Danny Webster tackles the President's online rhetoric
When the president of the United States wants to speak to the world, he doesn’t call a press conference or craft a big speech. He simply wakes up, reaches for his phone and tweets whatever he feels like while lying in bed. Of course, “whatever he feels like” is usually controversial and often inflammatory.
Twitter is not just another aspect of Donald Trump’s communication strategy; it is the cornerstone of his presidency. He’s decided that all other channels are bust and so takes his Twitter character count and wields it for all its worth. He brands anyone who criticises him a fake or a fraud responsible for spreading fake news.
The strategy is working. He’s able to speak directly to the public and set the agenda for what the media covers. Twitter used to be a place for commentating on the news. But today, what takes place on Twitter is the news. And Trump’s tweets often lead the headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.
Christians the world over have their different views on President Trump and there are interesting questions about the discernment process when it comes to deciding how we should cast our votes in elections. But regardless of whether or not you support Trump’s policies, we all need to ask hard questions about how his online behaviour is affecting our world.
The truth is that Trump’s use of Twitter is negatively impacting our politics, our perception of politicians and our public discourse. We have to do better, and it is all of our responsibility – not just his.
Politicians vs the media
As someone who is committed to increasing political participation and passionate about Christians engaging with what politicians actually say, rather than what we’ve heard them say, I believe it can be helpful when a politician chooses direct modes of communication rather than allowing their words to be mediated through the press. There can be a stark difference between what a politician has actually said, and what they are reported to have said.
However, we should not dismiss the media’s role too quickly. They can also play a vital role in scrutinising what politicians say. So when politicians denigrate the media and urge us to listen only to their words, we should be sceptical.
Writing about politicians avoiding media questions, The Spectator’s associate editor, Isabel Hardman points out: “All too often, for them [politicians], a legitimate question is in fact merely one they can answer easily, or one that contains praise for them.”
President Trump isn’t the only politician to criticise the press when it covers him negatively. But he is the ringleader for this new type of political communication. Last year he said at a press conference: “It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever they want to write. People should look into it.”
This sort of rejection of the freedom of the press provides serious cause for concern. Neither our politicians nor the press are perfect; they have agendas and ideologies that we have to weigh carefully, but we need both of them, and we need to listen to politicians we disagree with and read papers we wouldn’t usually pick up. Like a jury in a court case listening to witnesses, we should ask if politicians in their tweets are telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (or as much as you can in 280 characters). When we consider Trump’s tweets the verdict is not good.
The problem with President Trump’s tweets is that he deceives, he distorts and he distracts. He uses social media to inflame opinion, to infuriate his critics and rally supporters to his cause.
I haven’t read all of Trump’s 37,000 tweets, but I’ve read enough of them to disagree with his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who claimed Trump was “the Ernest Hemingway of Twitter”.
Some of Trump’s lies have become legendary. He’s repeatedly said the US is the highest taxed nation (it’s not, Belgium is). He’s said he opposed the Iraq war from the start (multiple on-tape interviews prove otherwise). He’s said that he got the most electoral college votes since Reagan (but George HW Bush, Obama and Clinton all had more). In February 2017 he claimed the US murder rate was at its highest for 45 years (it’s actually half the level it was in 1980).
Lying is an ingrained habit for the president. Last autumn, following an attack in New York, Trump tweeted that he had ordered Homeland Security to step up the extreme vetting programme. A quick call from a journalist to US Homeland Security found that they knew nothing of this.
Trump lies and he doubles down on his lies. He lies to deceive, but he also lies about pointless things that anyone with an internet connection and access to Google can prove false within seconds. In his book The Art of the Deal (Random House) – Trump’s autobiography which has been described by his ghostwriter as a “nonfiction work of fiction” – he claims his first wife, Ivana, was an alternate for the Czech ski team, yet the Czech Olympic committee says they have no record of this.
There are plenty of blatant lies in Trump’s Twitter feed, but it’s not all lies. In his autobiography Trump – or his ghostwriter – coins the term “Truthful hyperbole”: “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.”
Sometimes Trump distorts the truth, for example, describing his electoral college win as “a massive landslide victory”. I guess landslides do come in all shapes and sizes.
Another example of this came in October 2017 when Trump drew a false comparison between the increased crime rate in the UK and Islamic terrorism. He tweeted: “Just out report: ‘United Kingdom crime rises 13% amid spread of Radical Islamic terror.’ Not good, we must keep America safe!” The word “amid” is doing very heavy lifting in this tweet. He’s not quite saying one is responsible for the other, but that is the impression we’re left with.
As a media star, Trump loves being in the spotlight and the Oval Office keeps him out of it too much, so he provokes attention by posting his latest impassioned accounts of his success or attacks others for their opposition.
The ongoing investigation regarding collusion in the 2016 election is a regular theme for Trump’s distraction. The night before one announcement in October 2017 he sent a series of tweets calling for the investigation to focus on the Democrats, and sure enough when indictments were issued (for three people involved in his campaign), much of the media attention was on Trump’s claims rather than the indictments.
Perhaps the most notable characteristic of Trump’s use of Twitter is his use of it to inflame opinion. This tactic is not new. Long before he was a presidential candidate Trump tweeted on 11 September 2013: “I would like to extend my best wishes to all, even the haters and losers, on this special day, September 11.”
In February 2018 he tweeted simply: “WITCH HUNT!”, and he often ends tweets with statements such as “So illegal!”, or “So Sad!” Another habit is to list a range of challenges in a policy area, for example, immigration, and then conclude with a simple statement: “We need The Wall!” And then, of course, there is his presidential campaign slogan, usually in capital letters: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”, or just the hashtag #MAGA.
Why it matters
Trump has become the ringleader and cheerleader of politics for entertainment. It might be fun to watch his tweets and the ensuing reaction they provoke, but it is not good for politics. There are consequences to communicating in the way President Trump is modelling.
Assuming we avoid nuclear war with North Korea, assuming his rhetoric doesn’t set race relations back decades, assuming the economy survives the running commentary he provides, all of this behaviour undermines democracy. For democracy to flourish we have to have trust, and trust requires truth. To put it gently: Trump’s tweets do not enhance truth in public life.
Demonstrating that Trump has told a lie doesn’t work. In fact, something strange happens: often when a Trump supporter is presented with evidence that the president has lied, it is seen as an attack on a core part of their identity so the correction is rejected. They become more committed to what they hold as true. It’s a defence mechanism to protect their wider identity as a Trump voter. And it’s not just Trump supporters who can fall into this trap – it can happen to any of us, regardless of our political persuasions. When our identity is tied up in a certain politician, we find it hard to hear any kind of argument against that politician’s words. It feels like an attack on us, as much as on the politician.
Our democratic institutions flourish when we respect process and institutions, when we let the boring stuff work. The standard by which emerging democracies are judged is not whether they hold elections, but whether the losers respect the result. Democracy allows long-term difficult decisions to be taken, and action pursued over a period of years and not minutes. Politics is undermined by short-term, attention-grabbing activity.
In her analysis of British politicians rejecting the scrutiny of the media, Hardman reaches this conclusion: “There may well be a kernel of a point in some of the complaints that politicians make about the media. But let’s not pretend that they make these points for anything other than their own convenience: a media that is less trusted is one whose probing or annoying questions those politicians don’t need to worry about.”
Truth is a precious commodity in our contemporary society and we have to stand firm in our commitment to it. Almost a century ago GK Chesterton wrote these words: “We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which furious party cries will be raised against anybody who says that cows have horns, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with the news that grass is green.”
We live in that world now, as truth has been relativised and then rejected, and standing for what you believe seems to be getting harder each day. Even standing up for what seems self-evidently obvious is not always straightforward.
I do not have the power to make Donald Trump behave better online and I don’t think any chorus of voices opposing him will make a dent. What you and I can do is model a better way. We can speak kindly to those who disagree with us. We can model grace in our disagreements. This is not about pretending disagreements don’t exist, or promoting false harmony of opinion, but about behaving constructively, both online and in person.
We can love one another, we can speak the truth and refuse to repeat falsehoods. We can take the trouble to check out a story before hitting the like, share or retweet button – for example, if a story claims that Goliath’s skull has been found, the very least we can do is Google to see if it’s true. The more incredible the story seems to be the more careful we should be.
No one can govern a country in 280 characters. But we can each ensure that we govern ourselves well. Instead of playing to the gallery and trying to grab attention, why don’t we commit to working for the good of all?
And before we take too much pleasure mocking Trump’s Twitter feed, maybe we should take a longer look at our own.
Danny Webster looks after advocacy programmes and media relations for the Evangelical Alliance – but writes here in a personal capacity