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The rise of Trump on Twitter, and the wave that could swamp him

tam duong/globe illustration

As most Americans are well aware, May marks an important milestone for President Donald Trump: eight years on Twitter!

Yes, it was May 4, 2009, when spunky upstart billionaire and promising young reality star Donald J. Trump first pressed his uncallused thumbs to the grindstone/smartphone with a tweet that summoned all of America to his side: “Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!”

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Aw. Cute. But seriously, read that one aloud. Apart from the trusty use of the third person, this first Trumpian tweet seems like the utterance of a completely different Donald altogether — and that night on “Late Night” it was on full display as Trump appeared onstage to read a list of “Top Ten Donald Trump Financial Tips.

The clip is really quite something. Not only does Trump appear wearing a genuine-seeming smile and a tie of acceptable length, he also radiates an uncanny air of good humor. From the vantage point of 2017, it feels like the Grinch taking the stage at a Whoville karaoke bar.

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But Trump’s readings of Letterman’s gags all land without hurting themselves. For example, No. 8: “Save money by styling your own hair” [extended laughter]. No. 4: “For tip number 4, simply send me $29.95.” No. 2: “We’re screwed.” And the audience rewards his rare dip into self-deprecation with sufficiently warm applause.

A couple days later, he’s back on Twitter, linking to the bit and self-identifying as “Very funny!” (very Trumpy), but it doesn’t yet have the signature acid bitterness we’ve come to expect from a Trump tweet. (Only five likes).

In fact, Trump’s first year or two on Twitter find him in an O’Reilly-esque state of confusion with the platform, mainly posting self-promotional robotweets and quoting himself with things he has, I have no doubt, said in real life. Things like: “‘Strive for wholeness and keep your sense of wonder intact.’ — Donald J. Trump.” Or, “The Colts and Saints are already champions, but may the best team win!” — a statement that would have his aides checking his temperature were he to tweet it today.

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Reviewing Trump’s timeline, it’s unclear when the proverbial horsekick happened — that is, when Donald Trump’s Twitter game as we now know it first came to be. But May of 2011 sure seems like a turning point.

That was when Trump announced he would not, in fact be seeking the Republican nomination for president. “Trump had to choose between his interest in presidential politics and his career as a reality television star,” wrote Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post at the time. “He, not surprisingly, chose the latter.”

Shortly after this announcement came Trump’s first-ever mention of then-President Barack Obama. “Republicans should not negotiate against themselves again with @BarackObama in today’s debt talks,” he tweeted. “First and foremost CUT,CAP and BALANCE.”

Topical, yes. Typographically challenged, of course. Addictive? Oh you bet.

From this point on (watch it happen) Trump’s Twitter exploits first dabble and then dive into this brand of troll-lite engagement with the president: He takes shots and field tests approaches. And in this coming-of-age year, you can observe the development of Trump’s Twitter style taking on the first features of its future monster shape.

The first specimens of Outraged Trumpian Sentence Fragments emerge (“So biased: @TIME made ‘The Protester’ as the person of the year. @TIME celebrates OWS but vilified the Tea Party last year”). As do now tried-and-true maneuvers like the Schoolyard Insult Judgment Pivot (“Dummies left Iraq without the oil —not believable!”).

The Rhetorical Obama Vacation Question proved an instant hit (clocking 50 times the meager likes of a less salty tweet made one month later that merely stamped President Obama as a “habitual vacationer”). As he is wont to do, Trump was learning on the job.

From there, Trump learned to co-opt the techniques of teen trolls and elevate them to characteristically grand scale. His tweets grew garish, gaudy, convinced of their own excellence, ready for all comers (bring it on, Cher, Rosie, Mark Cuban, official documents!)

And while he made continued threats to run for president after assurances he woudn’t, his Twitter behavior became a finely honed and resolutely anti-presidential crudeness. Trump’s delight in having someone (anyone) to punch up at was matched only by his insistence that he do so from as low an angle as he could. Thus, the introduction of birtherism to his Twitter arsenal in 2012 assisted his first successful coup: Donald Trump, Troll King.

The rest, if you can believe it, is history.

Trump’s “masterful” use of Twitter (as heralded by the Times, CNN, Salon, the Daily Mail, and other outlets with intriguing definitions of mastery) since first harnessing the fear and loathing that propelled birtherism has become part of the lore of his victory.

But it will likely also play a part in the lore of his collapse. The media bubble Trump inflated for himself on Twitter, millions strong, was big enough to float him to the top of certain tanks, with millions of followers making the crucial conversion to the voting booth, clicking the far more critical “like” of the ballot.

But with his administration seemingly coming apart at the seams, that bubble no longer appears strong enough to withstand the mounting wave of scrutiny, impatience, and outright fury from the very same Internet that once adored him as a novelty. Trump’s Twitter account now toggles between ventriloquized official announcements and early-morning rages — both of which read like cries for help. To scroll through his timeline today is not to see a man landing punches. It’s more like flailing — or drowning. Somebody save his phone!

No, really. Trump’s phone (if we’re lucky) will live on as the primary icon of his time in office: It’s the axe he reserves for cherry trees, his trusty stovepipe hat. The Trumpian vision of the Presidential podium will forever be figurative: a screen pressed between two sweaty palms. The true face of his presidency is one cast downward into a ghostly glow.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.
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