An Overseas Trip About Nothing?
All of the Twitter Yadda, Yadda, Yadda from Saudi Arabia to Sicily.
Before President Trump’s first overseas trip, we were told over and over that the stakes were high. After all, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, especially with world leaders with whom you disagree on major issues such as middle east peace, trade, climate change, and the financial responsibilities of member states in NATO.
It was also seen as a way to re-set a presidency that has accomplished none of its top priorities in the GOP Congress (e.g. repeal and replace Obamacare, tax reform, infrastructure, the wall) or had them blocked by the courts (travel/Muslim ban). There’s also the expanding investigation into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia and an unfortunate Oval Office leak to the same country — I’ll get back to that one in a moment.
We could discuss a more substantive analysis of Twitter conversation around these important issues (we will) but, let’s face it, most of us are exhausted from the 2016 campaign and the first few months of the Trump presidency. So let’s have some fun, instead. Let’s look at the trip’s moments that Twitter obsessed over, in chronological order, most of which will mean nothing long-term but were as entertaining as some of the best Seinfeld episodes.
I promise to honor the Seinfeld credo, in part, with no hugging but we will add some learning. Let’s see how much of an imprint each of the following 10 moments had on Twitter when they were connected to President Trump. For the purposes of our research, I’ll limit the time frame of our data to May 20 to 27, the length of the trip. I won’t restrict the tweets to the U.S. as the trip was international news.
Episode 1: The Golf Carts
President Trump arrived after a long trip he didn’t want to take and before long was whisked off in something strange yet comfortably familiar: a golf cart. This wouldn’t have been a Twitter moment if he were on a golf course because, after all, that’s where they belong. Trump’s ride-along was in a museum, with a Saudi king, in a very well-protected room full of other people walking. It was weird and Twitter loved it: 34,543 posts.
As a bonus, later in the trip, Trump also took a golf cart to a photo op while the rest of the G7 walked. So, to be fair, the data also include this moment:
Kramer, memorably, carried his own bag to the beach and got into a little trouble with a whale setting up George to be the unlikeliest marine biologist in the history of television. Still, according to Vulture, it only ranks in the top third (61 out of 169) of the best Seinfeld episodes, ever.
Episode 2: The Sword Dance
Helpfully, the Saudi Arabian embassy in the United States explained what we see below. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did it better this wasn’t his first ardah. Below, we see Trump in full sway, with a sword, channeling my brethren, the dads among us who are simply trying not to look ridiculous around dudes who can dance. Twitter saluted the effort (we tested “sword” and “dance”) with 83,368 posts.
Since we’re comparing Trump to Seinfeld and not Game of Thrones, we needed to set the swordplay aside. Still, I think we found a classic: Elaine dancing with sword thumbs …
Episode 3: The Orb
It didn’t stop with swords. This battle of the NBC network stars was quite a contest (oh, just wait). No single moment during this overseas trip about nothing captured the made-for-Twitter strangeness of the odyssey than Trump and his oil-rich hosts reminding themselves they’ve got the whole world in their hands. While news on climate change policy was yet to come, Twitter went en fuego with 245,622 posts.
It’s not exactly an orb — it’s a beverage — but this was an iconic Seinfeld “all hands” moment that we’ll discretely choose not to hyperlink. Yes, it’s from The Contest and I agree with Vulture: it was peak Seinfeld. The classic show about nothing never said the word about its best episode’s main topic. Respecting the writers and our audience, neither will I.
Episode 4: The Curve
The physical comedy continued in Israel with the stakes seemingly lower because it was just famous people walking a red carpet, something they’ve done hundreds of times before. Perhaps sensing this, Melania curved her husband, leader of the free world, who was simply reaching for her hand. Was the former model saying, “Sigh, I got this!” or was it a brush off from an annoyed spouse?
Methodological note: we tested Melania’s name as an option to Trump’s as she was the one leading the physical comedy here. We also tested hand slap (6,857 posts) and curve (4,693 posts) but neither really captured volume of tweets we expected. By itself, “hand” got 328,292 posts but, to be fair, the subject matter varied. “Slap” got 26,186 posts and it varied as well. Without further study we won’t know just how many posts were really about this:
Seinfeld is particularly helpful in explaining Donald Trump’s challenge. In the clip below, George is describing to Jerry how he has no power in his relationship with his girlfriend. As if he were commenting on the gif above, George summs up Trump’s red carpet challenge perfectly: he has no hand. The episode may have been about a Pez dispenser (meh) but this moment alone should have had this episode higher than 74 on Vulture’s list.
Episode 5: The Leak (Confirmed)
After facing criticism for leaking highly classified information to the Russians via Israel, President Trump confirmed it even though he said he “never mentioned” it was from Israel. As the story broke before Trump’s overseas trips we could have left this moment off the list but the awkwardness of this press conference is worth revisiting. Twitter agreed with 69,866 posts.
Methodological note: We instructed our Crimson Hexagon account to pick up “Russia” and either “intel” or “intelligence” and allowed “Israel” or “Netanyahu” to be picked up for screening posts.
Here is the moment where Trump tries to manage the situation with Prime Minister Netanyahu standing beside him, wincing.
To be fair, we’re not sure if President Trump said the intel was from Israel or not. Vladimir Putin offered their recording of the Oval Office meeting on May 10. Still, most observers agreed before it was confirmed that what Trump told the Russians was traceable back to a key ally so it’s a gray area at best. George Costanza knew a little something about managing the truth. Vulture has The Beard as a middling #59 in it’s Seinfeld rankings, just a click above The Marine Biologist episode.
Episode 6: The (Western) Wall
Donald Trump became the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It was a solemn moment and something I found personally affecting — as did many Israelis. Twitter, of course, saw it quite differently. We tested the full name “Western Wall,” distinguishing it from the domestic border issue. It was a big moment on Twitter with 149,825 posts.
I’m going to pass on the Seinfeld joke here because jokes about that wall are not funny and the only reference I found was this, which was actually quite nice and not from any particular episode.
Episode 7: The Pope Puss
Pope Francis is an outwardly happy man. Seemingly every interaction he has with his fellow humans alike elicits a kindly gaze. One exception appears to be President Trump as evidenced in this strange photo.
Perhaps Pope Francis’s dour expression was stemming from this.
This also may have been overblown as evidenced below with both amicably exchanging greetings. Either way Twitter was extraordinarily active on the subject of the two leaders, creating 493,103 posts, most of it on May 24, when they met here.
As with the Western Wall, one has to be very careful about making religious jokes, especially about someone with a 70% approval rating with U.S. adults like Pope Francis. Trump’s aggregate approval was 39% when he was at The Vatican. The Yadda Yadda episode, sinfully low at #92 by Vulture, showed how a welcoming clergyman could turn on a dime given the wrong joke, this time about dentists.
Episode 8: The (Le) Grip
This is some of the very best of the comedy genre: man (white-knuckles) bites (alpha) dog. Trump has been infamous for his uncomfortable technique, literally attempting to gain the upper hand. Newly elected French President Macron did his homework and made sure to best his septuagenarian colleague. To capture as many relevant posts as possible, we needed to test “hand shake” (223 posts) and “handshake” (87,916 posts) as well as mandating Macron’s occupancy in the data mix.
Total volume was pretty light considering how much fun this was with 31,102 posts. It’s also a demonstration of the limits of this kind of text-based research as I’m sure this video was shared more than that number of times on Twitter.
George Costanza would have never, ever, let Macron white-knuckle his hands. This clip was taken from The Puffy Shirt, which comes in at a shockingly low #86 on Vulture’s Seinfeld list. Combine the “low talker” with the “puffy shirt” and this, and I cannot see how we don’t end up in the Top 20 on anybody’s list. Time to revisit the show, Vulture.
Episode 9: The Shove
Sometimes there’s a moment where someone is revealed so perfectly you wonder why you ever saw that person differently. For years, we’ve seen Trump as a confident, brash, self-promoting, businessman. This moment was about being in the right spot for his first closeup as a world leader.
He saw himself in the wrong spot, behind people he judged inferior, and found a way to the front by side-slap-shoving the President of Montenegro from his path. It’s quintessential Trump, from the expression on his face right down to the straightening of the jacket, and it was Twitter gold with 111,676 posts.
In the world of Seinfeld, Elaine was generally a bit more … direct.
To be fair, George really should’ve seen that coming. This happened a lot so singling out a single episode for a George-slap is too limited. See how George doesn’t even move? He is no President of Montenegro, who said he didn’t mind Trump relocating him for the NATO world leader photo shoot. At least he’s annoyed.
(Misplaced) Final Episode 10: The Bow
President Trump mocked Obama when he bowed in respect to the Saudi king, as presidents are wont to do, apparently forgetting that doing the same thing (in this case a bow or a curtsy) might be a particular problem for him.
Twitter eagerly reminded President Trump of this coincidence with nearly 100k posts (bow had 68,398 posts and curtsy had 30,641).
And with that, all we can ask for from Seinfeld and his friends is this.
Something From Nothing
So how should we evaluate the trip in the age of Twitter? How do we connect the potential policy outcomes to 140-character chatter and other content on the platform? We had some fun here, recounting the moments of yadda, yadda, yadda nothingness during the voyage. What if we wanted to focus on something that mattered?
That’s the challenge we have at The PEORIA Project. Last year, we spent a lot of time (here on Medium and elsewhere) surfing the waves on Twitter to understand who, for example, got a boost from their conventions and which hashtags were important during the campaign.
The big questions of the Trump’s first overseas trip remain open — and we will track them. Will the United States leave the Paris Climate deal (update: yes)? Will NATO member countries get close to 2% GDP defense spending (unlikely)? Will international trade deals break down under the Trump-Bannon worldview (unclear)? Did all of this take our eye off the ball from what’s happening on healthcare or Russia (maybe, for a little while)?
One thing is for certain: we’ll be watching even if there is nothing to see. Past presidential trips to foreign nations had their moments, but now on Twitter a lot more of us get to share them.
If you enjoyed this article, click the💚 below so other people will see this here on Medium. Follow me on Twitter @michaelcohen. You can follow our research on this website or on Twitter @PEORIAProject, which is funded by a generous grant from Mark R. Shenkman. To learn more about the Graduate School of Political Management visit our website or follow us on Twitter @GSPMgwu.