The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights
NEW YORK — Over the past 2½ months, President Trump has retweeted to the more than 30 million followers of his personal Twitter account these pieces of highbrow social media content:
●An animated GIF of him executing some WWE-style ground-and-pound on a CNN avatar.
●A cartoon meme of a “Trump train” running over a hapless CNN reporter.
Do these retweets equal an endorsement? For Trump, they probably do, but the White House isn’t saying, and it doesn’t really matter.
Given a boost by the tweeter in chief, the attacks on Trump’s enemies, content dredged from the depths of the Internet’s mud pits, are amplified, spread virally and instantly transmitted into the center of the nation’s daily political discourse — “liked” by hundreds of thousands of Trump’s supporters and seen by countless more in breathless news reports.
Much has been made of the president’s use of social media to dominate the media bandwidth during the campaign and, since taking office, his penchant to lay bare his id in real time despite repeated efforts by White House handlers to curtail him. On Sunday, Trump, in his own words, mocked North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on Twitter, calling the dictator with a growing nuclear weapons arsenal the “Rocket Man.”
Yet if Trump’s bombast on social media has alarmed foreign leaders, confused Congress and moved financial markets, his strategy of retweeting memes and GIFs has a different effect, media experts said. At a time when Trump’s public approval ratings have tumbled and he is taking fire from conservatives for flirting with bipartisanship on immigration, the president’s promotion of the outlandish content — created and distributed by his most ardent supporters — aims to rally his far-right political base.
“Last week, he met with Democrats, and a lot in the base were kind of pissed off,” said Nikki Usher, an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. “Now he’s signaling to them: ‘I found this stuff [online]. Isn’t it cool? I’m listening to you.’ It’s a reaffirmation to the base that they really matter.”
The tactics strike Trump’s critics as distasteful at best and harmful at worst; some liberals and media columnists have accused the president of promoting violence against reporters and sexism against female politicians. The Twitter user whose Clinton golf GIF Trump retweeted Sunday has an account handle that relies on the phonetic spelling of the f-word.
Despite the howls of outrage, Trump can claim a win, Usher said. The Internet, she said, has produced a “remix culture” in which anyone can produce content. By that measure, some of the content Trump is retweeting is “brilliant” as parody or comedy and is clearly intended as a joke, she said.
“The mainstream media and progressives say this stuff is threatening and dangerous and calls for violence, but then Trump supporters say these folks can’t even take a joke,” she said. “He wins in that regard. And the other appeal is that members of his base have a horrible, deep-seated hatred of Hillary Clinton.”
In addition to the golf GIF, Trump retweeted other memes Sunday. One showed his face with stock market arrows pointing up, another showed a Trump train plowing through a snowstorm, and a third showed an image of the U.S. electoral map covered in Republican red with the words “keep it up Libs. This will be 2020.”
Critics said Trump has not only coarsened and debased the nation’s dialogue, but also that he has promoted xenophobia and anti-Semitism. During the campaign, Trump promoted a meme of Clinton with the words “most corrupt candidate ever” emblazoned on a six-pointed star of David. As president, Trump has retweeted users who, journalists later discovered, have made other racist or anti-Semitic statements.
To Macon Phillips, who served as the White House’s director of new media under President Barack Obama, Trump’s choices of what he retweets demonstrate a lack of interest in growing his base and at the same time highlight the narrow political space in which the president has room to operate.
“The fact that he routinely retweets people with a checkered history and viewpoints reflects the slim pickings he has to go with” of supporter-created pro-Trump content, Phillips said.
It is not clear whether Trump retweets the memes himself or relies on aides, such as White House social media director Dan Scavino. Nor is it known how Trump discovers the material, given that he follows just 45 people on Twitter from his personal account.
Trump aides did not respond to a request for comment.
In recent months, Trump has flubbed a couple of retweets. In one case, he retweeted and thanked a supporter who does not appear to be real person but whose persona was invented to promote a Trump-related apparel store. In another case last month, Trump retweeted a user from Britain who called him a “fascist.”
Asked about the president’s retweets Sunday, Republican strategist David Urban replied: “I’m not going to judge what’s appropriate and inappropriate with the president. Retweets do not equal endorsement. I think it says in the bottom of this tweet.”
There is, in fact, no such disclaimer.
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