The Trump administration is at an inflection point. While major achievements are already being taken for granted, questions and not successes seem to dominate the political scene little more than a year out from the 2020 elections. Will any of The Art of the Deal author’s current and anticipated international negotiations bear fruit? Who gives first, Chairman Xi or American farmers and Wal-Mart? Will there be any pre-election improvement over the Administration’s thin gruel on health insurance that cost so many House seats in 2016? Who is in charge at the Department of Justice, which is to say why, for example, is Christopher Wray still being allowed to deflect and derail the Attorney General’s expressed determination to clean house after the Russia collusion conspiracy? As far as the economy is concerned, it remains to be seen whether touting the same rosy statistics (known in Beltway Republican Speak as “getting our message out on the economy”) or summoning up recessionary demons is the more compelling.
Donald Trump does not have exclusive control over these matters. However, as Marketer-in-Chief, he can control how well he influences hesitant voters who, if won over and added to his solid base, will deliver a decisive victory. This includes the educated suburban woman who can’t abide the President’s manners and big talk, but who is becoming uncomfortable about reports of MS- 13 sightings at the Olde Shoppes at North Pointe Mall. It includes the assistant personnel manager fully-sensitized to power issues in the workplace – and his bro, the marketing VP with a tasteful man-bun – prone to “give back” in the Run for Whatever, but who can’t deny that things are looking up at work. Then there are, of course, the black and Hispanic workers experiencing not incipient economic catastrophe, but good times. It is these more than the 40% of us who value Mr. Trump’s disruption of the established order of things who need to be addressed – carefully.
Never-Trumpers’ and Democrats’ steady barrage of Tweet complaints persist, ( I dare you to suffer through this whole linked podcast) but it is the partisans defending the president’s tweeting who actually make the best case for why he needs to change his Twitter act. They argue that Trump’s loyal supporters welcome the tweets and are energized by them – including the colloquial tone and the ridicule directed at the deserving pompous and self-righteous. They claim that the tweets are the only reliable corrective action available to Mr. Trump for counteracting the false charges, distortions, and omissions of the Resistance media and Democrats. Finally, Twitter is rightly considered as a powerful tool Trump wields to dominate, if not control, the daily news cycle.
All these being true, it is essential as far as presidential tweeting is concerned that Mr. Trump get a refresher on opportunity costs. As Chicago School stalwart Frank Knight put it: “The cost of any alternative (simple or complex) chosen is the alternative that has to be given up.” David Henderson, in the Library of Economics and Liberty entry on the subject, provides a simple example: “If … you spend time and money going to a movie, you cannot spend that time at home reading a book, and you cannot spend the money on something else. “So when Trump indulges himself in an off-the-cuff repetitive, fatuous, defensive, awkward, crude or easily misinterpreted tweet he is forgoing at that moment a more effective (the economists would say efficient) one. And in light of the strong arguments for, and therefore high value of, the president’s exploiting social media in the first place, this opportunity cost is, accordingly, very high in campaign terms.
It has nothing to do with the dignity of the office. The country would be better off all around with a little less presidential aura. The problem is that Trump can’t afford to be so casual about tweeting because he really is out there all by himself. This president is not afraid to charge this or that objective, but the sad fact is that usually when he looks over his shoulder, he is all by himself. For example, Fox News’s anchors for the most part reflexively apply the same easy formulations and assumptions of their anti-Trump competitors to most stories before setting up the formulaic contending minuet of talking heads. The uniformity of the news narrative means that if there is to be a more accurate characterization or compelling perspective it has to come from Trump himself – or whatever Deputy Public Affairs Assistant for Tweets he employs.
It is often said that strategy is for amateurs, and yet rhetorical strategy is exactly what the president needs to apply to his tweeting. A content analysis of the negative terms Trump uses most commonly in his tweets is instructive. Just as an example, if applied theoretically to the supercilious and lousy off-the-cuff Kamala Harris, none of the 51 terms Trump most commonly uses are likely to become an albatross she can’t shake, nor prompt much useful negative political talk or sloganeering about her. But “Smug Kamala,” or “Shifty take-it-back because I misunderstood the question Kamala,” would stick and more likely prompt further media talk. Or take a recent tweet on the Fed: “The USA should always be paying the lowest rate. No Inflation! It is only the naïveté of Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve that doesn’t allow us to do what other countries are already doing. A once in a lifetime opportunity that we are missing because of ‘Boneheads.’” How much better to invoke the idea that all Americans are engaged in a do-or-die struggle with China; patriotic farmers are doing their part, and the Fed needs to do the same?
Anticipating all you commenters taking me to task for my presumption, I can only add that I am eminently qualified to tell Donald Trump how to do his job. You see, as the old Yiddish joke goes: If I were Donald Trump I’d be richer than Donald Trump because I would do a little teaching on the side.