Marshall McLuhan, the late Canadian philosopher who a half-century ago aptly predicted how mass media would affect our lives, once noted, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
So it must be in the Oval Office.
President Donald Trump recently more or less insisted that you could take his Twitter account when you could pry his smart phone from his cold, dead hands.
Thus, while the pronouncement dashed the hopes of those who desperately want new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to do what no other mere mortal has been able to so far — temper Trump’s Twitter tantrums — would we expect anything less from the president?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not the first president to go on radio but is considered its most effective user among past occupants of the White House. John F. Kennedy revolutionized how TV portrayed the president. Barack Obama mastered multiple social media platforms, ushering the internet into national politics, and issued the first presidential tweet in January 2010.
Yet, as McLuhan observed, Twitter assuredly has shaped Trump more so than those other media tools did those men.
For all his formal education and street smarts, Trump is not articulate when he speaks. Thus, Twitter’s 140-character format gives Trump an ideal tool to reach the masses in his own distinct way.
During his two years on the national political stage, America’s chief executive has taken to cyberspace to needle opponents, rip critics, rally the faithful, berate subordinates, toot his own horn, discuss policy, share emotions, praise causes, spread fibs and generally create an uproar.
Meanwhile, Trump, whether many of them admit it, offers elite Washington journalists a short-cut, one best captured by David Sirota of the International Business Times.
Last December Sirota, a frequent Trump critic, took a swipe at his news brethren when he observed on Twitter:
“Modern journalism: 1. Turn on computer 2. Read Trump tweet 3. Write hot take about tweet 4. Appear on cable TV panel about tweet 5. Repeat”
Wherever it leads, Trump’s declaration should be welcomed because it raises an important point.
All presidents have complained about unfair or hostile news coverage, and desired to bypass the media’s filters and go straight to the American people. In the recent past doing so was limited to TV, which required the assent of the networks. Yet Twitter provides Trump a direct pipeline to his 35.1 million followers, a universe that expands as his tweets spread.
Twitter is an extension of Trump and his message, and accordingly our political system has changed considerably, with the accompanying consequences and benefits. Is it a permanent change? Who knows. But for now, thankfully, we can continue to mine this information vein to peer into our president’s mind and soul.
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