Donald J. Trump secured the presidency of the United States through a victory in a contentious election. His win was owed to the US Electoral College — not the popular vote. This was the case when George W. Bush won the electoral college over Al Gore’s popular win in 2000 that triggered a contentious recount in Florida. This time, however, it went largely unchallenged and soon forgotten, thanks to the support of Trump’s base that is largely composed of far-right and right-of-center voters.
These groups and voters have given significant legitimacy to Trump and his presidency. They have drowned out the voices of the popular majority that did not elect him and replaced them with those of a vociferous, unapologetic crowd happy to ignore the views of experts, scientists and long-term public servants alike in support of President Trump.
To engage with, serve and grow this support base, Trump has made use of two strategies. The first one is establishing a highly personal, face-to-face visibility in all his activities as president. Trump routinely appears on talk shows, gives live interviews and attends rallies across the country, portraying himself as the best, most popular president in US history, or as “your favorite President (me)” and even “a true Stable Genius.” These public appearances, along with the speeches he regularly delivers, contribute to the euphoria and momentum that characterized his very successful candidacy.
Trump Administration Tries to Rewrite History
The second strategy is maintaining a highly active, virtual presence on social media where Trump continuously reinforces the messages that he delivers in live events and sets the agenda for new topics of discussion. Compared to previous administrations, which have also made use of digital tools to inform about, promote and raise awareness about the work of the president, the White House and the US federal government, Trump has used social media to promote himself and his administration and to influence the national and international agenda to suit his personal interests.
Both strategies have been highly effective. But, undoubtedly, it is the latter which merits and has garnered greater attention from political commentators, analysts and scholars. On the one hand, as Anthony Gaughan, a professor of law at Drake University, writes: “Trump went on to win both the Republican nomination and the general election. How did he do it? The answer is he used his global celebrity and his mastery of modern communications platforms such as Twitter to reach tens of millions of voters virtually for free.”
On the other hand, the novelty of the widespread and persistent use of social media and in particular his preferred tool, Twitter— as a reinforcement for and even replacement of the president’s duties and role as the country’s leader — was previously unseen despite the existence of social media since the late 2000s. Initially, Trump used non-traditional communication tools like social media to earn a spot among Republican Party candidates. Once he outdid the competition and secured the candidacy, he used all his social media channels to crow out and undermine the messages of the Democratic Party’s nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Trump used social media, and especially Twitter, as an instrument for getting replication and support for his agenda, using his followers as an echo chamber for his views and political platform. This is how Trump was able to make up for the initial gap in campaign funding between him and Clinton. As Gaughan writes:
“By November 2016, Trump had thirteen million Twitter followers, millions more than any other candidate. In all, Trump estimated that he had twenty-eight million followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram combined. Trump realized that he could gain free advertising for his campaign by routinely calling into live interviews on cable and network television and by saying controversial and offensive things on his Twitter account, which the cable, broadcast network, and print media rebroadcast without charging Trump a dime. For example, Trump used Twitter’s 140 characters to launch demeaning, attention getting attacks on his opponents, such as calling his opponents names such as ‘Lyin’ Ted,’ ‘Low Energy Jeb,’ ‘Little Marco,’ ‘Crazy Bernie,’ and ‘Crooked Hillary.'”
As research has shown, Trump has also used Twitter for setting the agenda. Numerous times, Trump was able to change the main topics of the national debate and drive focus either toward or away from himself simply by writing a short, but controversial, tweet. Even Trump himself has stated that he regards traditional news outlets that he refers to as “fake news” and as “not as important, or as powerful as Social Media.”
Foreign Policy Twitter
The use of this agenda-setting power by the president is not confined to domestic politics. As the leader of the United States and commander-in-chief of its military forces, Trump has two main responsibilities in relation to the country’s foreign policy. First, guiding its diplomacy by contributing to set the country’s foreign policy priorities and, second, to make responsible (and, hopefully, restrained) decisions in the use of its military abroad. Trump has made an erratic and inconsistent effort, at best, to fulfill these two responsibilities. Much of this behavior results from its unbounded use of Twitter has effectively replaced though-out, carefully weighed guidance of US foreign policy.
Much like with domestic politics, Trump has used Twitter to set the foreign policy agenda. Both as candidate and after taking office, he has used his personal Twitter account to call Mexico “not our friend” of and even, “an enemy” of the US; link the Paris Climate Agreement to riots in France; criticize the Trans-Pacific Partnership, initially calling it “a bad deal” for the US only to later change his rhetoric over and over again; suggest abandoning the North American Free Trade Agreement, calling it “one of the WORST Trade Deals ever made” only to later promote the signing of the United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement (USMCA), at times even in the same tweet; threaten to go to war with Iran; and blame China for the spread of COVID-19 around the world.
Trump has also aimed to increase the presidential or, more specifically, his own power to dictate the use of US military force abroad. For example, in January, Trump ordered the assassination of the Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, for his alleged involvement in the planning of the killing of a US-Iraqi contractor in Iraq and the purported planning of attacks against US nationals in the Middle East. The assassination was launched without even notifying Congress, let alone getting its approval. It was also not consented to by the Iraqi government, which implied that there was no legal basis for killing a foreign military leader, either for protecting US interests abroad or Iraqi nationals, on Iraq’s territory.
Later that month, the US House of Representatives “approved a resolution asserting that Donald Trump must seek approval from Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran, [which reignited the] debate over who has the power to declare war.” Yet in May, Trump vetoed this resolution, calling it “insulting” to the presidency and stating that the US “Constitution recognizes that the president must be able to anticipate our adversaries’ next moves and take swift and decisive action in response. That’s what I did!” Despite Trump’s highly aggressive unilateral actions and his non-committal public attitude before and after the event, his actions on Twitter following the assassination took a much more restrained tone, aimed at rapidly de-escalating events.
According to Garrett Graff, writing for Wired, “it seems possible that the leaders of both Iran and the United States turned to [Twitter] to help ensure that a tense night in the Middle East didn’t escalate into all-out war.” In Graff’s view, just a week after the assassination, Trump engaged in a non-direct diplomatic exchange with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif. Zarif tweeted in English that “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched. We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.” The minister was referring to an attack on a US military base in Iraq from which armed attacks had been carried out against Soleimani and other Iranian government officials.
The tweet also emphasized that Iran did not seek escalation or war. In turn, only some minutes later, Trump tweeted “‘All is well! … I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.” The subtext was clear: We’re not taking this any further; for now, there will be no war. The 13-hour Twitter silence which Trump kept showed that the attempt was to de-escalate tensions by showing the US president’s intent to not take any further, sudden actions against Iran.
This is not the only instance of effective Twitter diplomacy that Trump has conducted. As a social media star-turned-president, Trump understands the value of engaging in non-traditional indirect diplomacy. For instance, despite the rise of multiple scandals involving the presumed intervention of Russian intelligence services in the 2016 US presidential election (and the country’s electoral system in general), Trump does not overtly or continuously criticize Russia, or its president, Vladimir Putin, on Twitter unlike he does with other countries and world leaders.
Instead, Trump is constantly attempting to distance himself from the scandal generated by Russia’s alleged meddling in the election he won. Although to date the scandal is still alive, generating around 10,000 tweets every three days that mention both Trump and Russia. As Matthew Nussbaum writes in Politico, Trump does “not criticise Russia, or voice concern over Vladimir Putin’s attempts to undermine US elections.”
This approach toward Russia and the similar approach that President Trump has taken toward the scandal around Ukraine, as well as the hostility in relation to Iran, show, however, the issues that Trump’s “rule by tweet” foreign policy has created. One of the most visible examples of the very real consequences of Trump’s “digital bursts” is the Turkish currency and debt crisis, which was not directly caused by Trump’s online activity, but which escalated as a result of his tweets — which in turn became official US foreign and trade policy.
The origins of the crisis can be traced back to the detention of Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor from North Carolina, who was accused of being linked to the Gülen movement, which is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey but not the United States or the European Union. Brunson, a US national and long-term resident of Turkey, was accused of supporting both the FETO movement and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU. Brunson had been detained for two years without evidence when the US government decided to impose sanctions on Turkey’s Justice and Interior Ministers for serving “as leaders of Turkish government organizations responsible for implementing Turkey’s serious human rights abuses.”
By August 2018, the US government started to implement growing economic sanctions against Turkey, designed to pressure its government into releasing Brunson. To kickstart the sanctions, President Donald Trump announced, on Twitter, the doubling of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum: “I have just authorized a doubling of Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum with respect to Turkey as their currency, the Turkish Lira, slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar! Aluminum will now be 20% and Steel 50%. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!”
It is not an overstatement to say that, from that moment on, the Turkish lira lost value every time Trump tweeted. The lira “lost a third of its value this year, [plunging] as low as 14 percent to the dollar” in a single day. Although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan certainly further exacerbated the crisis when he suggested that Turks should exchange their dollars, euros or gold “under their pillow … for Turkish lira. It is a national fight,” the crisis had already been set in motion as investors very quickly lost confidence in Turkey’s economy and its repayment capacity, leading its currency to lose significant value, from which it has never recovered.
A Contradiction at Best
Trump’s use of Twitter in relation to US foreign policy has been one of contradictions, at best. On the one hand, Trump is characterized by his erratic, individualistic and self-glorifying attitude toward his responsibilities and powers as president and commander-in-chief. His messages, often delivered as outbursts of activity on Twitter, reflect that. More often than not, he exaggerates and overestimates his capacity as the top decision-maker when he portrays himself as a know-it-all who defends America’s national interests and who needs to consult no one but his inner circle when making decisions of national or global impact.
On the other hand, Trump appears to be a more (although not entirely) restrained diplomat-in-chief. For instance, Trump resumed apparently friendly (or, at the very least, respectful) relations with Justin Trudeau in January, less than a month after Trump called the Canadian prime minister “two-faced” following the release of a video where Trudeau pokes fun at Trump with other world leaders at NATO reception in December 2019. Trump had subsequently called Trudeau “Justin T” and mocked him in return by stating that he “doesn’t much like my making him pay up on NATO or Trade!”
This capacity, and now permissiveness, to bounce back and forth between insulting other world leaders and then praising them for cooperation appears to be a unique feature Trump has skillfully exploited. For these reasons, it is worth reevaluating common perceptions of Trump as an unskilled and irrational populist catapulted into office by a relic of the US electoral system and to see him for what he is: a skilled, well-advised social media phenomenon redefining the way in which US foreign policy is made and exercised — for better or for worse.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.