Donald Trump at one: A continuation of his make-believe reality TV past
One year ago today, Donald Trump was addressing an unprecedentedly large inauguration crowd. On that sunny day in January, the president gave a speech that was given universally rave write-ups in the press.
If you’re in the fake news hunting game, you’ll have counted three lies in two sentences there. Two of those lies were lifted straight from the president’s own words (the crowd wasn’t the biggest, and it was raining), and the speech was treated with abject suspicion by most sources, especially in the manner it seemed to echo the words of Batman villain Bane. It was, as the previous Republican president George W Bush was to describe it, “some weird shit.”
These are both inexplicable lies for an elected politician to tell. Nobody can control the weather, and it would be entirely reasonable for his crowd size to be smaller than Barack Obama’s. Washington is a largely Democrat city, so any Republican would struggle to draw big crowds, especially when Trump’s base isn’t in the income tax bracket that tends to spend lavishly on travel. And yet he lied and got others to lie on his behalf for it. Former press secretary Sean Spicer says he now regrets the ludicrous claim.
It feels appropriate to start with some unnecessary lies because that’s really the defining feature of his presidency to date. Yes, all politicians tell untruths to some degree – even George “I cannot tell a lie” Washington – but Trump’s are on a whole different level. As the New York Times – or as Trump would call it, “the failing New York Times” – notes, the current president has told more than five times as many lies as his predecessor managed in his entire eight-year White House residency.
They’re not even ambiguous or grey areas: they’re straightforward, objective whoppers easily fact-checked and proven. As Trump was denying he ever called climate change an invention of the Chinese on live TV, hundreds of thousands of people were retweeting the evidence that he did. That tweet – and plenty more like it – is still up today: the president seldom bothers to delete his messages, covfefe aside. Indeed, the president’s Twitter account provides a fascinating archive of citizen Trump’s instinctive thoughts and feelings from the days before he occupied the Oval Office – and are a helpful reminder that it’s often easier to be a backseat driver than the one steering the car.
What would the Trump presidency be without Twitter? Well, it would probably make the whole White House operation more closely resemble that of previous presidents, for one thing. While Trump’s press conferences where he has kept to script have been comparatively controversy-free, Twitter is where he lets loose, hammering out 140-character (and more recently, 280-character) screeds against the world.
Themes emerge through repetition: the Russian investigation (“the single greatest witch hunt in American history”, the president said, presumably forgetting the actual Salem witch hunts were a thing) has been mentioned exactly 100 times since inauguration. Obama on 136 occasions. Hillary Clinton 56 times. “Fake news” gets name-checked 159 times. The president’s hackles seem to be especially inflamed when he sees negative coverage on rolling TV news, leading to the unedifying spectacle of him taking to Twitter to deny a story critiquing the amount of TV he watches… immediately after he’d seen it reported in a TV segment he was watching.
For a while, the Trump team tried to limit the president’s tweeting, but now it appears they’ve just accepted it – or more likely accepted that they can’t control it. Neither can Twitter, for that matter. Despite suspicions that Trump routinely breaks the social network’s rules, the company has no plans to kill the goose that keeps laying golden eggs.
Does that matter? Kind of. Although Twitter isn’t particularly big in the wider world with just 69 million American monthly users to Facebook’s 239 million, it’s a hub of journalists looking for stories, and Trump – disdainful of the media as he clearly is – still knows this is the best way to get attention. An inflammatory Trump tweet will guarantee headlines and that his side of the story is given an airing – even if it’s accompanied by the proof that it’s demonstrably untrue.
Having found success with that formula, the president has increasingly found ways to refine and improve it. the president has been known to treat his Twitter feed like the reality TV show he left behind, complete with plot twists and cliffhangers. He’s fired at least 15 people in his first year as staff members move in and out of favour like a tedious soap opera on fast-forward. All of it is documented to his 47 million Twitter followers.
On the current affairs end of the TV spectrum, having a war of words with a nuke-armed pariah may leave many fearing we’re on the brink of actual war, but my God it gets media coverage. And as some have posited, all of these things prove a useful distraction from other matters, and a way of getting the easily-distracted media to dance to his tune – what Australian political campaign manager Lynton Crosby likes to call “the dead cat strategy.”
Trump once described his usage of Twitter as “modern day presidential”, which is fair enough, given it’s hard to imagine Thomas Jefferson publishing a GIF of himself punching a man with a CNN logo for a face. But then Jefferson once wrote that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” It’s unlikely Trump would follow that path. As I write this piece, he has just compiled his “fake news awards” – a set of accolades for “THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR”. If every news source is embedding your tweets, it’s important to add a caveat that these mainstream media sources aren’t to be trusted, given they’ll likely be tearing your actual content apart.
Does anyone buy this? It’s really hard to tell. Every tweet published by Trump has a bunch of supportive responses with users heavily spamming the #MAGA (“make America great again”) hashtag, but it’s really difficult to know how many of these are real voters – and if they are, how representative they are of the US population at large. Opinion polls show Trump to be at a record low, but then the polls showed a Hillary Clinton victory back in November 2016, so who knows?
We’ll have a better idea in just over ten months’ time, once the midterms have shown whether Trump can defy political gravity and avoid a midterm slump. Was Roy Moore’s defeat in deep-red Alabama a fluke based on a deeply flawed candidate, or a sign that people are getting fed up of Trump’s schtick: an easily-bruised bruiser? Whatever happens, you can be sure that Trump will have his own interpretation out on Twitter to rival the experts’ – and that means it’ll be on newspaper pages soon enough.