President Trump has used Twitter to connect with his supporters in an unprecedented way. His use of the platform has increased far beyond that of past presidents and the information he has chosen to relay through tweets is also unlike that of the presidents before him. President Trump has repeatedly used the platform to lash out at other political figures, both domestic and international, as well as to announce policy changes within his regime, rally his base of supporters, and even to attack celebrity figures. His tweets are broadcast on cable news almost daily, making it seemingly impossible to not be in constant awareness of the President’s apparent stream of consciousness as conveyed through his Twitter feed. In What is Populism Muller discusses how populist figures frequently attempt to “cut out the middleman” and broadcast their message directly to the people instead of using the media to disseminate their message.  However, there also seems to be a growing trend of presidents attempting to connect to the public to reassure them of their message, including FDR’s Fireside Chats and Obama’s Twitter Town Hall. Is Trump’s use of Twitter simply the next natural progression in presidents’ attempt to connect to their constituents, or is it a signal of his populist nature and a dangerous attempt to discredit and bypass the media?
Many presidents have tried to connect with their constituents and reassure them of their ability to lead and to explain their policy proposals. Woodrow Wilson held the first presidential press conference in March of 1913, which represented an unprecedented step in the President presenting himself as an approachable source open to discussion with the people.  Since then the press conference has become a platform for the President to explain his policy proposals. After the introduction of this new mode of presidential communication, the press was firmly solidified as becoming a surrogate for the public, able to interpret and disseminate information to the public on the President’s actions. FDR furthered this trend of connecting to the people through his Fireside Chats, in which he broadcast himself over the radio in an attempt to calm people during times of hardship and drum up support for his policy proposals. In 1955 President Eisenhower took another step by holding the first televised press conference, making it impossible for him to alter quotes before they were distributed to the people and portraying him as a figure who was open to the public. The use of social media has been used by presidents in varying capacities since its introduction as a prominent way to share information. President Obama was one of the first presidents to firmly embrace this new platform, by holding a Twitter Town Hall in which constituents could tweet in questions and the President would answer them live on TV.  Thus, presidents’ use of new platforms to connect directly with constituents, through radio, television, and social media, is not a new phenomenon. However, Trump’s use of Twitter seems to go beyond simply an attempt to connect to his constituents.
Trump’s tweets seem to be a more constant stream of what is on the President’s mind. He takes a very “brash” and “aggressive” stance on the platform, not only to announce policy but also to attack political figures and other groups. Many of the claims he makes on Twitter are blatantly false. In addition he has used to the platform to announce major policy changes, sometimes without the knowledge of his staff. Researchers have characterized the way President Trump uses Twitter into 4 categories: preemptive framing, diversion, deflection, and as a trial balloon.  Trump uses Twitter to preemptively frame policy issues, making clear his stance on an issue that perhaps has not gained much media attention in order to frame how it is discussed. He also uses the platform as a diversion, to draw attention to another issue in an attempt to stop a conversation about a topic that could frame him in a negative light. Thirdly, he uses the platform to deflect comments targeting him either by criticizing the commenter or by discussing an entirely different issue in order to change the direction of the conversation. Lastly, he uses the platform as a “trial balloon” to test the public’s reaction to some of his more controversial policy proposals. Through the use of Twitter, Trump can control the news cycle for the upcoming day.  With the influx of tweets from the president daily, news agencies frequently include references to or even show pictures of his tweets in their morning news cycles, effectively allowing the President to control what the discussion of the day will be. While this is an unprecedented new use of the platform, I argue that it does not constitute a successful example of a populist attempting to bypass the press in order to appeal directly to the people and turn them to his side.
Muller in What Is Populism states that “populists always want to cut out the middleman” which in this case is the media, as they view them as somehow “distorting political reality.”  No matter if Trump is a populist or not, his use of Twitter certainly seems to embody this. Muller cites Beppe Grillo’s blog in Italy as an example of this, in which he used his blog to explain his platform and answer questions from supporters. Muller herself cites Trump’s use of Twitter as an example of trying to cut out the middleman so that “‘real Americans’ can be done with the media and have direct access” to Trump. Thus, it is clear that Trump’s use of the platform seems to be an attempt to connect directly with the people in a way that could potentially be harmful to democracy.
However, a new poll by Gallup seems to show that Trump’s use of Twitter has not necessarily been successful in appealing directly to Americans.  While ¾ of Americans according to the poll say that they see, read, or hear about Trump’s tweets a lot or a fair amount, signaling that his messages have been effective in reaching the people, they do not seem to have been effective in bypassing the media while doing so. Most Americans hear news about his tweets through secondary sources, such as news outlets or other social media accounts. Only 4% of all Americans actually have a Twitter account, follow Trump on that account, and read all of his tweets through the platform. Thus, Trump’s message for the majority of Americans still seems to be being filtered through the media, who can thus hold Trump accountable through their critique of his messages. While these conclusions are drawn from the results of only one Gallup poll, they seem to suggest that Trump’s Twitter is not as formidable a platform as Muller discusses in What is Populism. The platform’s structure seems to support this conclusion. With Twitter’s 140 character limit, what the President can say is in itself moderated by the length in which he can discuss policy issues. While the platform may be good for drumming up support among his followers through short statements, polls show that when discussing policy the public wants a see and hear the President make his arguments, instead of simply reading about them.  While Twitter is very effective for branding, it is not an effective platform for making detailed arguments or convincing others to take a side in an argument. Thus, while Trump’s use of Twitter is a novel attempt to connect with supporters without the use of the media, as populists in other nations have done, it does not seem a very successful one. Thus, it does not seem to pose a threat to democracy in a way that a populist’s use of a platform to bypass the media and connect directly with constituents might. Müller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press. Pg. 35  “Presidential Press Conferences.” WHHA (en-US). Accessed April 29, 2019. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/presidential-press-conferences.  Pilkington, Ed. “Barack Obama Becomes First US President to Host a Twitter Town Hall.” The Guardian. July 06, 2011. Accessed April 29, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/jul/06/barack-obama-twitter-town-hall.  Andrew Buncombe New York @AndrewBuncombe. “How Donald Trump’s Use of Twitter Has Changed the US Presidency.” The Independent. January 18, 2018. Accessed April 29, 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/the-twitter-president-how-potus-changed-social-media-and-the-presidency-a8164161.html.  Carr, Nicholas, Christopher Cadelago, and Tim Alberta. “Why Trump Tweets (And Why We Listen).” POLITICO Magazine. January 26, 2018. Accessed April 29, 2019. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/01/26/donald-trump-twitter-addiction-216530.  Müller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press. Pg. 36  Gallup, Inc. “Deconstructing Trump’s Use of Twitter.” Gallup.com. May 16, 2018. Accessed April 29, 2019. https://news.gallup.com/poll/234509/deconstructing-trump-twitter.aspx.  Keith, Tamara. “Commander-In-Tweet: Trump’s Social Media Use And Presidential Media Avoidance.” NPR. November 18, 2016. Accessed April 29, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2016/11/18/502306687/commander-in-tweet-trumps-social-media-use-and-presidential-media-avoidance.
Photo by aliuyargraphics, “Twitter Logo”, Creative Commons Zero license.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.