How Trump blurred the lines between politics and persona in ways that will reverberate for years.
The first American social media presidency came to something of an end last month, not when the votes rolled in but when Twitter flagged six of President Trump’s tweets in less than 24 hours.
To view Trump’s pronouncements — most of them vociferous claims that he’d won the election he has since certifiably lost — users had to click past a warning that each tweet’s content “might be misleading about an election or other civic process.”
It was a dramatic departure for the 45th president’s favorite platform, where for almost a decade he’s honed his persona as a trash-talking businessman, spewed racist conspiracies, and incited violence largely without interference. But this year, amid rampant coronavirus misinformation and baseless charges of election fraud, Twitter finally cracked down on one of its biggest accounts, with 88 million followers. The warnings, however, haven’t really stopped @RealDonaldTrump’s lies from circulating.
Over four tumultuous years, Trump hasn’t just broken every rule of online engagement — he’s rewritten the playbook. Now every politician is forced to engage on social media, though few use their preferred platforms more skillfully. Barack Obama was the first sitting president on Twitter (and continues to have more followers on the platform), but Trump was the one to weaponize it. “Trump is a classic Twitter troll,” says Lisa Nakamura, director of the Digital Studies Institute at the University of Michigan. His all-caps comments, stock phrases, and ad hominem attacks may inspire fandom or draw ire, but they always capture our attention.
Trump will soon be leaving Washington, but his tactics will influence GOP politicking in particular for years to come. Surrogates such as Donald Trump Jr. are feeding their own followers misinformation — and still eliding fact-checking on Facebook and Instagram. Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) mimics the outgoing president’s angry Twitter staccato and promotes her own pet conspiracy theories online. And right-wing personalities like Kimberly Guilfoyle are, like Trump, breaking with the institutions that shaped them — sometimes under dubious circumstances — and blazing their own paths to power.
So it’s futile to try to discount the social media presidency. Since Trump’s days on reality television, he’s offered spectators an illusory authenticity. His off-the-cuff and grammatically suspect tweets and rambling rally speeches engendered a feeling of familiarity and unbridled access, even as he was flanked by Secret Service members and lived most of his life behind closed doors. Conveniently, Trump’s Twitter transparency has also satisfied the demands of the social media era, says Elvin Lim, a professor of political science at Singapore Management University and the author of The Anti-Intellectual President: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric From George Washington to George W. Bush. “We’re digging deeper into the flesh of politicians.” Even if we don’t like what we find, Lim says, “we want much more.”
Some attribute Trump’s 2016 win to his ability to fulfill these new media mandates. But it’s not just Trump’s knack for manipulating the platforms of his era that catapulted him to office. It’s the intensity of the relationships he’s formed through it. Love him or hate him, Trump has provided “an identity for both sides,” says Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo. Young politicians in both parties, from Rep.-elect Lauren Boebert (R-CO) to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), have taken notice and are quickly converting voters into fans. According to an exhaustive Pew analysis of Congress members’ social media activity, compared with 2016, “the typical member of Congress now tweets nearly twice as often, has nearly three times as many followers and receives more than six times as many retweets on their average post.”
Politicians can, of course, still succeed without becoming TikTok stars. Internet-absent, old-school politicians still get elected — especially in the Democratic Party’s gerontocracy. President-elect Joe Biden is a notably offline politician, which perhaps contributed to his success in a face-off against our cyberbully-in-chief. Biden’s posts are typically stiff, vague, and platitudinous: “Let’s begin the work to heal and unite America and the world,” he tweeted on November 24. These messages may be authentic to Biden’s personality; they certainly sound like a 78-year-old from Scranton.
Even if they don’t read as the raw, unfiltered authenticity the Trump presidency has trained us to expect, they make clear that digital culture will continue to influence our politics. The question: Is it a new form of democratic engagement or simply a distraction from the work of governance?
Trump’s self-promotional efforts began in earnest in the 1980s, when he became a mainstay of New York City tabloids (often by calling reporters in character, pretending to be his own spokesperson). In 1987, he published Trump: The Art of the Deal, a self-help/memoir hybrid and bestseller. And he made his first forays into professional wrestling promotion after befriending Vince and Linda McMahon of what is now World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE.
The reputation he built wasn’t a uniformly useful one; many New Yorkers knew he was “outrageous — and outrageously tacky,” as Susan Mulcahy, a former Page Six editor, wrote in Politico. But Trump carefully crafted his national persona through The Apprentice, a reality show competition for aspiring entrepreneurs, which premiered on NBC in 2004. Unlike previous coverage of the Trump family’s history of housing discrimination or his messy public affairs, the show plated him in a thin veneer of respectability: Contestants exclusively referred to him as “Mr. Trump,” he traveled in helicopters and limousines, and his tough decisions in the boardroom were invariably correct. But the theatrics successfully concealed the truth — that the show was a financial “lifeline” for Trump, whose real-world businesses were in shambles.
By giving him a national audience and portraying him as a brilliant businessman, Trump’s reality TV stint teed him up for a successful political career. New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman recently recalled a 2016 run-in with Iowa caucus-goers. “They said, I watched him run his business, he’s a successful guy — they were talking about The Apprentice,” Haberman told the Pivot podcast. “The five-borough view of him as a business failure, which was well-documented, just had not gotten to the rest of the country, because it went against something they thought they had seen.”
While Trump’s fandom may have been unusual in the political world, entertainment scholars have seen similar phenomena play out, says R. Lance Holbert, a professor in Temple University’s department of communications and social influence.
In 1956, social scientists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl coined the phrase “parasocial interaction” to describe “the illusion of a face-to-face relationship with [a] performer.” They found that, over time, almost anyone can develop emotional bonds with their favorite celebrities or fictional characters, similar to what they might feel for a friend or neighbor.
Subsequent research has shown this “intimacy at a distance” has many positive effects. It serves as a protective barrier from social isolation — something Trump supporters in particular may have experienced.
In a 2018 paper, Gabriel and her colleagues looked at how having watched The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice influenced voters in the 2016 election. The researchers found that many viewers had formed a parasocial relationship with Trump over the course of the series. Those bonds made them more likely to believe Trump’s promises, discount his unpopular statements, and see him more positively overall. Gabriel also found that these bonds were a predictor of voting for Trump, even when she examined other factors, like income, education, and previous political affiliation.
“People tend to be distrustful of politicians in general,” Gabriel says. But Trump’s preexisting celebrity, especially as it was shaped by The Apprentice, “gave people a feeling they knew him, which is invaluable, and a feeling that he had those skills” to be president. If George W. Bush was the candidate voters wanted to get a beer with, Trump was already their longtime drinking buddy.
Social media only deepened Trump’s relationships with his fans. Since 2011, when he first began tweeting in earnest, Trump has used Twitter to center himself in the national discourse. In the runup to President Obama’s reelection, much of Trump’s engagement came from his aggressive promotion of a false and racist birther conspiracy. By June 2015, when Trump announced he was running for president, he’d already established a direct line of communication to millions of fans. Since his election, he’s been issuing 140- and 280-character presidential decrees — even news and policy announcements once reserved for traditional briefings — multiple times a day.
Says Jason Zenor, an associate professor of communications at SUNY Oswego and the editor of the anthology Parasocial Politics: Audiences, Pop Culture, and Politics: “I don’t remember a president in my life every day the same way Trump [is].”
Trump follows the long tradition of political figures who have molded their personas to the medium of their day, Lim says. Abraham Lincoln posed frequently for photographs. Franklin D. Roosevelt took a folksy message to radio. And John F. Kennedy smiled at the TV cameras. But the current president’s social media savvy has collided with other societal forces.
The 2016 election was part of a global wave of populism, which political scientist Benjamin Moffitt argues is not so much a political ideology as a performance. Political actors like Trump, Brazilian strongman Jair Bolsonaro, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán play the role of defenders of “the people” in a fight against the “the elite,” incorporate bad manners as evidence of their ordinariness, and, much like The Apprentice, manufacture crises that demand swift, decisive action only they can offer.
Populist performance has intersected with the rise of a powerful “stan” culture, in which obsessive internet fan bases coalesce around musicians, actors, and, now, even politicians. These communities are creative and fiercely protective, investing not just in a celebrity’s work but in their well-being. “When civics is converted into a pop culture product and set loose online, it is capable of engaging people who might not otherwise participate,” writes Amanda Hess in the New York Times. But Hess argues that it can also lead to a false sense of participation, as “the democratic nature of online creation masquerades as democracy itself.”
Taken together, the emphasis on persona over policy has created “a misconception of what politicians are supposed to do,” says John Street, a political scientist and pop culture scholar at the University of East Anglia in England. “It’s all about how you achieve that [power] and not what you’re supposed to do once you have it.”
When voters focus on the pomp and circumstance of running for office instead of the hard work of lawmaking, they may come to realize they’ve elected the wrong person for the job. So it’s not that surprising that Biden won by more than 6 million votes — not necessarily because he inspired his own ardent fan base, but because Trump stoked fierce opposition.
Even as Americans grow more alienated from one another, and the material consequences of their decision at the ballot box, they feel more connected to the person they voted for — and the people who agree with them. “We talk about how negative it is for the country to be divided,” Gabriel says. But those gaps continue to grow because we “get a good feeling” from rallying around our heroes.
In the last four years, some left-wing politicians have demonstrated their own parasocial prowess. Ocasio-Cortez, a 31-year-old digital native, has used her persona to magnify the voice of progressives within the Democratic Party and actively expand their political power.
Since she launched her first campaign in 2017, Ocasio-Cortez has shown an intuitive grasp of the distinct power of each reigning social platform. On Twitter, she posts point-by-point lists deftly reframing common misconceptions about her and her policies. Her July speech about Florida Rep. Ted Yoho (R) allegedly calling her a “bitch” was such perfect TikTok fodder, it’s easy to imagine that she wrote her draft with the platform’s cadence in mind. On Instagram, she takes followers on behind-the-scenes tours of Congress. Most recently, Ocasio-Cortez joined Twitch, a streaming service dominated by video gamers, to play the popular game Among Us in one of the platform’s biggest debuts ever.
If Trump is a troll, then “AOC is more like a celebrity — she has an Instagram that gives people a glimpse into her life,” Nakamura says. She deftly uses “certain conventions around influencing that people are used to and can understand, but without selling a product. In some ways, her product is her politics.”
Few other Democrats have demonstrated Ocasio-Cortez’s acumen, but some have actively derided her digital persona. “Do we want to win, do we want to govern, or do we want to be internet celebrities?” House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) asked other party leaders in a November call.
Unsurprisingly, when Ocasio-Cortez heard about Jeffries’s presumed diss, she clapped back on Twitter: “Pretty astounding that some Dems don’t believe it’s possible to govern, be politically popular, and command formidable bully pulpits at the same time, but it actually explains a lot about how we got here,” she wrote. “We don’t have to choose between these things! We can do better and win!”
There’s much debate in both parties about how to shore up their weaknesses, from their core policies to their leading personalities. Whether they like it or not, candidates who continue to “only present on social media in a really curated, limited way, [are] missing out on an opportunity to let people feel as though they really know them,” Gabriel says.
In our current landscape, that’s more important than ever. As institutional credibility crumbles, “individual politicians become their own brands above and apart from just the party,” Holbert says. Trump only started the trend.
Whether his next move is to start a Fox News competitor, launch another presidential campaign, or be consumed by his continuing legal battles, we can expect one thing: He will certainly continue to tweet.
Eleanor Cummins is a frequent contributor to the Highlight. Most recently, she’s written about the end of optimism and social distancing scofflaws for Vox.