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When Teddy Roosevelt referred to the platform the U.S. president commands as the “bully pulpit,” he didn’t mean it should be used to literally bully the American people.
In Roosevelt’s time, the word “bully” meant excellent, and the phrase reflected his belief that it was beneficial to be able to command a large audience.
So far the U.S. president-elect is using his new platform in the more modern sense of the term, to intimidate those who are less powerful than him online. Trump is being called the nation’s “cyber bully-in- chief.”
And according to Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly, Trump once phoned her with a threat, “I almost unleashed my beautiful Twitter account on you, and I still may.”
Buzzfeed writer Charlie Warzel notes that Trump’s tweets violate Twitter’s own rules that “you may not incite or engage in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”
University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron also says threats like those provoked by Trump’s tweets could be considered hate crimes, because they’re nearly always perpetrated by men, and usually targeted at women.
Trump’s tweets also run afoul of an older code: that of America’s founders.
The concept of public shaming – such as beating criminals in the town square – was rejected by America centuries ago as too cruel. In March 1787, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote a paper against public shaming in which he argued that “ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death.”
Jon Ronson, author of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” finds that within 50 years of Rush’s paper, public shaming was eliminated in every state except Delaware.
University of Chicago Law School Professor Eric Posner explains that in instances of public shaming, people are vilified in a process that “looks a lot like mob rule.” So “law displaced shaming because such a chaotic system can do as much harm as good.”
Of course, public shaming was viewed as inappropriate by early Americans in the cases of people who committed crimes. But the people who Trump has cyber shamed haven’t actually done anything wrong – with the exception of disagreeing with him.
Dissent is a quintessentially American tradition. As Ralph Young, author of “Dissent: The History of an American Idea,” explains, the U.S. is a country settled by religious dissenters that became an independent nation as a result of political dissent — and has been shaped by it ever since.
That’s why the first amendment to the Constitution guarantees free speech. In his Report on the Virginia Resolutions, James Madison noted that the “right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon … has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right.”
But it’s reasonable to expect that, if Americans have to fear rape or murder for disagreeing with Trump, public debate will be chilled. Citron reports that women who are targeted by cyber bullies “are silenced …They withdraw from online life, because they’re terrified.”
This will make it hard to have the participatory democracy that America’s founding fathers envisioned.
Instead, like a Roman emperor staging circuses to occupy his people, @RealDonaldTrump is creating online spectacles which divert attention from the real issues facing the country.
If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to "tweet." Sadly, I don't know if that will ever happen!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 5, 2016
The nation’s first presidents would also have found Trump’s communication style to be deeply bizarre. Early commanders in chief rarely spoke to the American people at all. Instead, before Woodrow Wilson, presidents mostly communicated with Congress.
According to University of Texas, political scientist Jeffrey Tulis, nineteenth century presidents addressed just seven percent of their rhetoric to the American people. That has changed dramatically; President Obama regularly tweets and gives speeches directed at citizens.
But while it’s now acceptable for Trump to speak often to the American people as a whole, it’s wrong for him to pick fights with ordinary individuals. Trump must stop personalizing his disagreements.
This kind of communication is anything but excellent.
Kara Alaimo is Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She served as spokesperson for International Affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo
The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.