Trump is at risk of being what he least wants to be: boring
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For the entire duration of Donald Trump’s life on social media, there was one constant. Since one day, the former president has been represented by the same, tight-lipped photo of himself, his face fixed in approximation of confident determination and his hair cotton-candied into his familiar arrangement. Every tweet of his 2016 candidacy and his presidency was accompanied by that same picture; every breathless pronouncement or enticement to attend wild rallies in Washington sat alongside this same unmoving visage.
Until this week. Now, Trump’s Truth Social avatar is a different picture, a painting of him looking directly at the observer, his face covered in the colors of the American flag.
“President Trump let his patriotism shine through in a new profile picture switch on his Truth Social account,” a writer at the ceaselessly pro-Trump Right Side Broadcasting Network wrote about the change. The news article (“TRUMP GOES ALL-AMERICAN IN NEW TRUTH SOCIAL PROFILE PICTURE”) went on to note that Trump “is already dominating in the polls,” no doubt contributing to Trump’s decision to share it on Truth Social.
But, of course, Trump isn’t dominating in the polls — not even in the one cited in the article. He’s in a tough fight already, despite not having any formal opponents and his bid to announce his candidacy early to dissuade competitors from getting in appears not to be working. (His former United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, plans to announce her candidacy in two weeks, for example.) While he does maintain an advantage, he appears to be losing ground, not gaining it.
This is why the change to his social media presence is telling. It suggests that Trump recognizes that the old patter doesn’t work anymore, that the path he took to get to this point isn’t likely to get him much further. From 2015 to 2021, the tight-lipped Twitter Trump managed to shock and entice, building a loyal base as he tweaked his opponents. But that approach is stumbling. So we get this jingoistic, user-created version of Trump that’s designed to draw new interest.
It’s a microcosm of how Trump’s old approach to getting attention is no longer as effective.
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This was inevitable, in a way. Trump came out of the gates in 2015 as the voice of the hard-right conservative media world. He was running against a coterie of established Republican politicians — or, at least, Republican politicians whose rebellions against the establishment were ones that the establishment didn’t really mind, like the honor-roll student who is allowed to go to the bathroom without a hello pass So Trump was alone in his ferocious attacks on the GOP and immigrants and Black Lives Matter and everything else. His lack of interest in accuracy only helped.
He ended up creating a new template, one he actively encouraged. Candidates who talked like him and emulated him and sided with him were rewarded with things like the Republican nomination for governor in Florida. Trump leveraged and bolstered the social-media era instinct toward incessant pugilism and built an insatiable appetite for lib-owning with his base. The right-wing media world was suddenly dotted with new stars — Jack Posobiec, Catturd, all your favorites. The entire Republican superstructure shifted.
Trump is now just another one of many similar voices. He has more followers than many, yes, and is certainly better known. But his shtick is now everyone’s shtick even as his crusades are increasingly not. He’s still on about the 2020 election and about how great his presidency was and so on while the agitated right is focused on LGBTQ identity and how they (and not always Trump) were right about covid-19 all along.
Again, the guy still draws attention. Over much of the past year, he’s been the focus of Google search interest about as much as President Biden has been. But in recent months, Trump has fallen behind. He is still talking about a lot on cable news, far more than before he was president, but his twin appearances over the weekend, his first real events of his 2024 candidacy, generated no particular bump in attention.
That’s different. His candidacy announcement in 2015 spurred a spike in cable-news coverage; his big speech about immigration in Arizona a few weeks later did as well. His 2024 announcement, coming a week after the midterms, caused chatter to spike on MSNBC more than on CNN or Fox News, telling in its own right. But the recent rallies? No noticeable effect at all.
This apparent lack of interest in Trump overlaps with increasing Republican indifference to him. At the outset of his 2016 campaign, less than half of Republicans viewed him very favorably, according to YouGov polling. That surged during his presidency, ending up in the mid-60s for most of 2020. Since then, though, there’s been a downward slide.
By now, even the aforementioned governor of Florida generates more enthusiastic views from Republicans (and even 2020 Trump voters!) than Trump does.
What’s he got to offer Republicans? He’s a known quantity whose policy announcements — something he explicitly eschewed in 2015 since he knew he didn’t need them — have been both unoriginal and uninteresting. (Semafor’s David Weigel, though, notes that some on the right prefer these to nothing.) His launch event was dragged as “low energy,” turning Trump’s 2016 diss of establishment figure Jeb Bush against Trump, now himself the trudging establishment figure. His speeches this weekend were full of the same bromides and self-flattery as always. His opponents, meanwhile, get to run against him and his obvious failures, including in the 2020 election itself.
The real threat here is that this pattern is self-reforcing. The more boring Trump becomes, the less likely it is he’ll win the nomination — and the less need there is to pay attention to what he’s saying. In short order, his political career flickers out, leaving him as the guy who is hawking NFTs to a die-hard, winning base of enthusiasts.
But, then, we haven’t yet seen how the change in his social media avatar will go over.
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