Speech may be free but its consequences for Zille and Trump are costly

For many Americans, including myself, United States President Donald Trump is like a pimple on social media that cannot be squashed. It seems that no matter how many ridiculous tweets he makes, whether it be regarding the administration’s controversial travel ban, “fake news” or undocumented immigrants, few people in his administration can temper his tantrum.

Add to this White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s announcement that Trump’s tweets would be  “considered official statements by the president” and the zit gets larger.

Perhaps what infuriates me the most is the lack of oversight of his daily slew of comments. Trump wields a privilege to say whatever he wants on Twitter with few repercussions but at the expense of many. As the daughter of an immigrant from Iran, how can I not be livid when I see tweets boasting about a travel ban that would entail barring my family from coming or leaving the US? As a journalist, how can I not be annoyed when the president says the media produces “fake news” when it’s keeping Trump’s lies in line?

Although Republicans and Democrats have lashed at the handling of his tweets, more tweets are sent unchecked – despite the president’s aides suggesting that a team of lawyers should start checking Trump’s tweets.

Trump’s administration has allowed his comments to go through without vetting – and fact-checking – and its reaction is too late. 

The president isn’t ready to handle his own Twitter account and doesn’t have the ability to grapple with the repercussions of what he says. Instead, Spicer and others must take the fallout for their president. The next day another tweet is sent out and the cycle continues.

Trump’s tweets have implications, especially outside of the US. While I’ve lived in South Africa, at times I’ve found a level of distrust regarding my Americanness; it’s as if I’m speaking on behalf of my president. I continue to worry that I’m representing myself in best light because I’m aware of the stereotypes that exist regarding Americans abroad but also the reputation Trump has imposed on its citizens. And even as I attempt to genuinely explain that I didn’t vote for Trump and don’t embody his ideals, I have to take ownership for a president our country has ultimately elected.

The Democratic Alliance’s Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and her infamous colonialism tweets  seem to pose a curious parallel. When she tweeted in March that not all of the effects of colonialism created consequences were bad, the message eerily sounded like a tweet that could have been sent from Trump himself.

But the main difference between South Africa and the US is the way both tweeters have been dealt. On Wednesday Zille is facing suspension from party activities and disciplinary action when she meets the DA’s federal executive on Friday.  Zille is being held accountable by her own party for things she’s tweeted; Republicans have not held Trump accountable.

To equate the tweets of Zille to tweets of Trump would not be doing their situations justice because their circumstances involve different countries, different rules on social media commentary, different people and different positions in their parties. But the Republican Party has an obligation to push back when Trump sends out unacceptable comments.

The DA has not handled its social media policies particularly well. Zille is only now facing disciplinary action – three months after she sent the colonialism tweets. And the DA has double standards regarding social media. The party reacted rapidly when KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature member Mbali Ntuli “liked” a Facebook post that called Zille a racist.

If political leaders take their social media commentary more seriously, their comments could be an asset rather than a liability for their parties. Until then, covfefe.

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