Trump’s tweet fests further the culture wars that helped him win
LOS ANGELES — Donald Trump’s Twitter wars with media sites and cultural institutions have been panned by opponents as overreactions by a thin-skinned president-elect who prefers rhetorical skirmishing to soberly building his administration.
But Trump is extending what helped him win the presidency — a battle against elites that secured the loyalty of voters outside the coastal metropolises, delivered directly to his supporters by bypassing the media he considers reflexively unfair.
It is also a tactic of distraction that he is likely to use throughout the transition and, come January, as the nation’s first Twitter president.
Over the weekend, Trump’s social media blast against the cast of “Hamilton” deftly turned attention away from bad news — a $25-million settlement in a fraud case brought by former students at Trump University and accusations of conflicts between his business and political careers.
Tuesday morning, a series of similar tweets criticizing the New York Times shifted attention away from new controversies over whether he or those close to him had used his influence to bolster his overseas business interests.
His tweets may have a downside, but inarguably deliver a benefit: Even as Trump works to staff a government that will inevitably include establishment figures some of his backers abhor, he is reasserting his disruptive bona fides to those who support him the most.
Trump’s use of Twitter as a communications engine is only one of the ways he has, since his surprise election, worked to maintain a direct line to voters.
On Monday, he released a video describing his plans for his first days as president. He asserted that his transition was moving “very smoothly, efficiently and effectively” to hire “patriots.”
Trump is hardly the first president to try to bypass traditional gatekeepers: President Barack Obama often appeared on nontraditional formats while granting relatively few interviews to traditional media. President-elect Donald Trump often takes to Twitter to criticize The New York Times staff and its coverage of his candidacy and transition.
For Trump, that approach has become supercharged. He has not held a press conference since July. Since he claimed victory in the early morning hours of Nov. 9, he has sat for an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” one with the Wall Street Journal and, on Tuesday, with The New York Times. But he has offered no formal remarks nor held a press conference, unusual for a president-elect.
That has given even more prominence to Trump’s social media comments.
Twitter became a potent tool for candidate Trump because it dovetails with the demands of today’s political environment: delivering brief, blunt statements that, because of their pithiness, seem authentic — truthful or not.
“He’s been very successful in developing an image of himself by tweeting,” said Pablo Barbera, aUniversity of Southern California assistant professor of international relations who has studied the use of social media by politicians.
It’s not been without stumbles: At times, Trump’s use of Twitter to nurse grievances can interfere with his broader goals. A month before the election, for example, Trump used Twitter to falsely accuse a former Miss Universe of starring in a sex tape. (The woman had accused Trump of maligning her weight when he ran the pageant.)
In the final weeks of the campaign, his top aides appeared to have taken control of his Twitter account to avoid controversies.
But much of the time his tweets seem strategic, both in the topics he addresses and those he avoids. He has not, for example, tweeted about the outbreaks of postelection violence against gays, women and others by people purporting to be his supporters.
He has devoted more than half a dozen tweets since Election Day to criticizing reporting by The New York Times, a favorite target of Trump and his followers. The tweets included denials of statements that Trump clearly had made.
And he took on the multicultural cast of “Hamilton” — accusing it of harassing the incoming vice president, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
The incident in question began when Pence arrived at the play Friday night to a mixture of applause and boos. The cast did not join in the booing, instead distancing themselves from it. After the show, actor Brandon Victor Dixon read a statement from the stage thanking Pence for attending but adding that the cast represented “the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us.”
Pence later said that he was not offended by the booing or the statement and praised the show. But Trump began issuing tweets the next morning.
He insisted that “the cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior.”
Pence “was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing,” he said. “This should not happen!”
For Trump, teeing off on the cast allowed him to appear to oppose the New York elite he’s a member of, on behalf of someone who isn’t.
“That’s a perfect culture war,” said University of California, San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser, who has studied candidates and social media.
“What Twitter allows him to do is speak directly to his base in the most stirring terms possible. Picking a fight with ‘Hamilton’ is picking a fight with the coastal intelligentsia. It’s a perfect platform for continuing to show his voters whyhesticks up for them against the people they feel are down on them.”