I don't have much in common with Donald Trump, but something we both share is a perennial love of Twitter. On Wednesday night, as he sat with conservative bow-tie aficionado Tucker Carlson for an interview held in what appeared to be an extremely patriotic Truman Show soundstage, Trump didn't necessarily answer Carlson's questions so much as expound on whatever came to his mind. When Twitter came up, Trump didn't back off of the unsubstantiated wiretap allegations he made against Barack Obama on the microblogging platform. Instead, he explained that Twitter was his way around the dishonest media.
Like many other pundits, Carlson bemoaned Trump's irresponsible use of Twitter—there's more or less a bipartisan consensus that it is, at the very least, unstatesmanlike. "If the President says something that cannot be proved or is demonstrably untrue, he devalues his own currency," he told the president.
But Trump doesn't really need anyone to explain Twitter to him. He understands he is indebted to the social media platform, that it's essential to maintaining his popularity—not to mention his status as an everyman. "I think that maybe I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Twitter," he said at one point. True. He has fun, he entertains, he goes on an unhinged 3 AM Twitter rants because don't we all have a bad night every once in a while? If you prick us, do we not get mad online?
Long before his political career was anything more than a joke, Trump had a major presence on the platform, posting repulsively elegant musings like "I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke" and "Amazing how the haters & losers keep tweeting the name "F**kface Von Clownstick" like they are so original & like no one else is doing it…" Though longwinded in interviews, he excels within the 140-character confines of a tweet. Moreover, he tweets like a real person, like somebody you know, or maybe even just like you.
Though the average liberal might find Trump's crude, impulsive approach to Twitter to be repugnant, a genuine national security threat, or both, that style of communication, through the democracy of social media, appeals to his supporters. He seems sincere—in a recent study of working-class Obama voters who went for Trump in 2016, many of them trusted him because of his bluntness. "He is not afraid to speak his mind," one participant said.
Much of Trump's success among working-class voters is derived from that faux populism and his tweets (in both tone and content) are central in maintaining the narrative that Trump is a man of the people. As Bernie Sanders highlighted when he dragged a poster of a Trump tweet promising not to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security to the Senate floor, the president has always understood Twitter to be a platform that lets him spread whatever message he feels like far and wide.
In his interview Wednesday night, Trump said, "I have close to 100 million people watching me on Twitter [and other social media]…I have my own form of media." This is exactly the power of personal social media accounts—it gives your audience a peak into your weird psychology, your personal life, how you think. It removes the press, that pesky membrane between stars and their audiences. Celebrities—and Trump is nothing if not a celebrity—sometimes benefit even from their social media fuckups. Even if Trump's "F**kface Von Clownstick" tweet made him look foolish, it was funny, and honest. It was real.
George W. Bush's electoral victories were sometimes attributed him being the candidate voters most "wanted to have a beer with." Trump's popularity with working-class voters comes from something similar: He's the politician you'd most want a RT from. (And if you invent some fake racist crime stats, he might actually do it.)
"I might not be here talking to you right now as president if I didn't have an honest way of getting the word out," he told Carlson. "Honest" here does not mean "100 percent factually true"—it means unmediated by consultants or political groups or sometimes even traditional grammar. For Trump, it's never about saying the true thing; it's about playing to an audience. He doesn't necessarily use the platform to tell his supporters he's just like them; he uses to show it. He hardly ever gets to go onstage at rallies anymore, but with Twitter, he can try out his material on a global platform any time of the night.
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