(CNN)Slowly, tweet by tweet, we are building an etiquette of online behavior. The rule is: be as nasty as you like, but there may well be consequences. The exception seems to be Donald Trump, who sometimes seems like he is on a one-man mission to test the limits of free speech.
The President, on the other hand, did not say “sorry.” He tweeted: “My use of social media is not Presidential – it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL. Make America Great Again!”
Parties on each side of this saga could legitimately say they’re taking a stand for free speech. CNN is defending the freedom of the press against a President who has sometimes appeared to threaten it. Conservatives charge CNN with being thin-skinned, but I’ve reported on Trump rallies where the audience has been moved to send up a chant of “CNN sucks,” and where the anger at the so-called mainstream media nearly boiled over into outright intimidation. When the President of a democracy tweets a video of himself beating up a media organization, isn’t that an implicit threat against the free press?
HanA**holeSolo’s creation is classic Trumpery: it shows the President figuratively wrestling the media to the ground, yes, but with a dash of self-aware humor that the left is oddly tone-deaf to.
Does Trump really think he has the physique of a pro wrestler? Or that his tweets are witty ripostes worthy of Downton Abbey? No. He’s a troll on a cosmic scale, and sometimes liberals would do well to ignore the one-liners he bashes out on his phone and focus on what he’s doing in his day job.
As Naomi Klein argues in her new book, distraction changes the subject. Every time Trump is in trouble, he shifts our attention by tweeting something outrageous. The media, far from stopping his nonsense, might actually be giving it oxygen.
So, which is it? Is the President an enemy of free speech or merely exercising it in a way that liberals dislike? Personal experience has taught me that the line between these two things is vanishingly thin.
Down the years, I’ve had it all thrown at me: anti-Semitism, accusations of being a racist, homophobia, accusations of homophobia, cartoons of me in a gas oven, etc. I’ve said some bad things myself — never that bad, I want to emphasize — and feel guilty for having contributed my own small portion to this moral mudslide.
But if I might pretend to be completely innocent for a moment, then I have a couple of observations to make. One is that women always get it worst. Another is that people are happy to turn a blind eye to abuse when they agree with it politically. Liberals can give offense but they never take it lightly.
A third is that the cost of being bad online is rising. Reputations can be ruined by a nasty tweet, or even a tweet that just wasn’t well phrased or was unfairly misinterpreted. Generosity is dying; it’s rare to be given the benefit of the doubt. Social media is starting to become a strange mix of the abrasive and the censorious, of which the CNN wrestling story is a rather good illustration.
My sympathy, however, does lie with CNN — for one simple reason. Online abuse is killing the appeal of public service. Any sane, ethical young person would see the ugliness of modern politics and journalism and conclude they want no part of public life. The President is encouraging that.
Horrible things have been said about Trump, true. He could argue that he’s simply fighting back, yes. But fighting fire with fire inevitably leads to more fire, and while I’m sympathetic towards some of Trump’s agenda, I look upon the state of politics in this era with despair. It is not unreasonable for journalists to say “enough is enough.”