For some, President Trump’s tweets are immature; others view them to be more reprehensible. After months of incessant tweeting, I look upon them as an intentional tactic from Steve Bannon’s playbook.
Trump’s tweets often provide misinformation as a means to destabilize, divide and ultimately (as Bannon has said) to “deconstruct the administrative state.” I am concerned that the public has become so numb by his tweeting that a new normal may be created. This “new normal” is misguided, as these tweets and many of his policies represent a steady attack on the legitimacy of our democratic institutions.
First, the line between truth and “fake news” increasingly has become blurred. While a healthy skepticism of news is instrumental in a functioning democracy, Trump’s claims of “fake news” have undermined the public’s appreciation of genuine news reporting. He has purposefully misled the public (having tapes of his conversations with then-FBI Director James Comey’s conversations), held on to lies about Barack Obama’s birthplace, made unsubstantiated claims of his achievements and accused Obama of wiretapping. A recent poll found that 60 percent, of Americans said they either have no trust or not very much trust in the Trump administration.
Second, during and after the campaign, Trump attacked the judiciary and made personal attacks against individual judges. He also repeatedly attacked the character of both former FBI directors Comey and Robert Mueller, who is the special prosecutor investigating Russia’s interference in the election.
Third, he has repeatedly attacked the media, one of the underlying institutions that strengthen our democratic system. Not only has Trump declared that national and reputable news outlets provide fake news, he made the significant accusation that the media is the “enemy of the people.” He has used tweets to personally attack individual journalists and has punished those who are critical of him. To a great extent, Trump’s actions demonstrate an implicit attack on the First Amendment.
Fourth, quite surprisingly, Trump has attacked the national intelligence agencies as well as the military. He has refused to accept their collective findings that Russia interfered with the 2016 elections. Indeed, he recently accepted Putin’s claim that he did not interfere with our elections.
Fifth, Trump often has tweeted his unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. He tweeted that millions of voters were bused in to vote. In January, Trump claimed that between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes caused him to lose the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Trump threw the U.S. intelligence community and the local electoral officials under the bus as he quickly accepted Putin’s denial of interference.
Finally, Trump’s tweets are altering the way we think of the office of the president. For generations, the public has separated the office of the president from the individual occupant. One may strongly disagree with the individual, but we all tended to place the office on a higher moral level. That appreciation for the office seems to be changing. Through his tweets and other actions, Trump repeatedly has made xenophobic, anti-religion and sexist comments. His highly charged tweets seem to have normalized anti-democratic values that further undermine the legitimacy of the office of the president.
Trump views these attacks on our institutions as short-term means to shore up his political support among his base. However, the long-term effect of the public’s erosion of the trust and faith in our democratic institutions is profoundly disturbing. Our democratic system intrinsically is based on widespread support of our constitutional institutions. The rules, values and legitimacy of these pillars of our political system must remain intact.
Trump’s “new normal” should not be met with a shrug or a rolling of the eyes. Indeed, they should be seen as an affront to our constitutional democracy. These highly divisive and misleading tweets damage the integrity of these institutions, divide our nation and ultimately breed doubt about our democratic practices.
What can be done to offset Trump’s attempt to foster mistrust with our democratic institutions? Instead of becoming numb to his tweets, we should take them seriously. While we may recognize them as meaningful statements from the president, we also must continue to uphold the historical values of our democratic institutions. We must come together by refuting these incredulous attacks on our institutions and work harder to maintain their integrity.
Howard Lehmanis a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Utah.