Donald Trump is once again under fire for remarks about women and blood, this time commenting on Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski allegedly approaching him while “still bleeding from a face lift.” The bizarre and graphic image offered by the president of the United States about a journalist who has criticized him has, unsurprisingly, drawn an outraged response from across the political internet. Trump’s Twitter usage has already set off much concern, some of it from political scientists. Paul Musgrave wrote a few weeks ago that Trump should stop tweeting as a matter of national security. Seth Masket wrote that Twitter should shut down Trump’s account because his bullying has surely violated the site’s terms of service.
But as vile and painful as the president’s tweets often are, they’re performing an important role in American democracy right now. One of the functions of presidential communication is transparency, and Trump’s tweets serve as a constant reminder of who he is and what his administration values. We don’t want his aides to take his phone and mute his tendency to attack, or his habit of making false claims and smearing the media outlets charged with holding the government accountable.
The best outcome in this very bad situation is for us to be confronted, over and over, with the nature and beliefs of our president. There is very little for democracy to gain by hiding this president under a cloak of conventional phrases.
Over the past decade or so, questions have emerged among scholars about the effectiveness and impact of presidential communication. Perhaps the most famous among them was George Edwards’s book On Deaf Ears, which suggested that televised presidential speeches often fail to reshape public opinion. (Other scholars have found greater impact in experiments and studies of particular audiences, and still others have argued that public rhetoric has other purposes.) While this scholarly debate has not been resolved, it’s hard to claim that major televised presidential addresses are the most dynamic or relevant format.
The days of everyone tuning in to the same three channels are gone. Twitter is not the largest social media platform, and it’s likely that those paying attention to the president’s tweets are those who are already attentive to politics. But this is a general feature of political discourse. What Twitter lacks in mass appeal, it makes up for in interaction and brevity. Trump’s tweets are often undignified in content, but they are strangely vital and innovative in form. They offer a distinct idiom as well as the opportunity for others to respond. The “quote tweet” function allows commentators to visually append their own remarks to the president’s original ones. Audio and video clips exist, of course, but the effect is different. Twitter can be a cesspool of hatred and bigotry, but when used well, it can also be a tremendously flexible and democratic medium.
The tension between dignity and democracy has informed presidential communication for a long time. How presidents communicated in the 19th century is also the subject of some heated scholarly debate, believe it or not. To the extent we might understand that norms about speechmaking or campaigning were intended to preserve the “dignity” of the office, we might also think a bit about the context. Why would maintaining a certain distance from the rough and tumble of democratic politics be important in the 19th century?
Part of the answer is that politics could be pretty messy and rugged. Presidents sat atop a federal bureaucracy that wasn’t terribly developed, while Congress maintained more control over federal patronage networks. Nomination practices meant that second- or third-tier politicians rose to the presidency. Corruption was common. Against this backdrop, it makes sense that presidents might keep some distance from the practice of democratic politics.
Modern presidential politics offer the opposite, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, the mix of casual, deliberately undignified uses of media heightens a sense of democracy around the presidency. These appearances soften the idea of a strong presidency and create a sense of intimacy and openness. Social media and new forms of media have taken this to a new level. Earlier forms of communication forced presidents to go through institutional barriers to access the public — from party newspapers to television networks. The immediacy of Twitter is unfiltered as well as informal, and at a time when institutional constraints seem especially important, the direct communication nature of the medium is unsettling. We should be unsettled, and we should ask ourselves why.
Trump exists at a presidential crossroads of sorts. He occupies the same terrifyingly powerful office that Barack Obama and George W. Bush did, fortified by administrative developments, the Cold War, and the post-911 world. But his presidency has some prominent 19th-century elements — its parochialism and inattention to federal governance. Although Trump was nominated through the modern process, the 2016 process in some ways resembled that of divided parties like the Democrats in 1844 or the Republicans in 1884, with the dispute resolved through primaries instead of convention brokering.
Norms about presidential communication address anxieties around the office, but can vary greatly in how they suit individual presidents. Twitter amplifies what made Trump an effective campaigner, and exposes his unfitness to govern. The ideas expressed in his tweets are reminiscent of the crude, loyalty-oriented, and exclusionary politics of this bygone era. In this regard, Twitter, this most contemporary of media, performs a crucial democratic function. It reminds us that despite the modern practices of the office — including the occasional televised speech — its occupant is fundamentally retrograde.