Holding the highest office in the United States of America can be the loneliest of positions. It certainly is a role that no one can relate to. That’s why communication is key for our presidents. It’s fascinating to dig through old documents that time has yellowed to discover how Gen. Ulysses S. Grant felt when first witnessing “Lincoln’s revolutionary tool for making sure that neither distance nor intermediaries diffused his leadership” — the telegraph. Or when President Calvin Coolidge’s voice was first heard by Americans near and far via radio so that “groups of New Yorkers were drawn together to listen intently to the words of their President, not as embalmed text, but as living things while he was in the very act of speaking them.” Or when listeners thought that Richard Nixon sounded convincing, but viewers thought John F. Kennedy looked even better on TV.
How we communicate affects what we communicate. This has enormous implications for our world, as we are more interconnected than ever before. With a few clicks of a keyboard, an individual on the other side of the world can instantaneously read what’s on your mind. That has dangerously large ramifications for news outlets today. Since information can spread instantaneously, it does exactly that. Whoever shares it first — and thus gets more clicks and reads in the name of novelty — wins. Media outlets (whether physical or online) are no longer in the business of preserving thoughtful material, but for pushing provocative narratives, and hoping to be the first to do it. Our means of communication are no longer about substantive content, but about instantaneous information.
At present, we live in an age where our commander in chief participates online via Twitter more frequently than most of his constituents. Since his election in 2016, President Donald Trump has plastered thousands of tweets to his public feed. Now, when the president tweets, you’d expect the story or content he shares to have been certified and proofed before being released to his millions of followers. However, you’d be mistaken.
While it’s not necessarily his fault, today’s ability to instantaneously communicate with everyone willing to listen has thrust even the president into a maelstrom of gray, ambiguous information whose color is only proved black or white with time. Anything can be let out of our mental Pandora’s box — instantaneously and easily — because of the internet. It’s fundamentally changed how we find our news. The presses no longer make you patiently wait for your packet of knowledge, to be distributed by a sleepy, hardy boy in the early morning. Instead, the news outlets immediately throw what they discover onto a webpage to then crawl like a spider to every inbox, newsfeed, and account it can immediately sink its teeth into. This is what outlets have decided to sell: quick-time facts. It is what a world of people ceaselessly seeking entertainment crave.
Truth is often complex and slippery. Yet media today does not tell this truth anymore. It’s not what the readers want, nor is it profitable to tell such truth. Speed and facts are the name of the game, and more importantly than both of these is letting the audience decide what to think. In our postmodern age, and in the land where the mind of the individual is king, all these kings royally crave is a plate of cold, hard facts. Not truth, explained and butterflied on a plate. Just raw, guttural, facts (or at least, what we think are facts). This is what the media now serves us.
And the president has joined in. Now, don’t get me wrong here: I as an author am personally not a fan of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) in any regards. However, I don’t think the president’s retweet of a claim that Rep. Omar “partied” on 9/11 is appropriate at all. Worse, the commander in chief’s endorsement of this heavy (and false) claim drove loyal, impassioned followers to send Omar repeated death threats (which is a felony under federal law). So from his keyboard, the president has proved not only his ability to reach his constituents in the name of transparency but also his penchant and power to harness them. He can bury a political opponent with fake, unfounded news, and with a few clicks of his fingers.
Now, the president’s high-flying tweeting could all be an act, as some have speculated: After all, he has been in the entertainment business for years and years. One must remember the quip of President Dwight Eisenhower (who people used to call the bumbling idiot), when, “warned of a potentially damaging and embarrassing question that might come his way; his answer reportedly was ‘don’t worry, if they ask me that, I’ll just confuse them a little.’” Is President Trump just trying to confuse everyone a little so that he can actually get things done? That could absolutely be the case. He is appointing and confirming judicial nominations of his choice at a breakneck pace, and he has done so quietly.
But regardless if the president’s tweets are strategic or not, the implications of these tweets in our instantaneous age are heavier than ever before — quantifiably. For example, every time the president tweets about the economy, stocks, or its regulators in some way, shape, or form, there is an observable economic ripple effect. According to Vox’s Emily Stewart, “The market has been bouncier, in part because of the messaging coming out of the White House.” And a bouncier market means a more unstable market at risk of sailing out of tightly regulated control.
A president’s words are never taken lightly. Thus, whether our twittering president’s posts are an act, a strategic market strategy, or just plain 280-character opinions, the click-clacking of his keyboard buttons have more implications than he or we may have ever realized.