Skip to main content

The Twitter president

With 140 characters, and sometimes even less, U.S. President Donald Trump communicates to his followers and beyond. Seen by the world, Mr. Trump's tweets – which are amplified by the mainstream media – perform multiple functions, Joanna Slater writes.

The American president believes that parts of the media are his enemy and wants to speak directly to voters. So he finds a way to communicate with them in a style that is utterly his own. The nation is captivated, even as a handful of critics warn of a slide toward demagoguery.

That president is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in 1933 began using homespun radio broadcasts – dubbed "fireside chats" – to forge a new connection with Americans.

Now, nearly a century later, another president is using a different technology to similar ends.

Donald Trump's use of Twitter marks a transformation in presidential communication that will change political campaigns and candidate behaviour, experts say.

Mr. Trump's feed gives him the ability "to amass a like-minded audience and speak to it while the rest of us are essentially eavesdropping," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political communication who directs the public policy centre at the University of Pennsylvania. "That is a revolution."

Mr. Trump's tweets – which are amplified by the mainstream media – perform multiple functions. They help form a bond with his supporters, who relish his feed as an unfettered glimpse into his thinking. They can serve to change the national conversation from one topic to another. And they provide an instant way to fulfill Mr. Trump's craving for attention, his biographers say.

During his first weeks in office, Mr. Trump has used Twitter to issue threats,

berate adversaries,

criticize the media

and highlight his agenda.

Earlier this month, he took to the social-media platform to accuse former president Barack Obama of illegally tapping his phones without any evidence.

Since then, he has adopted a more restrained tone by his standards: in recent days he castigated the media for being "rude" and twice said that the current health care system is "imploding."

For some of Mr. Trump's fans, his Twitter feed has become part of their daily routine. Darlene Martin, 55, of Chesapeake, Va., calls Twitter her "open line" with the President. She has set up the app on her phone to notify her only when Mr. Trump tweets. When she turns her phone on in the morning and hears a ping, she knows "it's from him."

"I feel like we're getting it from the horse's mouth, that it's not being changed and filtered," said Ms. Martin. Sometimes, Ms. Martin replies directly to Mr. Trump on Twitter – for instance, to say how proud she is that he is President, or to tell him to ignore his critics. "It feels personal," she said.

The fact that the tweets don't sound like any other prior form of presidential communication is part of their power. "Up to this point, presidents had a private self and a public self and we've never known if they're the same," said Prof. Jamieson. But it's reasonable to infer that "what we see on Twitter is actually who Donald Trump is."

Larry Miles, 46, a Trump supporter who lives in Orlando, said that what he appreciates most about the President's Twitter feed is the way it shows that "he hasn't bowed down and changed to how everyone expects him to act."

Mr. Trump "makes some ridiculous tweets, just like he always has, and that just shows he's human and not politically correct," said Mr. Miles. He follows Mr. Trump on Twitter and on Facebook, where he has made the President one of his prioritized feeds. That means he often sees Mr. Trump's Facebook posts first each morning.

Mr. Trump has about 57 million followers on his personal, official and White House Twitter accounts (though experts note that some of them are "bots," not real people). Social media is a way to reach "what we call the Trump Train, the movement, and [deliver] our message directly to the American people," said Dan Scavino, an aide to the President, on Fox News last month.

Some experts see calculation rather than stream-of-consciousness in Mr. Trump's Twitter account. George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist at the University of California Berkeley, has written that Mr. Trump's tweets serve four strategic purposes: to divert attention from continuing controversies, to float political trial balloons, to frame ideas in advantageous ways and to deflect criticism by blaming the messenger (usually the news media).

All of those strategies could be seen at work in Mr. Trump's series of tweets accusing Mr. Obama of wiretapping him, noted Prof. Lakofff. "The wiretap tweet was not crazy or manic – it was strategic," he wrote.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt prepares to begin his first fireside chat to the American people in this March 12, 1933 file photo.

Mr. Trump uses Twitter to sidestep the filter of the traditional media in ways that would make some of his predecessors jealous. "You could say that [Franklin Roosevelt] used radio to bypass the 'crooked' media," said Douglas Craig, an Australian historian who wrote a book about FDR's fireside chats. "He was not as outspoken about it as Trump, but he certainly felt it."

Prof. Craig said that while FDR was not the first president to employ radio, he was the first to grasp its true potential, crafting 15-minute addresses in plain language that sparked an overwhelming response from the public. FDR used radio "as an art form and not just as a medium, and he got the rewards," said Prof. Craig.

Likewise, Mr. Trump is deploying Twitter to its fullest extent. "The way that radio entered into people's homes and created a personal relationship between FDR and Americans is very similar to what Trump is doing with Twitter," said Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political discourse at Texas A&M University.

When it comes to television, John F. Kennedy is credited with harnessing the power of the medium to appeal to voters, particularly through live televised press conferences, something no president had done before.

Mr. Trump may face a unique challenge in the future: his domination of the national conversation means that eventually ordinary Americans could begin to tune him out, say experts.

"In the end, people will get sick of him and that's what Roosevelt understood," said Prof. Craig, noting that the former president made sparing use of the fireside chats to maintain their impact. "Even if you are president of the United States, people will ultimately discount what you say, but it will take a long time."