Monday, November 28, 2016

Donald Trump and the bully pulpit

Posted By on Mon, Nov 28, 2016 at 2:22 PM

Yesterday Donald Trump made a public statement, via Twitter, and told a bald-faced lie that millions of people voted illegally, denying him a win in the popular vote (there has been no serious effort by Trump to provide evidence for the claim; he made it up).

You can see the reaction from Arkansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren above, who thinks it's "just amazing how [Trump] can control new cycle and drive libs crazy" via his tweets.

In fact, it's not amazing at all. Trump, thanks to his coming victory in the electoral college, is the president elect of the United States of America. All substantive public statements by POTUS (or in this case, PEOTUS) are newsworthy. There is simply no disputing that. That is the power of the bully pulpit, a power that a leader can use responsibly, or not.

There has been some hand-wringing about the media coverage of Trump's tweets. But it's worth noting that what makes Trump unusual is not the medium, but the content of what he says. A conspiratorial lie about the integrity of American elections (even after he won!) would be equally newsworthy, and repugnant, in the form of a press release, a speech, a post on his website, a televised address, etc. What makes Trump different than other American politicians is not some magical power to control the news cycle. It's a willingness to say outrageous, incendiary garbage that no responsible public official with any self control or moral compass, regardless of political persuasion or party, would dream of uttering (worth noting that when Trump starts these dopey fires, other GOP lawmakers never even try to defend the content of what he says). Or —more likely — it's a childish inability to filter his tantrums. Perhaps that's not the best quality for the leader of the free world.

Public statements from public officials matter; engaged citizens will hear them and the media of course should cover them. If the president says something that no responsible public official would say, yeah, of course it's going to pop up in the news cycle! Yay?

Imagine that President Obama publicly stated, without evidence, that the election was fraudulent and that Clinton had been robbed of millions of votes. That sure would dominate the news cycle and drive folks crazy! But that wouldn't be amazing. It would be terrifying.

For a closer-to-home analogy, it would be easy for Hendren's uncle, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, to dominate the news cycle in Arkansas with a tweet any old time he wants. If Hutchinson tweeted a complete fabrication that hundreds of thousands of illegal votes were cast in Arkansas this year, I promise, the state's media would be all over it, there would be a big controversy, and lots of people would be mad. Thankfully, Hutchinson would never, ever, ever do that because Hutchinson — whatever disagreements one might have with him on policy — is a responsible and competent leader. He's a grown-up who takes his job seriously. Hutchinson could make Trumpian statements and people would have no choice but to pay attention, but he wouldn't do that because it would be stupid, reckless, and bad for Arkansas.

As for driving liberals crazy, it's trivially easy to make your political opponents mad online. One would hope that the president-elect has higher aspirations for the job we've entrusted him with. (Some conservatives seem to believe that if a liberal somewhere thinks something is bad, that something must be good. This seems like a wobbly moral frame, but we'll leave that for another time.)

Trump won the highest office in the land fair and square (even if he apparently says otherwise), and we now have a president elect with an itchy Twitter finger, who is prone to saying stuff that POTUS should not say. That carries risks and consequences that go well beyond the tedious back-and-forth on cable news. Being president is different than being a reality-television personality. "Controlling the news cycle" is different than serving the American people. The public statements that Trump makes, like it or not, will create headlines and can have major real-world impacts at home and around the world. Hopefully voices like Hendren's will be among those ready to object if Trump abuses that awesome power.

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