When Barack Obama swept into office in 2008, social-media platforms were still trying to find their digital legs. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had millions of users, but they hadn’t yet exploded — they were still transitioning away from being the exclusive online hangout of hipsters, celebrities, and college students. Obama’s campaign was the first to realize, harness, and unleash their users’ potential as an organized political machine.
Twitter, in particular, began to take root in mainstream pop culture at the same time as Obama, and has been an undeniable force for celebrities, athletes, and politicians seeking to communicate their messages without the mediating filter of the press ever since. When used properly, Twitter and Facebook — and now Snapchat, Instagram, and the like — can be invaluable tools. When used incorrectly, they can lead to instant catastrophe, apologies, and even loss of employment.
Donald Trump’s social-media activity sits on the knife’s edge between those two outcomes, and his meteoric rise from reality-TV star to presumptive Republican nominee has the potential to forever change how politicians communicate with the public online.
Trump has openly admitted that instead of spending a few million dollars on advertising, he can simply pull out his smart phone, fire off an impulsive insult or observation, and watch as — within minutes — CNN is discussing it on air with a countdown clock, three paid analysts, and a host who will most likely also ask him about it in the next debate. Obama and his staff, coming as they do from the world of professional politics, have always used social media to try to maintain their cultural relevance, tweeting at astronauts, Steph Curry, or Kim Kardashian. Trump has been culturally relevant for decades and is faced with the opposite task: using social media to make himself seem politically savvy.
Whatever you think of him, there is no denying that Trump relishes the way he’s been able to wrap traditional media around his finger. And he has no problem unleashing his army of some 8 million Twitter followers to gang-tackle his chosen target. For all its flaws, it can’t be denied that Twitter has always been a reliable place to weaponize large numbers of people, and Trump has excelled at doing just that.
The problem he faces as he prepares to battle a pair of time-tested foes in the Clintons is that five years’ worth of his social-media history sits online, waiting to be plucked and used against him. No candidate in modern history has clinched his party’s nomination for president with so much personal insecurity on full display for anyone to find. And that will be a problem for the Republicans trying to take back the White House and hold on to the Senate.
Trump’s 2011 rants about Rosie O’Donnell or third-party candidates are now prime ad fodder for Clinton and her PAC allies. Throwaway tweets and grand pontifications from a celebrity entertainer suddenly have real-world consequences and ramifications for U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Trump has a knack for thinking and tweeting out loud, but that habit could come back to hurt him and the nation he seeks to govern.
Take for instance this mostly harmless 2013 Trump tweet about the Miss Universe Pageant that would later be staged in Moscow:
Do you think Putin will be going to The Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow – if so, will he become my new best friend?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2013
At the time, it was merely a stab at promoting a public entertainment from which Trump stood to profit. Now, with Trump so close to the presidency, a tweet like this, with its vain effort to suck up to Vladimir Putin, takes on an entirely new meaning.
#share#Just last week, Trump began online feuds with British prime minister David Cameron and the newly elected Muslim mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, in which he declared that relations with the U.K. could cool if he becomes president and challenged Khan to an IQ test. He pretty much stopped just short of challenging them both to Feats of Strength around the Festivus pole. It seems inevitable that Trump would have tussled with Khan eventually, given his controversial proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. But Trump’s spat with Cameron has a much older, more personal origin, and all one needs to do is reach back into his Twitter history to find it.
Trump’s distaste for Cameron has nothing to do with, say, ongoing trade negotiations or the U.K.’s upcoming vote on leaving the E.U. It stems from his ongoing grudge with Scotland over its placement of windmills on his Scottish golf course. Trump very famously lost his fight to prevent the windmills from being constructed, and has used Twitter to vent his frustration at Cameron over the decision:
Trump first tweeted at Cameron in October of 2012 and continued to needle him through 2014. Are we to expect that a man notoriously famous for publicly holding personal grudges is suddenly going to put his two-year Twitter obsession with the British prime minister aside when it comes time for sensitive diplomatic negotiations that are in the best interests of the United States?
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In 2013, Trump ranted about South Korea, a key Asian ally, in a video on his YouTube Channel. What are South Korean leaders to make of the man so close to being their American interlocutor, at a time when they face an unstable dictator with nuclear weapons just to their North — an unstable dictator with whom he is now open to doing business? (It didn’t take long for the Clinton campaign to latch onto that line of attack.)
The implications of Trump’s online outbursts for future domestic policy are just as worrisome. In March of 2014, a bored-at-home Donald Trump, after a long day spent dealing with Dennis Rodman and Gary Busey, tweeted, “If I were President I would push for proper vaccinations but would not allow one time massive shots that a small child cannot take – AUTISM.” Now, consider how such a man could change American health policy.
#related#Trump’s social-media posts about taco bowls and Jon Stewart have little to no bearing on how he will ultimately steer the country, even if they are what our celebrity-obsessed media, now social-media stars in their own right, choose to focus on. But the cumulative weight of his digital paper trail gives us a window into what kind of president he would be, even more so than the decades of video and print interviews he’s given.
This is how Trump has transformed the political use of social media forever. His ascent from business entertainment to one step shy of the Oval Office will certainly encourage other celebrities (such as Mark Cuban) to enter politics in the future. Perhaps the only plausible way platforms such as Twitter or Facebook truly become delegitimized is when politically ambitious, famous outsiders see the treasure trove Trump and others like him have left in their wake, and decide social-media use just isn’t worth the risk.
That is, of course, unless he wins.