Since its launch in 2006, the micro-blogging site Twitter has greatly changed the dynamics between politicians and the general public. Once we would have depended on the media to glean what elected officials might be thinking or feeling. Now we can come close to seeing their thoughts relayed in a short, sharp post on their Twitter page. Recognising this as a potential minefield, many politicians rely on a press team to compose and check their tweets. For example, during his presidency, Barack Obama made it clear when it was genuinely him posting by signing his tweets with his initials. All the other posts during his presidency were written for him, a fact which generated its own controversy.
Now step forward his successor, Donald J. Trump. No one politician has so challenged the norms of interaction than Trump, with his Twitter account a regular source of contention. Whilst he, too, has a social media manager, Dan Scavino Jr., he does compose and post his own tweets. The evidence for this is simple: any social media manager who knows that the president’s tweets are going out to an audience of (at the time of posting) 70.6 million followers would presumably take the time to proofread and check them. Yet, infamously, Trump has often posted out messages which don’t quite adhere to such protocol.
When he posted the misspelling ‘covfefe’ at the end of one of his tweets in 2017, the response was immediate and often humorous, going viral within hours. Whilst ‘covfefe’ was likely to refer to ‘coverage’, it didn’t stop a million memes pondering possible uses for the word. At a more senior level, Democrat Mike Quigley decided to use covfefe as an acronym for a newly proposed bill, the COVFEFE Act, requiring the preservation of all President Trump’s tweets for future generations. Trump is also well-known for using the (real, but rare) adverb ‘bigly’ for emphasis, another word which has drawn a big response online.
Trump also uses decidedly informal language structures which are uncommon, if not altogether absent from other politicians’ tweets. The use of exclamatives ( any sentence which ends in an exclamation mark ) is usually reserved for chats between good friends. Elsewhere, it can seem inappropriate and even aggressive. You would not ordinarily use exclamatives in any polite situation, let alone a sensitive one. The same goes for the use of block capitals, something else Trump uses regularly, together with minor sentences. Minor sentences don’t follow the usual grammatical minimum of subject-verb-object, and can consist of just one word. Trump often uses this technique to conclude his tweets, such as by using ‘Sad!’ to underline the point he has been making.
What seems clear is that Trump, as a president coming from outside the conventional routes to political power, does not feel (or does not recognise) language norms. He prefers to use Twitter for its immediacy and its sense of a relationship with the general public, albeit that this relationship is wholly one-sided, really speaking. Twitter is a mixed blessing, though; for everyone grateful for Trump’s active presence there, many are ready and waiting to pounce on any perceived errors they see. One thing is for certain, though: social media has changed the relationship between the public and politicians forever. Donald J. Trump is at the forefront of this process, and doubtless he will continue to be.