Jack Shafer, who spent months asserting the media did not create Trump and they did a fine job covering him – despite Trump announcing his plan to use media coverage to avoid spending on TV advertising, and copious data showing the media actually gave him billions in free advertising while relentlessly tearing down Clinton – now thinks the media should give Trump a pass on his Twitter.
Haven’t any of these people raised children? Don’t they know about bait and switch? Have none of them been paying attention to Trump’s Twitter strategy for the past 17 months? For anybody who has read a half-dozen of Trump’s tweets, the pattern is obvious. He compiles these tweets precisely in order to elicit strident protest.
Shafer followed that up with another piece suggesting the media “starve the troll” and “don’t fact-check everything,” as if the President of the United States was just some Reddit shitposter.
This is wrong on many, many levels. For starters, Trump is not a toddler being raised by helicopter parents: he is a 70-year old man who is about to occupy the White House. As Aaron Blake notes in response:
The job comes with the so-called bully pulpit, and what he says matters and will be the subject of debate no matter what the mainstream media does. Everything he says reverberates. It doesn’t matter if he says it on Twitter or at a news conference; either way it’s going to be consumed by tens of millions of people, and the media has an important role to play when it comes to fact-checking and providing context.
But there is more to this as well: Trump is a social media politician. It is the heart and soul of how he campaigned, how he floats his racist and tyrannical ideas, and how he communicates with his constituents. As a detailed story in Businessweek showed, Trump’s campaign was tightly oriented around social media messages and the public’s responses to them:
Cambridge Analytica’s statistical models isolated likely supporters whom Parscale bombarded with ads on Facebook, while the campaign bought up e-mail lists from the likes of Gingrich and Tea Party groups to prospect for others. Some of the ads linked directly to a payment page, others—with buttons marked “Stand with Trump” or “Support Trump”—to a sign-up page that asked for a name, address, and online contact information. While his team at Giles-Parscale designed the ads, Parscale invited a variety of companies to set up shop in San Antonio to help determine which social media ads were most effective. Those companies test ad variations against one another—the campaign has ultimately generated 100,000 distinct pieces of creative content—and then roll out the strongest performers to broader audiences. At the same time, Parscale made the vendors, tech companies with names such as Sprinklr and Kenshoo, compete Apprentice-style; those whose algorithms fared worst in drumming up donors lost their contracts. Each time Parscale returned to San Antonio from Trump Tower, he would find that some vendors had been booted from their offices.
It is impossible to understand Trump the candidate, and therefore Trump the president, without also understanding how he launched an ambitious policy to mobilize America’s social media data to propel himself into office. Trump’s campaign created something like 100,000 websites to feed social media engines to generate attention, spread around ad revenue, and create the illusion of overwhelming support. Trump was able to build a comprehensive database on the browsing and purchasing habits of 220,000,000 Americans by doing this, and push his message using the tools various social media platforms provided to mobilize a vast coalition of white people to vote for him.
There is also the voter “suppression” campaign that went along with Trump’s direct outreach. Though not suppression in the legal sense of the term (say, the way North Carolina actively worked to deny black people the ability to vote), it was an effort to depress and discourage Democrats. By using these same methods (vast databases about American internet users, coupled to a machine-gun approach to shitposting on social media) the Trump campaign successfully discouraged an unknown but nevertheless decisive number of voters to not bother to vote. The campaign focused intently on discouraging black voters, who overwhelmingly vote Democrat, along with Bernie Sanders supporters.
So, looking at how the Trump campaign worked through social media, and how he continues to mobilize and trial-balloon his tyrannical ideas on social media, why on earth would journalists suggest that they ignore his social media accounts?
Buried in Shafer’s argument, and in the media personalities he is convincing, is the sense that Trump’s Twitter (and Facebook) posts are “distractions,” and that what really matters is policy. This is, of course, nonsense: Trump does not have policies. He has his id, which is unfiltered, and he has his ego, which is also unfiltered, and his bigotry, which is both unfiltered and proudly amplified by his bigoted cabinet and staff. The policies that result, such as they are, are reflections of that bigotry and ego, not any rational statement of intent to achieve a specified outcome. This is why Trump’s positions on immigration, climate change, trade, and national security seem to change and shift with the audience – he does not have ideas, but rather pride and prejudices, and treating those as ideas the way Ronald Reagan had ideas is nonsense.
Moreover, this is the sort of normalization that allows Trump to get away with so much outrageous behavior. Just as CNN treated his race-baiting hate rallies as just another precocious and spirited form of normal political discourse (when it was most certainly not that), Jack Shafer’s effort to neglect Trump’s openly stated ideas in order to focus on some imaginary policy issue behind them is treating Trump like a normal politician. He is not, and his Twitter account is not the ordinary Twitter account of a politician that can be parsed but dismissed.
Twitter is how the new president communicates – he does not hold press conferences, he tweets. Despite all of the hullabaloo about how Trump is secretly a moderate, or will sometime, someway tack to the center, or try to unify the country in some way, Trump himself has said over his Twitter feed that he won’t. His unfiltered ranting on Twitter is an insight into how he is feeling and what he is thinking. It is not a performance, it is genuine. And Trump has been broadcasting, for over a year and half now, that he intends to government as an extremist far-right populist kleptocrat. His staff picks (white nationalists, sycophants, protectionists), and his cabinet picks (militarists, white supremacists, xenophobes) and his transition (managed by his family, who also manages his hotels and casinos) show as much. It is an absolute outrage. Dulling your outrage over the things he tweets is only giving him space to continue tweeting outrageous things to his followers. It is normalizing his misconduct and pretending it is something routine.
This is not routine. It is not normal. Don’t let the same preening media personalities who have abdicated their responsibility for tricking the country into electing Trump get away with not having to cover the insane things he says. Trump will soon be in charge of the FBI, of the NSA, the U.S. military, and our vast nuclear arsenal. Pretending that his raging ego is immaterial to how he will manage and direct those agencies is not only dumb – it is dangerous.