Have you ever seen President Donald Trump hold a phone? Not one with an old-school receiver – a cell phone. How about pictures of him using it for something other than calling?
Think about that for a second. The President’s Twitter activity has become legendary. Cable news shows can’t stop talking about it. His productivity on the medium is far superior to anything his fellow elected officials are managing. Love them or hate them, you have to admit his tweetstorms and electronic put-downs have no equal in government. But isn’t it peculiar that we never see him use his device in public? There is a reason for this, and honestly, it shouldn’t come as a surprise: The tweets are not his.
Go back to the first message ever posted on his Twitter account – more than 30,000 tweets ago in May 2009:
Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 4, 2009
Does that sound like him? Obviously not. This was me, and so is every single tweet sent under his name over the past eight years. I am realdonaldtrump.
I had set up the account two months earlier. It was early in Obama’s first term, but it had nothing to do with politics. The reason? Marketing, pure and simple. I have a background in this field and was an early supporter of Twitter as a broadcasting platform for promotions and recommendations. (This was before the Green Revolution and the Arab Spring, when Twitter’s popularity and its association with politics surged around the world.)
The manuscript for what was then Trump’s latest book, “Think Like a Champion,” had been approved, and publication was scheduled for mid-April. The account featured a picture of him and a link to the website for the book. Initially, it was meant as a marketing tool for his book, not for him. The tweets we sent out were Trump quotes or related to appearances on TV. Nothing more personal than that, even though there was some trolling right from the start, when we picked the name of his handle: “realdonaldtrump”
The first time a “personal” tweet went out was nearly a year later. Trump had accumulated about 35,000 followers, and when the third season of Celebrity Apprentice premiered, the idea of speaking “directly” to his followers appealed to him. But he didn’t feel comfortable using a smartphone. He was never a big fan of computers either, and typing was something his secretaries were tasked with, not him.
I continued to be his voice online. Often he would phone me up – and still does – to offer up some ideas and to set the tone for the next broadcast message. It took me a while to find his voice, and being that aggressive, even anonymously, was not my style. But it was evident very early on that no one questioned the identity of his Twitter voice, even when it was always obvious he’s much more charming in real life.
The Celebrity Apprentice has a two-hour premiere this Sunday, March 14th, at 9 p.m. on NBC. This will be the best season yet, see you then!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2010
By the time he got his Samsung device at the beginning of 2012, which would have been perfect to stay connected through Twitter, he still hadn’t learned – and had no inclination to spend time learning – to tweet. He’s not a letters guy, unless it’s to frame or to spread around on his desk. And if you’ve seen the pictures that do exist of him using a smartphone, you’ll immediately recognize how curiously awkward he seems.
He had sat out the 2012 race, but people around him told me that when he watched Obama’s second inauguration he was seething. He knew he had made the right choice not to run, but he also knew the next time around, in 2016, would require him to reinvent the wheel in order to draw people to him and to the voting booths. We had almost never retweeted before, but a few weeks later, we started, and the effect was immediate and life-changing. It was like an avalanche: The more we retweeted his followers’ encouragement for him to consider running in 2016, the more other people voiced their support for a potential candidacy… which we then retweeted.
It reminded me of the world-class violinist who had recently performed as an anonymous street musician in the Washington, D.C., subway, eventually earning less in a day than the cost of one seat at his fancy, sold-out concert the following evening. People often don’t know what so-called ‘great’ (expensive) music sounds like unless you’re paying through the nose for a ticket. But if someone starts giving money to the violinist, more people will do the same. It was the same with Mr. Trump.
People don’t really know what a president is or looks like, except that he gets the most votes. (Yes, the most electoral votes.) If it seems like there is a movement for a candidate, it will be easy for the public to join it and support him. Their support hinges on being on the winning side, not the side with the best ideas. A candidate who fill sports stadiums, even just virtual ones, is more likely to win than one that fills living rooms.
When Trump announced in June 2015 that he was running for president, his Twitter account had around 3 million followers. Hillary Clinton had a few thousand more. But tweets spurred retweets, which constantly reached farther and farther into a potential base of followers. So we picked up the pace. When @realdonaldtrump passed @HillaryClinton in the total number of Twitter followers in early October, just four months into his campaign, it was a real badge of honor – solid confirmation that Trump’s instincts had once again put him on the right track. He was so overjoyed he had a cake sent up to his office with the blue Twitter bird and his campaign logo in gold-dusted icing.
I soon started inserting mistakes into what had previously been much more carefully crafted tweets – spelling by ear, putting capitals in places they shouldn’t be, omitting letters and hyphens, messing up people’s names. The idea was to make Trump seem more “human,” and of course, to confuse the media, which had started to broadcast slow-motion replays of his Twitter thoughts. I don’t remember ever seeing him misspell words he writes, although, admittedly, he doesn’t write very often, and it’s still breathtaking how many people outside his family and advisers mistake his Twitter voice for his real voice.
Now, you’re asking yourself, why on Earth would anyone, especially a public figure, decide to cede their Twitter account to someone else? The answer is that it forces the President to face the challenge of the unexpected on a daily basis. To keep his mind sharp by surprising it every day. And to prove to me, to himself, to anyone both near and far that he knows how to handle anything that anyone, me included, could throw at him. Nothing is out of bounds, he once suggested. “If worse comes to worst, I’ll always know how to fix it.”
I’m revealing all of this now because we need more than one avalanche.
We will start firebombing again on Twitter after the midterms and will probably be retweeting his supporters every single moment up until Election Day 2020. The context we create is one in which Trump is the definition of “president.” Within this framework, voting for him – especially if it seems he is liked by dozens of online shout-outs every day representing countless others – is easier than voting for someone else, particularly someone who is not part of any palpable movement.
Perhaps it’s hubris for him to think he can handle all the slings and arrows, particularly if they’re self-inflicted, but fortune has favored him thus far, and there’s no question that he’s benefited from heeding his intuition. He’s not being held hostage by anyone – he’s having fun. He despises those who think he is “Dumm-ald,” but he also delights in the novelty and the confusion he creates. Who knows where his mind would be if he wasn’t forced to parry the blows his “own” words are about to land on him, if he didn’t constantly have to make sense of the tweets his account put out?
So while the hosts on late-night television may mock the President for Twitter typos, pundits pontificate about how unprecedented all of this is (even as they draw parallels with Watergate), and folks across the country are calling him a fascist, it is worth remembering that Trump has nothing to lose. For him, paradise is in this world, not the next. It takes the form of adulation, which is based on what you say you do. This is something we’ve been able to boost according to the urgency of the moment.
“No one’s ever remembered for playing by the rules,” President Trump told me the first time we met. Those words have stuck with me, and they’ve obviously served us well. His tweets – and his retweets of supporters, in particular – will keep him in office for at least eight years, and the public will believe it’s him who’s typing, even if there will rarely be a picture of him using a device other than the Cisco phones on his Resolute Desk.