USA Politics

'Unpresidented': Do typos make Trump seem more authentic?

patterns of thought

Perhaps in the social media age, Trump's rough-around-the-edges persona online merely reinforces his appeal, even as he takes heavy criticism.

US President-elect Donald Trump speaks Saturday during a rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala.
Evan Vucci/AP/File
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US President-elect Donald Trump committed a typographical error Saturday morning when he published a tweet describing China's seizure of a US Navy drone as "unpresidented." The misspelling of "unprecedented" sent Twitter and the day's news cycle into a tizzy. 

Critics pointed to the error as evidence that Mr. Trump's go-it-alone approach has led to problems during his campaign and transition that will persist in the White House if he does not rely on a team of professionals. For all the hubbub made of the gaffe, however, defenders seem largely unfazed. Perhaps in the social media age, Trump's rough-around-the-edges persona online merely reinforces his appeal, even as he takes heavy criticism.

"His tweets, no matter what the quote-unquote 'mistake' is, whether it’s a spelling error or a grammatical error, will not impact the way that his supporters feel about him, and people who don’t support Donald Trump will continue to harp on them, probably with very little success," Elizabeth Dudash-Buskirk, an associate professor of communication at Missouri State University in Springfield, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Sunday.

Dr. Dudash-Buskirk says many Trump supporters tend to reject all the fact-checking and umbrage-taking that follows Trump's controversial tweets. 

"His base is not stupid. His base is just sick and tired of being told [what to think] by what they call 'the elite' and I’ll call 'the political system,'" she adds, grouping academics and mainstream-media players with members of the political establishment. "So he’s meeting their expectations and violating ours."

Famed communication scholar Marshall McLuhan wrote that "the medium is the message," meaning what people say cannot be separated from the means by which they say it. His student Neil Postman went on to argue in his 1985 book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" that TV's emergence as the dominant medium of the era had influenced communication, both on and off the air, causing communicators to expect that all messages should be entertaining.

"Our priests and presidents, our surgeons and lawyers, our educators and newscasters need worry less about satisfying the demands of their discipline than the demands of good showmanship," Mr. Postman wrote, bemoaning the impact TV had inflicted on society.

With technology-driven shifts in the media landscape, society's approach to knowledge, its epistemology, shifts as well, Postman argued. Now more than 30 years later, some observers are asking if Trump's ascendancy might bring evidence that social media has supplanted TV as society's dominant medium – again shifting the manner in which the public wrestles with truth and opinion.

"Does social media, like television, present us with what Postman calls a new epistemology? Perhaps," Michael Sacasas, director of the Greystone Theological Institute's Center for the Study of Ethics and Technology, outside Pittsburgh, wrote in a blog post in September following the first presidential debate between Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

The manner in which the public makes sense of Trump's tweets, Mr. Sacasas says, depends largely on each individual's preconceived opinions.

"We always interpret our friends in the best possible light, and we interpret our enemies in the worst possible light," he tells the Monitor in a phone interview Sunday. Those who are inclined to mock Trump do so, and those who are inclined to support him see evidence that his Twitter presence is really him, with immediacy and charisma, and without experts filtering through what he's saying.

"Whether we are supportive or critical of Trump himself," Sacasas adds, "we do see that his personality and his disregard for sort of standard political norms of engagement have made him really the first politician, I think, to really take advantage of Twitter's medium by which he can bypass the press, speak directly to an audience that's going to be receptive."

Trump is far from the first language-bending politician to gain traction in recent American history. Sarah Palin, a former GOP vice presidential candidate and former Alaska governor, was mocked in 2010 for a Twitter typo in which she called upon supporters of a mosque near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York to "refudiate" the planned construction.

"A slip of the finger, most likely," the Monitor's Peter Grier reported at the time. "'Repudiate' would have worked just fine in that sentence."

Several months later, Mrs. Palin repeated the apparently inadvertent neologism with a sense of support-rallying pride, her defenders having argued that the understood meaning of a word is what matters.

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