Stakes Tweeting
Trump’s strongest supporters are sometimes the most anxious critics of his tweeting—not because his is a failing presidency bordering on caricature, but because it is adroitly unwinding the Obama transformation. But why, then, the need to go after failed media has-beens without an audience?
Of course, tweeting commentary and news over the heads of a corrupt Washington media pack is innovative and wise—and to some degree got Trump where he is today by reinventing communications with the public. But burning time ridiculing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failed “Celebrity Apprentice” gambit or, more recently, the psychodramas and daily inanities of Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski seems a misspent investment of energy.
Yet that said, there are lots of uncertainties about consequences of the latest round of Trump’s seemingly counterproductive tweets, right on the eve of the most important legislative challenges, health care and tax reform, of his young presidency—and at a time when he is regaining momentum, successfully engaging world leaders and issuing executive orders that are overturning the prior eight years of “fundamental transformation” of the country.
Is ad hominem tweeting, then, endangering or empowering Trump’s agenda? Or both? Or neither?
Start with the given that there are now regrettably few accepted norms of presidential behavior. Trump’s occasional uncouthness is a symptom, not a catalyst, of the times. Bill Clinton redefined presidential behavior when he had sexual relations with a 22-year-old, unpaid intern (so much for power imbalances as sexual harassment) in the presidential bathroom off the Oval Office, lied about his recklessness to his family and the country, smeared Monica Lewinsky, and then wheeled out to the Rose Garden feminist cabinet officers like Madeline Albright and Donna Shalala to deny and defend his unsavory predatory behavior. After that sordid episode, the apologetic Left lost all credibility as an arbiter of presidential norms.
Indeed, Clinton had brought us into new debased territory. In contrast, George W. Bush for eight years restored honor, integrity, and decorum to the White House. But he was rewarded for exemplary behavior by being branded a Nazi warmonger, as docudrama films and novels appeared imagining his assassination, and even the likes of John Glenn stooped to the Nazi slurs on his character. (“It’s the old Hitler business.”)
Out of office, Bush professionally kept quiet and busy as an accomplished artist, as Obama moved the country leftward. For that, Bush was ridiculed by the Left as reduced to a bewildered, paint-by-numbers dabbler.
Album cover for Kendrick Lamar’s “Pimp a Butterfly.” Note the dead judge in the foreground of the picture.
The emeritus Obama, by contrast, frolics on billionaires’ yachts docked off tropical islands with the mega-rich whom he attacks in Wall Street chats for $10,000 a minute—and takes a day off from his wind surfing to weigh in on Trump’s unfitness. For all that, he remains a progressive icon.
From that brief Bush hiatus, it was a short slide back down to GloZell and Obama’s adoration in the White House of Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” (read some of the “ho’s”, “n—as”, and racist lyrics of that album and cf. the celebration over the corpse of a judge on the cover). In truth, Trump misdemeanors of attacking journalists are acerbated by his transparent over the top rhetoric; Clinton’s felonies were ameliorated by his bite-the-lip, contrived remorse.
Trump, in comic-book fashion, tweets his body slam of CNN; the socialist Bernie Sanders’ wife stands accused of evicting the disabled in what looks to be a real-estate scam by a failed college president. Trump goes after individual washed-up celebrities; Obama indicted an entire people for being lazy, clinging to their guns and religion, intolerant, nativist, and unnecessarily chauvinistic. Take your poison: personal score-settling or mellifluent contempt.
Factored into the Trump’s tweeting controversies are other variables mostly left unsaid by the media:
Trump has melted down partisan journalists and left the American progressive media in shambles. It was Obama, not Trump, who established the practice of going after journalists by name, both materially and rhetorically, from surveilling Fox’s James Rosen to using puerile hype to attack Sean Hannity (“You know, I’ll put—I’ll put Mr. Burgess up against Sean Hannity. He’ll tear him up.” [emphasis added]). Obama was angry that a few reporters did not join the cult of Obama worship; Trump is peeved almost no one in the press is disinterested. Trump saw Obama’s precedent, and proverbially trumped it.
CNN is now no longer a news organization, but has been reduced to caricature by Trump hatred. It has been exposed not just as unprofessional and dishonest (firing reporters for fake news reports; apologizing and retracting constant errors of content; producers caught on tape denigrating voters and bragging of their hyper-partisanship and anti-Trumpism), but also has run the gamut from scatology (Anderson Cooper and Reza Aslan) to violence porn (Kathy Griffin, or the jokes about Trump’s plane crashing) to simple fraud (last year’s Donna Brazile revelations).
Sputtering journalists (Jim Rutenberg, Carl Bernstein, Jorge Ramos, Christiane Amanpour.) are exasperated to the point of openly confessing that their craft should give up empirical reporting to deal with Trump, without shame any longer over the partisan propaganda their organizations and colleagues peddle. Those declarations are not a change of course, but a confession of what the media have been doing from the election of Barack Obama. The logical media progression from eerie Obama worship was to creepy Trump hatred.
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg recently warned that Trump’s attacks on journalists lowered the bar and put them in danger. He added ominously to his Aspen audience that any violence would be on Trump’s conscience: “And someone, I mean God forbid, someone is going to do something violent against journalists in a large way, and then I know where the fault lies. And we’re heading in this direction, and it’s quite frightening."
But what an odd thing to say about “fault” after the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalisi (R-La.), when reality, not hypotheticals, offered a clear example of how extremist rhetoric can incite partisan nuts to shoot and maim. Goldberg apparently fears for what he thinks might follow unseemly rhetoric rather than what did follow from Leftist extremist rhetoric.
Goldberg is confused not just because he is a journalist, and journalists are by nature self-absorbed and melodramatic, but because he is a progressive reporter, who apparently sees the sort of vulgarity voiced by an Anderson Cooper, Chris Matthews, Stephen Colbert, Martha Stewart, or Bill Maher or the assassination porn of Madonna, Snoop Dogg, Kathy Griffin, or the Shakespeare troupe, in some sense as understandable in a way that Trump’s response to the media is certainly not.
It is also hard to calibrate the effect of Trump’s occasional coarse tweets. He will go for two weeks with clever and timely messaging, interspersed with real accomplishments, only to shock with an attack out of the blue on some obscure critic hardly worth the mention. Yet just when we pundits lament such suicidal behavior, Trump seems to recover without adverse effect. It has been two years now since Trump’s unkind and unnecessary comments about John McCain had supposedly doomed him—dire predictions followed by his political ascendancy.
Another strange fact is that amid the extraneous tweeting, Trump displays an undeniable natural cunning. Take his most infamous and most criticized tweet:
Donald J. Trump ✔ @realDonaldTrump: Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! (6:35 AM - 4 Mar 2017)
Try substituting “Obama Administration” for “Obama” and “surveilled” for “wires tapped “and the tweet may prove an accurate synopsis of what Susan Rice, Samantha Power, John Brennan and others in the Obama White House were doing by sweeping up the communications of political opponents like Trump, supposedly inadvertently through national security surveillance, then unmasking the names, and illegally leaking them to the press. And so far nothing incriminating about Trump has been found, and yes, it resembles a McCarthyite effort to silence criticism by leaking lies.
Or examine another of Trump’s supposedly unhinged Twitter outbursts, his equally notorious May 12 “veiled threat” about tapping Comey:
Donald J. Trump ✔ @realDonaldTrump: James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press! (8:26 AM - 12 May 2017)
Note that Trump did not say that the White House had taped Comey, only that he hoped there were not tapes of the Comey-Trump conversation (in theory from the NSA? FBI? CIA?) that might in theory refute Comey’s versions. Given that the intelligence agencies now seemed to have been surveilling almost everything Trump was saying, and given that Trump must have heard Comey was improperly and perhaps illegally leaking presidential conversations to the media (among them perhaps CNN that falsely would report that Comey would refute Trump’s assertion that he was not under investigation), and given Comey’s testimony of leaking a government document himself, Trump’s noxious tweet in retrospect seems prescient and strategic.
We do not know whether there is a saturation point at which Trump’s base will tire of the occasional ad hominem crude tweets, but so far we clearly have not reached it. Why?
So far, for three reasons.
First, half the country despises the mainstream media and sees it as arrogant, corrupt, hypocritical, and in need of comeuppance. Trump is not running against a centrist populist Democrat like John Kennedy or Harry Truman, but a crude Resistance of foul mouths like Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), unhinged celebrities like Maher and Colbert, street theater, thuggery on campuses, and not very bright media talking heads imploding as they try to top their rivals’ hatred for Trump and what he represents.
Trump in this context is seen by his supporters as a fighter in a way no prior conservative president or presidential candidate since Reagan has been. The conservative base remembers the dark years of 2005-6 when the media and progressive activists smeared Bush daily—without riposte.
They want no repeat of the McCain sanctimoniousness about not discussing the hate-filled career of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, or the Romney Marquess of Queensberry rules campaign that was smeared and slurred with impunity by Obama. In the midst of the Morning Joe/Mika Brzezinski controversy, “At least he fights” was a commonly heard refrain from Trump supporters.
Two, conservatives favor Trump’s ongoing agenda on immigration, health care, tax, regulatory and national security reform. Note that Trump has not just appointed a good cabinet and agency team—at HHS, EPA, Defense, Justice, the United Nations, Homeland Security, State, National Security Council, CIA, Education, or Energy—but the most effective and talented conservative group since the Reagan years. And Trump is not just putting his finger in the crumbling conservative dike, but rebuilding it entirely. The appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch, the vast reduction in illegal immigration, the steady restoration of deterrence abroad, the move against sanctuary cities, the energy renaissance, and the effort to get jobs back are real accomplishments; In comparison, Joe and Mika are less than fluff.
Finally, no one has calibrated quite the nation’s deep antipathy toward the coastal media-university-political-cultural nexus, most specifically its utter hypocrisy. Half the country sees not so much Democrats or progressives, but rather a bankrupt class whose venom for others is used to excuse their own exemptions from the ramifications of their own ideology.
People are tired of the social justice warrior Obama frolicking in Tahiti, the feminist Hillary Clinton excusing four decades of the sexual predations of her husband upon the weak, the supposedly in the know campus bullies picking on the vulnerable while shelling out a quarter-million dollars for a mediocre education; the progressive media decrying inequality and fairness amid face-surgeries, hair plugs, nannies, and prep schools; the Silicon Valley masters of the universe sermonizing on the evils of walls, inequality, and social justice from their gated hideaways, servants, and schemes to monopolize, offshore, outsource, and avoid taxes.
There is a limit to Trump’s crude personal tweets, but apparently no observer has yet calibrated where it is—given the country’s disdain for the media, the progressive hypocritical agenda, and the scatological and obscene rhetoric of Trump’s opposition.
I would urge the president to stop tweeting about nothings and to keep his powder dry for bigger game to come than Joe and Mika. But considering that I have been urging just such pruning of tweets as a matter of strategy for Trump for a long time and that I have been mostly wrong about the downsides of his twitter invective for just as long, perhaps the president knows something I don’t.
From American Greatness (July 2, 2017)