This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
Just weeks after his inauguration as US president, it is clear that Donald Trump is making a further bold claim on power, one that goes beyond the executive orders that are rightly drawing so much attention. He is reinventing the royal fiat by novel means: the rule-by-tweet, or “twiat”. This move is not an extension of popular democracy, but its enemy, and it needs to be resisted.
We are becoming used to Trump’s new way not just of sustaining a political campaign, but of making policy. We wake up to news of another state, corporation, institution or individual caught in the crossfire of his tweets. Corporations and investors are setting up “Twitter Response Units” and “Trump Triggers” in case the next tweet is aimed at them.
The process is so alien to the ways of making policy that have evolved over decades in complex democracies that it is tempting to dismiss it as just funny or naive. But that would be a huge mistake.
A tweet of Trump’s opinion at any moment on a particular issue is just that: an expression of the temporary opinion of one person, albeit one with his hands on more power-levers than almost any other person in the world.
Such expressions matter, for sure, to Trump’s Twitter followers. But, although one might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, they do not (at 23 million) constitute a significant proportion of the world’s population, or even a large proportion of the US population.
The king holds court
A Trump tweet only becomes news if it is reported as news. And it only starts to become policy if those who interpret policy, including the media, start to treat this news as policy. Until then, the Trump tweet remains at most a claim on power.
But once key institutions treat it as if were already an enactment of power, it quickly becomes one. Worse, it inaugurates a whole new way of doing power whose compatibility with democracy and global peace is questionable.
Imagine you are a diplomat, trying to schedule a meeting for yourself, or your political master, with Trump in a few weeks’ time. Is it sensible for you to rely on the confidentiality of the meeting? Could a poorly chosen phrase or look – or indeed your most carefully argued reasoning – provoke a tweet that publicly mocks your whole strategy?
How do you deal with a figure who claims the power to broadcast on his own terms his gut reactions to whatever you say or propose? Yes, you can tweet back, but that is already to give up on the quiet space of discussion that was once diplomacy’s refuge.
The impact of rule-by-tweet is potentially profound: above all, on policy, whether global or domestic, legal or commercial. A new type of power is being claimed and, it seems, recognised: the power, by an individual’s say-so, to make things happen, the twiat. Just the sort of power that revolutions were fought to abolish.
If Trump is the putative Tweet King, who are his courtiers? Surely they’re the mainstream media institutions that regularly report Trump’s tweets as if they were policy.
If a medieval king’s courtiers refused to pass on his word to the wider world, its impact changed. While courtiers could be replaced overnight, contemporary media corporations cannot (for now at least). So why should the media act as if they were Trump’s courtiers?
We must not underestimate the short-term pressure on media corporations to conform to Trump’s claim on power. For sure, there will be an audience if they report Trump’s tweets, and their financial need to grab audiences wherever they can has never been greater.
But, if news values still mean something, they refer not only to financial imperatives, but to what should count as news. And norms about news must have some relation to what passes for acceptable in a democracy rather than an autocracy.
Why is the ‘twiat’ anti-democratic?
Some might say: Trump’s tweets are just the new way of doing democracy, “get with the program” (in the words of Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer). But, as the grim history of mid-20th-century Europe shows, authoritarian grabs on power only ever worked because their anti-democratic means were accepted by those around them as a novel way of “doing democracy”.
The “twiat” is anti-democratic for two reasons. First, it claims a power (to name individuals, pronounce policy, and condemn actions) against which there is no redress. Its work is done once uttered from the mouth of the “king”.
Second, and more subtly, allowing such power back into political decision-making undermines the slower, more inclusive forms of discussion and reflection that gives modern political democratic institutions their purpose and purchase in the first place.
Trump’s claim to a new form of charismatic power through Twitter is, in part, the flip-side of the damaged legitimacy of today’s democratic process. But, instead of curing that problem, it closes the door on it. The presidential tweeting ushers us into a new space that is no longer recognisable as democratic: a space where complex policy becomes not just too difficult but unnecessary, although its substitutes can still be tweeted.
Can anything be done to stop this? A good start would be to stop reporting the tweets of our would-be Twitter king as if they were news, let alone policy.
Let Trump’s tweets have no more claim on democracy’s attention than the changing opinions of any other powerful figure. Refuse the additional claim to power that Trump’s Twitter stream represents.
Fail to refuse that claim, and all of us risk accepting by default a new form of rule that undermines the restraints on power on which both democracy and media freedoms, in the long term, depend.