Donald Trump ranting before dawn on Twitter about a former Miss Universe might not bring to mind Franklin Roosevelt reassuring Depression-battered radio listeners or Richard Nixon salvaging his 1952 vice presidential bid through his televised Checkers speech.
But the part-time Palm Beach resident’s distinctly Trumpian use of Twitter continues a tradition of presidents and candidates using new technology to make a personal connection with the public.
“Every president in the modern era has sought to use technology to bring their message to more Americans. So there’s nothing new about that,” says presidential historian Timothy Naftali of New York University, a former director of the Nixon Library and Museum. “What’s different is that Trump explicitly rejects some of the conventions of presidential rhetoric and presidential messaging.”
Trump, for example, has used the term “loser” in 235 tweets and used “dumb” or “dummy” 222 times on his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account, according to TrumpTwitterArchive.com, a searchable collection of more than 30,000 Trump tweets. Trump described Democratic rival Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” 206 times — roughly once per day — between April 17 and Election Day. He has used “sad!” to conclude tweets 80 times.
Whether Trump will adopt a more presidential tone on Twitter is an open question.
Trump himself pledged in a “60 Minutes” interview to be “very restrained” in his tweeting once he becomes the nation’s 45th president. But longtime Trump friend and adviser Roger Stone doesn’t envision a significant change in Trump’s Twitter habits after his inauguration.
“Trump has to be Trump. The fact that he’s authentic, that he’s genuine, that he’s brash and politically incorrect is part of his appeal. He’s going to say what he thinks because that’s what got him elected,” said Stone.
“He has to be cognizant about the fact that he’s now president of the United States and he’s now president of all the people,” Stone continued. “But this stuff is instinctual. He’s a habitual television watcher — he sees something on TV that provokes him, he’s going to tweet about it.”
Trump credits his tweet-from-the-hip style with helping him win the presidency by allowing him to fight back instantly against opponents or to counter media coverage he considered unfair. But as president, former House speaker and Trump ally Newt Gingrich said recently, Trump needs some checks and balances for his Twitter account.
“The president of the United States can’t randomly tweet without having somebody check it out…He should tweet, but he ought to have an editorial board in between the first draft and sending it,” Gingrich told USA Today.
If a new era of presidential Twitter restraint is indeed coming for Trump, he seems determined to end the current era with a bang.
Since his Nov. 8 victory, Trump has used Twitter to criticize “professional protesters,” The New York Times, CNN, the Chinese government, a local union president from Indiana who attacked him, Boeing, the cast of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” and two “Saturday Night Live” episodes.
Trump also used Twitter to make the dubious claim that he would have won the national popular vote if not for “millions of people who voted illegally.” He created an instant national debate with a single 6:55 a.m. tweet that floated the idea of jail or loss of citizenship for people who burn the American flag.
He used Twitter, rather than traditional news releases, to propose a 35 percent tariff on businesses that ship jobs overseas and to announce that he will “leave my great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country.” He used Twitter to drop hints that retired Gen. James Mattis and Palm Beach Gardens resident Ben Carson would be Cabinet nominees.
Those who study Trump’s Twitter patterns note that his most controversial tweets tend to come from an Android device, suggesting that Trump typed them on his Samsung phone. More conventional tweets usually come from an iPhone or other device, suggesting staffers did the tweeting.
Trump’s infamous tweets attacking former Miss Universe Alicia Machado came between 5:14 a.m. and 5:40 a.m. on Sept. 30 from an Android device.
Brendan Brown, a computer programmer from Boston, launched TrumpTwitterArchive.com in September to create an historical record of Trump’s tweets.
Brown supported Democrat Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid and uses words like “alarming” and “vindictive” and “narcissistic” to describe Trump’s Twitter feed. But Brown credits Trump with using Twitter effectively to connect with his supporters.
“He kind of spoke plainly in a way that a lot of people wish politicians would. A lot of congressmen and politicians have Twitter profiles, but it’s pretty clear they’re managed by staff. He was able to break through on that,” Brown said.
Presidential historian Naftali says Trump’s Twitter feed stands out because it seems to be an extension of his personality.
“Obama is the first social media president,” Naftali said. “But Obama didn’t use Twitter to carry on feuds, to single out people for criticism. It was a less-personalized use of Twitter…Donald Trump has used Twitter as a personal tool and it reflects his personality in a way that social media didn’t necessarily do for President Obama.”
Trump has 17 million Twitter followers. Obama’s official @POTUS account has 12.5 million. Justin Bieber has 90 million.
“At least Trump has better hair than Justin Bieber,” said Stone, who said he advised Trump to step up his use of Twitter in 2011, when Trump was flirting with a 2012 run for the White House.
Trump opened his Twitter account in 2009 as a reality TV star promoting his “Celebrity Apprentice” show on NBC and a book called “Think Like A Champion.” He reached 1 million followers in 2012 and was just shy of 3 million when he announced his presidential bid in June 2015. Trump’s following more than tripled over the next year, reached 13 million on Election Day and has grown by about 4 million since the election.
Trump is keenly aware of the size of his social media following.
“I think I picked up, yesterday, 100,000 people,” Trump told Lesley Stahl in the post-election “60 Minutes” interview. “I’m not saying I love it, but it does get the word out.”