Tech

How Trump got bad at Twitter

47Views

The late-December tweet from @RealDonaldTrump was brief and absurd: “Farm Bill signing in 15 minutes! #Emmys #TBT.” It was accompanied by a clip from the 2005 Emmy awards in which the future leader of the free world, wearing a straw hat and overalls, sings the “Green Acres” theme song with actress Megan Mullally. The internet responded with predictable shock, tinged with mockery. But there was also a hint of excitement, maybe even relief: Had Trump gotten his Twitter mojo back?

That tweet felt like an exception to one of the biggest surprises in American politics this year. Donald J. Trump — the man who redefined the possibilities of social media, singlehandedly turning a chatty platform into a must-read political assault weapon — has become bad at Twitter.

You wouldnt know this from news coverage, since reporters still count on the occasional shocking Trump tweet to drive the news cycle, and he occasionally obliges. (He changed U.S. Syria policy in one tweet, and used another to bump Defense Secretary James Mattis out of office early.) His tendency to govern by tweet has also shifted other politicians behavior, making the formerly staid backroom business of D.C. feel like an online free-for-all.

But if you still think of Trump as the tweeter-in-chief, master of the pithy insult and well-placed exclamation point, just visit his feed. The crisp, unpredictable tweets from the start of his presidency have largely become rambling and verbose. His account is weirdly turgid, loaded with ponderous attacks on his perceived enemies and obscure multipart arguments about his legal situation. At other times, it veers as close as Trump has ever sounded to Washingtonesque.

In case you havent been reading faithfully, a typical Trump tweet, circa late 2018, reads something like this:

We signed two pieces of major legislation this week, Criminal Justice Reform and the Farm Bill. These are two Big Deals, but all the Fake News Media wants to talk about is “the mistake” of bringing our young people back home from the Never Ending Wars. It all began 19 years ago!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2018

Or this:

While the disgusting Fake News is doing everything within their power not to report it that way, at least 3 major players are intimating that the Angry Mueller Gang of Dems is viciously telling witnesses to lie about facts & they will get relief. This is our Joseph McCarthy Era!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 28, 2018

Note the defensive posture, the multiple messages jumbled into one, the catchphrases breathlessly piled atop one another. This Trump sounds more like a kid trying to talk his way out of detention than the communications savant who took over the 2016 campaign, 140 characters at a time.

That talent isnt totally gone. The president still manages the occasional Trumpian turn of phrase (on December 7, he called Rex Tillerson “dumb as a rock”) and he can still use Twitter as a potent weapon to redirect public attention. Indeed, in the days surrounding Trumps Worst Week Ever — the resignation of his defense secretary, a plunging stock market, a looming government shutdown, ominous advances in the Mueller investigation — the presidents feed was stocked with diversions. He posted a rendering of a “Steel Slat Barrier” border wall, in the Modern Kings Landing aesthetic. He delivered one-liners designed to send his foes into paroxysms of fact-checking and fury. (“Ive done more damage to ISIS than all recent presidents…not even close!”)

Not long ago, that was just a typical week for Trump. Now its the exception. The rambling tweets have returned with a vengeance, and the clutter-to-clarity ratio is rising every day. This change isnt just a curiosity: Twitter has always seemed a direct wire into the presidents brain. So if his tweets are descending into unintelligible self-absorption, what does that say about his frame of mind?

Its not much of an overstatement to say that Trump wouldnt be president without that Twitter feed. Around the midpoint of the campaign — when the idea began to wedge, in the dark shadows of peoples minds, that his candidacy wasnt just an oddball piece of performance art but a viable, growing force — his ability to hijack the national conversation on Twitter, over and over, proved that he had nailed something essential about modern-day political communications.

Voters hunger for authenticity, a quality increasingly hard to project in the era of the press release, the 24-hour cable show, and the massive political consultancy class. Washingtons standard media dance had become the opposite of spontaneous. The rules of expression were clear: Whatever swearing or ranting or touchdown dancing you might do behind closed doors, your official communication downplayed conflict, respected opponents, bent over to give credit wherever it was due, and ensured that every word was committee-drafted and vetted to the hilt. Candidates social-media accounts followed largely the same rules, leading to a lot of supremely dull Twitter accounts.

Trumps media skills were forged in the far-less-polite confines of the New York Posts Page 6, and he was different from the start. The man who became nationally famous by saying “Youre fired” understood the power of a direct personal attack, and the value of a slogan that could be boiled down to fit on a hat. Throughout his candidacy and well into his presidency, he wielded Twitter in just that way. It was easy to track his movements and mood though his spurts of Twitter activity; we learned he was an obsessive viewer of “Fox and Friends” due to his tendency to tweet the contents in real time. And like a standup comic testing material, he used Twitter to launch and deploy his catchphrases: Fake News, No Collusion, Rigged Witch Hunt.

The sheer volume of Trumps tweets, though — at this point his account has logged some 40,000 posts — began to make each one less essential. As it was early in his Twitter career, filler is abundant. He recommends a lot of books, many of them by Fox News personalities. For a stretch leading up to the midterms, he used his feed almost exclusively to name-check Republican candidates; nearly every tweet felt perfunctory.

And as he has grown busier with the work of public office, the voice of the press release has crept in. He uses his feed for milquetoast updates on official business:

Statement from China: “The teams of both sides are now having smooth communications and good cooperation with each other. We are full of confidence that an agreement can be reached within the next 90 days.” I agree!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2018

He offers quasi-presidential responses to disasters, holding hands with Democratic opponents after the California wildfires:

Thank you @JerryBrownGov. Look forward to joining you and @GavinNewsom tomorrow in California. We are with you! https://t.co/UuXWAadmov

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 17, 2018

And he has begun to post stilted video messages, which feature him standing on the White House grounds or in front of a backdrop of flags. They feel a bit like hostage videos: a deadness in the eyes, an absence of joy.

Lets not do a shutdown, Democrats – do whats right for the American People! pic.twitter.com/bZg07ZKQqo

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2018

Part of the blame lies with Twitter itself. If you want to pinpoint the arrival of Boring Trump Twitter, it might trace back to November 7, 2017, the day the platform doubled the maximum length of a tweet from 140 to 280 characters. Trump busted out of his 140-character box the very next day, with a run-on sentence about his trip to Asia:

Getting ready to make a major speech to the National Assembly here in South Korea, then will be headed to China where I very much look forward to meeting with President Xi who is just off his great political victory.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2017

The new character limit meant that his official press-release tweets could get longer. But, as it turns out, he has largely used the extra space to air out the most essential part of his political personality: His defensiveness. Since before he became president, Twitter was the place where Trump ranted about the woes visited upon him; “NO COLLUSION” was his version of opening the window and unleashing a primal scream. But freed from the useful confines of brevity, Trumps rhetoric has become notably flabby. He embraced the multipart Twitter thread, if not its standard conventions. (He doesnt number his tweets or declare that a thread is coming; he just uses copious ellipses to indicate he hasnt finished yet.) His tweets began to feel like painfully faithful transcriptions of his thought process. And those could be especially difficult to follow.

Robert Mueller and Leakin Lyin James Comey are Best Friends, just one of many Mueller Conflicts of Interest. And bye the way, wasnt the woman in charge of prosecuting Jerome Corsi (who I do not know) in charge of “legal” at the corrupt Clinton Foundation? A total Witch Hunt…

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2018

….Will Robert Muellers big time conflicts of interest be listed at the top of his Republicans only Report. Will Andrew Weissmans horrible and vicious prosecutorial past be listed in the Report. He wrongly destroyed peoples lives, took down great companies, only to be……..

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2018

…..overturned, 9-0, in the United States Supreme Court. Doing same thing to people now. Will all of the substantial & many contributions made by the 17 Angry Democrats to the Campaign of Crooked Hillary be listed in top of Report. Will the people that worked for the Clinton….

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2018

….Foundation be listed at the top of the Report? Will the scathing document written about Lyin James Comey, by the man in charge of the case, Rod Rosenstein (who also signed the FISA Warrant), be a big part of the Report? Isnt Rod therefore totally conflicted? Will all of….

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2018

…the lying and leaking by the people doing the Report, & also Bruce Ohr (and his lovely wife Molly), Comey, Brennan, Clapper, & all of the many fired people of the FBI, be listed in the Report? Will the corruption within the DNC & Clinton Campaign be exposed?..And so much more!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2018

Trump is not the only person to overuse Twitter, or to let a reflexive tweeting habit deepen into what feels more like an addiction. One reason the platform has become so exhausting is that Twitter has become our prime medium for beating a dead horse in public: too many people tweeting, on a daily or hourly basis, variations on the same theme. You could boil post-2016 political Twitter down to four basic sentiments: “Trump is terrible,” “Trump is great,” “Liberals are losers,” and “We are all doomed.”

Indeed, since Twitter itself is now so focused on Trump — as is cable news, one of the presidents chief sources of information about the world — it stands to reason that Trumps own set of references would become circular and self-obsessed. The result doesnt look healthy. His feed by now is clogged with tweets piled on tweets, rambling rants; hes a guy standing on the street corner whose constant patter you cant ignore, but you cant actually follow, either. For the close reader, the only enjoyment left is in the form — what is he going to misspell or capitalize this time? — and the parlor game of wondering where, amid the noise, he might drop a hiring or firing or, gift of gifts, some surreal old video clip.

In the meantime, new masters are moving in, taking lessons or inspiration from the old Trump feed and using it, in some cases, for opposite ends. Incoming U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, wields social media much like the president used to do. Her voice is different; shes more literate, partial to lists and punchlines. But she, too, trolls her opponents, tosses hashtags, takes on a snarkily human tone, and isnt afraid to occasionally play a little fast with the facts in service of a larger rhetorical point. And, unlike Trump, she has figured out Instagram.

Her ascendancy throws what Trumps Twitter feed has lost into stark relief. He used to tweet like a 29-year-old, newly flush with power. Now, hes tweeting like a 72-year-old who doesnt want to lose it. It could be that relentlessness of the attacks on Trump are taking a toll on his psyche. It could be that the profound isolation of the American presidency is making him a little batty. Whatever it is, he remains in the West Wing with jittery thumbs, baring his thoughts to the world in real time — giving us all a window into the shrinking, repetitive outlook of the man with the worlds most powerful job.

Joanna Weiss is editor of Experience magazine.

Original Article

[contf]
[contfnew]