How significant can a tweet can be? We can point to isolated cases of individual tweets going viral, creating controversy and producing material outcomes in the world. But isolated tweets rarely have such significance. Instead, we need to look at a Twitter feed as a unit of analysis, taking someone’s entire output on the platform as a sustained trajectory of action. This is precisely what Peter Oborne and Tom Roberts do in How Trump Thinks: His Tweets And the Birth of a New Political Language. It’s not a systematic analysis and there are clear limits to it e.g. the failure to state any principles upon which selections have been made from Trump’s output. But I found it a thought-provoking book, both in terms of understanding Trump’s self-formation as a political figure and how we might approach Twitter methodologically.

There are trivial though interesting biographical details which can be ascertained about Trump through the examination of the feed. For instance the consistency with which he tweets extremely early in the morning and very late at nights lends credence to his claim about sleeping little. Looking at how these tweets are sequenced raises fascinating questions about how Trump spends his time and the psychological state in which he takes to social media. From loc 4084:

In this extraordinary sequence of Tweets, despatched in less than two hours before dawn on 4 March, Donald Trump accused his predecessor of illegally tapping his phone and of being malevolent or mentally ill; attempted to conflate Obama’s routine meetings with the Russian Ambassador at the White House with Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s undeclared discussions during the election with the representative of a foreign power; and poured scorn on Arnold Schwarzenegger for his failure to sustain Trump’s TV franchise.

As they say, “Twitter is the medium which allows Trump to expose these thoughts to the world in real time”. Uses of Twitter which seems ill-judged can reveal much more about the user than their learned capacity to deploy it for personal gain. But the more important features, to which Osborne devotes much of his attention, concern his evolving strategy and relationship to the platform. He offers a plausible narrative of Trump coming to find his voice on Twitter, a process tied up with his developing preoccupation with the power of the platform and the reach it affords him:

My twitter account is now reaching more people than the New York Times-not bad. And we’re only going to get better! 11:14 AM –4 Apr 2012

With almost 1.3 million followers and rising really fast, everyone is asking me to critique things(and people). Finally, I will be a critic. 11:41 AM –11 Jun 2012

Today we just passed 1.4 million twitter followers.. 11:09 AM –23 Aug 2012

Happy to have just passed 1.3M Twitter followers. Love communicating with everyone daily. 3:51 PM –2 Jul 2012

Today we just passed 1.4 million twitter followers.. 11:09 AM –23 Aug 2012

Happy to have just passed 1.5M followers on twitter. We picked up over 14,000 yesterday alone. It’s great to speak to everyone daily. 10:31 AM –4 Oct

My twitter followers will soon be over 2 million-& all the “biggies.” It’s like having your own newspaper. 10:07 AM –17 Oct 2012

Wow, I have just exceeded 2 million followers-and in such a short time! 10:38 AM –14 Jan 2013

Obviously in no sense does he ‘reach’ this headline figure. There is a revealing naïveté about how he treats this follower count, something it is hard to ascribe to a strategy of simply trumpeting his own demonstrable advance in social media status. We can’t know that he cares about this stuff. But the evidence suggests that he does. His preoccupation with the size of his following is allied with an irritation that not all the reaction he generates is positive:

It’s okay but why do the haters (& losers) want to follow me on twitter?? Get a life! 1:39 PM –12 Feb 2013

My Twitter has been seriously hacked-and we are looking for the perpetrators. 12:00 PM –21 Feb 2013

Twitter will soon be irrelevant if lowlifes are so easily able to hack into accounts. 1:57 PM –21 Feb 2013

I have many great people but also an amazing number of haters and losers responding to my tweets-why do these lowlifes follow nothing to do! 3:34 AM –24 Apr 2013

Wow, I’m at 2,200,000 followers but I’d love to get rid of the haters & losers—they’re such a waste of time! 11:50 AM –25 Apr 2013

But it ultimately seems to be worth it. On numerous occasions he draws the analogy between his personal platform on social media and owning a newspaper. When he enters the presidential race, he styles social media as facilitating his one-man fight back against a crooked established which is stacked against him. Driven by the value he finds in the platform, he continues to celebrate numerical milestones as his Twitter career continues:

“@Heaveenly: @realDonaldTrump how does it feel to have 2.1 million followers” Great like owning The New York Times without the lo$$es! . 8:04 PM –7 May 2013

Just hit a million on Facebook-http://t.co/FDv4aLoomz

Wow, honored to just pass 2.5M followers on @twitter. Thanks to all my followers. We are going to have a great year together.

Congrats everyone-we topped 4 million today on Twitter-and heading up fast! 1:41 PM –1 Sep 2015

He writes about his tweeting in terms of a relationship with his followers and a personal capacity he excels it. As he put it in a Tweet from July 2014, “Many people have said I’m the world’s greatest writer of 140 character sentences”. His professed skill at tweeting is what underwrites his imagined relationship with his followers. Through his skill, he builds a relationship with his followers and through the ever-expanding platform that ensues, he accumulates power. As he declares on 17 Oct 2012, “My twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth.”

He regularly reflects on the specific practices which lead him to accumulate followers:

Everybody’s talking about my doing twitter during the likely very boring debate tonight. @realDonaldTrump #DemDebate 10:09 AM – 13 Oct 2015

#DemDebate was really boring but had a lot of fun live tweeting and picked up by far the most followers. 9:57 AM – 14 Oct 2015

Brian–Thanks dummy–I picked up 70,000 twitter followers yesterday alone. Cable News just passed you in the ratings. 12:14PM -7 Nov 2012

This includes retweeting his followers, selectively landing a platform to those without visibility, resonant of his election rhetoric about the forgotten, at least when they talk in a way congruent with his own ego:

“@redneckgp: All you haters out there, STOP trashing the only candidate @realDonaldTrump that will put ALL OF YOU & AMERICA FIRST #trump” 9:32 PM –8 Apr 2016

Dennis Bryant (Twitter handle “RedneckGP”) at this point had seventy-five Twitter followers. He suddenly found himself retweeted to Trump’s then 8 million followers. Trump loved to lift his supporters from obscurity. This was one way he established an emotional bond with his supporters.

“@phickeyma: When I come home from work my Twitter page is filled with Donald Trump tweets…Love reading them…So Bold & Truthful.” 5:36 PM –18 Oct 2013

Trump loved to retweet messages from his followers, thus forging a personal bond with voters. In the election year of 2016 Retweets would come to form approximately half of his Twitter output.

What interests me is his developing relationship with the metrics. As he sustains his engagement on the platform, he reports upon his own ‘progress’ in ever more granular ways. He’s concerned with what ‘works’ and what doesn’t. He has data about his ‘growth’ ready-to-hand. There is a relational biography here concerning himself and the platform, as well as the real and imagined relationship it facilitates to his followers. I’m interested in what this case illustrates about imagination and social media, how numbers become means through which dreams come to seem realisable. I’ll come back to this in a later post but I couldn’t resist ending on this tweet:

With almost 1.3 million followers and rising really fast, everyone is asking me to critique things(and people). Finally, I will be a critic. 1141 AM – 11 Jun 2012

In an old essay about Heidegger’s conception of language, the philosopher Charles Taylor invokes the notion of ‘words of power’ to explain the power of Hitler’s rhetoric. Once we move away from a sense of language as an expression of individual meanings and purposes, we find ourselves somewhere entirely differently:

The silence is where there are not yet (the right) words but where we are interpellated by entities to disclose them as things. Of course this does not happen before language; it can only happen in its midst. Bu within a language and because of its telos, we are pushed to find unprecedented words, which we draw out of silence. This stillness contrasts with the noisy Gerede in which we fill the world with expressions of our selves and our purposes. (pg 124)

What Taylor calls ‘words of power’ are words which retrieve the inchoate from this silence, imbuing them with power because they so sharply contrast with the dull forgetfulness of our everyday use of language. To use a term Taylor adopts much later in his career, they resonate. Longings, fears, aspirations and resentments retrieved in this way have a charge because they’ve existed beneath the surface. Words of power give voice to them and, though simply words, they’re qualitative distinct from the words we use in everyday life. They give reality and shape to something which has been latent within and between us, contrary to the relative superficiality and vacuity of much of our everyday use of language.

This is a power of words which standard theories of language struggle to make sense of. However Heidegger’s theory is oblivious to their dangerous uses because, as Taylor puts it, “Heidegger has no place for the retrieval of evil in his system”. Whereas as Taylor uses this concept to make sense of Hitler’s words of power:

The danger comes from the fact that so much can be retrieved from the gray zone of repression and forgetfulness. There are also resentments and hatreds and dreams of omnipotence and revenge, and they can be released by their own appropriate words of power. Hitler was a world-historical genius in only one respect, but that was in finding dark words of power, sayings that could capture and elevate the fears, longings and hatreds of a people into something demonic. (pg 125)

The inability of liberal commentators to make sense of Trump’s rise necessitates that we take him seriously on a philosophical level. The implausibility of President Trump, I still splutter when I say or type this, reveal the faded frames within which we assess him and with which we must necessarily now dispense. He’s created a new frame and those faculties which render him obscene (the cruelty, the vulgarity and the absurdity) are both an obstacle to understanding him but also the necessary condition. What are Trump’s words of power?

We are led by very very stupid people. We cannot let it continue …. we lose everything, we lose military, we cannot beat ISIS, give me a break … we can’t beat anybody … it will change. We will have so much winning, if I get elected, that you may get bored with winning … We are going to turn this country around. We are going to start winning big league … We are going to have such a strong military that no one is going to mess with us.

Trump speaks the language of individualism and meritocracy so familiar from the last few decades. But he does so in a way that gives voice to latent grievance, as opposed to the dull(ing) language of self-described progressives. There are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, there are ‘smart’ people and ‘stupid’ people. The culture of meritocracy became manichean over time, while failing to offer the moral resources to interpret the position of the ‘losers’ and the ‘stupid’. This has happened in the UK as well, as I discuss with Will Davies in this podcast:

The idea that there are those ‘left behind’ who feel ‘ignored’ isn’t new. But as Steve Hall, Simon Winlow and co have pointed out in their work on the far right, a left captured by liberal professionals (a case also made powerfully by Thomas Frank about the Democratic party) has proven systematically unable to give voice to these experiences. The closest that the centre-left has come, in the guise of a Clinton or Blair, has been to offer more of the same: a reinforcement of the prevailing culture of meritocracy and a sterile language of opportunity. There is no necessity about how this injuries are expressed, though there is a path-dependency to how they have been articulated..

The darkness we can see emerging in the US and Europe has been growing throughout the seeming moderation, presaged by its easy and partial articulation into a preoccupation with borders or the radical Islamic threat which threatens to destroy us. To put it as straight forwardly as possible: resentments have been accumulating across large swathes of the population, without any cultural framework within which they could be meaningfully articulated. The cultural horizons of our political culture have narrowed precipitously while structural consequences have been germinating.

However it’s important not to reproduce the facile notion of the ‘left behind’ which is now entering into elite discourse. The claim that the ‘losers’ of globalisation have been ignored and now must be attended to is a crucial component in the rise of what Malcolm James calls popularist post-welfare capitalism. It imputes a homogeneity to experience, it naturalises the rightist articulation of that experience and it fails to address the underlying foreclosure which has been the creeping post-democratisation of the recent years. It also fails to recognise the role of the relatively affluent, those who do not look like losers, whose experience at the very least needs to be understood.

Rather than a construct like ‘left behind’, we should accept the descriptive and explanatory void that currently exists while looking to ethnographic and qualitative studies (existing and otherwise) in order to fill it. There are factors in play here which need to be attended to extremely closely, such as the rural character of Trump’s working class support.

Meanwhile we need to find leftist words of power. Urgently.

There’s an interesting extract in this Guardian article about the growing civil war in the Republican party, concerning the adoption of Trump’s tactics by aspirant politicians within the party:

Trump’s refusal to support McCain and Ryan comes exactly one week before Ryan faces a primary challenge from the businessman Paul Nehlen, a candidate who has sought to emulate Trump’s rhetoric and policies. Nehlen has branded Ryan “a soulless globalist” and attacked him as the candidate of open borders.""

On Tuesday, Trump praised Nehlen for running “a very good campaign”.

McCain is also facing a primary challenge at the end of August from Kelli Ward, a former Arizona state senator who has accused the 2008 Republican nominee of being “directly responsible for Isis”. If the five-term senator manages to fend off the primary challenge, he still faces a competitive general election against the Democratic representative Ann Kirkpatrick, in what McCain has described as “the race of my life”.

Although Arizona was once solidly Republican, the heavily Latino state is now considered an electoral toss-up because of Trump’s unpredictable effect on candidates whose names follow his own on the ballot. For over a year, McCain has also called on Trump to apologize for saying he prefers “people who weren’t captured” to prisoners of war, like the senator was himself in Vietnam. Trump has not apologized.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/aug/02/donald-trump-paul-ryan-john-mccain-re-election-endorsements?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Given (a) Trump’s likely sponsorship of them (b) the relative and growing weakness of the party’s elites (c) a general tendency towards the ‘acceleration of bullshit‘, in which awareness of opportunities for advancement circulate more rapidly than was previously the case, I wonder if we’re liable to see a growing army of American demagogues. Perhaps Trump was just the beginning.

This was Donald Trump’s stance only a couple of decades ago. From pg 222 of Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success:

Trump attempted a more serious pose, traveling to Capitol Hill to tell a congressional committee that he thought they should raise taxes on the rich. Reagan tax cuts that had reduced the maximum rate to 31 percent ought to be abandoned, he said. A top rate of 50 or 60 percent would be better for the country.

From Confidence Men, by Ron Susskind, pg 23-24:

But it was hard to know how even Lincoln’s rhetorical genius would have met the awesome challenge of modern politics: to explain hugely complex problems and offer first-step solutions in all of sixty seconds. Hillary Clinton could do it just like Lincoln split wood: steady and true, swing by swing, as the clock ticked—fifty-four seconds… fifty-five… fifty-six—her final summarizing sentence would hit its period and leave her three seconds to step back and consider what she had said, as though it had all just dawned on her. Obama watched her, on stage after stage, suppressing his amazement. He found the demands confounding and unreasonable, and he responded with a professorial mien, oddly uncertain, offering what felt like introductions to dissertations never to be completed.

How much of the professional socialisation of contemporary politicians represents a direct or indirect response to this challenge? A whole apparatus serves ultimately to facilitate strategic communication under such constrained circumstances. 

In contrast Donald Trump rambles when speaking at length and accelerates when denied time to ramble. How does this help prop up the sense of the authenticity of his speech?

Until relatively recently, I’d assumed that Donald Trump’s political ambitions amounted to little more than self-promotion, not unlike Sarah Palin’s post-2008 career trajectory. Sean Illing suggests this is still the case and that Trump’s recent pronouncements can be seen as increasingly desperate attempts to disqualify himself while creating a media storm:

Like almost everyone else in the media, I’ve spent an egregious amount of my time analyzing Trump – Is he serious? What’s his strategy? Does he really want to be president? We’ll never know for sure what Trump was thinking when he lurched into this race, but this much is clear: He’s in over his head.

Rachel Maddow put an interesting question to her audience this week:

“It’s time to look seriously at this question, which is the question of whether or not Trump is trying to blow up his presidential campaign? Has he been spooked by his own impenetrable lead in the polls? Is he trying to get himself effectively kicked out of the Republican Party so there’s no longer a threat he might actually get nominated as that party’s nominee for president, or, God forbid, that he might win the office.”

Given how malleable his convictions are and how increasingly insane his proposals have been, it’s entirely possible that Trump is looking for ways to exit this race without appearing to quit. A “winner” like Trump can’t be seen losing to low-energy “losers” like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio – that would undermine his brand and thus defeat the point of running in the first place. If he does want out, he needs to save face, to leave on his own terms.

http://www.salon.com/2015/12/09/is_trump_setting_fire_to_his_own_campaign_why_his_increasingly_insane_behavior_may_be_calculated/

I’m not sure if I believe this. After all, there’s a psephological reading of his growing extremism: when a bounce is needed, say something outrageous, enjoy the media attention and rely on an anti-PC backlash from his supporters in the face of widespread criticism from the ‘establishment’. Plus he might actually be a bit of a fascist. All his public pronouncements show him to have a remarkable lack of expert knowledge, he’s manifestly a raging narcissist and his obvious opportunism has been on full display during the campaign. I find it plausible that the combination of these factors could generate a peculiar kind of organic 21st century fascism, into which he is capable of investing himself, even if it’s not a pre-existing belief as such. He is bringing his fascism into being on the campaign trail, as opposed to it being an expression of prior reflective belief.

Nonetheless, I love the idea of the front runner in the Republican race desperately trying to disqualify himself through ever more extreme statements, only to be cheered ever more emphatically by a disturbingly large chunk of the American electorate. I can imagine The Donald coming out of a rally, collapsing into an exasperated heap on his battle bus and wailing to his chief of staff that “I thought I’d really put them off that time!” What if he gets carried to the Whitehouse in this way? He whips up a popular movement that he has no choice but to try and lead? His pronouncements become ever more publicly extreme while he becomes ever more privately exasperated? I think there’s a political satire here: The Reluctant Fascist.