Barack Obama was often styled as “the first social media president.” But this gave him too much credit. Obama was not a “social media president” so much as a president whose meteoric rise coincided roughly with that of social media’s. The Obama machine’s use of social media was purely a political matter—much like Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats or John F. Kennedy’s deft use of television. You do what you can with what you have.
It is to Donald Trump, really, that the sobriquet truly belongs. Donald Trump doesn’t use social media as Barack Obama did: wielding it as a kind of tepid and uninspired extension of the Office of the Press Secretary. Instead, he uses it like many average users do: as an aggressive and belligerent extension of his own fragile ego. A fellow like Donald Trump was made for social media, and social media was very much made for people like Donald Trump. He is truly our first social media president.
Sometimes, Trump’s Bombastic Twitter Style Works
In some instances, Trump’s behavior on social media is a welcome departure from the norm. There is a dark kind of hilarity and a refreshing type of insight to much of Trump’s Internet discourse, conducted as it is primarily within the strict confines of Twitter.
When will Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd and @NBCNews start talking about the Obama SURVEILLANCE SCANDAL and stop with the Fake Trump/Russia story?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 1, 2017
Ad hominem aside, this is an excellent and appropriate question. There is indeed a surveillance scandal afoot, one that the media is steadfastly ignoring in favor of ginned-up unsubstantiated allegations about Trump and Russia promulgated by disgruntled ex-Obama staffers. It is nice to have a president that feels confident enough to point this out.
Trump’s bombastic style—the disgruntled crank undertones, the usage of capital letters, the willingness to say thinks like “Fake News Media”—is really a genius strategy, made all the more so because it appears to be entirely unaffected. Trump shoots from the hip like your grumpy but insightful Old Uncle Mert, and he does so with an unstudied grace. People respond to this kind of rhetoric because they use it themselves. Trump’s tweets are what many workaday Americans would tweet if they were president. He’s not just the first social media president—he’s the first people’s social media president.
Trump Embodies The Worst Social Media Tendencies
But there is a downside to this populist tweet candor, at least as it is embodied in the personage of Donald J. Trump. He may be adroit at firing off firebrand tweets, but he also exemplifies and amplifies the worst impulses that social media is calculated to gratify: egotism, egoism, vanity, a reckless need to publicly respond to slights quickly and without calculation, and—above all—a relentless desire to maintain one’s image and reputation. These are the side effects of social media, and Trump is beholden to all of them.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
There is a grain of truth to this. The New York Times has indeed repeatedly disgraced itself and has also “gotten [Trump] wrong” for some time now. Yet Trump cannot be satisfied with merely pointing out a fact. He must also bluster, bluff, and blubber his way into a half-bright constitutional threat: “Change libel laws?”
We might, as the old saw goes, not be inclined to take Trump literally. But we might feel compelled to at least take him seriously, and he is almost certainly dead serious about this: it would very likely please him to “change [the] libel laws” of this country in order to sue the New York Times for “getting him wrong.”
This is a disgraceful position for the President to take. But it is also part-and-parcel for social media: ill-informed, angry, spur-of-the-moment, drenched in a faux-bravado that can only come when one hides behind an avatar and an Internet handle. Social media allows many people who are otherwise cowards to swell themselves with a sense of importance and manly action. Trump is no different; he is, in fact, the archetype of this sordid pathology.
Trump Uses Twitter To Lash Out At His Enemies Publicly
Consider, also, in the wake of the collapse of the Republicans’ Obamacare replacement plan, Trump’s acidic pronouncement: “Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & [Obamacare]!”
Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 26, 2017
It is virtually guaranteed that President Trump has no reckoning whatsoever, even the smallest inkling, of the politics and the intricacies of the debate surrounding the American Health Care Act; all he knew was that he had been publicly, globally humiliated after the law failed to pass. And so he took to publicly lashing out at the people who are nominally his allies, like a trashy high school junior engaged in a sleazy little Facebook battle over something that happened during fourth period chemistry.
We are given to expecting this of hormone-addled fifteen-year-olds who don’t know any better. But the commander-and-chief of the most powerful army on the planet?
Trump’s Desire For Affirmation And Praise Is Bottomless
This angry self-centered gratification machine is not limited merely to Trump’s personal movements on social media; his subordinates and confidantes, too, are naturally beholden to feed and stoke his enormous ego. (It must be a special kind of hell working for a man whose own self-image is as radically inflated as Trump’s.) Last week, both Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted out highly favorable praise for Mike Cernovich: Conway about Cernovich’s appearance on 60 Minutes, and Trump, Jr. about Cernovich’s allegedly breaking the Susan Rice / unmasking scandal.
Who is Mike Cernovich? He is not somebody anyone, let alone the President of the United State or even the President’s advisors or children, would want to be close to, let alone publicly extol. Cernovich is a social media personality whose stock-and-trade seems to consist of aggressive alpha male sociology and Internet conspiracy theories. But Cernovich’s most unnerving quality is his deeply unsettling obsession with pedophilia: time and again he has fixated on pedophilia, making it into an unnerving hobby horse, melding it effortlessly into his conspiracy theories and Internet feuds. There is perhaps no public figure more obsessed with the subject of child rape than Mike Cernovich.
Why would a White House official and a child of the President of the United States promote such a disturbing powder keg of an individual? Because Trump’s ego demands it: his bottomless desire for affirmation and praise requires those close to him to seize on any and every source that might possibly gratify the president’s sense of self-worth.
Social Media Has Inflated the Presidency’s Ego
That egomaniacal streak is what drives a large part of President Trump’s behavior—including much of his behavior on social media. The presidency, almost by its very nature, has always tended to attract narcissistic, self-centered men. But there was a time when that self-centered narcissism had a necessarily smaller orbit and a radically lower likelihood of exposition.
Not anymore. Like much of the rest of the country, Donald Trump has fallen into the vanity trap of online self-promotion, with predictable results. On the one hand there is an almost-endearing human quality to this phenomenon: the president, after all, is a man like anyone else, his failings and foibles just as much as part of his human condition as are yours. On the other hand, we might expect better of this from Trump, and from anyone who sits in the Oval Office.
Social media can accomplish great things. It can also be a sewer pit of useless self-absorption and thoughtless anger. Would that, sometime over the next four to eight years, Trump learns to tell the difference.