Donald Trump’s unfettered access to Twitter – a digital platform he has exploited with remarkable success – has long been a hallmark of his unusual presidency. In a documentary on the 2016 campaign, his former aide Sam Nunberg recalls; “Twitter was our focus group. …I would look at the amount of retweets he got and he would see the issue.” This informal polling proved to be a key advantage for Trump’s team quickly realized that Twitter – which is actively used by a quarter of the US population – could be a sounding board for their more provocative ideas. “[M]y barometer was over 100 retweets,” says Nunberg, “If that [happened] it was an issue that we were winning on.” When someone floated the idea of a border wall to keep Mexicans out, and suggested that they be made to pay for it, they tested it on Twitter. It clearly struck a note with the base, and Trump liked how it fed into his image as a successful property developer. So he ran with it.
Soon, another pattern emerged, one that has become more pronounced with time. Whenever a company, individual, or institution stood in his way, Trump took aim at them on Twitter. In December 2016 Lockheed Martin shares fell nearly three percent after he tweeted that the production of its F-35 fighter jet was “out of control.” In March 7, 2017 one hint of “a new system where there will be competition in the Drug Industry” wiped billions off the valuations of Pfizer, Merck and Amgen. Similar tactics were used to hector US companies into keeping jobs within the country, or to align themselves with political slogans about America’s resurgent greatness. An infamous tweet about Amazon paying “little or no taxes to state and local governments,” while relying on the Postal Service and undercutting local retailers caused the company’s stock to tumble nearly 4.6 percent early in the next trading session.
Initially Trump’s umbrage was seen as a corrective to the influence of US corporations over the media and government. But his rants rarely had a lasting impact. As his administration’s agenda became increasingly sidelined by partisan bickering, Trump’s bluster became predictable. Markets began to discount it. Meanwhile, he kept finding new targets: the media; the “deep state” that wanted to undermine him with leaks; Robert Mueller’s “witch hunt”; and, of course, the North Korean “Rocket Man” with his comparatively smaller nuclear button. A typical snarl, from June 2017, read: “The FAKE MSM [mainstream media] is working so hard trying to get me not to use Social Media. They hate that I can get the honest and unfiltered message out.”
Recently, the potency of that “honest and unfiltered message” has begun to falter. Last week, for instance, a Trump supporter was filmed loudly rebuking two customers at a midtown restaurant in New York because he had heard them talking in Spanish with the staff. He even threatened to call US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Footage of the encounter circulated online and the man was identified as Aaron Schlossberg, an attorney with offices close by. Once this was known, thousands of Internet users gave his law firm one-star reviews on Yelp and Google and he became the focus of several mainstream news stories. Within days a deluge of embarrassing publicity meant that Schlossberg had effectively become persona non grata in his office building and he was caught fleeing from cameras when someone noticed him trying to walk around the area while maintaining a low profile.
Something similar happened when a woman tried to stop a black family from barbecuing at Lake Merritt Park in Oakland. The woman, later identified as an employee at Stanford University, spent more than an hour calling the police to a enforce a “no charcoal” restriction at the lakeside. When the white spouse of one of the men at the cookout asked why she was harassing them, she responded with sullen condescension and, allegedly, racist language. After the police finally arrived, she claimed to have felt threatened and harassed by the woman who had filmed her – a conclusion that was not borne out by the footage. This encounter was also widely viewed online. In a month with several other high profile instances of racial profiling – at a Starbucks restaurant, at Yale, at an AirBnB rental in Rialto California – Jennifer Schulte, was dubbed ‘BBQ Becky’ and soon became an Internet meme for the paranoia that motivated these incidents. Images of her summoning the police on her cellphone were hilariously inserted into iconic photographs from the 1960s Civil Rights struggle. This, too, provoked an important backlash.
A growing number of filmed encounters with American racists, bigots and aggressive policemen, have begun to show that the digital platforms which enabled the rise of populist politics are gradually becoming a liability for it. While Trump fulminates, with some success, against the mainstream media, he is powerless against the digital masses who are appalled by, and no longer willing to tolerate the xenophobia and racism he has knowingly incited while in office. What may be even more galling for him is that mockery, one of his most potent weapons (“Crooked Hillary”, “Lyin’ Ted”, “Little” Marco Rubio) now rebounds against him on a daily basis.
A year ago the writer Rebecca Solnit memorably described Trump as a narcissist who failed to realise that the “power of the presidency [relied on] a system of cooperative relationships … on people’s willingness to carry out the orders the president gave, and a willingness that came from that president’s respect for rule of law, truth, and the people.” His contempt for these norms, his daily retreat into the bunker of right wing media, would, Solnit warned, be “like going mad on a desert island, only with sycophants and room service … like having a compliant compass that agrees north is whatever you want it to be.”
Presciently, Solnit noticed that Trump “misunderstood power and prominence” because all his life he “had bullied friends and acquaintances, wives and servants, and he bullied facts and truths, insistent that he was more than they were…” Eventually, however, there would be a moment in which this “pustule of ego” this buffoon whose “grasp exceeded his understanding, because his understanding was dulled by indulgence” would realize that he had “stepped off a cliff, pronounced himself king of the air, and is in freefall.” A year and a half into Trump’s chaotic presidency, that moment seems increasingly close at hand.