Imagine this: Donald Trump, having just been sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, strolls into the Oval Office. He takes a seat at the historic Resolute desk — built from the remains of a 19th century British ship — and finds a dignified and somber letter from his predecessor, President Barack Obama. Trump pulls out his phone, and composes a tweet: "Just read a letter from dummy Barack Obama. Too bad he and Crooked Hillary couldn’t get anything done in 8 years except delete emails. Sad!"
If this ever happens — and I imagine it often — it will be just one tweet among hundreds of insults exchanged between Donald Trump and his enemies throughout the 2016 election. Many pundits have suggested Trump seldom seems to know what he’s doing, and I buy that when it comes to just about any policy topic we’ve heard him speak about. But he knows exactly what he’s doing on Twitter. He loves to tweet — and he knows it gives him real power.
Jeff Bezos may own The Washington Post, Rupert Murdoch may own Fox, and Peter Thiel may eventually own Gawker, but in a way, Donald Trump owns all of them. What these publications cover is not entirely up to them, and Trump knows it. So it’s not incidental that Trump is essentially a shock jock who often tweets (and retweets) incredibly offensive statements all the time. Trump has proven that he is a man who trades intellectually in simple maxims, including the folk public relations belief that there’s no such thing as bad press. He said as much in his book, The Art of the Deal, where he wrote this:
"Good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all. Controversy, in short, sells."
Trump has been forging controversy since he entered the 2016 race, and he beat everyone — badly. Remarkably, Jeb Bush spent tens of millions of dollars and couldn’t come close to dominating media cycles like Trump has, because when he tweets, he gets a lot of press. Just look at what happened when Hillary Clinton played Trump's game yesterday:
Trump’s fanatical meme-fueled base on Reddit essentially predicted his response, and worked itself into a frenzy when Trump responded to Clinton on Twitter. Trump’s Reddit edgelords called it "our first presidential Twitter victory."
"WE WILL PAVE THE WAY TO THE WHITE HOUSE WITH MEMES," one Reddit user said. Maybe!
Trump is the first Twitter candidate, and he may be Twitter’s most successful product ever. You can almost track the rise in his megalomania over time against the increase in his Twitter followers:
Honored to have passed 1 million twitter followers. We are making America #1 again. #TimeToGetTough— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 13, 2012
My twitter account is now reaching more people than the New York Times--not bad. And we're only going to get better!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 4, 2012
Happy to have just passed 1.3M Twitter followers. Love communicating with everyone daily.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 2, 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.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 4, 2012
My twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2012
My twitter followers will soon be over 2 million--& all the "biggies." It's like having your own newspaper.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2012
I love Twitter.... it's like owning your own newspaper--- without the losses.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2012
And Trump isn't just any Twitter user — he’s a power user. Trump is that person you know who’s so obsessed with #engagement that they use it to belittle others into submission. Like Cher, another person who gets Twitter:
All because of me- people don’t care about you Cher. "@cher My week on twitter 1k retweets , 29 new listings 15k new followers 2k mentions."— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2012
Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is catching up, but this is Trump’s playground — and it’s because he’s using Twitter like how a lot of other people use it, by personally writing insults. As of May, The New York Times reported, Trump had used Twitter to insult 224 people, places, and things. And every time Trump tweets, he will utterly eviscerate someone, or be utterly eviscerated in return, until every racist, sexist, or otherwise terrible statement fades into an indistinguishable background of angry barking and "analysis."
Thanks to Twitter, the way we cover elections is going to look a lot more like the way we cover Game of Thrones or The Bachelor — an unrelenting regurgitation of 140-character burns and counter-burns, occasionally punctuated by substantive exchanges. This election isn’t reality TV — it’s reality Twitter.