I follow the president.
This means that I receive his tweets when he tweets them. Which is all the time.
It’s a lot of stuff, may I say? He tweets as two people, first of all: Donald J. Trump and President Trump. Donald T. tweets more than President T., but often they tweet the same thing. Both are tweeting as the chief executive of the United States. It’s not as if Donald T. tells us personal things about his grandchildren and President T. tells us things about foreign policy. There is no serious distinction between the personal and the presidential accounts.
The president’s tweets range from defensive bullying and outright attacks on his detractors (recently “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” and Sen. Richard “Cried like a baby” Blumenthal) to photos with teachers and police officers. His twitter habit may seem insignificant in comparison to his policy preferences, but it’s damaging the national discourse, to say the least, and the technology should be off-limits to him — as well as future presidents.
Political leaders have, of course, always found ways to communicate directly with the masses. The time-honored method, the low-tech method, is to gather a crowd in a public place, rouse them up and get them on your side, like Roman and Greek leaders in the agora, without the benefit of loudspeakers. Once the printed word came into play, you could post bills around the capital city and in the countryside via horseback. Later, there were fireside chats on the radio, from respected leaders like Churchill and Roosevelt. Or Hitler’s massive rallies that were broadcast on the radio to his people and beyond, in dozens of countries, with simultaneous translations. Back then, there was so much material coming out of the effervescent fascist that people began to suffer what has been called “Fuhrer fatigue.”
But Twitter is different.
Trump may or may not prove to be hugely and permanently dangerous. These are early days. But this little man has chosen this little medium as his major means of communication with the American public because he understands that it brings him direct access to them. Radio was bad enough, but at least to hear a radio broadcast, people had to gather around the radio and turn it on and know what time it would happen and then they had to listen to understand the message, and the message was not reduced to a simple 140-character splat.
Social media posts are more personal, more immediate, than traditional media: They proceed straight from the individual in power to the individual citizen.
I feel fuhrer fatigue every morning when I receive the first blast of presidential tweets. Could there be anything more Orwellian than this onslaught of speech projected into everyone’s hand? The leader speaks seemingly individually to each receptor. Once you’ve signed on to follow him, the tweets come willy-nilly. You can block them, but then you are no longer in touch with what passes for the presidential mind.
And it’s not just Trump who’s a menace with his thumbs on a keypad, it’s any hotheaded leader. What might happen if a tweeting dictator-president prompted his followers to, say, a purge or pogrom? A national flushing of the enemy, from sea to shining sea. Even the word “follower” in this guise is ominous. Imagine the Khmer Rouge with Twitter.
Forget the nightmare scenario, though; the simple everyday scenario is disturbing enough. A celebrity president with a big personality, like Trump, can use Twitter to drum up support for the wackiest of political ideas, and then the government and the rest of the country must deal with that, in one way or another. While his critics laugh, the president’s tweets direct our political and policy flow.
Traditionally, Americans have mocked countries with state-controlled media, like the darkly named Pravda (Truth) of the USSR. But Twitter gives a leader who is so-minded the ability to control the national narrative, to assert his own lies as truth, to slander his enemies and to go on political rampages on a daily, nay hourly, basis, without calling it state-run media.
In fact, the presidential Twitter feed is a step beyond state-run media. State-run implies a state, running things, whereas Trump’s tweets leave his high-level advisors racing to untangle the web the president wraps them in. With Trump’s tweets, we get the embryonic dictator unleashed. No bureaucracy, no counselors, are mediating them, as far as we know.
That’s what makes his tweets so nefarious: They are the speech of a powerful leader masquerading as the taunts and whines of an individual. Thus, Americans, who would sneer at a diktat printed in a government outlet, may accept a demagogic tweet as “real truth” or simple honesty.
Perhaps we should demand that presidential tweets come from a clearly identified White House account, and not from @realDonaldTrump or @POTUS. Depersonalize them, and relieve them of the full weight of the celebrity presidential persona. If the president wants to write some of them, fine, just not under his own name.
The CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, claims that Twitter is good for democracy. After 240 years of this not being the case, Dorsey suddenly believes that “it’s really important to hear directly from our leadership.” It’s really important for Twitter, perhaps. But for the rest of us, the opposite is true: It’s really important not to hear directly from the leadership. Bad enough that we watch occasional lying advertisements and listen to occasional lying speeches and news conferences. But to hear the big lie daily on Twitter right from the fearless leader’s mouth is even more debilitating for the republic.
With all the power vested in him, a president can withstand having his access to social media curtailed for his years in power. He has enough access to Americans without this new, especially direct kind.
Let America take the lead in limiting this form of executive speech that is certain to cause more problems than it already has. Ensure that people receiving these tweets know that they are official messages from the White House, the executive branch of the government, and not from the celebrity host of “The Apprentice” or whoever the next president might be.
Amy Wilentz is the author of “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier” and other books. She teaches in the literary journalism program at UC Irvine. Follow @amywilentz.