We are living through a historic moment, on the internet and in real life. This is the first presidential election in which we, the American people, have access to a major-party nominee’s Twitter history from before he began to run for public office. That candidate is Donald Trump, who joined Twitter in 2009, six years before he announced his candidacy for president of the United States, and two years before Gary Busey made his triumphant debut on The Celebrity Apprentice. (As the man now at the top of the Republican ticket tweeted on March 17, 2013, “Great line from @TheGaryBusey: ‘I am an angel in an earth suit.’ Do you agree? #CelebApprentice”.)
As an American citizen of voting age, I believe it is my civic duty to get to know the presidential candidates as best I can — their policy proposals, their core beliefs, the content of their characters. One might gain this knowledge by, say, reading a book. But given that the ghostwriter of Trump’s The Art of the Deal recently denounced it (in an article in which he levels accusations like, “[Trump] has no attention span,” and, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life”), I figured that perhaps the printed page was not the best way to get to know Donald Trump. So instead I turned to Trump’s preferred medium of communication: Twitter. This is where Trump has laid out the ideas, vision, and personality he wants us to vote for come November. Trump’s tweets are his Audacity of Hope.
Donald Trump was a relatively early adopter on Twitter. He joined in March 2009, although most of his tweets that first year do not seem to have been authored by him; they are written in the third person and are mostly promotional in nature (his first tweet, on May 4, 2009, reads, “Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!”). Occasionally, these early tweets are preceded with a qualifier to let us know the words are coming straight from the mouth of Trump himself. But, strikingly, Trump did not tweet about politics at all during the first two years of his Twitter life, and perhaps even more strikingly, he did not tweet anything even remotely mean. On November 22, 2010, he even mentions President Obama in passing (“Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta received the Medal of Honor from Pres. Obama this month. It was a great honor to have him visit me today”) with nary a derogatory adjective in sight.
A major turning point comes on January 27, 2011, when he tweets out a link to the fan-made website shouldtrumprun.com. Sensing that this is what people want from his internet presence, as opposed to Lady Gaga concert reviews, he uses this feedback as an opportunity to tweak his online persona.
Several months later, after he thanks his followers for their “support” during the challenging time when he was deciding whether to run in 2012, Trump tweets, “Your most popular tweet answered, why I’m holding off on a presidential bid …” with a link to a video on his vlog expanding on this tweet and presumably giving the people what they want. This acknowledgement of a previous tweet’s popularity is the first instance of something that would later become de rigueur on Trump’s Twitter feed, if not his entire presidential campaign: acknowledging what got the loudest response, and then doing that thing again, only bigger and more outrageously. I’m not sure if there’s a term for this on the campaign trail, but there is one for it on the internet: doing it for the likes.
I decided to scour Trump’s tweets because of a recent phenomenon: Self-identified progressives retweeting old Donald Trump tweets from the period roughly between 2011 and 2013 — after he found his “voice” on Twitter, but long before he announced he was running for president. (Journalists like Vocativ’s Erin Gloria Ryan and Business Insider’s James Cook, to name just a few, are popular generators of these RTs.) Sometimes these old Trump tweets recirculate when the internet catches him contradicting himself, or when something he says or does in real time makes a previous utterance of his particularly ironic. For example, this 2013 Trump tweet recently found new life: “Isn’t it crazy that people of little or no talent or success can be so critical of those whose accomplishments are great with no retribution.” But some of the most popular Trump RTs are some of the most absurd. I saw this 2012 tweet make the rounds during Katy Perry’s performance at the DNC: “.@katyperry is no bargain but I don’t like John Mayer — he dates and tells — be careful Katy (just watch!).”
New York magazine’s art critic, Jerry Saltz, is a liberal (in both senses of the word) retweeter of old Trump tweets, even though he says he believes the Republican candidate to be “a psychopathic demon.”
“I’m a big believer of listening in on the other side,” he tells me when I ask why he retweets Trump. “And there’s never been anybody more real on our political stage, and that’s how he captures our attention. I would not say [his Twitter account] is art, but you’re glimpsing a core — somebody’s actual neurological, psychological data flow, a plasmatic field of impulse and need.”
The culture writer Alex Frank is another consistent proponent of old Trump RTs. “On one hand, it’s me laughingly reaffirming that someone who tweets about US Weekly bullshit could never be POTUS,” he told me via email. “But then it’s also me being totally terrified about the idea that the person who might be the next POTUS tweets about [Us Weekly bullshit].”
Last month, Salon columnist Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote a piece in which she argued that tuning out some of Trump’s campaign was her own form of “self-care.” That’s a buzzy phrase that gets tossed around a lot these days, but I wonder if RTing goofy old Trump tweets is a similar kind of coping mechanism for some progressives.
“The short answer is that this absurd, depressing election has me feeling helpless and baffled,” Frank wrote, “and sometimes an RT showing what a doofus the candidate you hate is is all you got.”
Trump cemented his Twitter aesthetic in 2012 — the same year that’s getting the most play on the ironic RT circuit. You know his style well by now: exclamation marks, a dramatically placed dash, and a tone of apocalyptic urgency. (“Watch out!” “Sad!”)
Trump’s aesthetic is also all about repetition. If you dig back in the archives, you can see him workshopping his now-signature move of giving all his enemies oft-repeated, supervillian-esque epithets. (In his early days of political tweeting, he tried out the nickname “the habitual vacationer, Obama,” but quickly seemed to realize that this wasn’t as catchy as “Lyin’ Ted” or “Crooked Hillary” — and more importantly, it took up way too many characters.) But the repetition on his Twitter feed is revealing of more than just his favorite adjectives. If you read between the tweets, some strange thematic obsessions emerge.
First off, Trump really hates wind turbines. The Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi recently reported that Trump has tweeted about the newfangled windmills 111 times (I will let you come up with your own Don Quixote joke here) — only 18 fewer times than he has tweeted about … his presidential opponent, Hillary Clinton. Trump claims to oppose turbines because of the damage they do to populations of migratory birds — he tweeted, “‘wing bangers’ — the name given to wind turbines by bird lovers for the thousands of birds they kill in the U.S.,” though one anti-turbine activist admitted that he has never heard this name before and that Trump probably made it up. But Nuzzi uncovered that at the core of his turbine hatred was his belief that they were ruining the view of his Scottish golf course. Surely you remember this Scottish golf course.
But on Trump’s Twitter feed even weirder and pettier obsessions emerge. Judging from his tweets, one of his greatest passions in life is seeing young celebrities end up with deserving partners. In addition to warning Katy Perry against both John Mayer and her ex-husband, Russell Brand, Trump has tweeted strongly worded relationship advice to Rihanna, Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus, and, most famously and vehemently, a certain sparkly vampire. “Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart,” he tweeted in October 2012. “She cheated on him like a dog & will do it again — just watch. He can do much better!” This is an interesting ax to grind coming from a man who himself once cheated on his wife, but once these Pattinson tweets got attention, he couldn’t stop himself. He tweeted a near-identical message about it later that day. He got one more out of his system on October 23: “Everyone is asking me to speak more on Robert & Kristen. I don’t have time except to say ‘Robert, drop her, she cheated on you & will again!”
This was Donald Trump’s state of mind the day before he announced that he would donate $5 million to charity if Obama released his birth certificate: Everyone is asking me to speak more on Robert Pattinson, so I will!
This is not democracy. It’s crowdsourcing.
These phenomena might seem unrelated. But with little else to go off of — no voting record, no consistent and noncontradictory statements of self — we have no choice but to process Trump’s tweets as glimpses into his mind, his character, and his decision-making process. (As Hillary Clinton said, ironically with sub-140-character-pithiness, at the DNC: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”)
Another pattern: Once an institution shuns or even simply ignores Trump, he suddenly deems that whole institution to be “rigged” or “sad” or “dying.” Remember how excited he was to read the Top-10 List on Letterman in the halcyon days of May 2009? Less than three years later, after David Letterman criticized Trump for what he believed to be racist comments about Obama: “David Letterman’s show has become so boring and mundane.” In October 2012, he tweeted, “I knew last year that @TIME Magazine lost all credibility when they didn’t include me in their Top 100…” (He changed his tune when it put him on the cover in August 2015: “On the cover of @TIME Magazine — a great honor!”) When The Amazing Race won the 2012 Emmy for Outstanding Reality-Competition, he tweeted, “Emmys telecast is way down & lowest telecast on record among young adults. Emmys have no credibility-Should have nominated Apprentice again!”
When he loses, it’s the institution’s fault, never his own. I have a strange feeling we’ll be hearing a variation on this refrain in a few months.
Celebrity tweets have an odd afterlife. And I guess you could argue, in light of the controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails, that there is something noble about Donald Trump leaving all his digital garbage out there for the world to see. (In the words of a legendary old Rihanna tweet from 2011: “Delete tweets?? NEVA DAT.”) But this digital footprint is ultimately damning: To read Trump’s Twitter history chronologically is to gaze into the mind of a staggeringly narcissistic, tone-deaf bully who sees a world divided neatly into winners and (to use a favorite word of his) “losers.” The irony, contradictions, and gaps in logic are all right there in his epic feed, and it’s a morbidly fascinating thing to behold: He tweets pat, inspirational quotes as often as he fails to live up to them.
I did not intend to read all of Trump’s pre-candidacy tweets. I merely meant for this to be an investigation into a few of the old ones from 2012 that have been recirculating lately. I did not intend to read all of Trump’s pre-candidacy tweets, especially when a coworker pointed out to me that they contain more words than Infinite Jest. I did not intend to read all of Trump’s pre-candidacy tweets — the way you do not intend to eat the whole pack of Oreos, or watch the whole season of Toddlers & Tiaras, or do an entire deck of heroin.
But I did read all of Donald Trump’s tweets, in chronological order, and in doing so they strike me as a much more revealing book than The Art of the Deal could ever be, even if Trump had written it himself. Taken as a whole, they’re a postmodern dystopian tale of a man who believed himself to be a public servant simply because enough people followed him on Twitter. They’re the digital era’s Clarissa, a hypermodern take on a great epistolary novel: a sprawling collection of short love letters one man has been sending, for years, to himself.