In the six weeks since his election, President-elect Donald Trump has already upended decades of US-China policy, sent the stocks of US companies and entire sectors plunging, and contradicted decades of constitutional precedent. And he's done it with messages no longer than 140 characters.
In the hands of someone intent on promoting himself as a change-agent, Twitter is proving to be an enormously powerful tool. But because each message is too short to include any context – not even the aural or visual clues of a regular political speech – citizens, businesses, the media, politicians on both sides of the aisle, and foreign leaders are struggling to figure out what they mean.
It's a tall order. Some Trump tweets are probably aimed to confuse rather than enlighten. But a key idea, according to conservatives who have followed him the longest, is that you have to understand the man before you can understand his tweets.
Once stock traders and journalists, politicians and voters begin to get a bead on the former, they'll stop hyperventilating each time he blows Twitter smoke.
“Don’t take Trump’s tweets at face value,” writes Gerard Lameiro, a retired Hewlett-Packard executive and now author and commentator on conservative talk shows. “Look for the deeper context and meaning.”
How real is @realDonaldTrump?
Start with the basics: Not all Trump tweets have the same context. In fact, not all the tweets from @realDonaldTrump are from the real Donald Trump.
In April, Trump acknowledged at a CNN town hall that his campaign sends out information under his Twitter handle.
By summer, analysts had discerned a pattern: Trump tweets sent from an iPhone probably came from campaign staffers; the angrier, less polished tweets typically coming from an Android-based smartphone are almost certainly from Mr. Trump himself, concluded David Robinson, a data scientist at Stack Overflow, in an August analysis of Trump tweets. (Twitter’s default web client doesn’t normally display the information, but a Twitter program like TweetDeck does.)
Partisan politics can explain much of the bickering over the meaning of Trump’s tweets. But there are some audiences for which politics takes a backseat, Wall Street being the most obvious example. So how does Wall Street evaluate Trump tweets?
Wall Street's reaction
The stock market has generally supported the prospect of a Trump administration, rising more than 5 percent since Election Day. But in the past two weeks, Trump tweets have sent share prices plunging in some sectors, at least temporarily.
For example: Before the market opened on Dec. 6, Trump’s Android smartphone tweeted: “Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!” Boeing’s stock fell $2 per share then rallied to close at $152.24, eight cents above the previous day’s close.
Some media analysts attributed the attack to a Chicago Tribune story that morning, which interpreted comments by Boeing’s chief executive as critical of Trump.
But Trump tweets have taken on Boeing before, especially for setting up manufacturing plants in China. And six days later, he posted another Android tweet taking on Lockheed Martin, the maker of the F-35 fighter.
“The F-35 program and cost is out of control," Trump wrote. "Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.”
Lockheed Martin’s share price nosedived from the opening bell, losing at one point $4 billion in share value – or $28.6 million per character of the Trump tweet. By the close of trading, the share price had rebounded somewhat but was still more than $6 below the previous close.
“This is a new type of risk, call it presidential tweet risk,” Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank, told Politico hours after Trump’s F-35 tweet. But other analysts say traders need to stop overreacting.
“I equate it to seeing a scary movie for the first time,” says Steve Quirk, executive vice president of TD Ameritrade, in a telephone interview. “It scares you. But the 17th time you see it, it's not scary anymore.”
In reality, presidents have limited power over procurement. “Do we really think there's going to be this draconian change to the way that the Pentagon purchases equipment based on this tweet?” Mr. Quirk asks. “What people are starting to figure out is: It’s less about a personal vendetta or a political outlook. It's about putting people on watch” that the new administration will be taking a hard look at government spending.
A similar discussion is taking place in the media, with reporters and editors struggling to decide whether they should pick and choose which tweets are important. Their choices can determine which ones get lots of attention.
“It’s certainly possible that a tweet could carry the same importance as a speech or a response to a reporter’s question, particularly if it is widely discussed and amplified by the media,” writes Natalie Stroud, a professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin, in an email.
Some writers argue that when Trump tweets that people who burn the American flag should be jailed or lose their citizenship, it counts as news even though constitutional precedent protects flag-burning.
“When Trump tells us in the English language that he intends to strip American protesters of their citizenship and overrule the Supreme Court’s holdings on protected speech, we in the press should not spend a lot of time agonizing over what he really means or what he’s trying to say," argues legal writer Dahlia Lithwick in Slate. "Let’s cover it, and cover it like he means it. I suspect he does.”
Others, including those on both the right and on the left, see some Trump tweets as purposeful distractions.
"Trump’s tweets are meant to throw his opponents with exaggeration, criticism, and humor," writes Mr. Lameiro, the conservative commentator.
“I think he's purposely leveraging that [lack of Twitter context] to create confusion, which allows him to pivot whatever way he wants," says Cliff Lampe, a social media expert at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in a telephone interview. "When you're trying to control the narrative, some ambiguity can be a good thing.”
Other seemingly outrageous Trump tweets are opening salvos in long-term negotiations, such as the tweet about the call with Taiwan’s president, which upset decades of American China policy, argues Lameiro. “I think it was the opening position in a complex and clever negotiation dance. He let them know it’s not going to be business as usual.”
Why the right is concerned
The tweet attacks on individuals, by contrast, appear to hark back to a pre-Twitter Trump tradition of savaging his critics. Curiously, critics on the right seem more alarmed than the left by its potential impact on free speech.
“Trump has a long, astonishingly petty history of using the legal system to punish people who offend him,” wrote Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at the libertarian outlet Reason, citing among other incidents a Trump lawsuit against a financial journalist. Trump lost the case but recently said, "I did it to make his life miserable, which I'm happy about."
And Trump's flag-burning critique brought this retort from an article in the conservative National Review: “As soon as we have ‘Right to free speech, except for ___,’ then we don’t have free speech anymore,” wrote reporter Katherine Timpf.
Could Trump's Twitter attacks be aimed at bullying even corporate chieftains into silence?
“I sure hope that's not the case,” says Quirk of TD Ameritrade. He points out that the president-elect savaged Goldman Sachs during the campaign but now has four Goldman alums on his team. But “if it is [the case], we should be expecting about a billion more tweets.”