When the top 20 Democratic presidential candidates trade jabs during the first set of their primary debates on June 26 and June 27, they’ll have more to worry about than a fellow contender landing a knock-out punch—at least if the Wall Street Journal is correct that President Donald Trump will live-tweet the event.
The harm the Democrats will inflict on each other when they square off in two groups of ten on back-to-back nights at NBC News is minor compared to the devastation the president can wreak in 280 characters by distracting the media and redirecting the focus to his narrative. If the past is any predictor, here’s what we can expect.
1. Coining New Nicknames
Trump’s penchant for nicknames is so prolific that there is an entire Wikipedia page summarizing the various monikers he has bestowed on politicians and media personalities. Trump has already christened several of the Democrats vying for the presidential nomination with names meant to both irritate the individual and educate the public, as well as send the media down a rabbit hole of epic proportions.
The president’s nickname for Sen. Elizabeth Warren proves the point. Calling the Massachusetts senator “Pocahontas” forces the media to repeatedly report the genesis of the pet name: Warren’s unfounded claim of Native-American ancestry for the apparent reason of gaming the affirmative action hiring practices of the modern university.
The nickname also unnerves Warren, so much so that she resorted to releasing a 23 and Me genetic analysis to “prove” her claimed Native-American ancestry and taping an entire video segment of her DNA reveal. Not only did the press report the “story” of Warren’s supposed proof of her Native-American bona fides, they even asked the president—the president of the United States—about it. “Who cares,” Trump scoffed, leaving a confused media in his wake.
Then, by week’s end, Warren’s attempt to shut down debate over the “scandal” brewing since 2012 when opponent Scott Brown first exposed her duplicity, blew up in her face when the Boston Globe was forced to correct its coverage. “Warren’s genetic ancestry was based not on Native American DNA, but on Mexican, Peruvian, and Colombian DNA,” the newspaper was forced to admit, and tests showed only a 1/64 to 1/1024 heritage—possibly lower than “the average European-American” in actual Native American DNA.
In addition to Pocahontas, Trump has already branded several other Democratic presidential candidates. There’s Sleep Creepy Joe for former vice president Joe Biden, High-Tax Andrew Cuomo for the New York governor, Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Alfred E. Neuman for South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Who’s next in line and what catch-phrase Trump will choose is as unpredictable as it is predictable that he will add one or more to his repertoire and the candidate and the media will respond as intended—dedicating a news cycle to non-news injected with a quick tweet.
2. Saying the Shocking
Equally predictable? That Trump will tweet something shocking, whether it be un-P.C., outright rude, or just bluntly speaking a truth the mainstream media refuses to report or covers only tentatively.
The ripest candidate for this approach is Kamala Harris, given her affair with the married former mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown, because sex sells and highlighting the press’ double standard motivates the MAGA movement. There has been some coverage of Harris’s relationship with Brown, which Brown admitted to while acknowledging that during the affair he launched Harris’s political career with potentially quid-pro-quo political appointments.
But the scant coverage of Harris’ improprieties pales in comparison to the media’s focus on Trump’s proven (Marla Maples) or rumored (Stormy Daniels) past affairs, and none of Trump’s past misdeeds involved doling out political spoils, which Harris accepted.
Whether Trump takes aim at Harris for her sex scandal won’t be known until day two of the debates, when the California senator duels with three other front-leaders in the crowded Democratic pack: Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden, and Buttigieg. But if Trump does target Harris with a tweet, he’ll likely follow his formulistic approach that includes one or more of the following: buzzwords (“pathetic” “loser”), a nickname, misspelling a key word, InExplicable random capitalization, shocking language, and enough of the scandal to intrigue, but not enough to explain, forcing the media to do the job it has refused to do to date.
Or Trump might resort to an ambiguously worded attack on Harris or another candidate, with the media then paraphrasing the president and reporting the worst-possible interpretation of the tweet as fact and as proof that Trump is a racist, sexist, or homophobe. Once the media falls for Trump’s tactic, he’ll pounce and use the incident to further his fake-news narrative. My guess for a target here is Buttigieg.
3. Feeding the In-Fighting
Trump’s tweets will also likely pit two or three of the candidates (and their supporters) against one another. We saw this approach when Sanders took on the Democratic National Committee-anointed Hillary Clinton. Expect Trump to remind the socialist-leaning base of the Democratic Party that Sanders was robbed, while suggesting Biden waits in the wings to steal the nomination from the now-rightful heir. A simple “DNC robbed Bernie in 16 and now Biden’s ready to steal the nomination again,” tweet, better phrased by the master, will serve the purpose simply enough.
Then watch for Trump to further exploit the vast Democratic field and divided loyalties by tweaking Biden for failing to get the endorsement of his BFF, former President Barack Obama. As the debate unfolds, and the candidates unleash their prepared attacks on their fellow liberals, a mere smattering of tweets by Trump will amplify the soundbites, bringing the intramural debate into the limelight.
The status quo of the primary debates sees the parties playing to their base, while the general populace remains oblivious to the machinations riveting political junkies of all stripes. Then, when the general election rolls around, the candidates shift to more moderate tones and one happy family gets behind the eventual nominee.
But two nights of live tweeting by the president—more than a year out of the general election—will change this dynamic, first by highlighting, and thus fueling, party schisms, making it more difficult for inter-party riffs to heal. Second, Trump’s tweets will expose the extreme leftist positions championed by the Democratic presidential field to the normally uninterested apolitical American, making the transition to moderation a near impossibility.
4. Throwing Shade at Recalcitrant Republicans
Democrats won’t be the only ones likely targeted in any tweet storm: Look for Trump to also hit recalcitrant Republicans. John Kasich serves this dual purpose well. Think: “Alfred E. Newman has the appeal of Kasich. NOne.” Or “Kasich’s dad was a postman. Biden rides Am Trak. WHO CARES?”
Or maybe it’s the Never Trump fringe that takes some unfriendly fire. Trump could score a Twitter trifecta by slamming Democratic debate moderator Rachel Maddow. Comparing Maddow’s anti-Trump bias to that the president faces from some previously right-leaning pundits, like Bill Kristol and Max Boot, the president could successfully cast his Never Trump opponents as no better than his rabid, irrational critics on the left.
In the process, the president can castigate Maddow and her cohorts, playing the liberal media bias theme to his benefit. Stressing Maddow’s bias allows Trump to suggest to the party faithful that the MSNBC reporter plays favorites, and then by highlighting any partiality in her questioning of the candidates, Trump can sow further discord among the candidates and their supporters.
5. Celebrating His Accomplishments
The two nights of presidential Twitter won’t likely focus solely on snark and shade. Substance and success, or “winning bigly,” will likely share equal billing for the president. Whether it be the economy, jobs, judicial appointments, or deregulation, the president has plenty of accomplishments to tout, but the media continues to downplay or ignore them.
Watch for Trump to jump the legacy media and take his message to the people under the guise of debate commentary. With every new, ridiculous proposal floated by the vying candidates, Trump can counter with the specifics on his successes.
Look also for the Democratic candidates to continue the Russia collusion turned obstruction hoax. While that may play to the left’s base, if Trump tweets out rejoinders, the moderate middle will see the candidates for what they are: conspiracy-obsessed caricatures worthy of disdain.
Trump can promote his survival of the Deep State’s attempts to undo the election results as one of his greatest accomplishments—and something it is doubtful any other Republican could have achieved. With a crafty tweet along these lines, Trump can easily parlay the debate into further evidence of the Democrats’ desperation.
While Trump’s top aides reportedly advised the president “to let the Democrats attack each other in the media and onstage while remaining outside of the fray,” in this case, Trump would be best served to ignore the guidance. Just by suggesting he’ll have his smartphone at the ready, Trump has put himself in the head of every Democratic contender.
The candidates must now focus, not just on what one of their primary opponents might say, and to which they will have an opportunity to respond in real time, but also on what the president is tweeting out, unanswered, to millions. Their campaigns are likely now crafting clever one-liners to preempt Trump’s tweets, but as the Republican primaries proved, you can’t beat Trump at his own game, so you’re better off not trying.