The United States is descending into chaos reminiscent of the late-stage Roman Republic. At the same time, every single day that Donald Trump occupies the Oval Office the United States has inched closer to be a banana republic.
Lying as a presidential job description?
To set the stage for the current dispute: After hesitating for the longest time, Twitter finally started fact-checking the U.S. President’s tweets last week. It also pointed out that a presidential tweet glorifying violence was in violation of Twitter’s rules of conduct.
For Donald Trump, lying, insulting and threatening people as well as flouting rules is all in a day’s work. That he also serves as President of the United States makes no difference in his basic stance.
A civilized country, despite Trump
The question is not just whether such behavior is acceptable for a President of the United States. After all, despite Mr. Trump’s Nero-style slash-and-burn tactics, the country is still very much part of the developed world.
This fact of life does not change just because the sitting U.S. President is trying to exit his country from just about every international organization and agreement that civilized nations have considered the accepted standard for decades.
Once upon a time: A higher standard for leaders
As to Twitter’s fact-checking the president, and the nationwide – indeed global – debate over freedom of speech, two questions need to be answered to guide any proper answer.
First, U.S. Presidents, not least because of their elevated role in the U.S. political and constitutional process, have long been seen as a role model. He – so far, sadly, only men – is someone to look up to (as they used to teach children in elementary school).
Given the topsy-turviness and sharpness of U.S. partisan political debates, that has generally tended to make Presidential communications somewhat lame. A president is supposed to be “above the fray “– a uniter, not a divider, as is often said.
Donald Trump has made mincemeat of any of those considerations. He is not really acting like a president but rather a permanent and doggedly vicious campaigner (with sincere apologies to dogs, quite a few of which have a pleasant personality).
He also claims that no standards of truthfulness can be applied to him. In his view, he is entitled to say and tweet anything, including blatant lies.
A nation on fire
Second, freedom of speech is neither an abstract nor an absolute concept. The evaluation of what goes – and what doesn’t – also involves the overall political situation.
Without repeating Mr. Trump’s venomous and highly incendiary tweet after the George Floyd killing by a Minneapolis police officer, this is a nation on edge.
In such a situation, there are limits to what a President can say in a republic. The least thing a company like Twitter can do when Donald Trump (ab)uses its platform to throw oil on the fire is flag it as a violation to its other users.
Never mind that the operating principle behind Trump’s tweeted shrillness is to emulate the shrillness for which North Korean state TV is so famous.
No filter, no responsibility
Mr. Trump loves social media because of their “unfiltered” nature. Relying on them, he can entirely bypass the truth assessments that are part and parcel of democratic dialogue with the fourth estate in a democracy.
But as a businessman, Mr. Trump surely realizes that he does not own Twitter. And, just as he sets the rules in his business (remember all those non-disclosure agreements?), Mr. Dorsey is entitled to setting rules in his – lest he wants his business to be stained by sharing an image with North Korean TV.
The Trump standard: No limits, no standards
Of course, Donald Trump doesn’t just laughs at any such considerations. He is, in fact, freaking mad – and ready to break any china (in this particular case with a lower case “c,” in the social media sector).
Mr. Trump displays an attitude that, from a historic perspective, mostly resembles the mindset of absolute monarchs – and the particularly nasty ones among those.
The Twitter double standard
In the past, Twitter operated a two-class system. It applied harsh rules for the people – and submissiveness to Mr. Trump.
However, Twitter applying different standards to political leaders than to the population at large was profoundly undemocratic. It reeked of a feudalist mindset.
While some latitude is certainly understandable in order to preserve the to and fro of political debate, there must be limits – inciting violence being one of them.
While this is a legal obligation for any newspaper, in the case of the social media it is, for now, a matter for the private company’s discretion. Mr. Dorsey has now made the correct choice.
The Twitter CEO is keenly aware of the risk of his company losing its credibility – a category of reputational thinking that is nowhere to be found inside the brain of Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO.
Anybody born before the year 2000 still remembers a time when US Presidents were viewed as role models and therefore held to a higher standard.
While Donald Trump, especially on Twitter, has sought to obliterate that idea, it is very much worth preserving.
Postscript: That the ever-squishy twerp that is Mark Zuckerberg, with his frozen-in-the-headlights look, does not want to be a “truth brigade” was to be expected.
An utterly un-social, if not anti-social human being – irony of ironies: Facebook grew out of an IT-based dating idea – he just cares about the money. To that end, he will say anything, anytime.
As a man with no known principles, and as a heavily coached lip-syncer of pseudo-commitments, nobody would expect any more from Mr. Zuckerberg.
If anything, in the art of entirely self-interested bottom dredging, Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg are true soulmates. Correction: That presumes either of them actually had a soul.