This past week, years-long tensions over the rather peculiar Twitter feed of the president of the United States reached a boiling point. President Donald Trump, of late, has been engaged in a rather sordid and baseless bit of social media mudslinging about popular cable host Joe Scarborough's purported involvement in the death of a congressional aide from many years ago.
The colorful, off-the-cuff tweeting proclivities of Donald J. Trump have been under a microscope for years. Many expected those habits to change when then-private citizen Trump descended that golden escalator in Trump Tower to announce his presidential run; they did not. Many expected those habits to change when then-candidate Trump secured the GOP presidential nomination; they did not. And many expected those habits to change when then-nominee Trump was elected to the most powerful political office in the world; they did not.
Yet, nearly three and a half years into Trump's first term, the president's coarse, trigger-happy tweeting thumbs continue to drive news cycles and spawn national discussions. Countless pundits, consultants and blue checkmarks, oblivious to the old axiom about old dogs and new tricks, still endeavor to help correct his course. And Twitter itself, fed up with Trump's alleged spouting off of coronavirus-related "misleading claims" on its platform, this week decided for the first time to add "fact checks" to two presidential tweets. Perhaps in partial response, as this column was being filed, Trump was expected to sign an executive order targeting large social media companies over their transparent anti-conservative biases.
It is all too easy to conflate the issues at play here: the parochial issue of the president's uncouth social media antics, on the one hand, and the substantive issue of the 21st-century role of large technology companies in all our lives, on the other hand. But we must keep these issues disentangled from one another. And influencers shaping the daily news cycle, not to mention voters making their ballot decisions this fall, ought to solely focus on the latter.
There is, simply put, no upside to fixating upon the president's tweeting habits. No one in the pro-Trump community will ever be disabused of their loyalty upon a soberer contemplation of the various objections raised by leftists and never-Trump Republicans. Likewise, no one in either the left-wing or (numerically insignificant) never-Trump commentariat classes will ever abandon their flank upon a closer consideration of Trump's relatively straightforward calculus for using Twitter as he does: as an effective method to evade the filtering lens of biased media outlets and communicate his message straight to prospective voters.
But lack of persuasive power aside, there is a far more important reason not to dwell upon the president's tweeting habits: by and large, it just does not matter. Whatever objections may have been raised about Trump's Twitter back in 2016 have, as an empirical matter, surely fallen by the wayside at this point. Whatever moral "stain" there may have initially been is, at this point, a sunk cost and ought to not affect future decision-making. Furthermore, to the extent those in 2016 were concerned about tangible geopolitical harms resulting from the president occasionally firing off tweets like a drunken sailor, those fears, too, have been allayed; there is zero evidence to suggest that a single world leader has changed his/her personal relation to the president, or strategic relation with the United States, based upon Trump's Twitter. On the contrary, Trump's substantively hardheaded foreign policy has only emboldened our allies and quelled our foes -- a much-welcome course correction from the utterly dilapidated Obama-era status quo ante.
To ignore the substantive issues facing the republic and focus, let alone vote, on the president's salacious tweeting thumb is to act in remarkably shortsighted fashion. It is just as feckless as it is silly.
Certainly, one of those substantive issues that can, and should, be discussed is the role of large technology companies in our lives. Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith, for example, recently set the internet ablaze with a provocative co-written essay calling for a much heavier governmental role in regulating private companies' online speech. Nascent federal antitrust enforcement action against Silicon Valley behemoth Google has truly blockbuster potential. And more generally, conservatives have every right to complain about underhanded tactics and biased algorithms from censorious platforms like Twitter.
But we ought to keep the debate centered on substance. The stakes this fall are high -- and the president's Twitter feed will not appear on the ballot.