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At the same time the account made its mark on politics, so did it color American culture. Trump’s pithy, idiomatic speech patterns translated to Twitter in a manner that became comic shorthand in American life, whether earnestly or ironically: “Sad!,” “WITCH HUNT!,” “STOP THE COUNT!” He even added a new word to the English lexicon, a simple typo that became effective shorthand for his administration’s endemic confusion and lack of professionalism: “covfefe.”
Trump’s Twitter account didn’t do anything novel in its own right. But it exemplified, at the largest possible scale, the twisted incentives at the heart of the platform that gave it life: to generate spectacle and action without regard for truth, context, or collateral damage.
One of the most remarkable and revealing things about Trump’s dominance of the platform is the fact that the septuagenarian president is as far as one could be from a “digital native,” refusing mostly to ever even use a computer. He has no particular calculating genius about social media, just the standard set of opinions and aesthetic preferences that a particularly bigoted member of his generation might hold, combined with a helpful lack of restraint. That biliousness and shamelessness, combined with his baked-in celebrity, found their perfect outlet in Twitter, where outrage is currency.
Before he became president, Trump deployed his narcissism and bile to more petty, and sometimes downright bizarre, ends. He issued his first tweet on May 4, 2009, reminding its followers to tune into CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” for a cursory appearance from Trump, then the star of a declining reality show. It was a long road from there to Trump’s using the account to rebrand himself as a pugilistic, reactionary populist, elevating him from cable news gadfly to Republican party gatecrasher to, eventually, leader of the free world.