Analysis: Trump’s Twitterfests are meant to further the culture wars that helped win him the presidency
Donald Trump’s Twitter wars with media sites and cultural institutions have been panned by opponents as overreactions by a thin-skinned president-elect who prefers rhetorical skirmishing to soberly building his administration.
But Trump is extending what helped him win the presidency — a battle against elites that secured the loyalty of voters outside the coastal metropolises, delivered directly to his supporters by bypassing the media he considers reflexively unfair.
It is also a tactic of distraction that he is likely to use throughout the transition and, come January, as the nation’s first Twitter president.
Over the weekend, Trump’s social media blast against the cast of “Hamilton” deftly turned attention away from bad news — a $25-million settlement in a fraud case brought by former students at Trump University and accusations of conflicts between his business and political careers.
Tuesday morning, a series of similar tweets criticizing the New York Times shifted attention away from new controversies over whether he or those close to him had used his influence to bolster his overseas business interests.
His tweets may have a downside, but unarguably deliver a benefit: Even as Trump works to staff a government that will inevitably include establishment figures some of his backers abhor, he is reasserting his disruptive bona fides to those who support him the most.
Trump’s use of Twitter as a communications engine is only one of the ways he has, since his surprise election, worked to maintain a direct line to voters.
On Monday, he released a video describing his plans for his first days as president. He asserted that his transition was moving “very smoothly, efficiently and effectively” to hire “patriots.”
“My agenda will be based on a simple core principle: putting America first,” he said. “Whether it’s producing steel, building cars or curing disease, I want the next generation of production and innovation to happen right here on our great homeland, America, creating wealth and jobs for American workers.”
The video was the first of many, he indicated, promising to “make America great again for everyone — and I mean everyone.”
Trump is hardly the first president to try to bypass traditional gatekeepers: President Obama often appeared on nontraditional formats while granting relatively few interviews to traditional media.
For Trump, that approach has become supercharged. He has not held a news conference since July; since he claimed victory in the early morning hours of Nov. 9, he has sat for an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” one with the Wall Street Journal and, on Tuesday, with the New York Times. But he has offered no formal remarks nor held a news conference, unusual for a president-elect.
That has given even more prominence to Trump’s social media comments and the brief, tweet-sized remarks he made over the weekend as he bade farewell to visitors vying for Cabinet positions.
“The real deal,” he said of former Marine Gen. James Mattis as he departed on Saturday. “He’s just a brilliant, wonderful man.”
Trump did not adopt Twitter as a preferred communications vehicle because of the campaign. He used the micro-messaging system well before he became a candidate (often to express views that were exactly the opposite of what he would later say while campaigning for president).
Twitter became a potent tool for candidate Trump because it dovetails with the demands of today’s political environment: delivering brief, blunt statements that because of their pithiness seem authentic — truthful or not.
“He’s been very successful in developing an image of himself by tweeting,” said Pablo Barbera, a USC assistant professor of international relations who has studied the use of social media by politicians.
“In contrast to Hillary Clinton, who had a very professional look…Trump was more raw and authentic, and it helped him.”
In his “60 Minutes” interview, Trump called Twitter “a great form of communication” and bragged of adding 100,000 followers on the Thursday after the election. (He has 15.7 million Twitter followers; Clinton has 11.2 million.)
“I think that social media has more power than the money they spent [on ads], and I think maybe to a certain extent, I proved that,” he said.
It’s not been without stumbles: At times, Trump’s use of Twitter to nurse grievances can interfere with his broader goals. A month before the election, for example, Trump used Twitter to falsely accuse a former Miss Universe of starring in a sex tape. (Trump chastised her, at the time and during the campaign, for her weight when he ran the pageant.)
In the final weeks of the campaign, his top aides appeared to have taken control of his Twitter account to avoid controversies. Days after the election, Trump tweeted criticism about protesters objecting to his victory, then followed the blast a few hours later with an uncharacteristic message praising them for exercising their right to free speech.
But much of the time his tweets seem strategic, both in the topics he addresses and those he avoids. He has not, for example, tweeted about the outbreaks of postelection violence against gays, women and others by people purporting to be his supporters. He has not tweeted any comment on the weekend meeting of white nationalists in Washington who praised his victory.
He has devoted more than half a dozen tweets since election day to criticizing reporting by the New York Times, a favorite target of Trump and his followers. The tweets included denials of statements that Trump clearly had made.
And he took on the multicultural cast of “Hamilton”—accusing it of harassing the incoming vice president, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
The incident began when Pence arrived at the play Friday night to a mixture of applause and boos. The cast did not join in the booing, instead distancing themselves from it. After the show, actor Brandon Victor Dixon read a statement from the stage thanking Pence for attending but adding that the cast represented “the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us.”
He told Pence he hoped the show “has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Pence later said that he was not offended by the booing or the statement and praised the show. But Trump began issuing tweets the next morning.
He insisted that “the cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior.”
Pence “was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing,” he said. “This should not happen!”
For Trump, teeing off on the cast allowed him to appear to oppose the New York elite he’s a member of—given his Fifth Avenue penthouse and self-described billionaire status—on behalf of someone who isn’t. The gesture symbolically aligned him with supporters who can’t afford a ticket to the hit show and who view New York as disdainful toward them.
“That’s a perfect culture war,” said UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser, who has studied candidates and social media.
“What Twitter allows him to do is speak directly to his base in the most stirring terms possible. Picking a fight with ‘Hamilton’ is picking a fight with the coastal intelligentsia. It’s a perfect platform for continuing to show his voters why he sticks up for them against the people they feel are down on them.”
Trump’s tweets about the play overshadowed an earlier tweet in which he defended settling the Trump University fraud lawsuit. And the one-way nature of Trump’s tweets meant he didn’t have to have to confront follow-up questions. Over the weekend, when a reporter shouted a question about Trump University, Trump did not respond.
Studies of other politicians who have used Twitter to communicate with their public have shown that is part of its appeal: it offers bite-sized news releases, delivered without any expectation of a back-and-forth.
Politicians from other countries who have relied on Twitter have moderated their comments once they took office. None of them, however, was Donald Trump.
In the “60 Minutes” interview, he nodded in the direction of becoming “more restrained,” but then defended his use of Twitter.
“It’s a modern form of communication,” he said. “There should be nothing you should be ashamed of. It’s -- it’s where it’s at.”
12:40 p.m.: This article was updated with a reference to Trump’s interview with the New York Times.
The article was originally published at 7:35 a.m.
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