Leaders and members of President Trump’s party in Congress have implored him to stop his compulsive and personally abusive tweeting. Even loyal supporters have doubts about it. After the infamous Brzezinski-Scarborough tweet, the generally conservative Editorial Board of the New York Post had its say in only three words: “Stop. Just stop.”
Donald Trump keeps going, and he now declares that this use of social media is a mark of innovation in a “modern” presidency. He defends the coarseness of his speech by saying that he is only fighting fire with fire—merely answering his vicious detractors in kind. To put a fine point on his defense, he followed his Brzezinski-Scarborough tweet with the circulation of the “CNN wrestling” video in which he pounds away at the faux, prone victim carrying the superimposed name of the network.
There is no evidence that Mr. Trump has a fully developed or coherent conception of a modern presidency. It seems that, at least, he believes that he has found a way around the media in communicating in persuasive terms with his constituency, if not the nation as a whole. Judging from his various statements, it appears that he has concluded that a president elected to challenge the establishment must give no quarter, defying all conventional expectations about tone and content.
Few outside of the administration or his most committed supporters have any use for Mr. Trump’s side of the argument. The critics don’t see much of an argument at all. Their reasons, however, vary. The case against the Trump tweets runs along basically two lines: (1) governing competence, and (2) damage to the dignity of his office. As a practical matter, these lines may converge in a given communication. A tweet that puts in question his public communications strategy, throwing his governing priorities into confusion, may include offensive content. But each of the critiques is still distinctive.
It may be useful to ask how, in each case, Trump can make the case that he is right where his critics are wrong, and they are missing the innovative element in his approach. And then there is another issue with his tweeting practice—Donald Trump’s ethics—that his critics rarely cite and ought to be included in their case and held up against his putative defense.
This is the simplest of the claims against the tweets, which is that the president is creating unnecessary distractions from the conduct of the real business of his government. The press swarms over each tweet. Nothing else for a news cycle or two “breaks through.” If the tweet is especially provocative, the media preoccupations are all the more intense. But even if the day’s output is short of defamatory and its content relatively mundane, Trump is colliding with other messages of the day, getting in his own way. He is making this problem worse by adding the element of surprise. He is issuing these tweets without evident coordination with—or advance notice to—the communications apparatus of his own government. This case against the tweets belongs with other anxieties about this president’s lack of discipline and experience.
It is not clear how Trump overcomes this critique with a claim about his modern ways. He is not the first president to change uncomfortable subjects or to try to drive the public debate away from a main story line solidifying in the press. He is hardly the first with an urge to draw attention to himself, or the first in a recent series of presidents to build social media into their communications strategies. He is charged with doing all of this without regard to a host of other considerations, such as the clarity or consistency of his public statements and the extent to which they are effectively coordinated with his policy priorities.
From time to time there is speculation that Trump is using provocative tweets as covering fire for the administration’s conservative agenda. Perhaps, it is thought, he is firmly in control and his tweeting might a masterstroke of misdirection. It is, of course, impossible to say whether this may be true now and then, if not all the time. But there is little to support this view in reports of the pained reactions of staff, or of congressional allies, to the tweets. What’s more, virtually none of what has been observed about Trump when he is not tweeting—his impulsiveness and extraordinary self-focus—would help make this theory especially plausible.
Damage to the “Dignity” of the Presidency
Critics also cite the damage done to his office. They decry the example that, as president, Trump is setting. They argue that he will further disfigure an already ugly politics and put up more barriers to “civil” discourse. This argument is tied to a notion of the “dignity” of the presidency, and he is accused of operating well below it.
Trump is not the first president to face complaints about a lack of dignity. President Lyndon Johnson once lifted his shirt to exhibit to reporters his surgical stitching. This was thought to be undignified, though his detractors probably meant that it was vulgar—a social transgression, like bad table manners.
This critique of the Trump presidency does not rest on the tweets alone. The president carries on in undignified fashion in other venues, as in his rallies, his interviews, and the rare press conference. Whatever one might think of Trump, friend or foe, the adjective “dignified” wouldn’t top the Google search results. Twitter is a unique stage on which he can display this behavior, as no president has used it this way before. It is also the medium of communication he uses the most often.
Trump seems impervious to the arguments about “dignity.” From his point of view, most likely, the “dignity” his critics charge him with lacking is another move in a game rigged by the establishment. If they want him to change, it is because they wish to drive him away from what has worked for him, politically, in the past. They would like to have him learn a language other than the one he used successfully in business as well as in politics.
This critique leaves him cold. “I’m president and they’re not,” he has said of his critics, more than once. But it is not, of course, modern to strike out at enemies in vituperative terms. Franklin Roosevelt did so, even in what many like to remember as his warm and fuzzy fireside chats. Examples from that presidency and those addresses include:
- “spies, saboteurs and traders"
- “war millionaires”
- "selfish men, jealous men, fearful men"
- “poison peddlers”
- “bogus patriots”
As one scholar has succinctly put it: “FDR did not hesitate to verbally abuse and denigrate his political opponents.” Nothing “modern” about that.
But this comparison to a distinguished predecessor is a jumping off point for addressing what is unprecedented, if not exactly modern, about the Trump tweeting: the ethical problem with it.
Donald Trump has made a point of tweeting from @realDonaldTrump, his personal account. While using this personal medium to convey his very personal views, he is still consciously, deliberately acting in his presidential capacity, addressing official matters.
This is an issue of public ethics, because it reveals Trump’s refusal to accept, or worse, to recognize, the difference between public duties and his private whims, impulses or wishes. There are other ways that Trump manifests this ethical failing. He would not completely divorce himself from his business pursuits upon election to the presidency. Unlike any other “modern” president, he denies the public significance of his tax returns and will not release them. He is apparently comfortable demanding that the FBI Director swear his personal loyalty. Family members populate the upper tiers of the West Wing, and he has commissioned his son-in-law, a 36 year-old with no government experience, to manage Middle East policy, the U.S.-Mexico relationship and the reinvigoration of private enterprise.
So, it is unsurprising that if the president experiences personal anger or frustration, he feels free to use the platform of the presidency to launch a personal counterattack or avenge a slight. His personal Twitter account is the means by which the president can strike the personally satisfying retaliatory blow. He commands a vast audience for these blasts because he is the president, but he uses his personal Twitter account for this purpose as if he were still a private citizen and the medium is always, and for any purpose, at his disposal. One day, he can tweet a response to a congressional committee; on the next, he can lash out in personal terms against a member of the media who offended him. He does not see the difference between Donald Trump and President Donald Trump.
It also stands to reason that Trump would express his unhappiness with CNN by retweeting a bit of staged violence at a professional wrestling show. Edward Luce has recently written about the president’s fascination with this brand of entertainment, and he notes a change over time in the stylized drama offered the audience: “Good and evil were replaced with dramas based on nasty personal disputes.” This is how Trump perceives his conflict with the media, as he does other conflicts he encounters in his public role—nasty personal disputes, and to be portrayed as such to his public. The president’s response that he is defending against personal attacks on him invites the obvious answer he should appreciate: he’s president and they’re not.
The presidency as an institution, rather than as a vehicle for the incumbent’s exercise of personal will, runs on disciplined process. President Roosevelt’s fireside chats, his version of “intimate” dialogue with the public, passed through several drafts as they were “fact-checked and re-written six or more times by a team of secretaries, speechwriters, and press specialists.” Roosevelt worked hard for a personal connection with his audience, but he remained squarely within his official role, supported by advisers and staff. Roosevelt understood that he was discharging a public function, and his process reflected his sense of that responsibility. Contrast with this the early morning Trump tweet bursts: issued at will, notable for misspellings, and marked the occasional deletion of the message from the public record when he concludes he hit “send” in haste.
Quinta Jurecic has written brilliantly here about the legal and political complications of a presidency in which the personal and the official have become impossible to distinguish in this tweeting. Jurecic is inspired by medieval executive theory to refer to the conflated roles as the “Twitter politic” and the “Twitter natural. “ The confusion between the two will complicate his personal legal defense and muddy the official record on which his administration will have to defend its policy initiatives. Are these tweets from his personal account presidential records? The National Archives has dodged the question. Trump has invited these uncertainties by retaining the personal account and making intentional use of it for self-expression on whatever moves him to comment at any particular time. In this administration, the boundaries setting off the public from the private are obliterated.
The president’s business career did not educate him in the disciplines required of a fiduciary—someone who, in the dictionary definition, “a person to whom power is entrusted for the benefit of another.” He did not run a public company; he did not answer to shareholders and a board of directors vetted and chosen for experience and independence. Now, it seems clear, he sees the United States government as a Trump enterprise he will operate in just this way. Mr. Trump and his business were one and the same, and his personal wishes and appetites ruled: Now he runs the Trump administration as he did the Trump Organization.
To say his presidency is mercurial, not “modern,” is not to speak only to bouts of temper or boorishness. It is also a judgment on his ethics—on this failure to keep the public and the private separate, which is no better exemplified than by his personalized tweeting through his own Twitter account on public matters. The Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch defines an ethical stance as one that requires the subordination of private interests, concerns or urges to public duty. It is just such a requirement that Trump’s personal tweeting and practice makes it impossible for him to satisfy. Nor does he seem inclined to do so. He seems unwilling to accept the limits—that is, show the self-restraint—that go with a position of public trust.
Of course, politicians must trade off public obligation and their perceived personal interests a fair share of the time. To get elected, they make commitments and raise money; to pass or stop or modify laws, they cut deals. It is not easy and not always pretty—"sausage-making" and all that—but ethical politicians, while struggling with the inevitable conflicts, are expected to keep sight of the fundamental difference between self-interest and the public interest, and between what they may crave for themselves and the limitations of their public role. They generally understand that they cannot use government staff to arrange for their dry-cleaning or loot the public or campaign treasuries for the payment of their children’s tuitions.
It is not a modernized presidency in which the distinction between the public and the personal is invisible or meaningless. It is one badly lacking in ethical direction, and this is one of its dangers.