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Some Thoughts on Presidential Twitter

TrumpTwitterWe have been having an oncoming conversation regarding the relative importance of @realDonaldTrump‘s tweets.  Attention to this question is amplified by the Tweeter-in-chief’s activity in this, the young new year (capped off by today’s “very stable genius” bit).

Let me clarify my perspective on this topic.

First, I recognize the limitations of the medium (i.e., Twitter itself).  But I also know that the medium is not the main issue.  Rather, the combination of who a user of a given medium is and the message they communicate is the key.  Twitter, like all of social media, can be a wasteland of inanity (or worse), but it can also be used to positive effect (it can inform, point to useful information, entertain, etc.). Moreover, the usage of any medium (television, blogging, book publishing, whatever) is dictated by skills and motivations and can bring insight into the user of said medium.  If it is important to understand the thought processes of a given person, or if a person’s public communications can have significant ramifications, then it is worthwhile to pay attention to those public statements.

It should be obvious that we wish to understand the thought processes of a president, and that a president’s thoughts can have important ramifications in terms of both influencing policy and public opinion.

Look, in simple terms, we always want insight into what a given president is thinking.  It is not controversial to state that we  want to understand the given occupants of the White House (whether we are just talking casual concerned citizens, or those interested in a deeper, academic understanding of events or somewhere in between).  One of the avenues of study is to look at public statements. In regards to the medium, tweets are no different than what he might say at a formal speech, at a press conference, or in an interview.  They are utterances that provide some level of insight into his thought process and his beliefs. They also have bearing on policy, even if they clearly are not policy in and of themselves (and often fail to come to fruition, see e.g., the ban on transgendered persons in the military, which started as tweets).

Further, whether one likes it or not, the President does use his twitter feed to try and influence his supporters.  It is a direct line of populistic communication.  No doubt there will be numerous studies to determine the degree to which he was successful in using the medium to this end.

Second, I also know that what politicians and office-holders say is far less important than what they do.  As such, that means that sure, we shouldn’t always take his tweets with dire seriousness.  Some, like the aforementioned transgender ban, had no teeth.  Others, like his statements about Pakistan, appear to have some real relation to policy moves.

Quite frankly, one of the most concerning elements of his tweeting is that they seem to confirm a man who gets a lot of information from cable news.  Via Politico:  I’ve Studied the Trump-Fox Feedback Loop for Months. It’s Crazier Than You Think.

here’s what is shocking: After comparing the president’s tweets with Fox’s coverage every day since October, I can tell you that the Fox-Trump feedback loop is happening far more often than you think. There is no strategy to Trump’s Twitter feed; he is not trying to distract the media. Heis being distracted. He darts with quark-like speed from topic to topic in his tweets because that’s how cable news works.

Here’s what’s also shocking: A man with unparalleled access to the world’s most powerful information-gathering machine, with an intelligence budget estimated at $73 billion last year, prefers to rely on conservative cable news hosts to understand current events.

The whole piece is worth a read.

Fundamentally it is troubling the degree to which the President of the United States relies not only on cable news, but on one of the most anemic and vacuous of news program species, the morning news show (and, in my opinion, one of the most vacuous of the vacuous: Fox and Friends).  This is not only useful information about the CinC, but also shows that is it not surprising that his twitter feed is influential to his base as it reinforces what they are likely seeing in their own media consumption.

I will add a point that I think is weirdly underappreciated as it pertains to what is written here at OTB:  this is primarily a news reaction blog.  Sure, sometimes we range off into deeper explorations of various topics while at other times we attempt to bring our various areas of expertise to analyze ongoing events.  I suppose in a perfect world all this site would be would be those deeper types of pieces.  But even when we do that, we are usually reacting to ongoing news events.  As such, it should not be surprising that we often wish to react when one of the most powerful politicians in the world takes to a public forum to say incredibly problematic, if not plain stupid, things.

So, along those lines it is not surprising that we would be inclined to react to the nonsense that glides off the thumbs of ostensibly the most important leader in the world.

Beyond that:  it should not be surprising at all that others on social media would response or that the news media, especially the 24/7 variety, would report on these statements.

But to get down to brass tacks:  Donald Trumps’ tweets are the public statements of the President of the United States.  This makes them noteworthy and often important.  The fact that he allows his Fox News-influenced views to complicate US foreign policy is not insignificant.  That he tweets attacks on the free press is not a small thing.  That he clearly is influenced, and has shared via twitter, xenophobic and racist notions is not something to ignore.

Should his twitter feed be the main focus of our understanding his presidency?  Certainly not.  Rather, lets look there to policy action and inaction as well as to the inability to properly staff and manage the executive branch.  But let’s not pretend open access to his thought processes, such as they are, don’t matter.

And let’s not forget:  it is possible to know what he is saying on twitter and still pay attention to what he is doing in office, as well as the news of the broader world.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Has any world leader put his unfettered id on display each day as this one does? Trump’s Twitter feed is a goldmine for foreign intelligence services.

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    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  2. michael reynolds says:

    He’s our George the Third. Our mad president. And just like his predecessor he’s losing an empire, while an informal regency maneuvers and manipulates and tries desperately to restrain the ‘child.’

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    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  3. James Pearce says:

    I will add a point that I think is weirdly underappreciated as it pertains to what is written here at OTB: this is primarily a news reaction blog.

    Stephen, I assure you, that’s not under or unappreciated.

    It is, in fact, greatly appreciated. As is the back and forth, which while contentious is hopefully not too contentious.

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  4. James Pearce says:

    Um…Steven.

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  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Shhhh… James Pearce might hear… Too late.

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  6. Modulo Myself says:

    Even the argument that nobody should react to a President’s statements in a certain forum is a huge story. Just like the Republicans not caring and conservatives not even mentioning this. There’s no way for right-wing hacks and apologists to BS their way out of this. They got what they paid for and worked for.

    The only honest not to check in and see what the voices in Trump’s head are telling him to do is because it’s completely F–ed up and best left alone. But again that’s a huge story.

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  7. Neil Hudelson says:

    And let’s not forget: it is possible to know what he is saying on twitter and still pay attention to what he is doing in office, as well as the news of the broader world.

    The devil you say.

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  8. R.Dave says:

    Here’s what’s also shocking: A man with unparalleled access to the world’s most powerful information-gathering machine, with an intelligence budget estimated at $73 billion last year, prefers to rely on conservative cable news hosts to understand current events.

    What’s particularly worrisome about this fact is that our rivals and enemies in the world are undoubtedly aware of that as well and (i) can acquire significant insight into what the President cares about and is likely to focus on at any given time simply by watching Fox & Friends and (ii) at least in the case of sophisticated rivals like Russia and China, can potentially influence the President through information ops aimed at a completely unsecured and largely unsophisticated cable news network instead of having to infiltrate and/or dupe secured and sophisticated American intelligence and policy communities. In short, the primary information conduit to the President of the United States is completely open and vulnerable to manipulation, which is a damn scary prospect.

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  9. CSK says:

    @R.Dave:

    Yes.

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  10. JohnMcC says:

    @R.Dave: A thumbs-up is not enough.

    The fact that one particular ‘news’ outlet has this kind of influence over a man so lacking in self-control….

    We are so screwed….

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  11. MBunge says:

    First, since it has been brought up, this place and its hosts still claim to be somewhere on the conservative/libertarian/GOP side of politics…right? Then it would be nice to see some explanation or rationale for the persistent refusal to comment on a great many subjects, seemingly because they don’t begin and end with “Trump sucks.”

    Secondly, this post is built on the kind of disingenuousness that drives people up the wall when it comes to politics. It puts forth the straw man that there’s some great pushback against coverage or analysis of all the President’s tweets. There’s not. Everyone is CONSTANTLY talking or writing about them. It is also willfully blind to the point of being deceptive that the problem is not only Donald Trump’s Twitter habit. As bad as you think Trump’s tweets may be, no intelligent and fair-minded individual can ignore that the reaction to those tweets is often just as problematic.

    And it all goes back to a very serious delusion that frames so much anti-Trump commentary here and elsewhere. It assumes that everything was fine before Trump and everything will be fine after Trump and what makes it especially frustrating to encounter it here is that it is an exaggerated version of the liberal self-deception about Ronald Reagan. Go ask someone on the Left about Reagan, particularly someone under 40, and you’ll ultimately get a story that America in the late 70’s was just fine, or at least everything was manageable, until Reagan screwed it all up.

    Of course, everything was not fine and Reagan’s election was very much a reaction against an established political order which appeared incapable of managing, let alone solving, America’s problems. Not that Reagan necessarily fixed anything but he was, at minimum, a change from what wasn’t and hadn’t been working.

    Mike

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  12. de stijl says:

    @R.Dave:

    (ii) at least in the case of sophisticated rivals like Russia and China, can potentially influence the President through information ops

    It’s not just Russia and China.

    Every nation has smart and competent and sophisticated people working in their intelligence services and diplomatic corps.

    Every nation knows how to influence Trump. Every nation is trying to influence Trump.

    It’s easy. He’s a born mark.

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  13. de stijl says:

    @MBunge:

    First, since it has been brought up, this place and its hosts still claim to be somewhere on the conservative/libertarian/GOP side of politics…right?

    You seem to be conflating ideology and tribalism.

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  14. de stijl says:

    Quite frankly, one of the most concerning elements of his tweeting is that they seem to confirm a man who gets a lot of information from cable news. Via Politico: I’ve Studied the Trump-Fox Feedback Loop for Months. It’s Crazier Than You Think.

    Contrary to one commenter’s position re Trump’s Twitter usage, it’s pretty clear that Trump is not trying to distract us, but rather, he is the one being distracted.

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  15. wr says:

    @MBunge: Ah, Bungles, still trying to rationalize your support for a pedophile…

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  16. de stijl says:

    Here is a fantastic use of Twitter:

    http://www.cbc.ca/radio/q/blog/sarah-silverman-s-response-to-a-twitter-troll-is-a-master-class-in-compassion-1.4471337

    I’m not crying. It’s allergies. Cat dander, probably.

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  17. I moved this to a post.

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  18. al-Ameda says:

    @MBunge:

    First, since it has been brought up, this place and its hosts still claim to be somewhere on the conservative/libertarian/GOP side of politics…right? Then it would be nice to see some explanation or rationale for the persistent refusal to comment on a great many subjects, seemingly because they don’t begin and end with “Trump sucks.”

    This reminds of people who complain about news broadcasts, saying that it’s featured stories are too negative, then complain about a news feature that speaks to the success of some social or economic policy, saying that it’s too boring.

    So, what is it Mike – too negative or too boring?

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  19. @MBunge/@al-Ameda: While people are free to say what they like–I must confess to having never been a fan of criticisms about what we blog about. We what we want, when we want–that is part of the pleasure of the thing.

    If folks don’t like the topics, I invite them to go to wordpress.com and start their own site.

    I also invite them to ignore my byline if my topic selection vexes them.

    And MB:

    Go ask someone on the Left about Reagan, particularly someone under 40, and you’ll ultimately get a story that America in the late 70’s was just fine, or at least everything was manageable, until Reagan screwed it all up.

    I have no idea what you are basing that on.

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  20. mannning says:

    Interesting that there is a correlation or feedback loop between Trump Twitters and Fox News, whichever comes first. Which one is really driving the comments?

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  21. de stijl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And MB:

    Go ask someone on the Left about Reagan, particularly someone under 40, and you’ll ultimately get a story that America in the late 70’s was just fine, or at least everything was manageable, until Reagan screwed it all up.

    I have no idea what you are basing that on.

    Projection.

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  22. de stijl says:

    @mannning:

    Interesting that there is a correlation or feedback loop between Trump Twitters and Fox News, whichever comes first. Which one is really driving the comments?

    Matthew Gertz’ Politico article firmly establishes that Fox content drives Trump’s tweets. Particularly Fox & Friends. He sees a story on Fox and then he tweets on the topic.

    It’s the premise of the article:

    The president is just live-tweeting Fox, particularly the network’s Trump-loving morning show, Fox & Friends.

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  23. Mikey says:

    @de stijl: I think Bungle is actually using the PIDOOMA method.

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  24. mannning says:

    @de stijl:

    Yes, I was mocking the premise.

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  25. de stijl says:

    @Mikey:

    The ’70s gave us a bunch of great movies and punk.

    Not bad, all in all.

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  26. DrDaveT says:

    @mannning:

    Yes, I was mocking the premise.

    That would be more effective if the premise were not obviously correct — as overwhelmingly demonstrated by the evidence presented in the article.

    Or do you have some alternative explanation for the timing and content matches, which always go in the same direction? Are you asserting that Trump feeds the content to “Fox and Friends”, waits for it to air, then tweets about it? If that were true, would it somehow be less worrisome?

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  27. mannning says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Assuming that there is a positive link from Fox to Trump Twitters, one simple option is indeed to assume that the topic had been discussed, debated and decided about between Trump and his staff well prior to the Fox statement, but didn’t publicize it yet, so when the topic arises on Fox, Trump is already in a position to comment on it, so he does. It is not necessary for Trump or staff to leak the subject. This puts Trump in the position to take advantage of an opportunity to get his position out to his followers via yet another channel.

    Other options make great publicity for the never-Trumpers; they merely have to ignore this one. This just might be one more instance of false news.

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  28. @mannning: But, does the evidence fit this pattern in any way that is discernible?

    One clear counter-example to your hypothesis is the transgender ban in the military.

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  29. mannning says:

    Obviously, the evidence does not include recognition of the prior intellectual acts of Trump and Co. One could suggest that faced with a myriad of issues small and large to be confronted by any President, it is quite possible that prior discussion of a few issues had been accomplished well ahead of the Fox chatter on the same. There was no evidence collected by the author on the state of mind of Trump and Co. on the issues prior to the Fox events. Thus, I was speculating on the possibility of prior thinking by Trump and Co. and their opportunistic desire to get the ideas out over the Fox channel. That speculation is quite reasonable in my opinion, but not reasonable to anyone looking for Trump downers, where the apparent correlation of Fox first and Trump second exists. Has anyone asked Trump, or has Trump Tweeted about it?
    Somehow, I don’t think it matters very much either way; sort of a tempest in a Trump teapot.

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  30. @mannning: The thing is: there is very little evidence that Trump has lot through much in the way of policy, say in simplistic terms. Consider health care, taxes, trade, various foreign policy issues, DACA, etc. He is very much reactive, not proactive.

    Again: on the transgender ban in the military bit: he seems to have seen something on TV, and then tweeted about it (apparently being influenced by some bogus stats about costs). The DoD was caught flat-footed (despite Trump’s tweeted claims of consultation with the generals). Eventually, the policy did NOT go into effect for various reasons.

    Somehow, I don’t think it matters very much either way; sort of a tempest in a Trump teapot.

    Call me crazy, but a president being directly influenced, in terms of policy decisions, by watching cable news is a problem.

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  31. mannning says:

    Apparently, there was a lot of chaos in the staff in the first months, but Kelley seems to have made a difference; that is why I added “and Co.” to my speculations about prior knowledge.

    As for cable news setting the course, if that ends up being the case, I had much rather it being Fox than any of the rest of the biased Left media in that position! But Fox and Friends? The rescue from that possibility might be a sort of inconsequential exchange, not a follow-up and policy action by Trump in his role as POTUS. I don’t know.

    Last year, the 10 or 15 hot buttons I had for Trump to act upon during the campaign, and on to the Presidency, he answered every one, and he has tried to follow through so far on his promises. Thus, I have put up with Trump’s idiosyncrasies in the hope of realizing those promises with EO’s or legislative efforts. So far, it isn’t Trump that has failed so much, but the Congress has with it’s razor thin Republican majority.

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