There are a lot of reasons that Donald Trump became president, but one of them was his unrivaled mastery of the tweet. Other candidates could be smarter, more polished or better in nearly every way, but none compressed as well. Trump was (and remains) highly memetic, and the more memetic something is, the further and faster it travels on the Internet. “Delete your account” just didn’t match the elegant simplicity of Trump’s twitter game. It’s nearly impossible to express complex thoughts about complicated subjects in 140 characters, but Trump managed to convey the idea that everything that needed to be said had been said within that limit. He trivialized information into something as easily consumable as a Skittle, and his supporters treated it like a four-course dinner.
Beyond that, Trump managed to use Twitter to more directly communicate with people than any politician ever has. His feed was unfiltered and home-rolled thought, free from anything that might distinguish it from something you or I might tweet. A tycoon managed to persuade enough voters to make him president, that he was just like them, and that was in large part due to the fact that his social media presence was identical to that of at least one friend we all have hanging around from high school. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama always felt like they had Twitter accounts because they had to, but Trump has one because Trump wants to tweet some stuff at you. That resonated. Whether the personal connection is a lie or not, it felt real in a way others couldn’t match.
However, Trump may be finding out exactly why such an approach is a bad idea. It got him elected, yes, but it’s not necessarily a good way to actually govern. He’s not Franklin Roosevelt, and these are not fireside chats in the dark days of the Depression and the Second World War. The power of Twitter is that, well, anyone can use it, and people are starting to use it against the master.
The first salvo in this new war of media was the various alternative governmental departments that sprang up in opposition to the Trump administration. After the National Park Service tweeted pictures proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Trump inauguration was not the record-breaking attendance affair the administration would prefer it to be, the administration ordered the official Twitter account silent. In defiance, “unofficial” accounts sprang up determined to counter the #AlternativeFacts narrative. We got an unofficial National Park Service, an unofficial NASA, an unofficial Environmental Protection Agency and so on. All are accounts allegedly being operated by insiders who wish to use the memetic power Trump wielded to spread factual information the president seems to find inconvenient. None of the accounts responded to our attempts to contact them, so their veracity is uncertain.
Then, accounts from people who claimed to be within the White House started going viral, painting Trump in an extremely negative light. Is the account verified? No. Is it factual? No idea. Are we seeing truth being spoken or a highly elaborate lie meant to hurt Trump? Honestly, I’m not sure there’s even a difference anymore.
Trump didn’t open Pandora’s box here. That path was paved by people like Milo Yiannopoulos and Breitbart long ago. He is, though, the logical radical conclusion to the basic idea. By setting himself as just another schmuck on Twitter, he’s by definition cultivated the idea that any schmuck on Twitter is his equal. It’s only a matter of counting the followers, and Donald Trump doesn’t even rank in the top 50.
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I don’t necessarily think Miley Cyrus has more important things to say than the president does just because she beats his Twitter reach, but Trump has established that this metric matters now. His presidency thus far has been obsessed with how much people like him, follow him and attend him. It’s crude democracy at its finest, and probably the best argument against the system that has ever been voiced. A couple of hundred thousand retweets won’t make climate change not real, not least because all it takes is someone else getting a couple of hundred thousand and one retweets to have the better argument.
One of my favorite stories of all time is Neil Gaiman’s “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” (it’s in the third Sandman trade paperback, Dream Country, if you want to read it). The premise is simple: Once, long ago, cats ruled the world and people were tiny. One day, a man began to preach that all we had to do was dream a world where men were the masters and cats were the pets. If enough of us did, the world would change. To quote…
They dreamed the world so that it ALWAYS WAS the way it is now, little one. There never WAS a world of high cat-ladies and cat-lords. They changed the universe from the beginning of all things until the end of time.
Trump is finding out that collective consciousness on social media has no permanent master. He has successfully dreamed a world where he is president, and my congratulations to him. However, if you’re going to rule through the power of Twitter, you’re basically at the mercy of whoever can tweet better than you. Those people are signing up, and there are way too many of them ever to be stopped. Troll armies have always endured because regular people are busy doing more important things. When combating the trolls becomes the No. 1 priority, that’s when resistance becomes a dream of a new world.