There is an old axiom that “Generals always fight the last war.” Such was the case in World War I with the failure to anticipate the impact of machine guns or, in World War II, the image of Polish cavalry charging German Panzer tanks with lances. Politicians can often fall victim to the same strategic blindness. This week, President Trump again declared that he would not stop tweeting and specifically noted that tweeting was key to his winning the election. In other words, the last war. Yet, the issue is not really Twitter but tactics.
In his latest Tweet storm, Trump insisted that his use of social media “is not Presidential—it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL. Make America Great Again!” He also told his followers that “the FAKE & FRAUDLENT NEWS MEDIA is working hard to convince Republicans and others I should not use social media—but remember, I won … the 2016 election with interviews, speeches and social media. I had to beat #FakeNews, and did. We will continue to WIN!” He later followed the tweet with a disturbing altered video clip of his physically attacking a CNN figure.
The fact is that Trump may have changed modern politics but not necessarily the modern presidency. There is a difference and that lesson can be found in the presidency of none other than Bill Clinton.
There is a tendency in the media to paint the current political position of the Administration as an unprecedented “disaster” and “trainwreck.” However, Trump’s polling now stands around 40 percent. In fairness to Trump, he has been more popular than Bill Clinton at this point in his presidency. (Clinton hovered around 39 percent). Moreover, Trump is not the first president who won on the margin and then tried to govern from the margin. Clinton famously adopted the “triangulation” strategy of his advisor Dick Morris — a strategy that positioned himself outside of the two parties (including his own) and openly attacked the establishment while president. The result was great for Clinton but devastating for his party, which lost control of Congress in 1994. Triangulating secured Clinton his second term but, to do so, he had to virtually garrote his own party members.
In this sense, Trump is partially right and partially wrong. There is no reason that he should stop tweeting. The problem is not the means, it is the message. The fact is that his allies are encouraging him to stop tweeting because they do not believe that he can exercise restraint on instant social media. Trump won the last election through unrelenting and personal attacks. Trump has been successful in forcing his opponents to become the very stereotypes that he paints in his attacks. What is most surprising about Trump baiting opponents is that they continue to take the bait. It has even worked with journalists and judges – and political opponents by the gross. He calls media “fake” and biased. The response from some news organizations is to be unrelenting parts of the “resistance.”
While the negative branding of opponents it may be working, it is not succeeding. The reason is that he is now President. It is very hard to run the government that you head as an outsider warring with every institution and even your own lawyers and agencies. It is like trying to drive a car from the outside. It can be done, but not very well.
Just ask Bill Clinton. Clinton shows that playing the margin will not ultimately succeed as a president. It can get you re-elected but at the cost of losing many of your congressional allies and one or both of the houses of Congress. You can be left with a hostile Congress with subpoena authority and inexhaustible rage.
Twitter fits Trump. Where FDR could reach millions with a weekly Fireside Chat on the radio, Trump has a Twitter following in the tens of millions and his tweets reach ten times that number through media pings. While Barack Obama has succeeded in maintaining a much larger audience of over 87 million, Twitter’s short burst, 140 character structure was ideal for Trump’s populist message. It gives him direct and immediate access to his supporters in pressuring the establishment and countering political opponents.
It is still not clear if Trump won because of this strategy or despite this strategy. Bernie Sanders may be correct that Trump did not win the election as much as the Democrats lost it. They lost it by selecting the ultimate establishment candidate with huge negative polling on truthfulness and dragging three decades of scandals.
Let’s assume for a second that the branding and tweet attacks were at least successful on the margin (and in a close race, you only need the margin). It is clearly not succeeding now. Some 71 percent of people say that Trump’s tweets are hurting him, his Administration, and his party. A majority of Republicans hold this view. Republican leaders have lined up to denounce Trump’s tweets targeting people like MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and have said publicly that the tweets are proving costly to the GOP legislative agenda.
The problem is that the constant barrage of personal attacks has left both Trump’s staff and allies constantly in a deep bunker. It is impossible to gain ground in a bunker, let alone move an ambitious legislative agenda. What may have been successful on the campaign (and continues to resonate with 40 percent of the public) is not enough to actually lead and govern.
To make matters worst, the content of these tweets is undermining the Administration on the world stage and in the courts. There have been glaring conflicts between presidential tweets and Administration policies. In litigation, Trump’s tweets were used by various courts to rule against his Administration and Trump even directly contradicted his own Justice Department in representations being made to the Courts in the immigration litigation.
Calling for the President to stop tweeting is like demanding calling on Truman stop using pen and paper after his threatening a critic of his daughter as a singer. It is not the medium but the message, but allies clearly do not believe that Trump can control the message . . . so they want to close the medium. That is perhaps the most alarming aspect of this controversy.
In the end, shutting down the President’s Twitter account will achieve little. He is the President of the United States and he only has to walk to a nearby window to be heard around the world. The only thing that will end this cycle is for Trump to realize that being on the margin is no longer a strategic advantage. If he repeats Clinton’s mistake and plays the margin, he might secure a second term but cripple his presidency. Or he can fight the war that he is in.