There’s a whole genre of hot takes devoted to scolding the public for overreacting to news out of the presidential transition that’s of allegedly negligible importance, in particular, Donald Trump’s wacky tweets.
We saw the same kind of dismissiveness all through the campaign every time the Russian interference charge came up (still do, actually), often from the same people who clung to Neera Tanden’s every utterance as if her tweets could move armies.
The implication is that competition for public attention is a zero-sum game, and that articles and cable news segments and social media posts about Trump’s outrageous tweets are empty fluff that come at the expense of the real news about the incoming President, such as his $25 million Trump University lawsuit settlement, or the extremists he’s appointing to his cabinet, or the Republicans’ plans to gut Medicare and repeal the Affordable Care Act. A lot of people even believe that Trump’s Twitter feed is a trap he’s set to distract us from the big stories he doesn’t want the public to notice.
But here’s the thing: Trump’s tweets matter. They matter a lot.
The height of the tweet-to-distract theory accompanied Trump’s tweets last month scolding the Hamilton cast for being rude to Mike Pence. On the surface, it did seem like a silly thing to get worked up about, given the juggernaut of reaction the transition team was putting into place to steamroll the rights of immigrants, women, Muslims, racial minorities, the earth, and the human species in general.
But what would have been frivolous prior to Election Day takes on a whole new weight from the future leader of the free world. The Hamilton tweets showed that as President-elect, and, by all indications, as President of the United States, Trump is perfectly willing to single out critics personally, rebuke them publicly for voicing opinions unfavorable to him, and summon his millions of followers to do the same.
Maybe you can argue that the cast of Hamilton are celebrities and public figures, that since they have a little bit of star power with which to stand up to the President-elect of the United States, he’s within his rights to defend himself against their criticisms. But yesterday, Trump singled out Chuck Jones, a local union leader for the Steelworkers in Indiana, by name, and basically blamed him (and presumably people like him, though he didn’t say that), personally, for decades of job flight from the United States. Since then, Jones has been receiving thinly-veiled death threats:
“Calling me names, wanting to know if I have children,” he said. “I better watch out for myself, and they know what kind of car I drive, that I better watch out for my kids.”
Jones isn’t a celebrity. He’s not a public figure. He’s not a Democratic Party bigwig or a member of Congress or a famous cable news pundit. He’s just somebody who disagreed with Trump’s characterization of the deal he and Mike Pence made with Carrier, and was in a position to know something about it. But Trump draws no distinctions between a critic like Jones and a critic, like, say, Hillary Clinton. His attack apparatus is indiscriminate, and it has only one setting: destroy.
Given the near-shooting over the “Pizzagate” lie, if Trump keeps this up, it’s only a matter of time before somebody gets hurt. But even more dangerous than that is the damage that Trump’s individualized, frontal attacks are likely to have on dissent overall. As a candidate, Trump showed no compunction about calling out journalists by name, knowingly putting their personal safety at risk:
At the rally in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, Trump howled about the dishonest media, calling out Tur by name. “She’s back there. Little Katy. She’s back there,” Trump said, referring to a grown woman as “little.” Trump continued, calling Tur a “third rate” reporter and her tweets a “lie.” Tur writes that the crowd began booing her, quickly turning on her “like a large animal, angry and unchained.” The Secret Service walked Tur to her car and that, Tur notes, is when the reality of the “incident sank in.”
Since Trump singled her out, Tur says that she’s been on the receiving end of threats and an endless stream of harassment on social media, another aspect of covering the Trump campaign that’s, by now, familiar to a number of female reporters, including Megyn Kelly, Julia Ioffe, and Michelle Fields.
Unlike Trump, journalists who are not in war zones don’t walk around with bodyguards, or have half-million-dollar-a-day security details guarding their personal residences at taxpayer expense. How much personal risk is the average reporter going to be willing to take on to do their job over the next four years, under a vindictive President willing to name them individually on a platform in which doxxing and death threats are routine occurrences? How about a regular person like Chuck Jones, who isn’t even a reporter?
Policy isn’t the only thing presidents do that has consequences. Norms matter, too. Trump has no regard for the norms that have historically constrained the way that American presidents handle criticism. Trump has the norms of an autocrat — someone like Putin.
Trump’s Twitter feed is a glimpse into how the next President will impose his will on a free society. That’s not a distraction; it matters. A lot.