Cruising the skies above Ohio (and perhaps looking to take more attention away from the Democratic National Convention), Donald Trump tried a new publicity tactic Wednesday night. Instead of his typical podium-and-flag setup, he opened his MacBook and invited users of Reddit to ask him anything.
AMAs—that’s the popular abbreviation—are a staple of the free-wheeling forum site, which has hosted hundreds of celebrities and slightly less famous people who are willing put out a shingle and take questions from strangers on the internet. Reddit—part old-school forum, part meme-machine, part possible-future-of-human-society—prides itself on its community, which moderates itself and (in theory) highlights the best the internet has to offer. Barack Obama hosted his own AMA back in 2012; so have Bill Gates, Patrick Stewart, and a guy who fought off a bear.
So at first, I thought Reddit might be an unfriendly audience for Trump. It’s out of his comfort zone: Beyond tapping out (or dictating) tweets, Trump actually appears to be a bit of a technophobe. And the site skews to the young and well-educated, with only 19 percent of users calling themselves conservative. Then again, nearly three-quarters of its users are white, and they’re mostly middle class, as likely to make less than $30,000 a year as they are to make more than $75,000. And while Reddit hosts some of the best forums on the internet—Explain Like I’m Five, Data Is Beautiful—it’s also home to nasty, mean-spirited stuff.
Trump broke tradition with his AMA. He didn’t host it with the popular /r/IAmA subreddit, where most celebrities set up shop. Instead, he joined /r/The_Donald, a subreddit devoted to his candidacy that is populated by redditors who are fiercely loyal to him: They are quick to deploy a “Make America Great Again” meme in fun or fill up a thread with acidic derision toward the billionaire’s opponents. Scrolling through the posts of the “centipedes” (that’s what these redditors call themselves, a joke centered on Trump’s wily flexibility and somehow inspired by this video), one notices plenty of references to the “God Emperor Trump” and the “cuckservatives” in Congress.
As such, the ground rules were a bit different than your average AMA. Moderators deleted comments from any Reddit account created in the past month, assuming they were created by troublemakers out to spam the Q&A. They also liberally deleted comment they deemed unhelpful. As one moderator put it, “We built the wall 10 ft taller, you might say.” That’s why the subreddit’s volunteer moderators posted this warning earlier in the day:
WE'RE R/THE_DONALD. OUR PLACE, OUR RULES.
We would remind everyone, including media here that we are not a part of the campaign, but we love our community and we will take all measures necessary to protect it.
Yes, we will ban troublemakers
Yes, we will remove trolling comments
Yes, we mean it when we say we'll throw anyone over our walls who fails to behave themselves
Trump posted his first comment around 6:30 p.m. and began answering questions shortly after 7 p.m. The first question he addressed was this:
Mr. Trump, on behalf of /r/asktrumpsupporters we would like to ask you the following questions:
Question 1: We firmly believe Hillary will try and steal this election through vote fraud, especially given recent events. What is your campaign doing to ensure that we have a fair election?
Question 2: What role should NASA play in helping to Make America Great Again?
Question 3: How do you feel about WikiLeaks? Does it change your opinion on Snowden?
Question 4: What is your opinion on Net Neutrality?
Question 5: Has your campaign ever gotten any ideas from the_donald?
Thank you for taking the time to join us today and we look forward to continuing to Make America Great Again with you.
The candidate ignored those last few questions but answered the first two, sort of:
1 - Voter fraud is always a serious concern and authorities must be vigilant from keeping those from voting that are not authorized to do so.
2 - Honestly I think NASA is wonderful! America has always led the world in space exploration.
Next, he was asked how his administration would confront the media while remaining on the right side of the First Amendment. His answer essentially extolled his Twitter account. “I have been very concerned about media bias and the total dishonesty of the press,” he wrote back. “I think new media is a great way to get out the truth.”
In all, Trump answered 12 questions over the course of the hour, which saw more than 20,000 comments from Reddit users. Many of his responses stuck to his stump-speech lines—he’ll replace Obamacare with something so much better, he supports the police, and so on. Many were pretty brief, just a quick sentence. (No, he didn’t answer the thing about the horse-sized ducks and duck-sized horses.)
But a few stood out. Someone asked who Trump’s favorite U.S. president was. He didn’t exactly pick, preferring instead to cover his bases by naming George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. Another questioner asked how he’d reach out to Bernie Sanders supporters. Trump’s response:
Though Bernie is exhausted and has given up on his revolution, many of his voters still want to keep up the fight. I expect that millions of Bernie voters will refuse to vote for Hillary because of her support for the War in Iraq, the invasion of Libya, NAFTA and TPP, and of course because she is totally bought and sold by special interests. She and her husband have been paid millions and millions by global corporations and powerful interests who will control her every decision. She is their puppet, and they pull the strings.
We welcome with open arms all voters who want an honest government and to fix our rigged system so it works for the people. This includes fixing one of Bernie's biggest issues, our terrible trade deals that strip our country of its jobs and wealth.
The AMA gave Trump an air of candor, a free-for-all press conference open to anyone who wanted to ask a question. But it appeared tightly controlled. Scores of comments were deleted during the Q&A. Most of the questions he did answer were posted by /r/The_Donald regulars, including Milo Yiannopoulos, an editor for Breitbart who was recently banned from Twitter. Tellingly, his AMA thread was subject to heavy downvoting, a Reddit sign of disapproval, indicating other voices were not getting through. (Obama’s AMA, on the other hand, was almost exclusively upvoted.)
Trump landed in Toledo and signed off; the conversation moved on to a congratulatory post celebrating his brief appearance. Some complained that his answers hadn’t been featured more prominently on Reddit’s homepage. But for all intents and purposes, the event had gone perfectly. Trump got some internet cred and a bit of exposure before Obama took the stage in Philadelphia; the fans at /r/The_Donald got to meet their hero. In retrospect, Reddit may be the perfect medium for Trump, the digital equivalent of a gymnasium rally. He can take the temperature of the crowd with precision, giving them what they’ve upvoted. Like his speeches, the site favors repetition, the better to make memes with. And when things get nasty, his supporters are willing to the toss the bums out.