The Twitterification of Trump’s public discourse may have marked a degeneration in electioneering.
It’s nearly 10 months after America’s most maverick President upset the election apple cart. Whether it’s a bold retraction of his Afghanistan statement or jingoistic rhetoric aimed at North Korea, Mr Trump attracts new visibility each day. Amid his brinkmanship, Mr Trump’s words are unambiguous and evoke binaries: it’s either war or nothing.
Whether Donald Trump survives his term or not, his communication style has been his most intriguing element in creating public hope of beating Washington at its game. By adapting the social media’s pithy, often cryptic messaging to public discourse, often using new forms of insult, he brought a new form of rhetoric to life. Hidden in the strategy of truths and untruths that helped with his visibility is not some accidental madness that clicked. In our virtual world where no conversation is really private, the victory was not so surprising to observers who cared to pay attention to the chatter.
One of the most significant communicative strategies that clicked for Mr Trump was his genius in adopting the social media format in verbal communication — the “Twitterification” of his offline discourse. He used pithy, simplistic and often oversimplified statements that were often claims, rather than the whole truth. Twitter’s collectivistic culture is often more ritualistic than merely transactional — on it, truth is subservient to mobilisation and organisation. Even as he appealed to his core working class and white middle class male constituencies, Mr Trump won because of, not despite, his communication style.
After sifting through thousands of tweets and examining the ones Mr Trump used to discredit Hillary Clinton through the language of insult, I researched how he spoke to an audience whose lives were already steeped in the media — or “mediatized” — ready for the cut-and-dried Twitterification of discourse, even if it meant uncivil discourse. His most relevant tweets between March and November 2016, the main period of the campaign, were first analysed, and then his three town hall encounters with Ms Clinton in the presidential debates, moderated by senior journalists, were parsed.
One factor famously stood out. He repeatedly and profusely used the language of insult directed at his opponent — negative campaigns have the kind of emotive, galvanising effect that positive campaigns don’t. This decade is marked by social media platforms that political leaders around the world have harnessed to convey insights and galvanise support: the BJP’s systematic social media campaign leading up to the 2016 elections is now legendary in the way it shocked and awed opponents and voters.
In his approach to the media mix, Mr Trump employed a method whereby he took social media messages and adopted them to televised debates. He first used popular messaging to galvanise support on Twitter, and then expanded those messages on televised debates — thereby assigning organisational and instrumental functions to the social and the traditional media respectively. On Twitter, he organised his rhetoric through hashtags that were essentially insults. The hashtag was both a mobiliser and a mnemonic for Mr Trump.
His rhetoric of insult may be seen in three categories — personal, judgmental and verbal aggression. In each, he employed a dominant theme. In the personal, the theme was “lie”. “Help us spread the truth, stop the lies!” But even in his early campaign, he saw “lies” as too impersonal a problem, and soon peppered his rhetoric with the much more incisive “liar”. “ .... what she really is — a pathological liar!” bellowed a tweet from early August, well before the presidential debates began in October.
The second rhetorical tool in Mr Trump’s campaign was judgment. Like “lie,” “crooked” was a word that was used as a theme running across the campaign. Mr Trump spun it into a character judgment. A particularly strong refrain, “CrookedHillary”, took advantage of the widespread allegations of the infamous email leaks. But Mr Trump later used “Crooked” as a noun, a mnemonic really, signifying it for Hillary Clinton. “Crooked Hillary Clinton deleted 33,000 e-mails AFTER they were subpoenaed by the United States Congress. Guilty — cannot run...!” (November 2). The use of the word “guilty” is interesting, due to its semantic ambiguity. Guilty of deleting emails, or guilty of a larger crime of suppressing official documents relating to the infamous Benghazi attack? The tweet does not clarify, taking advantage of the 140-character limitation on tweets, coupled with the convenience of the ambiguity.
A third tool is the all-too-familiar verbal aggression, using the drama of provocation. Whether as an organisational or an informational platform, Twitter is largely frequented by decided users who follow rather than oppose. A user, specially a political opponent, is likely to lose face attempting to raise a contrarian voice in that echo chamber. The echo chamber presents both the space and the structure for representational claim, whereas a more interactive platform presents the space and the structure for issue-based dialogue.
Throughout the campaign, Mr Trump showed more extreme language and position on Twitter than he did in personal debates. The transition of the language of insult from a social media platform to a real platform is new, and some carefulness was understandable. In the televised presidential debates, Mr Trump did not even use the word “lie” in Debate 1, and employed the word “liar” only in the third and final debate. To run for the presidency and call someone standing next to you in the glare of the media limelight a “liar” must take some gumption.
In a reversal, Mr Trump’s campaign made Twitter the consummate emotive tool and television the more rational tool. The combination proved a potent strategic mix. Experts who chose to cocoon themselves in bastions of the most vocal echo chambers wrinkled up their well-powdered noses at Mr Trump’s unsophisticated language, his lack of any ideologically laden discourse, and his simplistic-sounding solutions to such diverse topics as immigration and defence spending.
The Twitterification of Mr Trump’s public discourse may have marked a degeneration in electioneering. Yet his victory is a happy hunting ground for communication analysts as it marks a significant shift in the discourse. At a sociological level, it helps us understand the fading of fact-based truth and the emergence of belief-based truth.