THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE
A few days before Donald Trump launched his Twitter attack threatening to cancel Boeing’s Air Force One contract, he let loose on American companies with foreign factories. They will be punished, he typed. “There will be a tax on our soon to be strong border of 35 percent for these companies.”
That was Sunday morning at 5:57 a.m.
Hours earlier, Trump tweeted his thoughts on “Saturday Night Live,” which featured Alec Baldwin’s devastating parody of the next president. Trump was not amused, and evidently felt the nation should know his umbrage. “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live — unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad.”
For the record, we think Baldwin’s comedic take on Trump is hilarious, but we’d understand if Baldwin retired the act. When it comes to playing an obtuse, self-obsessed media hound, Trump has overrun the material. He’s a self-parody machine. The next president is not just comedy gold, he is — at times — comedy.
“I think I’m very restrained,” Trump said on television Wednesday, without irony, responding to Matt Lauer’s “Today” show question about the appropriateness of the next commander-in-chief acting as TV critic-in-chief.
There hasn’t been a president in our memory like Trump: unrestrained and impetuous — a font of ideas and unafraid to express whatever pops into his head. That combination, face it, helped win the presidency because it announced that he will shake up the country. In his unvarnished tweets, supporters see a champion. All others see trouble. Words, especially those communicated by a president, have consequences.
There’s been the suggestion that someone should take away Trump’s smartphone: Let the communications professionals run his Twitter account. We don’t expect he’ll heed that advice. He’s a canny marketer who sees the power of social media to reach the American public without the news media’s filter. Twitter, he told Lauer, “is a modern-day form of communication.” He’s right. One long-ago president was the first to embrace radio (it was Calvin Coolidge), and Trump is on his way to becoming the first true social media president.
That does not mean he should be free to tweet, or speak, without repercussions or media scrutiny. He will be held accountable. Since Election Day, he’s toned down his most incendiary rhetoric, but he’s still rash and reckless. Critiquing Baldwin made Trump look petty and disrespectful of the First Amendment. Tweeting free-style verse on the economy caused a scare in the boardrooms of the Fortune 500. What happens, after Inauguration Day, when Trump picks his first Twitter fight with a foreign leader?
Presidents command attention, and Trump will use his digital bully pulpit. But in the end he is no different than anyone else on Twitter. He’s free to say what he wants, but he has to continually earn the respect of followers.
This editorial appeared in The Chicago Tribune. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.