How to Run a Country in 280 Characters
Matt Shaw
29 Apr

President Trump has used social media in an unprecedented way. Derivative work, using 'Donald Trump' by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

“First of all, you insult everybody,” Noam Chomsky said, “And then, you do what any skilled propagandist does. You’ve got to keep the audience watching, so say something outrageous.

“Then they’ll listen.”

Mr Chomsky, whose theories revolutionised the field of linguistics, sees a predictable structure in the daily clutter of President Donald Trump’s Twitter posts.

Since his inauguration, Trump has utilised the social media platform in an unparalleled manner, guiding national conversation from the confines of a 280-character box.

To explain why, it’s important to understand the relationship between a president and the press - and how it’s been completely shattered.

Throughout history, the media have had a precarious bond with the White House. While some presidents appeared to welcome reporters, others actively shunned them and expressed contempt for their work.

Former President Richard Nixon, for example, famously reviled journalists. In one White House Tape, he’s heard telling national security advisors Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig: “The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy.”

That phrase will likely sound familiar. “Enemy of the people” is how President Trump has described the media - and specific media organisations - on several occasions.

Trump has allowed social media to become the default method of communicating a message. Original Tweet.

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Like Nixon, Donald Trump makes no secret of his disgust with a large portion of the press. However, it’s his decision to sever the ties completely that sets him apart from his predecessors.

And it’s through Twitter that he’s able to do it.

Unlike a press conference, where reporters are able to ask questions and hold the president accountable, a Tweet is a one-way system, giving the media no choice but to report the president’s chosen message.

In a way that seems to have caught journalists off-guard, President Trump has created a digital echo chamber using nothing more than an iPhone.

Aside from making sure his message stays central, conducting the presidency through Tweets allows for Trump’s most effective tactic: making a large number of varied arguments in quick succession, regardless of contradictions or accuracy.

Also called a Gish gallop, this tactic ensures that it’s impossible for any opponents - or, in this case, the media - to debunk each claim quickly enough.

“Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post [who oversees the Fact Checker section] will run through what you said and say there were 96 lies. Fine. By then, you're onto something new,” said Mr Chomsky.

On Twitter, a message can be crafted, changed and destroyed in moments. This flexibility gives Trump the freedom to experiment with narrative in real time.

If a particular word or phrase performs well (“fake news”), then it’s likely to become a recurring theme. If it performs badly - or sparks outrage - it’s quickly lost in the endless tidal wave of Tweets.

The president was heavily criticised for suggesting that the media are against the public. Original Tweet.

On top of this, the sheer number of updates the president posts each week ensures that almost all bases are covered.

To use Mr Chomsky’s imagery: “You shoot a lot of arrows, one of them will hit the target.”

“I don't know if it's instinctive or planned, but it's a very smart technique. It means he is going to be vindicated no matter what happens.”

However, as the coronavirus pandemic plays out, Trump’s grip on media narrative appears to be unravelling. To begin with, the crisis has forced the president into holding regular press conferences.

While he’s used a large portion of these gatherings to praise himself and condemn others, he’s still faced tough, consistent questioning from reporters.

This documentation of Trump’s failings, combined with a heightened public interest in the administration’s decisions, has resulted in a new kind of spotlight for Trump: one that he can’t control.

“So what do you do?” asked Mr Chomsky, “Cover it up. Blame somebody else. China, World Health Organisation, immigrants, blacks - anybody who's around.

“In fact, right at this moment, he is making the crisis much worse and getting away with it,” he added.

President Trump at a 'Keep America Great' rally in Phoenix, Arizona. 19th February, 2020. Image via Flickr, taken by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

But no scapegoat so far has provided adequate cover for long, and feigned confidence isn’t garnering support as it has before.

In a health crisis, people want visible results: lockdowns ending, schools opening, jobs returning, the economy strengthening. And right now, the president can’t produce such results.

In an effort to maintain his hold on the rhetoric surrounding the pandemic, Trump has doubled down on Twitter, blaming Democrats and the media. He’s explained away the striking number of cases by praising testing which, he says, is “sooo much better than any other country in the World”.

But he’s also started pushing messages of misguided hope that reopening one of the largest economies on the planet can be done both quickly and safely.

In an election year, it may be too little, too late.

After all, 280 characters can only project a narrative that supporters can imagine. And, as they sit in their homes, unemployed and watching the country’s economy crumble, their imaginations may be strained.

OPINION
How to Run a Country in 280 Characters
Matt Shaw
29 Apr

President Trump has used social media in an unprecedented way. Derivative work, using 'Donald Trump' by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

“First of all, you insult everybody,” Noam Chomsky said, “And then, you do what any skilled propagandist does. You’ve got to keep the audience watching, so say something outrageous.

“Then they’ll listen.”

Mr Chomsky, whose theories revolutionised the field of linguistics, sees a predictable structure in the daily clutter of President Donald Trump’s Twitter posts.

Since his inauguration, Trump has utilised the social media platform in an unparalleled manner, guiding national conversation from the confines of a 280-character box.

To explain why, it’s important to understand the relationship between a president and the press - and how it’s been completely shattered.

Throughout history, the media have had a precarious bond with the White House. While some presidents appeared to welcome reporters, others actively shunned them and expressed contempt for their work.

Former President Richard Nixon, for example, famously reviled journalists. In one White House Tape, he’s heard telling national security advisors Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig: “The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy.”

That phrase will likely sound familiar. “Enemy of the people” is how President Trump has described the media - and specific media organisations - on several occasions.

Trump has allowed social media to become the default method of communicating a message. Original Tweet.

Get The Locus sent straight to your inbox
Thanks for subscribing to The Locus!
Something went wrong. Sorry about that.

Like Nixon, Donald Trump makes no secret of his disgust with a large portion of the press. However, it’s his decision to sever the ties completely that sets him apart from his predecessors.

And it’s through Twitter that he’s able to do it.

Unlike a press conference, where reporters are able to ask questions and hold the president accountable, a Tweet is a one-way system, giving the media no choice but to report the president’s chosen message.

In a way that seems to have caught journalists off-guard, President Trump has created a digital echo chamber using nothing more than an iPhone.

Aside from making sure his message stays central, conducting the presidency through Tweets allows for Trump’s most effective tactic: making a large number of varied arguments in quick succession, regardless of contradictions or accuracy.

Also called a Gish gallop, this tactic ensures that it’s impossible for any opponents - or, in this case, the media - to debunk each claim quickly enough.

“Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post [who oversees the Fact Checker section] will run through what you said and say there were 96 lies. Fine. By then, you're onto something new,” said Mr Chomsky.

On Twitter, a message can be crafted, changed and destroyed in moments. This flexibility gives Trump the freedom to experiment with narrative in real time.

If a particular word or phrase performs well (“fake news”), then it’s likely to become a recurring theme. If it performs badly - or sparks outrage - it’s quickly lost in the endless tidal wave of Tweets.

The president was heavily criticised for suggesting that the media are against the public. Original Tweet.

On top of this, the sheer number of updates the president posts each week ensures that almost all bases are covered.

To use Mr Chomsky’s imagery: “You shoot a lot of arrows, one of them will hit the target.”

“I don't know if it's instinctive or planned, but it's a very smart technique. It means he is going to be vindicated no matter what happens.”

However, as the coronavirus pandemic plays out, Trump’s grip on media narrative appears to be unravelling. To begin with, the crisis has forced the president into holding regular press conferences.

While he’s used a large portion of these gatherings to praise himself and condemn others, he’s still faced tough, consistent questioning from reporters.

This documentation of Trump’s failings, combined with a heightened public interest in the administration’s decisions, has resulted in a new kind of spotlight for Trump: one that he can’t control.

“So what do you do?” asked Mr Chomsky, “Cover it up. Blame somebody else. China, World Health Organisation, immigrants, blacks - anybody who's around.

“In fact, right at this moment, he is making the crisis much worse and getting away with it,” he added.

President Trump at a 'Keep America Great' rally in Phoenix, Arizona. 19th February, 2020. Image via Flickr, taken by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

But no scapegoat so far has provided adequate cover for long, and feigned confidence isn’t garnering support as it has before.

In a health crisis, people want visible results: lockdowns ending, schools opening, jobs returning, the economy strengthening. And right now, the president can’t produce such results.

In an effort to maintain his hold on the rhetoric surrounding the pandemic, Trump has doubled down on Twitter, blaming Democrats and the media. He’s explained away the striking number of cases by praising testing which, he says, is “sooo much better than any other country in the World”.

But he’s also started pushing messages of misguided hope that reopening one of the largest economies on the planet can be done both quickly and safely.

In an election year, it may be too little, too late.

After all, 280 characters can only project a narrative that supporters can imagine. And, as they sit in their homes, unemployed and watching the country’s economy crumble, their imaginations may be strained.

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