“I know words, I have the best words,” said Donald Trump, at the end of 2015, while campaigning for president. He was, as usual, shooting from the hip at one of his rallies. It was this fast-and-loose style that would endear Trump to enough voters over the next year to eventually win the presidency in late 2016.
But the president seems to have lost his groove. Trump’s tweets, which have previously been credited by many experts and media hands as an effective tool for setting his agenda, have over the past few weeks harped on the same few themes: The news is fake; the Russian investigation is a hoax; my associates and I are completely innocent; and I—only I—have a monopoly on reality.
This lack of diverse opinions from a man who consistently surprised us during the 2016 presidential campaign with below-the-belt statements—both about his opponents and his own endowment—is as welcome as it is shocking. I’ll take a boring tweet over one risking nuclear consequences any day of the week, but we seem to find ourselves in a strange reality: The best word to describe Trump’s recent tweets is—however improbable it may seem—predictable.
For any other politician, this would simply be politics as usual. History has a limitless collection of orators, blissfully awash in the glory of their verbal symphonies, constantly repeating vacuous slogans to audiences of supporters with glazed-over eyes. But for a man whose appeal to his electorate was in part based on his entertainment value and his unpredictability, a predictable Twitter feed may start chipping away at a base that can’t afford to get much slimmer.
As Tony Schwartz, Trump’s former ghostwriter for his best-selling book The Art of the Deal, recently wrote, “Trump’s sense of self-worth is forever at risk. … When he is challenged, he instinctively doubles down—even when what he has just said is demonstrably false.” Schwartz adds, in another article, “it’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes.” Since Trump’s ego is his center of gravity, he constantly feels a need to defend himself from attacks, both real and perceived. With the media and political opposition challenging his every move concerning repealing Obamacare and his alleged connections to Russia, Trump has felt compelled by nature to respond, without giving much thought to the fact that he’s become a broken record.
The only way out of this repetitive spiral is perhaps impossible—Trump will have to start thinking about others for a change. A heartening start would be for Trump to hold true on his promises to American workers and make a serious effort to invest in infrastructure jobs or retraining programs to help those displaced by globalization and automation. If carried out appropriately, a messaging campaign pushing these programs, possibly including the president’s own Twitter account, would be a welcome shift. It certainly wouldn’t be something most people would predict.
Nick Monaco is a research affiliate at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and ComProp, the Computational Propaganda Project at OII.