Trump has mastered Twitter in a way no candidate for president ever has, unleashing and redefining its power for political promotion, distraction, score-settling and attack — and what other candidates farm out to young staff members, he has made a centerpiece of his campaign.
The aging actress Kim Novak, a megastar of 1950s cinema, was a near-recluse when friends urged her to take a chance and appear at the Academy Awards last year.
Sitting at home, Donald Trump spotted Novak, then 81, on his television screen and recoiled at her appearance. He tapped out a message on Twitter.
“I’m having a real hard time watching,” Trump wrote. “Kim should sue her plastic surgeon!”
To Novak, who read the message after the show, it was a devastating setback in her return to public life: She retreated to Oregon, fell into what she called “a tailspin” and refused to leave her house for days. In an open letter to her fans a few weeks later, Novak denounced Trump’s tweet as bullying.
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For Trump, a serial exploiter of old-line media, it was a painful yet potent lesson in the power of new media to agitate and motivate a vast, unseen audience. Inundated with replies of disgust and support, he eventually backtracked online (“I was always a big fan of Kim Novak”) and sent her a rueful private letter.
A year later, Trump has mastered Twitter in a way no candidate for president ever has, unleashing and redefining its power as a tool of political promotion, distraction, score-settling and attack — and turning a 140-character task that other candidates farm out to young staff members into a centerpiece of his campaign.
In the process, he has managed to fulfill a vision, long predicted but slow to materialize, sketched out a decade ago by a handful of digital campaign strategists: a White House candidacy that forgoes costly, conventional methods of political communication and relies instead on the free, urgent and visceral platforms of social media.
“He’s used social media to replace the traditional apparatus of a political campaign,” said Zac Moffatt, who oversaw Mitt Romney’s digital outreach in 2012 and co-founded Targeted Victory, a consulting firm focused on online campaign tactics. “Trump is living on this medium.”
Now, as Trump enters an uncertain period in his campaign, even rival campaigns acknowledge that Twitter is providing a powerful bulwark against a slide in his poll numbers, by allowing millions of supporters to make his case for him and deflect the controversies he delights in touching off.
His online dominance is striking: Over the past two months, on Twitter alone, he has been mentioned in 6.3 million conversations, eight times as many as Republican rivals such as Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson — not to mention more than three times as many as Hillary Rodham Clinton and nearly four times as many as Bernie Sanders. He is retweeted more than twice as often as Clinton and about 13 times more frequently than Jeb Bush, according to data compiled as of Friday by Edelman Berland, a market research firm that studies social media.
His Twitter following (4.36 million) dwarfs that of the rest of the Republican field, and in the coming weeks, he is expected to surpass Clinton (4.39 million).
In an interview at his office — interrupted repeatedly by Trump’s picking up his Samsung Galaxy cellphone, loading new tweets with his index finger and marveling at his nonstop mentions (“Watch this!” he implored) — the candidate compared his Twitter feed to a newspaper with a single, glorious voice: his own.
“The Ernest Hemingway of a hundred and forty characters,” he said, quoting a fan.
Suddenly, he said of his foes, “I have more power than they do.”
“I can let people know that they were a fraud,” he continued. “I can let people know that they have no talent, that they didn’t know what they’re doing. You have a voice.”
On Twitter, Trump has assembled an online SWAT team of devoted (some say rabid) supporters who spring into action with stunning speed. In a pattern that has played out over and over, he makes a provocative remark, like one about Fiorina’s face — “Would anybody vote for that?” — and hundreds of thousands of strangers aggressively defend him, spread his message and engage in emotional debates with his critics, ensuring he is the subject of a constant conversation.
When Trump wanted to defend his failure to correct a white voter who declared that Barack Obama is a Muslim, he tapped out a message on Sept. 19.
It was quickly retweeted by 7,000 people, and over about six hours it provoked more than 1,000 discussions that mentioned him. Forty percent of those were pro-Trump in sentiment, according to Edelman Berland.
Mike Berland, a political operative who worked on Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and is chief executive of Edelman Berland, calls it the “Wall of Trump.”
“We’ve never seen this before in politics,” Berland said. “This is not just a rally that happens once in a while. This is a continuous Trump rally that happens on Twitter at all hours. He fills the Twitter stadium every day.”
Many mornings about 3:30, Eric Popkin, a 53-year-old project manager at an architecture firm with no ties to the campaign, logs on to his computer in Orlando, Fla., and creates elaborate graphics in support of Trump that he disseminates on Twitter.
Trump’s candor and style inspire a loyalty Popkin cannot quite explain.
“It’s like a sports team. If you are from New York, and you like the Jets or Giants and somebody is bad-mouthing your team, there is kind of knee-jerk reaction to defend them,” Popkin said. “We have an emotional connection to him. It’s good old human nature.”
Not all of the outpouring is spontaneous. Supporters have organized into online squads that defend Trump.
A man identifying himself as Gary Forbes has recruited volunteer “operatives” on Twitter, sending out daily emails directing them to emphasize pro-Trump messages (“Trump’s immigration plan will protect thousands of women from abuse”) and target rival candidates (“What Jeb must do for Fox Billionaire Murdoch’s $$$”). A project code-named “Magic Kingdom” took aim last week at Rubio, the senator from Florida, according to an email obtained by The New York Times.
Asked about the effort, Forbes directed questions to the Trump campaign. A Trump spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, said the campaign had no affiliation with Forbes.
Trump, 69, is an improbable virtuoso of the tweet. He has no computer in his office (a staff member brings in a laptop to show him videos) and asks aides to print his emails for consumption the old-fashioned way. But around 2011, his staff turned him on to the possibilities of @realdonaldtrump, a sleepy account started in 2009 that largely quoted from Trump’s books.
He quickly adapted to Twitter’s stock in trade: endless feuds, ego stroking and casual cruelty. He usually dictates messages to his assistant during the day and types them himself at home or on the golf course, from which he has sent more than 100, according to geographic data embedded in his tweets. The most frequently used words in his tweets: “great” (more than 700 times), “winner” or “winners” (43), and “loser” or “losers” (34). In all, he has sent more than 28,000 tweets — the rough equivalent of 12 a day.
Trump has called Arianna Huffington, the liberal website publisher, “unattractive both inside and out”; described Bette Midler as “extremely unattractive”; and declared that President Obama had guaranteed “you won’t see another black president for generations.”
Asked about his judgment in sending those messages, he defended all but one: his mockery of Novak. “I would have preferred I didn’t send it,” Trump said. “That was done in fun, but sometimes you do things in fun and they turn out to be hurtful, and I don’t like doing that.”
He has developed strong views about the rules, rituals and rhythms of Twitter. On the 140-character limit: “I wish it were longer on 10 percent of the occasions.”
On deleting tweets: “One of the things I do find is that when you delete it, it becomes a bigger story than having it.”
That, of course, has not stopped him from deleting tweets, such as a 2013 message in which he extended “best wishes to all, even the haters and losers, on this special date, September 11th.”
His followers on Twitter did not seem to mind. Back in his office at Trump Tower the other day, he kept collecting new mentions, even though he had not sent a tweet in hours.
“Look at this,” Trump beckoned. “So this is 8 seconds ago. See that?” Messages scrolled by in a blur. “That’s 8 seconds ago these tweets came in.”
He looked up with satisfaction. “How,” he asked, “can you do better than that?”