The demagogue in politics is nothing new. Well documented, they have existed as long as democracy itself. Indeed, some maintain that the end of every democracy will inevitably be found at their hands. A kind of black hole to a democratic dwarf star, if you will; a government destroyed in blind, unthinking rage by the very people it was meant to serve.
The term demagogue is used to describe a leader who through various techniques corrupts the raw emotions of the common man, the poor and lower classes with the sole intent of wresting control from an aristocratic class who, the demagogue asserts, has taken control of the democracy for their own purposes. As he corrupts, the demagogue soothes his mob by installing in them the idea that he alone can fix the problem.
At the core, the demagogue does one simple thing best: appeals to the blind passion of the public rather than to their rational thought.
The idea of Trump as a demagogue is indisputable. He fairly bristles like a porcupine with all the markers:
A self-proclaimed champion of the common man, the billionaire (also self-proclaimed) stokes a frenzy of unreasoning fear in his mob of followers over the threat of “radical Islāmic terrorism” even though his supporters are apparently more likely to die crushed by their own televisions than as the result of terrorism in their lifetime.
Labeling his opponents as weak and corrupt through persistent name-calling, Trump incited his adoring fans to violence repeatedly throughout an obnoxiously long 2016 presidential campaign and demonized an entire class of the population – migrants – as a sinister source of evil and dread.
Taking every opportunity to declaim any viewpoint opposed to his own as based on “fake news”, Trump makes ongoing baseless accusations to silence the press and to invalidate unsympathetic media outlets as an enemy of the people at every opportunity – a phrase with a particularly long and storied use by dictators down through the ages.
And just to cement his position as the greatest demagogue in this century (at least so far) Trump went on to proclaim against all common sense and evidence to the contrary that the media was engaged in a vast cover up of terrorism around the world, producing a list of unreported or under reported events – which claim was rated by Politifact as grossly inaccurate – a classic example of “the big lie” that is stock-in-trade of demagogues and dictators throughout time.
But a clinical dissection of Trump’s brand of despotism and bigotry is not my purpose today. Instead of the blowhard, I want to focus on the bullhorn, namely, Twitter, the chosen communication form for a malignantly uneducated president. Just like Father Charles Coughlin, notorious American ultra-conservative, anti-Semite demagogue of the 1930’s who used weekly radio sermons to fire up his base, I contend Trump has selected his own contemporary equivalent.
The Bully Pulpit in 140-Character Ejaculations
Ah, Twitter. Now, with nothing more complex than a mobile phone or an internet connection, anyone can string together 140 characters-worth of random thought and spew it out into the mainstream of American culture with no more difficulty than wiping one’s ass.
Where once Teddy Roosevelt (a true progressive Republican) delivered a speech for more than an hour after being shot in the chest by a would-be assassin, it’s hard to imagine the same level focus from the current self-proclaimed swamp drainer-in-chief whose own attention span seems to be on par with the average American 5-year-old.
Rarely has there been a medium more suited to the man; it is both instantly gratifying and fabulously ego-boosting. If I were a less lazy writer, I would create a science fiction piece about Trump going back in time to invent Twitter. I can’t imagine a more perfect fit ever of a hand to a plow. And for a Grade-A narcissist like The Donald, it is undoubtedly the digital equivalent of smoking crack. Or masturbating over his own picture. Or both at the same time. And with all the aplomb of an elderly grandfather using email for the first time, Trump can add emphasis AT WILL through the LIBERAL USE OF CAPITAL LETTERS as do countless other seventy-year-olds.
Yes, let’s make America great again, indeed, Donald. To help speed this admirable goal along, as an experiment last week I began to look at his body of tweets – no, not all 34.5 thousand of them, just the 350 or so since January 2 (he was radio silent on January 1, doubtless shagged out from the prior evening’s squawking). Also, I excluded the official POTUS twitter account which seems to be nothing more than a bland official log maintained by administration staffers and interspersed with entries peppered from Trump’s personal account.
Instead, I will focus entirely on the ideas from Trump’s own blowhole and seek an answer to these questions:
Are there patterns to be found there among the ruins of Trump’s personal twitter account and do they yield any useful conclusions?
For my experiment, I categorized each tweet according to its main subject or intent, building a running tally for each day. Of course, the categories expand as time goes on but I’m reasonably sure that we will see Trump maintain certain themes over time such as “Russia or Putin”, “Leaks”, and “Voter Fraud”.
Some entries fall in multiple categories, so I have to make a judgement call. For example, here’s one that could be classified as either “Attacks on a Specific Individual” or “Attacks on Press or Media”:
Ultimately, I chose to file that one under personal attacks. Because he carried on his attack of Senator Blumenthal over the course of multiple tweets, I went with the spirit of his overarching narrative (which essentially boiled down to something along the lines of “Blumenthal is a jerk – and so is the media!”).
Aside from the categories where Trump tends to show up best (engaged in his rampant rants and red-meat appeals to his followers) I have created a balancing theme of “Unremarkable, Routine or Normal”. In this category, one sees the ordinary, perfunctory blurb about State dinners, confirmation hearings; mundane things said no differently by Trump than any other politician who has ever said them.
The last thing I consider in this analysis are what I classify as “tone modifiers”: things intended by Trump to ratchet up the level of vitriol. Techniques like using caps on words for emphasis or writing the whole tweet in caps when he’s really peeved (everyone’s favorite bad email etiquette breaker) – the digital equivalent of yelling at your readers.
As a basic metric, I created a simple algorithm that allows me to affix a measurement to the daily level of supporter appeal and general demagoguery. The calculation balances the overall number of tweets for the day with the number of normal, ordinary tweets and separates them from the Trump agenda, red-meat mob tweets (plus any modifying points for use of capitalization, etc.). The end-result is expressed as a percentage.
The higher the percentage, the higher the demagogue value; the lower the percentage, the more normal the day’s tweets. The collective overall resulting values each month are boiled down to what I call a “Monthly Red Meat Index”.
Trump and the Valley of No Vitriol
January found Trump warming up in the bull pen. Many of his tweets were rather unremarkable, putting him down range some days of what I would consider that of a normal politician, somewhat under 50%. Still, I pegged his overall index to be at 59% for the month, possibly in the range of tolerance for your run-of-the-mill, everyday tea-party rhetoric.
Not bad, but I was certain he could do better.
And I was right. Trump spiked early in February with a flurry of personal and media attacks combined with several on the topic of his now ill-conceived and historically despotic “Muslim Ban”. But looking back at the now blossoming upward trend, I was surprised to see a sudden valley on February 13th, where Trump had a moderate 5 tweets but at the same time flat-lined his score to zero.
This meant no unusual rants, no “fake news”, not even any caps for emphasis, just ordinary, non-red-meat tweets. There they were, nestled between a sustained barrage of tweets attacking the media non-stop for the 5 days preceding (and 4 days following the 14th) like a bully rendered suddenly docile as if by a punch to the nose.
Why? When I looked back at the events of that day, here’s what I found:
Was it really the visit of the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau that quieted the bullhorn? Did just the mere presence of the leader of the ultra-polite Canadian people have some sort of calming effect on Trump? Possibly. But more likely it was the fact that this was the day Trump was dealt his most resounding defeat to date: the forced resignation of his national security advisor, Michael Flynn.
Even more interesting, when I re-examined Trump’s twitter activities in the previous month, I saw yet another “valley of no vitriol” on January 23rd – coincidentally the same day that stories broke about FBI investigations of Flynn over his contact with the Russian ambassador.
I hadn’t thought much about it when I first recorded it. January overall featured a much less bellicose Trump in his mob broadcasts. And when he weighed in with a shocking single tweet on the 23rd (and that one categorized as normal) I attributed it to Trump having just been sworn in a few days before.
Apparently, I was wrong. Seeing this pattern now I have to conclude that either
- Trump is metering himself at times when the opposition is most successful or
- He is being edited by advisors – perhaps shielding him from saying things that cannot be taken back
Were tweets perhaps blown up on the launch pad those days that we will never see? And is Trump really as he has declared, “calling his own shots” or is someone else (Steve Bannon) ultimately calling them for him? I wonder. I’ll be continuing to look at this trove of Trump transmissions. If I see anything interesting in trend or pattern, perhaps I’ll post more.