Not a day of Donald Trump’s presidency has gone by without him blasting his “Make America Great” schtick on Twitter and viciously lashing out at the free press and his political rivals.
But in the routine flurry of tweets shared by Trump last week, one was particularly heinous. The leader of the free world retweeted a video of a Trump supporter shouting “white power” at protesters in Florida, setting off a scramble inside the White House, as The Washington Post wrote.
“Thank you to the great people of The Villages. The Radical Left Do Nothing Democrats will Fall in the Fall. Corrupt Joe is shot. See you soon!!,” Trump wrote in the tweet.
Hoping to minimise the backlash, senior staffers rushed to track down the president, who was unreachable for a number of hours. Three hours later, after some back-and-forth, Trump was persuaded to delete the incendiary tweet.
But there was no apology from the president. Instead, his officials fell back on the standard Trumpian tactic: deny, deny, deny.
Reporters were fed the excuse that Trump hadn’t heard the protester yelling “white power” and that he’d quickly moved to purge the video from his Twitter feed.
It took less than 24 hours for Trump to ease back into racist rhetoric, sharing another explosive tweet of a white couple in Missouri pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters — who were mostly people of colour. The demonstrators had marched to the St Louis mayor’s home to demand her resignation after she read out the names and addresses of residents who wrote letters requesting she defund the police.
Trump’s staffers have palmed off his remarks as ignorance too many times for us to believe he’s made another mistake. Especially when we’re talking about the same man who called COVID-19 “kung flu” and demanded to see the birth certificate of the country’s first African-American president.
In fact, Australian National University public policy professor Dr John Hewson believes Trump knows exactly what he’s doing.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
“He runs a strategy based on division, he divides on every issue, whether it’s race or gender,” Hewson told Crikey. “He’s feeding the racist stereotypes all the time. It’s all very conscious.”
According to Hewson, while Trump often makes outright racist remarks such as, you know, Mexicans are “rapists” or “I think Islam hates us”, he also uses subtler messaging to appeal to his base.
By doing so, Trump invites his hardline supporters to read between the lines and allows his staff to dream up excuses on his behalf.
“He uses a ‘nod and a wink’ but what he really means is ‘we’re going to take a hard line against people’,” Hewson said.
As a textbook narcissist, Trump dislikes having to take questions from “nasty” reporters at press conferences, Hewson says. And that’s why he uses Twitter so emphatically: to control the narrative and intimidate and lambaste his critics.
Rather than relying on factual, quality journalism, Trump shares content from networks and journalists that paint a favourable view of his presidency. Fox News and Turning Points USA are his favourites, but recently he’s been cosying up to One America News Network, a right-wing news channel that’s prone to pedalling conservative conspiracy theories. The president also routinely shares articles from Breitbart, a controversial far-right news network.
It’s a dangerous tactic for a world leader to employ — particularly a world leader with 83.5 million followers.
But University of NSW international relations lecturer William Clapton isn’t convinced Trump employs a single political strategy on Twitter.
“We seem to get a mix of policy announcements, random thought bubbles, outlandish conspiracy theories that he seems to have an affinity for, and blatant attacks on people he doesn’t like; whether that’s Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or the traditional news media,” Clapton told Crikey.
According to Clapton, Trump is the pinnacle of a populist president in that he’s able to appeal to the grievances of middle-class white America.
“He’s known for nasty, inappropriate language but it feeds into his popularity and allows him to present himself as one of the people, despite being elite himself,” Clapton said.
“He’s absolutely not an everyday person. But he’s able to present himself as one by throwing niceties out the window.”
While Twitter has traditionally allowed the president free rein to tweet out baseless claims and launch vitriolic attacks on his opponents, the company is finally beginning to take a stand.
Last month, Twitter hid one of Trump’s tweets, warning it “incited violence” after he wrote “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” during the Black Lives Matter protests. The company also fact-checked an unsubstantiated tweet by the president about mail-in ballots.
Trump responded in the only way he knows how: by going on the attack. He issued an executive order against social media companies, warning on Twitter that Republicans “will strongly regulate” the companies or “close them down” if they “silence conservatives voices”.
The fast-approaching US election might explain why we’ve seen a ramping up of hateful, polarising speech on the president’s feed during a time of turmoil, rather than messages of unity.
“His re-election is all that matters. He will do or say whatever he has to say to help him get re-elected. That’s his strategy,” Hewson said.
“Elevating his re-election over the country is a disaster. It’s been a big cost to pay, and we’re nowhere near the worst of it.”