Donald Trump Is Winning Instagram by Being Himself: A Big Troll
Donald Trump long ago won Twitter. Now he’s winning Instagram—by trolling it, just like he’s trolling the entire electoral process.
Trump’s Instagram account realdonaldtrump has 1.1 million followers, edging out Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders while throughly trouncing his fellow Republican candidates. His photos—which run the gamut from celebrity shots to obligatory photos of his family—are mostly standard political fare. But here and there you see the often unsavory linchpins of his campaign: the bullying, the bravado, and the bull crap. It’s unfiltered, every bit as sophomoric and occasionally vulgar as his rallies and tweets.
It is unpolished and #authentic, in as much as anything on Instagram is truly authentic. But more than that, it is unapologetically Trump—on a social media platform that, from the start, has been open, inclusive, and friendly. It’s just one more way Trump has so thoroughly hacked this election. “Instagram has always been the teddy bear of social media, and Donald Trump has given the teddy bear teeth,” says Kerric Harvey, a media professor at George Washington University who specializes in social media. “He has set it loose among the melee, the chaos, of this political election.”
Chaotic is a good way of describing Trump’s feed. There he is with Neil Young. And Steven Tyler. Here’s a shot of Trump Tower. Oh look, it’s the Donald at a golf tournament. Isn’t his wife pretty? This is all standard campaign fodder. But then there’s the Trump so many people seem to love. Trump ranting about Megyn Kelly. Trump mocking Mitt Romney. Trump flying in his personal jet with its gold-plated seat belts. “People can’t get enough of that plane!” says Justin McConney, Trump’s digital director.
Compare Trump’s Instagram feed to those of his fellow candidates. They’re stylized, contrived and often boring. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio‘s campaigns offer a steady stream of publicity shots from the stump. Even “spontaneous” moments feel forced—Rubio grinning sheepishly as he shows off the frozen Twix bar that chipped his tooth, John Kasich getting a haircut. It’s somnolent.
The Democrats aren’t much better at this game.
Hillary Clinton’s feed is eternally optimistic, graphically dynamic, and appropriately “hip.” There are selfies with Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry, as well as countless throwback photos that capture her at the age millennial women are today—as if to remind them she was once just like them. Sure, it’s got a personal feel, but it’s as slick as her campaign. Sanders’ team tries to reinforcing his popular image as a man of the people. There he is, admiring Woody Guthrie’s guitar. And there he is spontaneously joining a protest on the campaign trail. “[That pic] shows this is what Bernie is,” says Sanders’ digital media director Hector Sigala. “This is what he does. He doesn’t just talk to people picketing. He joins them picketing.”
That may be, but all all of these feeds–Republican and Democratic alike—are coordinated, curated, and, well, campaign-y. Each follows the blueprint President Obama created when he became the first major candidate to embrace Instagram in 2012. They try to walk a line between looking presidential and appealing to the coveted millennial generation (nearly 60 percent of Instagram users are between 18 and 34). They’re slick, they’re social, and they’re self-deprecating when appropriate. The candidates (or, rather, their social media managers) are mostly hitting all the right notes.
Trump’s not bothering with any of that. His Instagram tells you he’s richer than rich, ruder than rude, madder than mad. Sure, the campaign clichés are all there, but he’s always ready to attack his opponents and call out his critics (it seems to be getting a little more presidential in recent weeks). He’s changing how Instagram functions. “Instagram was definitely very passive, and he has made it very active,” says celebrity branding expert Jeetendr Sehdev. “He’s moved it from passive to active to aggressive.”
It’s a deliberate tactic, one that makes Trump seem unfiltered and transparent. It makes him appear to be a straight-talker, unencumbered by “political correctness.” In the vernacular of social media, he is #authentic. Of course, his approach to Instagram (and Twitter, a medium he has thoroughly mastered) simply mirrors his approach to campaigning.
As on the stump, what you see is what you get. “If it’s not the real Donald Trump,” Harvey says, “it’s close enough.”