Why Donald Trump's bizarre Twitter tirades are more than a mere distraction

From feuds with the cast of popular musicals to serious allegations of voter fraud, Trump's win has done little to moderate his Twitter etiquette...

Why Donald Trump's bizarre Twitter tirades are more than a mere distraction

Image: Donald J Trump via Twitter

Any hopes - or indeed fears - that becoming President-elect would moderate Donald Trump’s more inflammatory comments have proven unfounded.

After a relatively quiet and even sensible first couple of days after the election, the last fortnight or so has seen Mr Trump embark on several unusual Twitter tirades. He has continued his long-standing war against the New York Times and CNN; he has gotten involved in a dispute with the cast members of hit musical Hamilton after they directly but politely addressed Vice President-elect Mike Pence after a show; he made provocative comments about the controversial settlement to his Trump University lawsuit. In one of the more amusing incidents, he caused a minor international incident after suggesting UKIP's Nigel Farage should be appointed as Britain's ambassador to the US. Much more seriously, he made the rather outrageous - and seemingly unfounded - claim that ‘millions of people voted illegally’ in the election.

Picture by Matt Rourke AP/Press Association Images

One interesting suggestion that (re)emerged in the wake of the Hamilton incident in particular is that Trump’s bizarre tweets are a ‘distraction’ from other issues. It’s not an entirely new suggestion, of course: during the election itself, many commentators observed that Trump would say something outrageous in order to draw attention to himself and guarantee his continued dominance of headlines. Or, in some cases, he’d say something bizarre to push a more potentially damaging story down the news agenda. It’s fair to say it was, intentionally or otherwise, an effective strategy - even if, as ever with Trump, it’s hard to determine the line between incredibly clever planning and pure in-the-moment impulse. There may not even be a line.

As the Hamilton ‘feud’ whipped up a social media - and indeed actual media - frenzy, Trump was facing scrutiny over issues such as his controversial administration choices and the unprecedented ‘conflicts of interest’ he will bring to the White House. Those were complex, nuanced stories requiring in-depth reporting - no surprise a truly silly, accessible story with a pop-culture twist caught more people’s attention on every side of the political spectrum.

It also happened only a day after the settlement in the Trump University case - described by the New York Attorney General as "a stunning reversal by Donald Trump and a major victory for the over 6,000 victims of his fraudulent university". Again, the US President-elect’s involvement in a “fraudulent university” is a big story in itself - although if he was deliberately trying to draw attention away from it with his silly Hamilton quarrel, he did a pretty bad job by tweeting directly about the settlement anyway.

The Hamilton incident, however, comes closest to being a frivolous distraction of the recent controversies. There were indeed more significant stories it managed to muscle in ahead of. At the same time, though, it did raise some noteworthy concerns about the President-elect.

The Constitution is treated very literally and seriously by most Americans (just look at the whole gun rights issue), and ‘freedom of expression’ is the very first right amendment guaranteed within it. The incoming commander-in-chief demanding an apology after a group of people respectfully expressed that right is an ominous sign of how he views and responds to even polite dissent. Such concerns were hardly allayed by his preposterous tweet this week suggesting anybody burning an American flag should be jailed or stripped of their citizenship. 'Freedom of expression'? Not so much.

The sheer inconsistency of some of Trump's tweets is also noteworthy. Take, for example, two tweets about the post-election protests that were posted mere hours apart - there are legitimate concerns about how such contradictions will ultimately translate to actual policy.

'Voter fraud'

Even in his most clearly outrageous or silly Twitter moments, Trump’s actions are cause for concern and criticism. But some of his social media actions are entirely deserving of the headlines. Exhibit A:

This Tweet goes well beyond being a cause for mockery and dismissal. If it's meant as a distraction, it's a really bad one.

On the most basic level, it shows a thin-skinned man who is very clearly bitter about Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win. Very few people, not even his former rival, will dispute that Trump won the election fair & square based on the electoral college system - and the odds of the ongoing recounts throwing up anything to reverse that win are incredibly slim (acknowledged by Clinton campaign counsel Marc Elias himself, who also highlighted the only reason they’re participating is because the recount is happening anyway). 

It’s clear from tweets like this that Mr Trump himself is a sore winner, which is rarely an admirable quality in a leader - or anybody for that matter.

Worse again, though, is the claim about illegal voters. Now, as is often the case with Trump’s more preposterous claims, there was no evidence or context offered for his allegation. Maybe he has access to information thousands upon thousands of officials, security experts, election analysts, journalists etc… don’t. But without any indication to the contrary, we have to assume he’s referring to something such as the widely debunked report - originating from a single tweet - claiming up to 3 million people voted illegally. 

That a President-elect would Tweet such a conspiratorial, unverified allegation is pretty much unprecedented (although given the youthfulness of Twitter and social media, there’s not much history to draw on). That he is effectively questioning the legitimacy of the very election he won is beyond bizarre. But it also raises very serious concerns about his ability to critically analyse and engage with information and the media - again, an alarming characteristic for an incoming ‘leader of the free world’.

After the claim’s dubious accuracy was widely covered in the media - and debunked as conclusively as it can be given the data available - Trump simply took to Twitter to quote a few random users, adding brief editorial comments of his own. His target in particular was CNN’s Jeff Zeleny. “Pathetic - you have no sufficient evidence that Donald Trump did not suffer from voter fraud, shame!”, one teenager wrote. “Bad reporter,” Trump added himself when retweeting the comment. But the obvious problem is there is not a single shred of evidence of Trump suffering from voter fraud - and until that is made available (assuming, generously, that it even exists), then his allegation needs to be treated as spurious and dangerous. It is, by any reasonable standard, a baseless suggestion.

Distrust in ‘the media’ is at an all-time high, and certainly no outlet has proven themselves immune from criticism. The bloody nose the ‘MSM’ received will hopefully lead to some self-inspection and higher standards in the future. The Washington Post did some stellar reporting during the election, but even in recent days has - as The Intercept argues convincingly - let some dubious stories through, so distrust is warranted where appropriate. 

At the same time, basic journalistic standards exist for a reason. The rise and effectiveness of undeniably ‘fake news’ is a major concern - and to see such information circulated by the President-elect himself is a worrying omen, especially when it is consumed without question by many people. It could have very worrying consequences. As David A Graham argues in The Atlantic: "[It] may yet ripen into an utter lack of faith in the system, or sprout into an attempt to pass stricter voting laws that disenfranchise minority voters in the name of stopping an illusory problem.”

File photo of voters during the US election. Picture by Elise Amendola AP/Press Association Images

Donald Trump’s Twitter feed in recent weeks has been fascinating to behold. Occasionally, it does portray a President-elect as you’d expect - news of appointments here, a policy video there. Only today he announced his intention to separate himself from his business interests. But for the most part it is the unfiltered Donald Trump we have always known: purveyor of conspiracy theories; holder of grudges; publisher of disinformation; occasional Internet troll.

There’s no doubt Donald Trump’s presidency is going to keep the media busy over the next four years and beyond, well beyond his tweets. One can only assume - foolishly, maybe - that his tweets will finally be moderated to some degree when he's in the Oval Office. There’s already been plenty of stories deserving of coverage and scrutiny, and social media disputes with cast members of popular musicals is down the list. There'll almost certainly be plenty more controversies, major and minor, as is the case with any President, let alone one as outspoken and divisive as the incoming one. But as outrageous and ridiculous as his Twitter feed can be, Donald Trump's tweets nonetheless continue to serve as the primary public communications of the next US President - and for that reason they are much more than a mere distraction.