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Body Double: What Medieval Executive Theory Tells Us About Trump’s Twitter Accounts

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Quinta Jurecic writes at Lawfare:

In 1571, an English jurist named Edmund Plowden, trying to make sense of cases involving the sale and purchase of land owned by various monarchs, argued:

[T]he King has in him two Bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic. His Body natural (if it be considered in itself) is a Body mortal …  But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People. . . .

Plowden’s evocative phrasing would become famous in modern times because of the work of one Ernst Kantorowicz, a mid-twentieth-century medieval historian who named a seminal study of the medieval attitude toward the person of the monarch after the concept of “The King’s Two Bodies.” Kantorowicz’s book, a sprawling and ambitious text chronicling the developing “medieval political theology” of monarchical succession and the creation of the modern state, takes as its starting point Plowden’s distinction between the king’s mortal “body Natural” and his eternal “body Politic.” The former is human; the latter is an immortal entity constituting the quasi-spiritual essence of monarchical authority and the state itself. While the king’s body natural ages and dies, the body politic continues onward as the doubled self of his successors.

Among other sources, Kantorowicz draws heavily on Shakespeare, whose Richard II and Henry V dramatize each monarch’s struggle with his human fragility in the face of a divine task. The night before the battle of Agincourt, Henry V ponders that, “all [of the King’s] senses have but human conditions: his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing.”

The astute reader will instinctively see what I’m driving at here: President Trump’s two Twitter accounts. Indeed, I want to propose here almost entirely with a straight face that the relationship between the @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump accounts is the new manifestation of a very old dynamic. That is, the distinction between @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump is the distinction between the office and the person who fills it, what we might call the President’s “Twitter politic” and his “Twitter natural.”

Because in the moment that Donald Trump stood before the nation and swore the oath of office on January 20th, he quietly gained control not merely of the nuclear football but of that other most crucial of tools in the presidential arsenal: the @POTUS Twitter account. Under the terms of the Obama administration’s “Digital Transition” plan—yes, there really was a Digital Transition plan—President Obama’s official tweets migrated to @POTUS44, while @POTUS itself was wiped clean for the next administration’s use. And it is also a matter of public record that the President of the United States—an aggressive and insatiable Twitter user—has continued to post from his preexisting personal account: the @realDonaldTrump feed.

We live in strange times.

We don’t normally conceptualize of the President as having two bodies, as medieval thinkers once did of the English king, but constitutional democracy’s emphasis on institutional over individual power and legitimacy still echoes Kantorowicz’s description. This is what undergirds the distinction between suing a government officer in his or her personal, versus official, capacity. And with respect to the President, in particular, it is what undergirds the Supreme Court’s decision in Clinton v. Jones denying the President immunity for, as the Court puts it, “the unofficial conduct of the individual who happens to be the President.”

In this sense, the concept of “the president’s two bodies” is by no means specific to the Trump administration. But President Trump’s two Twitter accounts provide an ongoing, real-time dramatization of the idea. @POTUS is a digital metonym for the office of the Presidency: a vessel filled in turn by each new occupant. The account came to be Trump’s on his assumption of the office. And it will presumably not follow him when he leaves it. @realDonaldTrump, by contrast, is an unusually intimate look into the very personal preoccupations and anxieties of the man who sits behind the desk, many (if not most) of them disconnected from the work of governing and official business in any sense that we would have previously understood. His possession of this account long predates his presidency, and he uses it for everything from official statements to television reviews, media criticism, and overly-capitalized intensifiers. SAD!

Trump has, in his brief 95 days in office, succeeded in blurring the distinction between the office of the Presidency in general and the fact of his presidency in particular. But ironically, his pattern of behaving in a manner inconsistent with the dignity of the office—recall that at his first public appearance following his inauguration, he stood in front of the CIA’s Memorial Wall, lied about the number of people who had attended the previous day’s inaugural ceremony, and whined about press coverage of the crowd—heightens the contrast between the weakness and humanity of the President’s body natural and the abstract majesty of the body politic. Hence the constant confusion over whether or not Trump is “acting presidential” and what that would mean.

The whiplash is visibly confusing other actors in their interaction with the presidency. The Supreme Court justices in the Youngstown steel seizure case faced the question of the emergency authority of the President of the United States, not of the person of Harry S. Truman. By contrast, the rulings of federal judges in the travel ban cases are inextricably tied to the person and personal behavior of Donald Trump.

The Twitter natural and the Twitter politic dramatize these tensions every day. How are we to understand the President’s tweets from his @realDonaldTrump account versus his @POTUS account? Is the dividing line as clean as I’ve portrayed it above, with tweets from the former being “unofficial” and from the latter being “official,” or is the reality more complex? Legally speaking, is a tweet from @realDonaldTrump, the personal account, covered by the presidential immunity articulated by the Supreme Court in Nixon v. Fitzgerald? Ought policymakers in the executive branch take tweets from both accounts seriously as guidance, or only from the one? Or, as they often seem to, from neither?

@POTUS is clearly an official government account. It mostly tweets out press releases, links to speeches and press conferences, and photographs of the President meeting with dignitaries or otherwise at work in the Oval Office. The account description also indicates that the bulk of the tweets are sent by Dan Scavino, Trump’s Director of Social Media; tweets written by the President are signed with his initials and are relatively far and few between.

In contrast, Trump registered @realDonaldTrump in March 2009 and began using it to tweet in his capacity as a private citizen starting that May. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

24 April 2017 at 6:39 pm

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