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Trump’s presidential campaign is Too Online

President Trump’s campaign is shaped by, and aimed at, an audience largely existing on Twitter.

President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed is seen displayed on a phone screen with American flag in the background in this photo taken on August 2, 2020.
Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto

At a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, last week, President Trump waxed philosophical on a subject close to the hearts of everyone in the audience: former Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr. “Do you hear the news?” Trump said, “Bruce Ohr is finally out of the Department of Justice.”

If you do not recognize the name “Bruce Ohr,” that’s not because you are inadequately informed — he does not really have a claim to fame. Bruce Ohr, who was a former associate deputy attorney general at the Justice Department, is best known for meeting with former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, author of the “Steele dossier.” (That’s the document that alleged Trump was under the influence of Russian intelligence services, which had supposedly also compiled blackmail material on him.) Ohr’s wife Nellie worked for Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that employed Steele to write the infamous dossier.

Ohr’s name has come up in conservative media countless times as proof that the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russian assets was tainted from the beginning.

But Iowans are likely more concerned about rising numbers of coronavirus-related hospitalizations and a potential surge in unemployment (an issue Trump’s campaign focused heavily on in 2016). So with a few weeks to go until Election Day, why was the president instead cheering the exit of a former Justice Department official — on whom I wrote an article in 2018 and still had to look up his backstory?

The answer is that Donald Trump and his campaign are poisoned by toxic levels of being Extremely Online.

To be Extremely Online is not simply to be literally connected to the internet (as you likely are at this very moment), but to be deeply enmeshed in a world of internet culture, reshaped by internet culture, and, most importantly, to believe that the world of internet culture matters deeply offline.

Being Extremely Online is both a reformation of the delivery of ideas — shared through words and videos and memes and GIFs and copypasta — and the ideas themselves, a world in which Twitter effectiveness counts as political effectiveness despite Twitter’s comparatively small audience.

The importance of those ideas is then judged not by their real-world impact but on their corresponding popularity or infamy in the world of Online. A trending topic on Twitter becomes a critical locus of entirely online discussion, a Facebook post becomes an infamous online reference for months to come, an entire infrastructure can arise to foment the celebrity of a person you would have never heard of had you not baked in the furnace of being Extremely Online. A person like, say, Bruce Ohr.

After five years of claiming that Democrats took their cues from Twitter and were untethered from the realities of American life, the Trump campaign has spent significant time focusing on issues that are most of interest to conservatives who spend hours of each day on Twitter, and thus believe that the issues discussed on that platform (or even the machinations of the platform itself) are of critical importance to every American.

That’s not who won 2016 for Trump — it was groups such as independent voters who didn’t like Hillary Clinton, not people enraptured by his online whims. In 2020, Trump is ignoring those voters and emphasizing priorities that are largely detached from what most voters care about and are set on a platform most Americans don’t use.

The Twitter-directed presidency

Recent research shows that the vast majority of Americans — 80 to 85 percent of the American population — don’t follow politics closely or at all. And among voters, the most important issues are the economy, the coronavirus pandemic, criminal justice and policing, race relations, and health care, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll in early September.

There are partisan differences: Democrats care more about climate change than Republicans, Republicans care more about abortion than Democrats, and the importance of immigration has dropped precipitously for members of both parties. But in general, these are the issues top of mind for American voters, while the election plays out amid an economic catastrophe and a pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 Americans.

But with mere days until the election and millions of votes already cast, Trump has centered his attention on repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and demanding more arrests of participants in the so-called “Russia hoax.”

He also shared a tweet alleging that Barack Obama and Joe Biden had members of SEAL Team Six — the elite military unit that killed Osama bin Laden — murdered because they actually killed a bin Laden body double. (When asked about that tweet by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, Trump said, “That was a retweet. That was an opinion of somebody.”)

Trump is an Extremely Online person. Not only is he frequently active on social media (predominantly Twitter), but he operates in a world in which what he and others post, on Twitter or in the world of online media, is extremely important.

Twitter, however, is not so essential to most Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, just 10 percent of Twitter users create 92 percent of the platform’s content:

The median U.S. adult Twitter user tweeted just once per month during the time period of the study. The median Democrat posts just one tweet per month, and the median Republican has no monthly tweets. Similarly, the typical adult on the platform – regardless of party — has relatively few followers. The median Democrat is followed by just 32 other people, while 21 other users follow the median Republican.

This was a matter of a great deal of discussion in the Democratic primary, during which a host of pundits argued that excessive reliance on Twitter could be “ruinous to the Left.” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet told the Atlantic’s George Packer in September 2019 that real-life issues were seemingly invisible to the “Twitter Universe,” saying, “The Twitter base of the Democratic Party decides what’s important, not the actual base.”

But then the Democratic Party nominated Joe Biden, whose campaign is notably Not Online— as New York Times critic Amanda Hess described it last fall, his campaign has “negative online energy.” While Joe Biden and his campaign are active on social media, it does not exist within the firmament of the Extremely Online. As Wired’s Kate Knibbs wrote:

He simply isn’t as online as his predecessors and competitors, nor is he as internet fluent as the new class of rising political stars like US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is exceptionally gifted at Twitter retorts. He bills himself as a transitional candidate, but with his distant, milquetoast internet presence—it’s extremely clear that staff control his social media—Biden is a throwback, less instantaneously accessible and less interested in the internet as a site of connection.

In comparison, Trump was an Extremely Online presidential candidate in 2016 but was able to successfully portray himself as a champion of “real Americans” — people too busy to care about the trending topics on Twitter, people seemingly ignored by the political elites who appeared to exist on and benefit those just as online as themselves.

In a piece titled “The Missing Populist,” National Review writer Michael Brendan Dougherty notes Trump’s persona in 2016 was markedly different:

Trump’s slogan, his policies, and his rhetoric about the “forgotten man” and “American carnage” all helped him connect with an independent type of voter who doesn’t like a GOP that seems too dominated by politicians who are comfortable in loafers and seersucker in the summer.

Dougherty argues that version of Trump has disappeared, writing, “If Trump loses this race, it will be because he was too self-obsessed and forgot the forgotten man that he campaigned for in 2016.”

Trump has become ensconced within two entities: a GOP that has finally realized Trump only requires praise from the party — not ideological change — and right-leaning Twitter.

The politics of right-wing Twitter

Trump does not seem to think the coronavirus pandemic and the corresponding economic crisis are pressing problems in America (contrary to what voters believe). But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any issues at the top of his mind. It just so happens that those concerns are much more tied to what conservatives care about on Twitter.

Those grievances are myriad. Like the New York Times’s 1619 Project, a history of slavery in America and a conservative bugbear that apparently required a lengthy White House conference in response. (It ended with the president announcing a “patriotic education” commission at a time when millions of kids are attending school remotely because of the pandemic.)

Or the Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that means that tech companies like Twitter or Facebook are largely not responsible for third-party content and can moderate that content (or users) as they see fit. Trump has made loud demands for its repeal (often on Twitter, no less), without ever adding context to his denunciations of the regulation that might explain what Section 230 is to someone who is not Extremely Online.

He’s even taken to bringing up the matter on the campaign trail, likely in front of thousands of people who might use Facebook and Twitter but are likely less enmeshed in tech regulatory policy.

And in the world of Trump Twitter, “Russiagate” — a winding investigation into the alleged genesis of the Trump–Russia probe that launched during the 2016 campaign — is the most critical issue of them all. In fact, according to Trump himself, it’s the “THE BIGGEST OF ALL POLITICAL SCANDALS (IN HISTORY),” despite the very apparent lack of arrests or indictments in the matter by members of Trump’s own administration and even denials by the administration that his Twitter statements on the subject are legally binding.

And conservative activists like Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk seemingly agree that this issue is of peak importance because, well, Trump said so.

But when Democrats were focused on Trump’s alleged ties to foreign entities during the run-up to impeachment proceedings held earlier this year, conservative writers and outlets routinely argued that voters simply didn’t care.

As the Hill writer Joe Concha argued in March 2019 (emphasis added):

In the meantime, [voters] appear to be saying, we’d prefer to hear less random, baseless speculation about Trump and Russian collusion and more about things that impact our lives: health care, the economy and what the numbers mean in terms of my family’s financial situation, and perhaps more on each of the 2020 Democratic candidates. We’d also like to hear more about a topic that is likely impacting every American’s life, directly or otherwise: the opioid epidemic that killed more than 70,000 people in 2017 and has ruined the lives of millions of families.

The perils of the Extremely Online

It’s not that all of the issues that apparently occupy Trump are unimportant. Voters care about a lot of things. Social media companies do hold a great deal of power. Questions about government investigations are often worth asking.

But the focus on these issues, at this time, reflects the milieu to which Trump is connected — where the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, and the pandemic itself, is small potatoes in comparison to the New York Times editorial board or tech regulations or the origins of the 2016 investigation into Trump’s potential ties with Russian actors.

Trump is Extremely Online, and so are those whose thinking plays the largest role in his decision-making. So it made perfect sense for Trump to make mention of Joe Biden saying that he “got his start” at an HBCU (he announced his 1972 bid for the Senate at Delaware State University) with no explanation or context, because no context would be necessary for the Extremely Online conservative.

As conservative pollster Frank Luntz put it in a briefing for a British strategic advising company, “Hunter Biden does not help put food on the table. Hunter Biden does not help anyone get a job. Hunter Biden does not provide health care or solve COVID.” Or as conservative writer Ed Morrissey wrote, “It is a strange decision indeed to focus the last two weeks of an election not on the economy, not on foreign policy, and not on Operation Warp Speed, where Trump has potentially winning arguments, but on the son of his political rival.”

The Extremely Online conservative is not any more reflective of the priorities of the voting public than the Extremely Online left was at times in the Democratic primary. And Trump, who once touted his ability to speak for those often ignored by elites on Twitter, is now the most online politician of them all.

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