Melania and Barron are staying in New York, and now it’s not even clear that Donald Trump needs to move to the White House to make public policy. All he needs is a smartphone and a Twitter account.
The president-elect has had a pretty good week on Twitter, nixing a backroom deal in Congress that would have defanged an ethics watchdog and nudging Ford Motor Co. to expand in Michigan instead of Mexico.
Why would Trump change what’s working for him? Why heed Tuesday’s advice from top congressional Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer and dispense with this “Twitter presidency”?
Trump has achieved what many leaders have tried: talking around and over the news media and Congress directly to his supporters. Unfiltered to 18.6 million followers. But make no mistake, today’s victories are riddled with risk.
Of course a journalist would say that, you’re thinking. The press doesn’t want to be made irrelevant.
But consider this: Issuing orders by tweet runs the risk of inflaming fear and setting in motion forces that Trump doesn’t intend and can’t control.
The late Italian novelist Umberto Eco listed fascist traits that Trump appears to have in common with former dictator Benito Mussolini: Taking action for action’s sake. Dissent equated to treason. Fear of the other. Appeal to social frustration. Machismo. Selective populism.
Mussolini reigned by means of fear.
What was the motive for Ford’s reversal if not the fear of a threat, which Trump has made repeatedly, that he will attach a 35 percent tariff on products made in Mexico coming into the United States? In public statements, Ford CEO Mark Fields attributed the decision to market forces and called it a “vote of confidence for President-elect Trump.”
Whether he believes the 35 percent tariff will materialize or not, Fields is playing it safe. Trump’s threats hold extra power at the moment, because nobody knows which of his statements he will back up once he gets into office.
House Republicans acted out of fear, as well. When Trump got wind of the plan to gut a congressional ethics panel, he tweeted, “do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog . . . their number one act and priority.”
Within two hours, House GOP leaders held an emergency meeting and dropped the plan.
One has to smile at Trump’s success in reversing this secret backroom deal. Does anyone outside of Congress really want a lighter ethical touch for Washington lawmakers?
But it doesn’t stretch the imagination to think congressional leaders felt threatened. Certainly, 140 characters — or even a string of tweets — isn’t the best way to change minds through logical discourse. The lawmakers kowtowed to power, and that’s worrisome. It doesn’t feel like democracy.
Think of the times when a Trump tweet has not saved jobs or embarrassed Congress but its effect has turned the other way. The president-elect used Twitter in early December to criticize Chuck Jones, a union leader at Indiana’s Carrier plant. Afterward, Jones said he received threats from Trump’s supporters.
The Anti-Defamation League has reported a surge of anti-Semitic tweets directed at journalists, many of them from Trump fans.
In a nod to more traditional communication, Trump has announced that he will hold a news conference next week to talk about separating his private business interests from his new public role.
That’s a step in the right direction. Complex issues like this one deserve more than 140 characters.
Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.