Tag Archives: Twitter

Presidential Theater On a Small Screen


It’s still a surprise to encounter a president who mostly shuns the potent rhetorical power of the office in favor of throwing little grenades of text out to small screens.

Since the early 1950s presidents have always made effective use of television.  As my colleague David Blake points out in his new book, Liking Ike (Oxford, 2016), even the rhetorically awkward Dwight Eisenhower warmed to the demands of ‘putting on a good show’ for Americans anxious to be reassured.  With its obvious interest in pictures, television is anything but a natural home for political discussion. But the presidency obviously has the advantage of singularity.  This is what the “bully pulpit means in the 21st Century.  Video in various forms sustains our need to understand that one person is mostly in charge.  We use this reductionist idea to make the presidency a vessel into which we place a lot of hope for our well-being and security.

So it’s all the more surprising to encounter a president who still shuns the  magisterial power of the Presidency in favor of throwing out little grenades of text to small screens late at night.  To be sure, our Donald Trump remains true to his reality television roots.  He has mastered a kind of bumper sticker rhetoric, even though these missives betray him as a shallow and surprisingly mean-spirited leader.  In more normal times presidents usually try to offer to the nation the best versions of themselves.

The screen of a smartphone is too small for this task, especially since presidents have an IMax of possibilities they can use to press their views to the American public: availabilities for journalists, junkets, and visits to Americans to offer support and reassurance.  By tradition the best and most transcendent causes  are at his disposal.  The job requires the celebration of all things quintessentially American.

We usually come to terms with the President largely as a dominating presence in video set pieces: press conferences, the State of the Union Address and carefully choreographed interviews, especially when they are carried by one of the big three cable news channels. It’s a puzzle no one has clued him in on how to master these venues.  He survived the State of the Union Speech.  Many thought it was one of his best moments.  Surely he must  have some additional American values to celebrate, features of the national character that he could endorse. They would at least make a play at reframing himself as a leader with a heart. Events like a walk-through at a veteran’s hospital or simply throwing out a baseball as the National’s start of their season could humanize him.  Moments like these could only leave his doubters silent.  Even Richard Nixon could be charming when reminiscing about his four brothers, or the hard-scrabble life of his Quaker family in small-town Whittier California.

What kind of president reverts to a divisive campaign speech in the first three months of office?

To understand how much an outlier Trump is one need only look at his strange “campaign” appearance in Harrisburg Pennsylvania on April 27. The Leader of the Free World looked small and defiant in that speech, which was mostly an attack on all sorts of Americans: the press, the Senate Majority Leader, migrants and minorities.  He found time to criticize the architecture and new location of  the “fake news” The New York Times. There were also predictable scuffles outside.  And a few hecklers gave him a chance to use his beloved mafia line, throw them “outta here!” As the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson noted, “It was a speech with all the logic, elevation and public purpose of a stink bomb.”  Another Republican presidential adviser David Gergen, told CNN it was the most divisive presidential speech he had ever heard.

What kind of president reverts to a divisive campaign speech in the first three months of office?  Why is his eye always on the rear view mirror rather than the tortuous road ahead?  And why is he still issuing jeremiads against his foes rather than sharing national aspirations?   Time will tell.  But at least for now, and from a rhetorical perspective, Trump has managed to make the Presidency small and diminished, and too many of us nervous.

The Political Poison of Twitter

Twitter imageYou can doll-up the 140 character/20-word limit as “microblogging.”  But that term hardly does justice to the vacuous sneering this social media form has unleashed into our national discourse. 

Over the years pundits have been fond of identifying the chief villains responsible for creating our seemingly hardened political life.  At least in terms of national politics, a host of problems have been identified that have undermined American democracy. Take your pick:  the short eight-second sound-bite common to television news, the tendency of the press to cover campaigns like horseraces and poker games, too much money in the process abetted by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the growth of television attack ads that hardly mention the candidates that pay for them, or the decline of the conciliatory impulse as a candidate virtue.

But if I had to pick only one irritant of the American body politic in this election cycle, it would be the cancer of Twitter as a means of making and setting news agendas.  You can doll-up the 140 character/20-word limit as “microblogging.”  But that term hardly does justice to the vacuous sneering and sloganeering this social media form has unleashed into our national discourse.  It may be harmless for private users.  But it has become a bludgeon used by too many campaigns.

Twitter creates two fundamental problems. The first is that it forces a communicator to stand out quickly, usually by texting intellectually dishonest and hyperbolic assertions: features we have gotten to know to well because of the Donald Trump campaign.  Simply speaking, the format makes less likely any kind of thoughtful interactive discourse, often encouraging the rankest kinds of under-qualified claims.  A Twitter account can be like an arsenal of bombs dropped from drones.  Each rhetorical explosive is lobbed at a distance that saves the sender from having to answer a counter-response.  As a means to bypass the media, Twitter is a campaigner’s dream.

Trump Twitter Kelly

Trump Huffington

The second problem is that too many in the press love these text feeds.  If you happen to be a lazy or overworked reporter, you need reach no further than the Twitter feed of the campaign you are covering.  All of the provocative quotes you would like to get from the candidate are there, calculated to be as subtle as a snowball in the face.

Better yet, quotes from Twitter usually come as easy building blocks for a story built around the hackneyed idea that journalism needs to feature conflict.  Charges made on a feed are easily matched up to counter-charges from a competing campaign that is monitoring the competition.  Paste together these shouts into the ether and you have a story without ever having to consider a full stump speech. This process allows the impression that the essential press-politician equation is in tact.  More realistically, the impression is more illusion than reality. A politician can “speak”  to the press without holding a real briefing where follow-up questions might get asked.  And a reporter can go home at a decent hour without the inconvenience of having to show up at a campaign event.

To be sure, this kind of ‘campaign by proxy’ matches the ways we now live. Texting is our distraction and obsession.  So we hardly notice that the press/politician dialogue that has traditionally been an essential part of our democracy has been muted.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu