THE BLOG
12/12/2016 03:02 pm ET

Trump, Twitter And The Authoritarian Presidency

Trump's social media habits were a subject of amusement throughout the election season, but they have now become cause for alarm. His recent tweet criticizing Chuck Jones, president of United Steelworkers Union 1999, resulted in a swarm of anonymous threats to Jones and his family.

Other stories have since emerged, such as that of Lauren Batchelder, an 18 year-old student who was called "an arrogant young woman" and "a plant" by Trump on Twitter for challenging him about his support for women at a campaign event in New Hampshire a year ago. Trump's director of social media tweeted out screengrabs of Batchelder's social-media accounts just hours after the event, and supporters of the candidate immediately followed up with graphic, often sexual threats on email and Facebook, and the circulation of her home address online.

When asked about his aggressive tweeting, Trump likes to say that it provides a direct connection to the public, bypassing a corrupt media. As he said on the Today Show, "Frankly, it's a modern-day form of communication... I get it out much faster than a press release. I get it out much more honestly than dealing with dishonest reporters. So many reporters are dishonest."

This populist call for an unmediated link between the president and the people -- which is in fact a strategy of mobilizing one segment of the population against others -- is rooted in the rise of the populist right in the U.S. and, perhaps not surprisingly, in Richard Nixon's famous "Silent Majority" speech.

In the fall of 1969, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee organized two massive demonstrations in Washington D.C. Nixon responded by scheduling a nationally televised speech to explain his administration's policy on the war. In the speech he depicted the antiwar movement as a small, antidemocratic force that threatened to subvert the national will. "And so tonight to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans, I ask for your support," he said. "Let us be united for peace. Let us be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that."

The speech was well received by the public, and to some degree Nixon was able to turn public opinion toward his war strategy and against the peace movement. Yet Nixon, who like Trump saw the press as a threat, was rankled by critical television network commentary that immediately followed the speech. At ABC for example, Averell Harriman said that he underplayed the breadth of antiwar opposition in the country, while Frank Reynolds said his pitch for unity likely caused more polarization.

In the days following the speech and its network reception, Nixon dispatched Vice President Spiro Agnew to discredit this "tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one." Agnew denounced what he now called "instant analysis," claiming that the president had a right to speak to the people without interference of "a small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts, the majority of whom expressed in one way or another their hostility to what he had to say." Agnew went on to suggest darkly that "the networks be made to be more responsive to the views of the nation."

Columnist William Safire, who was a speechwriter for Nixon at the time, later wrote that "Many of us felt strongly that no unelected personality clothed in the garb of network objectivity should be interposed between the elected leader in the 'bully pulpit' and the people. Television officials later saw the light or felt the heat, and the trend toward commentators' immediate rebuttal soon slowed." Jacksonian in its aggression, Rooseveltian in its belief that the president was the moral voice of the nation, the Nixonian view of presidential authority was deeply antidemocratic even as it claimed to voice popular will.

The president's populist showdown with the press began the era of what political scientist Stephen Skowronek has called "the plebiscitary presidency," in which presidents regularly appeal to the public "over the heads of the elites of the Washington establishment, hoping to use their public standing to compel that establishment into following their lead." Presidents from Reagan onward used the power of public appeal over against other political forces with which they had to contend.

In some sense, it was ever thus. Beyond the formal powers and duties laid down in the Constitution, the presidency is a cultural institution meant to represent--in a very literal sense--the American people. Presidents act as figures who symbolize what their supporters hold sacred about the nation, or what their opponents most hate. Presidents then must make the most of their public authority both to isolate opponents and leverage power against other institutions. Media tools are key to this strategy and since Obama, the first president with a Twitter account, social media has played an increasingly important role.

Trump's use of social media is generally treated as either rash or refreshingly honest depending on one's view of him, but impulsive nonetheless. This may be, but it is an impulsivity conditioned by years of experience in mass media, particularly on the set of The Apprentice and the continual focus-group and polling research that guided the show's success with a broad public. It should come as no surprise that he has decided to continue as executive producer on Celebrity Apprentice during his presidency.

Trump's social media assaults combine the popular power of the executive office with that of mass action by those who are willing to make threats on his behalf. The result is a terrifying form of presidential demagogy that the antifederalists warned of two and a half centuries ago, now greatly enhanced by changes in modern media technology.

Much has been written already about the internet strategies of the Trump-associated "alt-right" which assails opponents with thousands of harassing or bullying social media posts, along with the humiliating violations of doxxing -- online public exposure of a victim's private life. Fake news and bots saturate the general knowledge environment while conspiracy theories borne on the air by Wikileaks, Infowars, or Russian operatives, incubated at Reddit and 4Chan now explode into open violence like the Pizzagate shooting attack.

This is a volatile media environment from which many institutional elites recoil, but one in which Trump thrives. He has over 17 million Twitter followers now, and will soon have 12.5 million followers at @POTUS. As he put it, "it's like owning the New York Times without the losses."

Trump understands how media works far more than Nixon ever did. But what they share is a demonized worldview in which critics are enemies and opponents must be crushed. Nixon's destructive paranoia was ultimately contained by what were then largely functional bourgeois institutions -- the press, Congress, and the party system. The ease with which Trump executes these tweets and the speed at which they are acted on are evidence of the potential power of the plebiscitary presidency laid bare.

Just before the election, Batchelder, the student who had the temerity to tell Trump on the campaign trail that she didn't think he was "a friend to women", received a Facebook message that read: "Wishing I could fucking punch you in the face. id then proceed to stomp your head on the curb and urinate in your bloodied mouth and i know where you live, so watch your fucking back punk."

Trump's Twitter strategy is essentially a demand that we all watch our backs. It is a threat not only to union leaders and college students, but to anyone who resists this administration.

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