Commentary

Trump's Twitter Trade War

Speaking of the unintended consequences of technology -- which I do, a lot -- Trump is launching a trade war via Twitter. Actually, it’s not so much the launching of the trade war that is unintended. Trump seems pretty intent on that. It’s the way that this particular war may play out that may hold a few new twists. We’ve never had a president like Trump. And we’ve never had major policy dictated through a communication medium restricted to a relative handful of characters.

We -- the we being Canada – are directly in Trump’s cross-hairs on this one. And it doesn’t even seem to be the entire country. It’s our prime minister, Justin Trudeau. He is “dishonest” and “weak,” according to one Twitter tirade.

Trump felt “betrayed” by Trudeau after the recent G7 Summit and chastised him for being “mild and meek” -- which is somewhat ironic, because this whole incident was catalyzed by Trudeau saying that Canada would not be “pushed around” by Trump and the imposition of tariffs.

When it comes to the trade war itself, I obviously have a Canadian perspective -- but that’s not the point of this column. Instead, I'd like to discuss the largely unprecedented use of a digital communication medium and its potential impact on world politics.

Twitter is a communication medium with  some very distinct characteristics. The biggest of these is that it's a medium built for celebrities. It very much depends on Metcalfe's Law, which states that the effect of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.

This law usually applies to the network itself, but in this case, it can also apply to a single user account. Just as one phone is useless, a Twitter account with one follower is similarly not of much use. Celebrities love using Twitter because it quantifies their popularity: The more followers you have, the more import your tweets carry.

Trump has just north of 52 million followers. That is a lot of power. Not as much as Katy Perry (110 million) or the Biebs (107 million) but, you know, consequential. Certainly more than that lame-ass, Justin Trudeau, at a paltry 4.2 million. Trump’s Twitter button is much bigger than Trudeau’s.

Trump says he loves Twitter because it gives him a communication end runaround the “dishonest” media. But what it really does is gives him a way of communicating what he knows will be amplified by that same media. We are in a surreal world where whatever seems to be on the President’s mind is communicated instantly and without any type of filter to 52 million people -- and then the world scrambles to react. That effect is catnip to a person obsessed with celebrity and personal power. Damn the politics involved.

Here in Canada, it’s been alarming but also morbidly amusing to hear media pundits trying to parse this latest fusillade from POTUS. The word “unprecedented” is heard a lot, and the end result always seems to be just short of saying WTF on the air. There is a lot of head-scratching happening everywhere.

I suspect the same thing is also happening in the backrooms and hallways of Ottawa, as they try to craft a measured and reasonable response to what was astonishingly unmeasured and unreasonable.

I just had a somewhat surprisingly reasonable conversation with someone who said this very behavior was the main reason he voted for Trump. This guy appreciated the unfiltered approach after far too many years of typical political doublespeak.

While I don’t share his political view, I can appreciate the Trump supporter's logic. He made his points clearly and intelligently. From our conversation, I gained some understanding into the “why” of Trump’s America.

But the point is, we had a conversation. I sat across a table from him and we shared our thoughts in the way that humans are supposed to. That understanding wouldn’t have happened if we were communicating through Twitter. It would have ended with both of us pissed off after the first round of tweets.

Trump also loves Twitter because it’s the medium of the last word. He always gets it. It hangs there in the ether, triggering an inevitable ripple effect, as Trump moves on to his next thought. That’s the way his mind works.

It’s why he rips up every memo and document when he’s done with it, even though Presidents are not supposed to do that. It’s his way of saying, “Trump has spoken, now let it be so.”

My biggest fear is that this might work for Trump, at least in the short term. He seems to be pushing the world to respond in kind. I’ve written before about the Overton Window: the moving frame of what’s acceptable in society.

Trump seems to be moving this particular window to the point that what was once unthinkable is now becoming business as usual. And when the stakes are as high as they are here, that’s a very frightening thought. Twitter was never intended to be a tool of diplomacy or policy communication. It’s a way to stroke our own ego. We need the leaders of the world having conversations, not posturing through 280-character missives.

1 comment about "Trump's Twitter Trade War".
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  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 13, 2018 at 7:05 p.m.

    Twitting is a "one way conversation" whether anyone likes it or not.

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