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The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage

Chelsea Beck / NPR

An upcoming book by Texas Tech communication studies professor Brian Ott and a Colorado State colleague examines President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter. Their analysis starts in 2013 when Trump was still a private citizen and encompasses his time as a candidate and as the Commander-in-Chief through last August.

Ott says the book, “The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage,” examines the rhetorical style of the 45th president on the platform. What motivated Ott to tackle Trump’s Twitter use?

“Number one is my own background and training as a scholar is a unique combination of rhetoric and media. So, most scholars are trained in one of those two things, but I’ve spent my career studying both of them,” he says. “And so, I felt like I had a special set of skills to help us understand what’s happening at this particular moment in history. The second motivation, a more personal motivation is, that I don’t like bullies, and the president is a bully.”

There are, Ott says, five things that define Trump’s rhetoric: His near-daily use of Twitter, they’re more about style than substance, his self-serving and authoritarian motives, dark and angry messaging, and that the president does little to appeal beyond his base. “Those characteristics really set him apart from all modern U.S. presidents in the way that he communicates with the American public.”

The book also explores how Trump’s rhetorical style threatens democratic norms, principles, and institutions. It is dedicated to understanding that style, which the co-authors delineate along two trajectories.

“The first one has to do with his general manner of speaking. I’ve already highlighted how it’s angrier and darker. What’s important in his manner of speaking is not what he’s saying, but the anger with which he’s saying it,” Ott says. “He projects what my co-author and I call ‘White Rage.’ It’s this sense of aggrieved whiteness and aggrieved masculinity. It’s a very powerful affective, emotional force that he communicates and that resonates with his followers. The second thing is the specific modality. The most unfiltered view of President Trump is when he Tweets.”

Ott says the book lays out how Trump’s Tweets fall into three key categories.

“Tweets that are aimed at promoting his vision of the world—most of which is free from facts. Tweets that are designed to manipulate the news cycle. And tweets that are designed to discredit his political opponents. My sense is he is probably more adept than anybody since Ronald Reagan at manipulating people. I want to be clear, President Trump is in some ways a skilled communicator. I don’t think we should just be dismissive of his rhetoric because of its dark and angry character, because I don’t think there’s ever been anyone as good as manipulating the news in particular as he has.”

Ott believes Twitter is not the appropriate place to discuss national politics because the platform demands simplicity, promotes impulsivity and fosters incivility. Complex issues cannot be adequately presented in its 280-character limit.

Trump followers, Ott says demographics have shown, are largely white, largely male and largely those without a college education.

“For that group of individuals, the world has changed dramatically in the past 20 to 40 years and they resent those changes, and he has hacked into, on an emotional level, that resentment,” Ott explains.

The book, which will be released mid-February and available for purchase online, grew out of an essay, “The Age of Twitter: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of Debasement,” that Ott wrote in late 2016.

Routledge approached Ott about expanding the essay into a book and he brought Colorado State’s Greg Dickinson into the project.