It is a truth universally (if often silently) acknowledged that if you want more Twitter followers you should get into Twitter feuds. This holds especially true for mid- or low-level celebrities, many of whom know that if their follower numbers are falling off, if they’re no longer trending, all they need to do is pick a fight with another celebrity.
Donald Trump has been involved in more feuds in the last week than any of the Real Housewives were in their entire last season. The one getting the most attention is his attack on Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen Muslim soldier, whose rousing speech at the Democratic convention accused Trump of having “sacrificed nothing for no one.”
Trump’s decision to retaliate, taking multiple swings at Khan and his wife, is keeping the trending tallies moving. Khan addressed the Democrats a week ago, but the Trump-Khan confrontation is still spinning off stories and commentaries that hover on “most viewed” and “most emailed” lists.
Which is probably just fine by Trump. After all, on the heels of his wife’s plagiarism-tainted GOP convention speech, he reminded us of his belief in the maxim that there’s no such thing as bad PR. “Good news is Melania’s speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics,” he tweeted, “especially if you believe that all press is good press.”
But maybe only up to a point. On Monday, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which just a week earlier had welcomed Trump at its annual meeting, released a statement saying it would not tolerate such remarks. A passel of GOP leading lights turned up their noses. Sen. John McCain hoped we understood that Trump's “remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party.” Rep. Richard Hanna of New York became the first GOP Congress member to say he would be voting for Hillary Clinton. Silicon Valley billionaire Republican Meg Whitman announced she’s “with her” too.
At a Trump rally, a soldier's mom called him out in the Q and A: How could he disrespect a Gold Star family. The rest of the crowd loudly booed her.
Trump's critics, and even some of his buddies, shake their heads at his fleeting grasp that he may need to reach more voters than his die-hard base. They suggest he’s thin-skinned but miss the real Donald: the pure product of an outrageous, impolitic and gleefully dishonest tabloid culture.
A-list celebs have their feuds imposed upon them by the gossip machine (the Cold War of Angelina versus Aniston, for example) but C-list stars, a category that (sorry, but it’s true) includes most reality TV stars, have to put a little more muscle into the game. Hence we have the Housewife rivalries, and the Hills and the Kardashians, “real people” who nonetheless have to remain in character at all times in order to earn their keep. Exhausting as it is, much of this can be done via Instagram and Twitter, where all it takes to boost one’s following is throwing a little shade, preferably on a celebrity of equal or higher status.
Donald Trump may be enormously famous, but every time he bites hard on the lowest-grade bait, he's confirming that he still is and always will be nothing but a C-lister — the kind that revels in theatrics like calling his opponent “the devil” and throwing a mother and her infant out of a rally because the child won’t stop crying.
The problem is that there’s a difference between seeking publicity and seeking the presidency. In a C-list Twitter war, the stakes could not be lower. In a political campaign that determines who has the power to get us into real wars, they couldn’t be higher.
Right about now, many people seem to be thinking Trump’s battle with Khan could be his downfall, a moment not unlike the “have you no decency?” confrontation between U.S. Army counsel Joseph Welch and Sen. Joe McCarthy that let the air out one of our other forays into crazy demagoguery. (And one that Warren Buffet echoed in a blistering speech against Trump this week.)
We’ll find out eventually if that's true. For now, though, it almost certainly means more followers for Trump. In that contest at least, he’s beating Hillary Clinton by about 2 million.