We’ve all gotten so used to our news cycles rising and falling with the circadian rhythms of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed that it’s easy to forget that our president is terrible at Twitter. Objectively, Trump’s feed looks less like that of a social-media savant and more like that of the grandpa he is. (This is the man who recently advised those interested in maintaining their privacy to use couriers, after all.) And Trump reportedly doesn’t use email, for which his staff and children must be grateful — can you imagine what kind of Snopes-baiting wastelands of “fwd:fwd:fwd” chain emails and nutritional supplement spam their inboxes would be otherwise?
The truth is that beyond building his personal brand, Trump barely uses Twitter as a social-media platform at all. He rarely retweets other users (probably for the best). He appears to have little or no facility with textspeak — remember “easy D”? — or with using intelligible shorthand to get around Twitter’s limits. He doesn't even thread.
So the president sucks at Twitter. The whole point of the service is that it is interactive, it is many-to-many, it is responsive. But Trump uses Twitter like a truncated broadcast medium — top-down, one-to-many, episode-driven. And he gets away with his Luddite approach because he was a broadcast celebrity long before he dictated a single “Sad!” (There’s no transitive property regarding fame and social media yet — you can become a “real” celebrity by being great at social media, but celebrities don’t have to be great at social media.) Though Trump’s legacy may wind up being written in 140-character chunks, if you want to really understand the man and his presidency, don’t look to the House That @Jack Built for answers. Look to television.
Obviously, this is what Trump himself would have us do. Trump loves television. Live-tweeting Fox & Friends might be the only social-media-native way he uses Twitter. The president is so literally a creature of television that he might even understand the connection, despite research suggesting that heavy television viewing impairs the ability to relate abstract concepts.
In fact, Trump is a walking, barely coherent example for much of what science tells us about the impact of high-volume TV viewing on perception and cognition. He is aggressive and has self-destructive impulses. He has highly punitive attitudes toward criminals and appears to disproportionately associate people of color with crime. He’s got a short attention span and a sedentary lifestyle — as well as "insufficient consumption of fruits and vegetables."
All of these tendencies (maybe even the bad diet) are exacerbated by the strangest plot twist of all: The president is not just a television viewer, but a creation of television. As a celebrity who interprets his world via the medium that shaped him, he inhabits a strange Truman Show milieu: He is both an observer and participant in a reality structured around his utterances. He can bring story lines into existence by stating them. Indeed, this seems to be the only kind of narrative he acknowledges. His ability to create and destroy news cycles may make him feel quite powerful, but there’s also something pathetically small about the imagination that would find pleasure in such feats. Trump is the leader of the free world, but all he seems to want to do with that power is live out the almost literally masturbatory adolescent fantasy of interacting with his favorite TV shows. He’s not the president — he’s cosplaying at it.
When Trump tweets about television news talking about Trump tweets talking about television news, we are drawn into an infinite regress of meaning — imagine a television broadcasting ever-smaller pictures of itself. Trump diminishes the presidency when he does this, turning it into nothing more than a show within a show within a show within a show. This denigration matters. Trump has clearly failed to grasp the norms that make the presidency, historically, a burden on the person who accepts it. And, just as grotesquely, he delights in its weirdly picayune perks: the White House’s phone system, receiving the “biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl,” jumping out from behind a curtain to the applause of schoolchildren. The dignity of the office and the gravity of the role of president are two of the most important differences from the consequence-free license of mere celebrity. Fame grants permission — “When you’re a star, they let you do it” — while elected office is supposed to impose limits.
The only check on Trump's behavior is ratings.
The only check on Trump's behavior is ratings. Trump treats his current job the same way he’s treated every other role he’s played, scripted or not, from husband to father to entrepreneur: not simply as improv, but as a skit he can tap out of at any time. (Perhaps this explains his obsession with Saturday Night Live.) When things go wrong, he does not hang around to figure out what happened; he leaves and lets others clean up the mess. There is always another contract, another wife, another multimillion-dollar loan, another camera to play to.
The prospect of a flat-screen-addled commander-in-chief with no tether to morality, ideology, or the common person's reality is terrifying enough. But Trump is not just aimlessly wandering the White House grounds, aching for his close-up. He has an entire tragicomic cast supporting his delusion: There's the stiff company man (Reince Priebus) and the blousy, gum-snapping neighbor (Kellyanne Conway). His long-suffering, elegant daughter is a gambit to make him more sympathetic.
Most importantly, there's an enabling butler figure to his paranoid and insecure Norma Desmond: Steve Bannon, who knows a thing or two about Hollywood himself. A former television and political documentary producer, Bannon reportedly has instant access to the Oval Office, and is known to meet in private, closed-door sessions with his aging and delicate star. Many rightly worry that Bannon is using this relationship to feed Trump white-nationalist rhetoric and convenient conspiracy theories. We should be concerned about that — the more insulated from day-to-day normality Trump becomes and the more he exists on a diet of self-reinforcing television and Bannon fantasies, the less he will care about the one thing that bounds his behavior now: popularity.
A casual concern for being at least a little liked is the thin hook upon which the fate of the nation rests. What will happen to us if Nielsen ratings fade to the background and Trump comes to believe that the only opinion that matters is Bannon’s focus group of one?