Sticks and Stones

How Donald Trump’s Presidential Tweets Will Quash Dissent—and Maybe Worse

We’re in uncharted territory. Even Richard Nixon didn’t make a public display of his enemies list.

It’s now pretty obvious that Donald Trump is going to keep tweeting to his heart’s content even after he’s sworn in as president, firing away at journalists and union leaders and whoever else displeases him in the moment. I’ve been trying to think through the grim ramifications of this.

Let’s start by agreeing (I hope) that this is yet another norm of presidential behavior that Trump is going to stomp on. No president in my memory has ever done anything like this. Maybe here and there, a president groused publicly about a bigfoot columnist or the head of a big organization that opposed his agenda. But no president serially singled out people with invective and abuse, opening that person to cascades of harassment. Nixon at least kept his enemies list secret. Trump’s is as public as you can get, and it expands by the week.

There may be no real consequences to this. I guess a Trump defender would say: “hey, Warren G. Harding used the new medium of radio, Dwight Eisenhower television, so can’t Trump tweet?”

That is a bullshit argument. He can tweet. Barack Obama tweets. He just doesn’t tweet “the Walton family are a bunch of anti-worker goons who hate America and love China” or “Sean Hannity’s failing show is totally corrupt,” just as Warren Harding didn’t go on the radio and call Eugene Debs schoolyard names.

No, what Trump is doing is different and is dragging us deeper into the gutter. And it is potentially dangerous. All you have to do is look at the Pizzagate insanity to see how all it takes is one person with a gun. If you read that interview Edgar Maddison Welch, the Pizzagate gunman, gave to the Times Thursday, you saw that he doesn’t seem insane at all and apparently isn’t an intense political partisan. He’s just a guy who got worked up some wacko fake stuff he read.

So what might happen if Trump keeps tweeting out abuse directed at individual citizens, doxing enemies and promoting conspiracy theory about them once he’s the President of the United States?

In the most lurid case, Trump could get somebody shot. If a bartender can be convicted of manslaughter for serving up too many shots to a patron who gets blotto and drives home and kills a pedestrian, can a person who seemed to encourage violence with his rhetoric be held accountable if someone else goes out and commits that violence?

Probably not, legally. Words are different than serving someone drinks. Words are speech, and speech is protected. Assuming Trump doesn’t go full Henry II and say the equivalent of his famous words about Thomas a Becket (“will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”), it would be hard for any prosecutor to build a case. Hard but not impossible—it would depend on Trump’s exact words and exactly how the person who carried out the deed interpreted them, among other factors. Besides, what prosecutor would bring such a case against a sitting president?

But… step back for a minute and think about what it means that we’re even talking about this. And while I admit it’s a little bit far-fetched, it’s not nearly as far-fetched as one would prefer it to be. If Alex Jones and others could motivate this Pizzagate guy to drive 350 miles and shoot up a pizza parlor, it’s not at all crazy to think that a president could have an equal hold over a person’s imagination.

And even if the worst doesn’t happen, it’s a certainty that the person on the business end of Trumpian abuse will face days or weeks or months of harassment and threats. What would that mean, for a president to be orchestrating threats toward an individual citizen? Under the Constitution, Congress is not allowed to pass bills of attainder—laws aimed at punishing one individual or group of individuals. But Trump’s not Congress and a tweet is not a law, so I guess it’s open season constitutionally. But a tweet is “just speech,” and the First Amendment applies to everyone, even presidents with God-help-us personality disorders.

I don’t think Trump should lose his First Amendment rights. I don’t think Twitter should ban him, as has been discussed recently. God knows, if it should ban him, it should certainly ban half of the people who tweet at me about my columns, who use language far viler than Trump’s (hey, come to think about it...).

What I do think is that we ought to have a president who doesn’t behave like a child. Who understands the responsibility of the office. Who maybe also by the way has a First Lady who can tell him firmly when to stop. We certainly don’t have the first two things, and we appear not to have the third.

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The risk of violence aside, the other danger of President Trump’s tweets is this: He will use it, as he already has, to mobilize mob opinion. Not public opinion. Mob opinion. They’re different things. A public deliberates and seeks a result. A mob has its mind made up already and wants what it calls “justice” or “revenge.” Big difference.

And it will silence critics and dissenters. Maybe Chuck Jones, the Indiana labor leader, will skate away from this set-to none the worse for wear. But after Trump critics watch a half dozen or so presidential eruptions and the week of media hell that follows, how many people are going to think twice before they rebuke him?

And so Trump brings us one step closer to Dear Leader-dom. No one has to get shot for the republic to end up on life support.