I'm Retweeting Her

What a Twitter fight between Clinton and Trump says about politics and politicking on the internet.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

There’s politics, and there’s politicking. Politics relates to the process of governing and making policy. Politicking refers to the tactics needed to acquire or retain the power of politics itself. Politics is an esteemed term, while politicking is usually used in a derogatory way. And the two exist in tension.

Today, Hillary Clinton posted a good tweet, responding to Donald Trump responding to President Obama’s endorsement of her candidacy:

In invoking this internet-born retort to tone-deafness, one often deployed against politicians by ordinary folk, Clinton takes a page from Obama’s electioneering playbook. By accentuating his own interest in and adeptness with technology in 2008 and 2012, Obama amplified his appeal among younger voters, for whom smartphones and the internet were increasingly important cultural touchstones. But he wasn’t just signaling that he got them; he was saying that he could bring the benefits of technology to bear on governing.

As chief executive, Obama worked to demonstrate that he could use technology simultaneously as a tool of politicking and as a tool of politics. The White House ran contests like the Apps for Healthy Kids challenge, which mostly made the Obama administration look with-it, casting its interests (in this case the First Lady’s campaign against obesity) as compatible with the mechanisms of Silicon Valley-style crowdsourced innovation. And Washington’s commitment to digital governance increased dramatically under Obama’s reign, including the establishment of 18F, a General Services Agency that facilitates digital services among other federal agencies.

Clinton’s tweet isn’t really Hillary Clinton’s tweet, of course. It was likely conceived by a set of tacticians, including a social-media team. It may even have been cued up far in advance, in anticipation of an ideal moment to pounce (one that was well-chosen). Even those who oppose Hillary might acknowledge the well-played maneuver. That’s what makes it politicking rather than politics—it’s electioneering speech rather than policy speech. And that’s fine. That’s what we see during elections.

Trump, ever combative, was quick to fire back:

If this were another era, when newspaper inches or broadcast minutes came at a premium, a particularly sly dig might enjoy a brief mention. The wile of politicians, after all, is part of their appeal. But the fact that so much is being said about these tweets reveals some important things about the intersection of American politics and media.

For one thing, it acts as a microcosm for the contemporary media business. When news breaks, journalists must cover it. But the battle between attention and policy finds a parallel in the battle between clicks and journalism.

You’ve probably heard about Hillary’s tweet already, because nearly every online media outlet has published something on the matter, even if in short form. Vox published an explainer about the “Delete your account” phrase. Mic redacted the tweet’s content when sharing its post about the “sick burn” on Facebook. Gawker simply embedded the tweet with the single word “SLay.” And I wrote this.

For another, it reveals the influence of internet vernacular. Using the media of an era has always served politicians well—just think of John F. Kennedy’s adept use of television in the 1960s. Trump is a prolific tweeter, but he has no use for, or is unaware of, the standards and conventions of online communication. To his supporters, this “says-what-he-thinks” rejection of dissimulation bolsters his appeal (even as his detractors find it abhorrent). Hillary’s tweet doesn’t really defuse Trump’s indictment of Obama and Clinton, so much as it signals to her base that she’s with-it on the internet. Or at least, that she’s the sort of competent administrator who can hire talented staff to tweet on her behalf, and that they can win the particular brand of rap-battle waged on Twitter.

And here is where the dyads of politics and politicking, clicks and journalism converge, teaching a lesson about all four terms in the contemporary media ecosystem. Not only is dropping the mic on the internet a clever way to appeal to today’s electorate, but it also signals an ability to speak internet. That’s the way an increasing proportion of the public thinks about ideas in the first place. Just as television once made JFK appear calm and collected compared to Richard Nixon, so Twitter now makes Hillary seem wry and connected compared to Donald Trump. And for better or worse, being wry and connected are values that many Clinton voters now hold dear. Trump, for his part, chose to stress the benefits of going alone—at odds with the internet obsession with the wisdom of crowds, but appealing to voters who prize raw authenticity above polish or poise.

The internet, it seems, is not just a place where ideas are published and shared. It is also a factory for a way of thinking and behaving. On this front, anyone savvy enough to grok Hillary’s mock, or disenchanted enough to snort at Trump’s retort, should also be terrified by the idea that the internet might become the model for civic life. Or that it already is.