Trump, the wannabe king ruling by ‘twiat’


Nick Couldry, London School of Economics and Political Science

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.

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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.

Trump’s opinions at any moment are subject to change.
Sasha Kimel/flickr

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.

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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”.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer says officials must ‘get with the program’ or go.

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.

Is Trump’s Twitter feed bypassing dishonest media or bypassing the democratic process?

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.

The Conversation

Nick Couldry, Professor of Media, Communications and Social Theory, London School of Economics and Political Science

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘America first’ – Donald Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States


Tom Clark, Victoria University

Donald Trump is now the 45th president of the United States of America, duly sworn in before a crowd of well-wishers, rivals, and desperately curious others. Now, while he is installing himself in the White House, the words of his inaugural address are filtering through the world.

His remarks made significant, but not huge, departures from the “stump speech” we have heard from him many times already. As with his victory speech, Trump was conspicuously magnanimous towards the individuals he was elected to oppose:

We are grateful to President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent. Thank you.

This time, perhaps disappointing many, it was not the bling – the “You’re gonna love our speeches … we’ve got some of the best words, and some of the best people writing our words”, as Alec Baldwin might satirise it.

Still, for the first five minutes or so, it was sounding more like a speech of opposition than of government:

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left. And the factories closed.

Many have noted it was a speech that addressed Trump’s support base most directly, as the transcript’s next paragraph revealed. These are the people whose opposition to the way things are has brought Trump to power. Shifting from oppositional behaviour to constructive government without estranging that base may just prove too hard to achieve in public:

The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes starting right here and right now. Because this is your moment. It belongs to you.

A sense of agenda for Trump the president only seemed to click into gear after he caricatured the lives of those “forgotten men and women” (echoes of a phrase we have heard before?) he claims to champion:

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.

And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealised potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

And what is that agenda? What is this “new decree, to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power” that Trump proclaims?

The clear word from his speech was protection, meaning protection from the rest of the world. It is a note against multilateral free trade, but it goes further. Not many of the political leaders who are fighting to maintain post-1945 institutions of global co-operation, including those in the US, are going to enjoy these sentiments:

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward it’s going to be only America first — America first.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and great strength.

In the terrific NPR annotated transcript of Trump’s speech (other news services, take note), Ron Elving draws attention to the difficult connotations of that phrase “America First”.

It was particularly associated with Charles Lindbergh, a right-wing figure who in the 1930s had expressed sympathy and fascination for the German government of Adolf Hitler, especially his air force (Lindbergh made his fame as an aviator). Lindbergh’s doctrine of “America First” meant an isolationist refusal to join the second world war, accompanied by a protectionist economic stance.

Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, published in 2004, explores the hypothetical scenario in which Lindbergh becomes the president in 1940 and New Jersey’s Jewish population shifts to a climate of high fear. There have been many echoes of that fiction in all the fevered speculation about Trump’s motives lately, especially for his links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This is not the place to fuel or debunk such speculation, but its prevalence in public discussion is a very clear pointer to the prevalence of fear and distrust. It seems that more Americans fear and distrust this president on his inauguration day than any other in the history of such opinion polls.

Countering that negativity is the big challenge for Trump, which is why his speech was hard-pressed to avoid talking about it:

The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is unites, America is totally unstoppable.

There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.

As his own opposing and condemning of the previous government makes clear, it will be very hard for Trump to bring his country together in biblical pleasantry. This speech offers no reason to believe he will try.

Meanwhile, a significant problem with focusing on transcripts and their annotations is that we tend to notice the logic of the words more than their delivery. Victor Klemperer wrote in 1947:

What a man says may be a pack of lies – but his true self is laid bare for all to see in the style of his utterances.

Trump’s tone and body language offered a rather subdued version of the personality we have grown used to: less rude, less ribald, even less bombastic than the campaign-trail Donald. There is clearly some measure of self-discipline involved here – and that at least suggests a seriousness of intent.

If you are interested, that same NPR page links to a video recording of the speech. It is well worth watching.

Donald Trump’s inaugural address.

The Conversation

Tom Clark, Associate Professor, College of Arts, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Yemen’s President Resigns as Capital Remains in Hands of Rebels


TIME

Yemen’s embattled President reportedly relinquished power on Thursday amid ongoing turmoil in Sana‘a, the capital, leaving the fate of the highly fractured country unclear.

The Associated Press and Reuters each reported President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s resignation, citing unnamed Yemeni officials. Shi‘ite rebels known as the Houthis had held the city since September while allowing Hadi to remain in his post, but the collapse of negotiations this week prompted violent clashes and led to the seizure of the presidential palace by the Houthis, and Thursday’s reported resignation.

The Yemeni Cabinet also resigned on Thursday as the government’s standoff with the Houthis showed no sign of letting up, despite indications on Wednesday of a deal to accelerate power-sharing reforms. The Houthis now appear to be pulling the strings in Sana‘a.

The turmoil in the capital threatens to further divide the impoverished country, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of…

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Boko Haram Militants Are Back on the Attack in Nigeria as a Presidential Election Looms


TIME

As thousands of supporters clad in the red, white and green of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party thronged the formal launch rally of his reelection campaign in Lagos on Thursday, thousands more were fleeing for their lives in the country’s northeast, where an ongoing militant offensive, launched on Jan. 3, has killed scores. Such twinned scenes of jubilation and carnage are likely to be a regular feature in Nigeria over the coming weeks, as the country gears up for Presidential and general elections on Feb. 14,—even as the Boko Haram militant group gains ground in a campaign that took more than 10,000 lives last year, and has driven more than 1.5 million people from their homes.

Residents of Baga, a small town on the shores of Lake Chad, and some sixteen surrounding villages fled on foot or by boat as members of Boko Haram razed buildings and stalked…

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Sri Lanka’s President Concedes Defeat in a Major Poll Upset


TIME

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa ended a decade in power on Friday, conceding defeat in a midterm election. He didn’t expect to lose, but found himself vacating his residence after polls showed his challenger Maithripala Sirisena with over 51% of the vote, Reuters reported.

Sirisena, a former minister in Rajapaksa’s government, defected to the opposition in November, and used his anticorruption stance as the cornerstone for his campaign.

He pledged that his first act in office would be to weaken the very presidency that had allowed Rajapaksa to consolidate a huge amount of power, and reportedly plans to hold fresh parliamentary elections within 100 days of being sworn in.

Rajapaksa was re-elected in 2010. He initially came to power in 2005, riding a wave of popularity after defeating the Tamil Tigers separatist group and ending the country’s violent civil war, but his administration was dogged by allegations of corruption and…

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