It’s 2019 and President Donald Trump’s twitter antics have become an accepted norm of life. Gone are the days of amicable tweets depicting diplomats shaking hands in foreign countries. Instead, Twitter has been transformed into a populist’s platform of choice. Twitter has provided President Trump with a forum to stoke fear amongst his constituents, allowed him to generate an illusion of direct contact with his voters, as well as helped him create a visual of “the people” he represents. All three components are key to populist leadership, and the advent of Twitter has aided in the amplification of his populist tendencies.
In her work on democratic backsliding, Pippa Norris identifies one of major threats to Western Liberal Democracy as “the rise of populist-authoritarian forces, which feed parasitically” on fears surrounding threats to national security. Twitter, in its limited text capacity allows fear mongers to elicit angst in short, succinct messages, often accompanied by a video set to dramatic music. It does not take much scrolling to find one such video following an Arizona sheriff through the desert on the tail of drug traffickers, retweeted by President Trump. The genius of Twitter in inspiring fear is the ability to overload the user with information. It is not simply one press conference where the president comes on, strikes up fear about immigration, and then disappears for days at a time. Instead, multiple messages can be tweeted or retweeted daily, magnifying fears by never letting the constituents forget the message that the president is trying to get across. The information overload that Twitter allows for means Americans are constantly reminded of the things they are supposed to be afraid of and that only Trump can protect them from.
The concept of social media creates an illusion of a direct line to the president, a strategy that Jan-Werner Muller points out as especially potent for populist leaders . Gone are the intermediaries of the “fake news” media. Rather, the words come straight from the president to the people. Some may point out the potential for true democratic exchange to occur on social media sites like Twitter, arguing that thoughtful debate can occur and that it allows constituents to respond directly to leaders and vice versa. Twitter, however, is hardly a platform for Trump to be listening to his constituents; he never needs to respond to the tweets of “the people.” Instead, merely the act of being on Twitter allows him to perpetuate his message without actually getting the democratic input of the people.
In his work, Kenneth Roberts points to the ways that American Democracy is under threat . He notes that the erosion of democracy was there prior to the Trump administration, but that the threat has been intensified by divisive rhetoric that aims at pitting groups against each other. Twitter provides the perfect platform for this conflict, allowing people to fully realize their differences in the comment section. Furthermore, Twitter provides a perfect platform to invoke symbolic representation of the people “out there”, the “silent majority” that he represents. On one hand, he can point to his retweets and likes as confirmation of the support he has. On the other hand, any sort of dissent he receives on Twitter can easily be dismissed as outside of the morally unified body he defines as “the people.” Furthermore, Trump himself does not to do much of the dismissal work. He merely needs to open the floodgates to thousands of Twitter trolls who will do the “othering” work for him.
It is not hard to see the absurdity of the rhetoric President Trump presents on a daily, some of it culminating in plainly false statements. To understand the reasoning behind the often blatantly incorrect proclamations, it is informative to turn to Lisa Wedeen’s field work in Syria where she studied Hafiz Al-Asad and his cult of personality . She suggests that perhaps the official rhetoric under the Asad regime operated by “cluttering public space… [tiring] the minds and bodies of producers and consumers alike.” Understood in this light, the president’s twitter tirades can be seen as a saturation of speech, often times absurd but in such a plentiful quantity that the public has no choice but to eventually tire of resisting. By failing to challenge the constant stream of tweets or the absurdity of fabricated statements, we become complicit in the upholding of such falsities. It is up to the American people to continue to refute the president’s use of Twitter.