Grizzled political observers can recall—it was just less than three years ago, though it feels like many more—when conservative media were branding Barack Obama a raging narcissist. Little could they, or anyone else, have imagined that in the near future the president of the United States would be the sort of person who recycled fan videos created on internet message boards devoted to idolizing him.
On Sunday morning, President Trump offered this bizarre clip:
The video is an alteration of an old clip of WWE wrestling; the man whose face is obscured by the CNN logo is Vince McMahon, the CEO of WWE and, not coincidentally, the husband of Linda McMahon, whom Trump selected to run the Small Business Administration. The other person isn’t altered; that’s actually the future president of the United States, playing his role in WWE’s 2007 “Battle of the Billionaires” story arc.
Trump’s tweet raises a variety of questions. Is he encouraging violence against the media? (Yes.) Is he violating Twitter’s harassment policy? (It depends who you ask.) Has he humiliated White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, who just last week insisted that the president had never promoted violence? (Yes, and it’s not the first time he’s hung her out to dry.) Is he hip to the irony of using a clip of himself appearing at a professional wrestling event to accuse someone else of being fake? (Who even knows?) Is Trump’s entire presidency just kayfabe? (I can’t even.)
But the provenance of the video is important, too. It appears to have originally surfaced on Reddit, posted by a user under the name “HanAssholeSolo,” as though being a jerk wasn’t already an essential trait of Harrison Ford’s Star Wars character. HAS posted a GIF of Trump whaling on CNN/McMahon five days ago. Sometime between HAS’s original post and the version Trump tweeted, the video was somewhat altered, and audio was added.
Prior postings show that HAS lives up to his middle name. His postings, many of them on the Trump-themed subreddit r/the_donald, show a love for Trump (as in a sub-Yankovician parody of the ’90s classic “Lump”) and disdain for CNN, manifesting itself partly in other GIFs with CNN’s logo added, but also in an anti-Semitic meme with headshots of dozens of network personalities and officers whom it says are Jewish. (It’s unclear how accurate the meme is.) Text at the bottom complains about overrepresentation of Jews in the media. Elsewhere in his Reddit archive there are a range of racist and anti-Muslim comments.
The WWE meme is just the latest case of Trump’s Twitter feed looking to r/the_donald for material. In May, Trump wryly retweeted an old Rosie O’Donnell tweet calling for the firing of James Comey. “We finally agree on something Rosie,” he wrote. Does Trump have photographic recall of O’Donnell’s old tweets? The man can certainly hold a grudge, but given his loose hold on what he said a day before, that’s unlikely. A more probable explanation was that the old O’Donnell tweets had been circulating on r/the_donald. In March, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel charted the progression of a photo of Senator Chuck Schumer and Russian President Vladimir Putin from Reddit to Trump’s Twitter account.
Almost exactly a year ago, Trump tweeted an anti-Semitic meme featuring Hillary Clinton and a Star of David. That image turned out to have originated on 8chan, another Internet message board that’s beloved of anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, and similarly unsavory characters.
It’s highly unlikely that Trump himself is searching out this material, since he doesn’t use a computer. The more likely culprit is Dan Scavino, Trump’s social-media director, whom the Office of Special Counsel last month deemed to have violated the Hatch Act by assailing Republican Representative Justin Amash. Warzel noted, for example, that Scavino tweeted the Schumer-Putin pic before the president’s account did.
But that doesn’t get Trump off the hook: The tweets appear under his name, the buck stops with him, and he has gleefully taken responsibility. (“My use of social media is not Presidential - it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.”) As such, drawing on r/the_donald points to two of Trump’s weaknesses. The first is his intense need for affirmation. The president boasts of shutting out unflattering stories, though his tirades against CNN and Morning Joe are strong indicators that he’s bluffing, and remains obsessed with his critics. Staffers are reportedly afraid to share negative stories with Trump, preferring to slip him untrue stories. But White House aides might feel at least some obligation to the truth and the public, whereas redditors are unalloyedly loyal to Trump. The devotion is clear in HAS’s reaction to Trump’s tweet: “Wow!! I never expected my meme to be retweeted by the God Emporer [sic] himself!!!”
The second is that Trump can’t, or won’t, assess the provenance of the information he takes in. He has repeatedly fallen for fraudulent stories, such as a hoax Time cover. (Fake Time covers are a frequent presence in Trump’s life.) A prudent and normal politician, and his staff, might figure out whether a meme had originated with a racist, bigoted gentleman going by the name HanAssholeSolo. Then again, a normal politician wouldn’t tweet a video of himself attacking a CNN stand-in (nor would he have appeared repeatedly on WWE). Trump has decided that this doesn’t matter, or even that it helps him with his supporters.
And he may be right about the political calculation. Certainly, one can imagine that the adulation of r/the_donald convinces him he is. But his failure to assess information causes problems elsewhere in his fitful attempts at running the country between tweets. Foreign leaders have realized that Trump is a pushover, easily persuaded (or duped) with a brief conversation. That helps explain why Putin is so eager to meet on the sidelines of the upcoming G20 summit, and why Trump keeps praising the Gulf states’ blockade of Qatar, despite an important U.S. military base there, and in contradiction to the concerns voiced by officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The White House implausibly claims that the president wants to talk about policy and not media feuds—he can talk about what he wants, and keeps choosing the latter—but his approach to media feuds doesn’t instill much confidence in his ability to sort through information about policy.
The CNN video, and Trump’s horrifying attack on Mika Brzezinski, have led to a fresh round of pleas for Trump to quit using Twitter. Scavino answered that Monday morning, tweeting a screenshot of an oh-so-scientific Drudge Report poll:
The intermittent pleas for Trump to drop Twitter are of a piece with all the other hopes and prayers that the president will change his approach, become “presidential” (and not just MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL). Trump is who he is, and expecting that to change is like expecting that certain subreddits won’t be rife with anti-Semites and racists: the product of naïveté, motivated reasoning, or both.