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Jan. 22, 2017 – Matt Gabriele is an associate professor in the Department of Religion & Culture at Virginia Tech

Although President Obama was the first “Twitter President,” Donald Trump’s use of the medium is different from almost anything else we’ve seen in modern politics. The same day as an important intelligence briefing on Russian interference in the U.S. election, he began the day by trolling “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

He comments on everything, contradicts himself (a lot), and moves between topics quickly, leaving many pundits scratching their heads and “SNL” writers drooling over their material. In the end though, comedy here is funny because it’s confusing. But particularly since Trump spokesman Sean Spicer has said that Twitter use will be a key element of his presidency, let’s try to understand better what Trump’s doing.

Among the many catastrophes visited upon us in 2016 was the loss of Umberto Eco in February. Although best known for his novels (his 1980 “The Name of the Rose” identifies him in countless obituaries), he was also a columnist during the time of Silvio Berlusconi’s second stint as Italian prime minister (2001-2006).

In September 2003, Eco wrote: he “is an entirely new kind of politician, perhaps a postmodern one, and precisely because his actions are baffling he is bringing into play a complex, shrewd, and subtle strategy, one that demonstrates nerve and intelligence— … the unerring instincts of a salesman … [who] doesn’t care whether his discourse hangs together, he hopes you will take an interest in some feature. Once you have fixed your mind on that, you will forget everything else. So he uses all arguments, one after another at machine-gun speed, unworried about any contradiction that may result.”

Indeed, statements themselves are often intentional provocations that guarantee him media attention and unleash his supporters to follow his example. The rapid-fire succession of statements shifts the focus away from what was just said to the new thing, while simultaneously serving as trial balloons, testing the boundaries of what’s acceptable. If no one reacts, he pushes farther. If people do react, we’re told to take him “seriously but not literally.”

When political opposition calls him out, he claims persecution and builds solidarity with his supporters (and ensure he’ll receive more media attention). He controls the terms of the debate and leaves the media disoriented, forcing them to chase a thousand different threads at the same time so they can’t clarify issues for their readers/viewers.

Although Eco directed everything above at Berlusconi, the parallels are so striking that we should consider Eco’s essay as apocalyptic of Trump’s Twitter account. I don’t mean that his essays reveal some religious truth but simply that it helps us unlock a puzzling contemporary moment. In 2003-2004 Eco had no idea Twitter would exist or that Donald Trump would be a regular user of that medium, but Eco did know something about a rich, corporate, celebrity, pseudo-populist, narcissistic, nationalist media figure who ascended to the top of his country’s political pyramid. And Eco did suggest some ways to resist the rapid-fire sales technique Twitter seems to have been invented for.

One can’t simply ignore his tweets. They’re indeed statements of the president and prophetic of policies that might soon be implemented. But one also can’t take them deadly seriously and report them on the front page. This is what Trump’s counting on — outrage to keep the story alive. Instead, Eco suggested the media report on the substance of Trump’s claims (not that he said something). Responding on social media should focus not on mockery (which only makes the choir feel good) but on pointing out contradictions, the facts of the case and, most importantly, the real issues involved in the policies Trump’s suggesting.

The loyal opposition must counter Trump’s pronouncements but stop playing by his rules. Respond with positive provocations. Go big. The Senate Democrats’ proposal to ban Trump’s Muslim registry. But go further. Propose to expand Obamacare and Medicare. Renew the commitments that forged the Obama coalition: expand voter protections, end abuses in the criminal justice system, and protect equal pay. Support grassroots efforts at state and local levels to support these alternatives. Most importantly, the lesson we should take from Umberto Eco is to understand the rules of this new game, the underlying strategy of Trump’s pronouncements.

In other words, we all need to recognize the tweets for what they are: a sophisticated discourse with a tried-and-true history, the actions of a pushy salesman trying to sell something (in this case, himself), without regard for what we as a country actually want or need.

This article was first published in the Roanoke Times.  More information on Matthew R. Gabriele: http://liberalarts.vt.edu/faculty-directory/religion-and-culture-faculty/matthew-gabriele.html