In the days following the terrorist attack in London that killed eight and injured 48, many of us became distracted, yet again, by Trump’s godforsaken tweets. There was our president, hours after innocent civilians had lost their lives, splashing insults onto the mayor of a besieged city—misrepresenting our ally’s words instead of offering support.
At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is "no reason to be alarmed!"— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2017
We found ourselves consumed by a familiar fire: national shame at our president’s social media emissions. Such gestures are grotesque coming from a private individual; blaring from a head of state, they’re almost unthinkable. So it makes sense that the worn gears of the country’s “Trump just tweeted” consternation apparatus ground into action. We mocked his careless words for their cruelty, their ignorance, their general outrageous unpresidentiality. (One meme that circulated on Twitter worked up Trump’s digital ego blasts on stately White House letterhead.)
Lately, when disaster strikes, it can feel like many of us lose little time in pushing aside first-order issues to analyze second-order responses. The zeal to parse Trump’s errors has the sad and frustrating consequence of shifting the spotlight off of the horrors he’s reacting to. Criticizing the commander in chief might feel like a more useful form of action than posting a platitude about the tragedy of squandered life. Anger requires exertion; exertion can combat a sense of helplessness. And letting Trump’s tweets go unnoticed or unchallenged almost concedes that his gracelessness is an acceptable political mode in America. But while we need to keep the president’s vileness and abnormality fresh in our minds, our shock can feel as draining and disruptive as it is valuable.
This is, of course, a quandary that the Trump era continues to pose to the media and the public regularly. Should we be amazed anew every time he does something odious? Should we ignore him? And these questions lodge particularly deep after an attack in which humans have died, when there’s a simple worthy protocol for responding to the atrocity: Give solace. Yet where most other world leaders would attempt to comfort the masses, ours just mouths off.
But Trump’s tweets—erratic and chaotic as they seem—have an underlying consistency in messaging. If there’s one thing we can cling to as @realDonaldTrump spouts garbage, it’s the total predictability of his agitations, his rote commitment to the job of riler in chief. So instead of being shocked afresh each time, perhaps we can best process Trump’s post-tragedy discharges by contextualizing the pettiness and the rambling, by giving ourselves frameworks for understanding why the POTUS seems dead set on upping the anguish rather than allaying it. After all, his tweet behavior is governed by a few very straightforward rules:
Soothing is boring
After Trump’s most recent tweets about the London attack, New York Times critic James Poniewozik offered a simple insight that felt like a small burst of clarity amid the relentless press of the “Trump got his hands on his phone again!” outrage cycle: Imagining Trump as “a cable-news ethos housed in a human body” gives you a good sense of how he will invariably respond to violent terror. “For Trump, like cable news, agitation = good,” Poniewozik added. “Soothing, unproductive, boring. Instead: sirens, fight or flight, conflict, adrenaline—ALWAYS.” Poniewozik is right: A POTUS borne into power by populist rage, anxiety, and pessimism and maintained there by theatrics will never see the point in dialing down the drama. Of course Trump cannot console or uplift. He wants to pump adrenaline through our veins. His enemy isn’t fear; it’s boredom.
He’s in it for the RTs, of course
Another obvious insight that explains a lot. Even when it seems like Trump is attempting to pull a standard right-wing politician move, say, scoring points with the American gun lobby, he could be more accurately described as ratings-mongering. Trump never stops jonesing for likes and retweets on Twitter as in life. The thrill of rallying his base is the thrill of seeing his own brand validated and reinforced.
Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That's because they used knives and a truck!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2017
Likewise, when Trump tweeted that he “appreciate[d] the congrats” for “being right about radical Islamic terrorism” in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shootings, his clear goal was to alert his followers that he’d been receiving congrats—and then to multiply those congrats with further congrats from the Twittersphere. To him, the notion that Americans might see a deadly act of violence against their fellow citizens as an occasion to toast the reality TV star running for president seemed like a natural outgrowth of how celebrity works in the United States.
Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2016
His pet issues will always overshadow the issues of the day
When two men were murdered in Portland, Oregon, after defending a hijab-clad woman on the train, the left was aghast at Trump’s targeted silence. Where was his statement? Why was @realDonaldTrump ranting about fake news and anonymous sources instead of the hate crime that had occurred on American soil?
It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 28, 2017
....it is very possible that those sources don't exist but are made up by fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 28, 2017
Because he is always ranting about fake news and anonymous sources, we could have answered ourselves and conserved the energy we wasted being astonished by his indifference. It is not remotely surprising that a man ruled by the whims of his ego would ignore events that don’t align with his worldview, or that an America First zealot would tune out evidence of nativist bigotry. Trump’s tweets are often off-topic because current events flicker in and out of existence at his convenience. Reality is only relevant when he says it is.
Then there was the time he availed himself of the aftermath of the Manchester bombing to rail against the anonymice in his White House:
British Prime Minister May was very angry that the info the U.K. gave to U.S. about Manchester was leaked. Gave me full details!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 28, 2017
Forget 22 people dead and 116 wounded. Trump saw an opportunity to leverage England’s pain in his eternal battle with leakers and the press, and obviously he took it.
But he will soothe us when his underlings force him to
When the president finally issued an anodyne message of consolation after the Portland train stabbing, it was from the official POTUS Twitter account and was entirely devoid of Trumpian personality:
The violent attacks in Portland on Friday are unacceptable. The victims were standing up to hate and intolerance. Our prayers are w/ them.— President Trump (@POTUS) May 29, 2017
After the Manchester bombing, Trump similarly expelled a phony executive line some underling had fed him via @realDonaldTrump—“we stand in absolute solidarity with the people of the United Kingdom”—and we fell to comparing it to the low bar of previous Trumpian tweet responses to tragedy. But those were wasted analogies! No part of the POTUS’ brain produced the impulse to write that statement; some deputy clearly typed out relevant copy from the secret bureaucrat handbook. It is amazingly easy to decipher the difference between Trump’s own voice and his staff’s attempts to presidentialize him. Trump is who he is: the opposite of a public servant, the electric goad prodding our flanks until we forget we ever knew how to stand still.