William Barr’s kayfabe denunciation of Trump’s tweets is the latest installment in a genre: the Trump supporter who says, “I wish he’d quit tweeting.” They don’t object to what Trump does, they just wish he wouldn’t shoot his mouth off about it on Twitter all the time.
But Trump and his professional spokesmen—as opposed to his volunteer apologists—take a very different view. They regard Trump’s tweeting as having a much more substantial and central role in his presidency. As White House press flack Stephanie Grisham puts it, “President Trump uses social media very effectively to fight for the American people against injustices in our country.” We can take this as an admission that the president sees being a Twitter troll as one of his core responsibilities and as one of the primary ways he “fights” for the people. Or at least some of them.
In this view, saying outrageous things on Twitter is not a distraction from the important things Trump is doing. It is the important thing he’s doing.
But what if it isn’t?
Trolling people on Twitter is obviously not a substitute for actual policy. Donald Trump hasn’t tamed the federal budget—on the contrary, he has continued trillion-dollar deficit blowouts. He hasn’t made the big new deals he promised on trade and foreign policy. He keeps talking about withdrawing U.S. troops from the Middle East and always ends up wavering over it. Instead of “draining the swamp,” he’s commuting the sentences of slimy politicians convicted of political corruption.
But he has been owning the libs on Twitter by riling them up into a frenzy—and riling up his own base in reply, in the hope that this will be enough.
Donald Trump rose to the presidency, and eventually secured the loyalty of the Republican party, by turning one special rule of politics on its head.
Most politicians avoid unnecessary fights, not wanting to call upon their supporters to rally to their defense too often. But Trump brought with him a different set of rules: the rules of celebrity gossip, reality TV, and Twitter—not to mention professional wrestling—where constant conflict is necessary to keep your fans engaged. The more they are required to defend you, the more readily they will do it, making it a hobby or even part of their identity. Notice the number of Republican candidates now running for office who list “defending President Trump” as their main qualification and even as a “conservative value.”
Seen this way, the constant trolling isn’t a regrettable byproduct of the Trump presidency—it’s central to Trump’s political brand and the main benefit he delivers to his most hard-core supporters. Even some of his policy proposals are beginning to seem like an adjunct to trolling, as with the draft executive order mandating “classical” architecture for federal buildings, which mostly seems calculated to provoke sputtering outrage from big-city elites who like Modern architecture.
But what if engaging his online fanbase isn’t enough?
The Washington Post recently sent a reporter out to the hinterland—an American Legion Post in the Florida panhandle—to check on what Trump’s small-town supporters think of his tweeting. Mostly, the answer is that they don’t think of it: “No one has a Twitter account—frankly, many aren’t even sure how Twitter works,” the Post reports. Moreover, there’s evidence that Trump’s Twitter engagement has fallen since 2016. The problem with keeping one’s supporters engaged constantly is that eventually it burns them out.
But that’s not to say Trump’s tweets don’t reach these people. His Twitter bombs establish talking points that are picked up by cable news talking heads, and then make their way into Facebook groups, and eventually trickle down to the folks at the American Legion bar.
Seen in this light, Trump’s tweets are mostly a tool for our “extremely online” president to manipulate the extremely online members of the media. And it works. As former Press Secretary Sean Spicer explains, “We put out a press release and it gets covered much less than when he sends a single tweet.” Similarly, a Bloomberg report that finds declining engagement with Trump’s tweets by the general public notes that “Any tweet from @realDonaldTrump is still capable of taking over a news cycle.”
So rather than representing an end-run around the media, Trump’s tweets are his way of manipulating the media to keep himself front and center in the news.
The extremely online world is still a very small portion of the real world, and people who are extremely online can get a very inaccurate idea of where actual voters stand. We’ve already seen a couple of Democratic candidates flame out because they were so busy trying to win the Twitter primary that they forgot to win over actual voters. Donald Trump is like that, but for the right.
We’ve spent so much time in the past decade worrying about the distorting impact of social media on teenagers that we haven’t bothered to look at the damage it might do to publicity-craving septuagenarians.
Donald Trump is our first extremely online president, and he is subject to all of its pitfalls and pathologies—including becoming detached from the realities of the offline world.