Anyone concerned about social ethics and the health of America’s political system will likely be glued to television screens, following the vicissitudes of the Trump presidency. With the impeachment process racing headlong towards an as-yet-unknown conclusion, it may be a propitious time to step back for a moment and take the long view regarding a more fundamental question for our polity than “who said what and when” in the course of certain deal-making with Ukrainian parties last summer. Even after the end of the Trump presidency, how will we talk with one another? Specifically, exposed as it is by twit and twitter, how will the conduct of public affairs shape the style and content of American public discourse as we recover from the Trump era?
I choose the word “recover” quite deliberately. By their own admission, many Trump supporters admire the way this president represents disruption—a flaunting of convention that upends what many expect of our political leaders. But even “disruption enthusiasts” will acknowledge the inevitable necessity of a recovery, a return to some kind of equilibrium after expectations have been overturned. Pundits have already begun to speculate about the political scars that will remain on our body politic after the current constitutional crisis is resolved, however that occurs. What can we say about the aftereffects of the current “crisis of communication” in the public arena? From what wounds will we need to recover and how, given the unknown shape and severity of the scars that linger after this moment of disruption?
Our answers must consider precisely how Trump has used his media spotlight, and specifically his Twitter account, in unprecedented ways for an executive. While there is no space here to begin to describe the novel elements in the 45th president’s employ of social media, I direct readers to ample data contained in a special section of the New York Times on Sunday, November 3. The overall title of a ten-page pullout section is “The Twitter Presidency,” recommended sub-sections are “How Trump Uses Social Media to Transform the Government” and “Office of Presidency Transformed by the Force of Thousands of Tweets.” Beyond dispute is the empirical data of this careful and well-documented report: Trump has indeed endorsed racist positions and perpetuated discredited conspiracy theories in the course of tweeting thousands of times since taking office. A demonstrable fact is that more than half of his tweets contain attacks on people and things he dislikes—a recent and egregious case is his November 15 broadsides against career diplomat Maria Yovanovitch, played out in real time at the very moment when she was testifying before a congressional committee about her ouster from her ambassadorial position in Kiev. One could quibble about the appropriate adjectives employed to characterize the cumulative effect of Trump’s social media presence (the Times called it “noxious”), yet, regardless of the relation between claims made and the verifiable facts of situations treated, a considered ethical analysis of the long-term effects for public discourse would have a hard time portraying this barrage of personal attacks as anything but corrosive of constructive public discourse.
Beyond the toll that these developments exact upon political institutions and the damage to personal and professional relationships, the continuation of a “Twitter Presidency” threatens the cogency and effectiveness of public policy in general, and international relations above all. For example, U.S. trade policy is built upon a foundation of trust with our global trading partners; with the stakes for prosperity so high, there is really no place for caprice and disruption as the world’s economies plan for mutually beneficial investment, production, and exchange. Trump’s ongoing trade war with China—announced and conducted largely through his Twitter account—is the opposite of conventional and constructive trade policy, which has long emphasized gradualism, predictability and multilateral negotiated agreements. Seemingly determined to spread the wreckage of impulsiveness to our own hemisphere, on December 2 this President tweeted out a new trade war with Brazil and Argentina, including the imposition of unprecedented tariffs on steel and aluminum originating from these two major trading partners. Even if we leave the evaluation of what constitutes effective trade policy to professional economists, anyone with an eye on the ethics of public communication will disapprove of how these messages are delivered. Trust is broken; relationships are sundered; all parties lose.
If recent presidential communications are dominated by the airing of grievances and the spreading of divisiveness, the even worse news (though, hardly news to anyone with an internet connection) is that these disturbing trends transcend the strategies of any branch of government or any single public actor. We swim in a sea of viral rancor, divisiveness, and outright deception. Two weeks after the analysis of Trump’s tweeting activities, the New York Times dedicated the entirety of its weekly magazine (“Tech & Design,” Nov. 17, 2019) to a series of feature articles on “The Future of the Internet.” The magazine sported the haunting cover caption “So the Internet Didn’t Turn Out the Way We Hoped” and made for some dispiriting reading. Cyber-bullying, e-trolling, facilitating the rise of hate groups and conspiracy theories—many are the dashed hopes for a medium that once held the promise of bringing people together and overcoming the barriers of geography and social divides. The state of our dominant communication techniques, recently developed as they are, might lead us to despair of ever being able to reestablish genuine dialogue based on a shared set of values or even of factual premises from which a conversation might begin.
Ethicists are rarely satisfied merely to describe deep social problems, rather we dare to press forward in the quest for amelioration. At our best, we do more than hold out hopes for a return to some supposed golden age when things were better. There is no going back to “simpler times” when, for example, liberals and conservatives relied on the same media outlets or when members of Congress socialized together across the aisle and built a reservoir of good will that supported bipartisan initiatives. But if we will ever again reap the benefits of sharing a modicum of civility and the possession of a common frame of reference, we will have to address the matter of how we communicate in the public sphere. While we should expect no magic formula or silver spoon, any progress in bridging ideological divides and discovering mutually beneficial public action will require a rekindling of good habits and disciplined practices—including a commitment to dialogue, even with “difficult conversations.”
American public life currently possesses too few fora for structured conversations where claims can be aired and adjudicated in ways that are fair and respectful to all. The internet, and especially the blogosphere and “Twitter sphere,” has turned out to be a toxic dead end for respectful discourse. Commentary offered from behind the veil of anonymity is generally the worst of all, but even signed postings can resemble a juvenile food fight of bottomless rancor and endless retaliation. If the Trump communication machine is a case study for what presidents should not do in the future, what should replace it? The best start I can imagine would be to reinstate the practice of regular White House press briefings. A broader and more ambitious proposal would be to adopt an effective mechanism for moderating or curating the content of Twitter, YouTube, and other open platforms—although any gatekeeping reforms will admittedly meet resistance in any society with a rightful aversion to restraint of free speech. While I would doubt the wisdom of any legislation that prohibits outright the use of social media by government officials, any candidate for public office who promised restraint (or even total abstinence) in the use of Twitter would certainly enhance his or her appeal to voters who are horrified like me by the displays of divisiveness, ugliness, and sheer pettiness associated with the Trump presidency. Self-restraint or even the emergence of a candidate for the presidency who would exhibit a modicum of impulse control, may be a preferable strategy to frame legislative acts of communicative morality.
The “Twitter Presidency” may be effective at generating outrage and riling up the base, but it is hardly good for America in both the long and the short run. What we most need today are creative proposals for renewing and rebuilding our patterns of public communication distorted by social media outlets run amok. We may find some measure of hope by looking to the history of American media, characterized by frequent and massive innovations—one might even say disruptions. Further, we need not rely on social media ingénues to usher in the needed changes. Placing America back on a trajectory of responsible social communication will require at least three things: imagination, political will, and the development of virtuous practices that may be as close as the nearest keyboard.
 Mike McIntire and Nicholas Confessore, “The Twitter Presidency,” New York Times, Nov 2, 2019.
 See also Ana Swanson, “Trump Says U.S. Will Impose Metal Tariffs on Brazil and Argentina,” New York Times, December 2, 2019.
Jake Silverstein, ed., So, the Internet Didn’t Turn Out the Way We Hoped. Now What? New York Times Magazine, The 11.17.19 Issue.