Is it just me, or do Donald Trump’s tweets seem … bigger than everybody else’s? The Donald’s tweets are capped at 140 characters—he gets just as much space as Marco, Jeb!, and the underlings who mop the floors at Trump Tower—but boy, does he make the most of them. Trump can fit two, three, or even four distinct statements into a single tweet. Each little rhetorical package hits the feeds of his 6.23 million followers with tremendous force. Even when the argument is this:
Jeb Bush just got contact lenses and got rid of the glasses. He wants to look cool, but it's far too late. 1% in Nevada!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2016
When Trump first entered the presidential race, the Internet’s content farmers aggregated the real estate magnate and reality star’s most “embarrassing,” “ridiculous,” and “crazy” tweets, perhaps thinking that his loose online record would come back to haunt him. In reality, Trump has succeeded in large part because he’s retained his vulgar vigor and translated it into the political arena. Now, pundits gaze upon his social media strategy with grudging respect. The Washington Post has called his Twitter account prolific, populist, and self-obsessed, noting its particular utility as a “real-time message tester” for the candidate, who whips his most-liked Twitter barbs into talking points on the trail. (Trump first tweeted his eventual campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” in 2012.) The New York Times has marveled at his command of “an online SWAT team of devoted (some say rabid) supporters who spring into action with stunning speed.” One political operative called it “a continuous Trump rally that happens on Twitter at all hours.”
What is the secret to Trump’s Twitter success? He’s cemented his reputation as a modern social media master by relying on age-old dick moves. Whether he realizes it or not—and he’s tweeted that he has “a very high IQ,” so I’m assuming he does—his most Trump-ian tweets manage to hit upon all three of Aristotle’s modes of persuasion: logos (the appeal to logic), ethos (the appeal to credibility), and pathos (the appeal to emotion).
Take his response to the December death of six U.S. airmen in Afghanistan:
A suicide bomber has just killed U.S. troops in Afghanistan. When will our leaders get tough and smart. We are being led to slaughter!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 21, 2015
A statement of fact, a knock to his rivals’ credibility, and an emotional outburst: bump, set, spike.
Trump used the same strategy back in August, when he seized on a truth about Jeb Bush’s campaign branding, leveraged it to question the very legitimacy of the Bush name, declared the situation “sad,” and still had leftover space to offer some condescending words of encouragement.
Jeb Bush never uses his last name on advertising, signage, materials etc. Is he ashamed of the name BUSH? A pretty sad situation. Go Jeb!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 25, 2015
Trump used the same triangulation tactic in this week’s eyewear zinger: Jeb did appear in public wearing contacts (logos), his poll numbers are very low (ethos), and (pathos!) he’ll never be cool.
This one, from 2012, is my personal favorite:
It's Friday. How many bald eagles did wind turbines kill today? They are an environmental & aesthetic disaster.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 24, 2012
The tweet was filed on a Friday (fact), wind turbines look bad (can’t trust them!), but the image of the shredded bald eagle really brings the pathos hard.
In December, the New York Times analyzed “every public utterance” from Trump and found “constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words, and violent imagery that American presidents rarely use.” But there’s a soft underbelly to Trump’s rhetoric, too. As Ben Mathis-Lilley chronicled last month, Trump tends to punctuate his tweets with the same exclamation: “Sad!” He doesn’t build up his rivals as aggressive or dangerous. He just feels sorry for them. And so the “weak,” “low-energy” Jeb Bush—“A pathetic figure!”—is Trump’s ideal foil.
Some of Trump’s most devastating insults are framed as compliments. Consider one of his all-time meanest tweets, filed in 2012:
.@ariannahuff is unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man- he made a good decision.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 28, 2012
“He made a good decision”—amazing.
Trump played this same trick in a debate last week. When Jeb Bush attempted to fight back against Trump’s attacks against the Bush family, calling his mother Barbara “the strongest woman in the world,” Trump replied: “She should be running.” Trump isn’t just testing his message on Twitter—he’s honing his rhetorical jabs.
Another of Trump’s most trusted punches comes from Cicero. It’s what’s called praeteritio, apophasis, or paralipsis—the act of saying something by saying you’re not going to say it.
He’s been practicing this move for years, back when his most formidable rivals were fellow ancillary Hollywood players:
While @BetteMidler is an extremely unattractive woman, I refuse to say that because I always insist on being politically correct.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2012
And more recently:
I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct. Instead I will only call her a lightweight reporter!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2016
While Cicero said “I will not even mention the fact that you betrayed us in the Roman people by aiding Catiline” way back in 63 B.C., he wasn’t nearly as good at this stuff as Trump is. (Sad!) Though the praeteritio has long been decried as a low blow, Trump has leveraged the norms of social media to raise the tactic above the belt—or failing that, to at least use it to people’s great amusement. At a recent New Hampshire rally, Trump heard a woman in the crowd hurl an epithet at Sen. Ted Cruz, then cynically parroted it back into the microphone. “She just said a terrible thing,” Trump said. “OK, you’re not allowed to say—and I never expect to hear that from you again—she said, ‘He’s a pussy.’ That’s terrible, terrible.” He later defended the move on Fox & Friends, saying: “It was like a retweet.”
In other cases, Trump will take the opposite tack, strategically omitting key words from his statements—a way to stoke fear in the hearts of his followers while avoiding getting pinned down to a particular position. In December, he tweeted:
Wow, what a day. So many foolish people that refuse to acknowledge the tremendous danger and uncertainty of certain people coming into U.S.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 9, 2015
“Certain people.” I see.
He played the same trick last August, when he accused Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly of having “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”—phrasing that allowed him to simultaneously imply and deny that he was referring to Kelly’s vagina. Trump does this in every medium, but it works the best on Twitter, where a lowering of the discourse is the norm and there are no fact-checking journalists or booing debate crowds to cut him off. The account is completely controlled by Trump—and because he has more followers than many media outlets, no tweeted reply can match the impact of his initial statement.
When Trump hits on a critique that he thinks is working, he’ll pump his statement full of synonyms to make it seem like he’s alleging more than he really is. A frequent target of the tactic is Sen. Ted Cruz, a lying liar who lies:
How can Ted Cruz be an Evangelical Christian when he lies so much and is so dishonest?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 12, 2016
Lying Cruz put out a statement, “Trump & Rubio are w/Obama on gay marriage." Cruz is the worst liar, crazy or very dishonest. Perhaps all 3?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 12, 2016
I count only two, but the fact is that he’s made his point—twice.
Another neat Trump trick is to thread in an assumed public consensus about his opinion before he even states it. Consider his take on the Twilight tabloid implosion of 2012:
Everyone knows I am right that Robert Pattinson should dump Kristen Stewart. In a couple of years, he will thank me. Be smart, Robert.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 22, 2012
Or take this gadget-related gem from 2014:
I wonder if Apple is upset with me for hounding them to produce a large screen iPhone. I hear they will be doing it soon—long overdue.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2014
The idea that Trump is responsible for the expansion of the iPhone screen is presented as incontrovertible. The only thing left to resolve is whether Apple is upset about it.
Or look at this dig at Brian Williams, after the anchor covered Trump’s Twitter meltdown over Obama’s re-election:
.@bwilliams knows that I think his newscast has become totally boring so he took a shot at me last night.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2012
A straightforward insulter would call Brian Williams’ show boring. A more conniving one would claim that Brian Williams knows his own show is boring. Only Donald Trump would say that Brian Williams knows that Trump thinks that his show is boring—a dastardly construction that conjures a tortured backstory wherein Williams knows and cares what Trump thinks of him (in this case, before Trump even says it) and molds his coverage in an attempt to score points in this (nonexistent) personal beef. It all creates an illusion that Trump’s opinion is at the center of everything. Everyone else is just scrambling to catch up.
Now that he’s running for president, Trump has spun this Twitter tic into the presumption that there’s an overwhelming mandate for his service. His target demo is “everyone,” and lo and behold, “everyone” is already on his side: No political persuasion necessary.
Great, everyone is saying I did much better on @60Minutes last week than President Obama did tonight. I agree!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2015
Everyone is talking about the incredible event we had in Dallas last night. Spectacular crowd & arena! Thank you @mcuban.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 15, 2015
See also: Trump’s tendency to treat poll numbers as if they’re official election returns:
While his rival candidates reserve space on their Twitter feeds to fit in links to policy proposals or flattering press coverage—and keep their personal statements short, sweet, and defensible against criticism—Trump is comfortable ceding every character to his rhetorical flourishes. They work so well, the actual content hardly matters.
Everyone knows Trump is a winner on Twitter, but the #MSM won’t make him president until the votes come in. A very sad situation. Go Trump!