Comparing the rhetoric of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s boring new smartphone gambits.
By Ted Scheinman
Hillary Clinton greets guests at a campaign event in Coralville, Iowa, on November 3, 2015. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
The iTunes rating for Hillary Clinton’s new-ish iPhone application, Hillary 2016, warns users of “mild profanity or crude humor.” Intrigued by this racy disclaimer, you hand over your email address and download the app, only to find a clean interface with even cleaner jokes. (The dirtiest one has Donald Trump discussing the United States economy: “The highest standard of living! The grossest national product!”) Soon, though, the quips stop, and the app reminds you that this isn’t a joke but morbidly serious: “The only thing standing between Donald Trump and the presidency is us.” In this way, Hillary 2016 offers the perfect expression of the Democratic establishment in 2016: Join us! It will be oodles of fun, and also, if you don’t join us, the heavens will rain blood.
Trump finally released his own app last week. It’s called America First (one of those phrases, like “England for the English,” that sounds sensible until you recognize its nasty origins). The app includes a countdown to the defeat of “Crooked Hillary Clinton,” and the news feed is just a collection of the candidate’s tweets, but aside from these Trumpian fixtures, America First is essentially a copy-paste job. Vocativ has called Trump’s gambit “a clone of Ted Cruz’s Cruz Crew App,” and it was made by the same company, Political Social Media LLC.
Hillary 2016 valorizes solidarity between and among voters; America First dangles the promise of proximity with a charismatic candidate.
Gizmodo deems the Clinton and Trump apps “identical in their ugly, unfriendly designs.” Certainly, both have the same goals (raise money, get voters to rallies, turn those voters into volunteers, get those volunteers to whip votes). They’re also both founded on the same congratulatory fiction: You, too, can help stave off the apocalypse — all you need is a data plan.
Look closer, though, and a few points of difference come to light:
1. Trump Offers Virtual Incentives; Clinton Offers Real Ones
On America First, users gain “action points” (AP) by fulfilling basic tasks, such as inviting friends, connecting with strangers, sharing badges on Facebook and Twitter, and answering Trump trivia — but above all you earn points by donating. (“The more you give, the more AP you gain!”)
Trivia. (Photo: Hillary 2016)
But why would anyone spend serious time and cash working toward 100,000 or 250,000 action points? Here, America First is unclear. A widget labeled “Awards & Prizes” recommends that users “Stay tuned for exciting announcements — and keep earning AP in the meantime!” Will power users soon unlock free swag? That is what the interface suggests, in non-binding fashion. In the meantime, swag or no, you get to ascend the cursus honorum of Trumpland: from Apprentice to Patriot to TrumpTrain to TeamTrump to TrumpForce1 to AmericaFirst to MAGA (short for “Make America Great Again”) to BigLeague. For now, these curious honorifics remain their own reward.
Clinton’s downloads are higher than Trump’s, and her model for driving engagement is also more persuasive. Like America First, the Hillary 2016 app offers simple points, denoted in this case by little yellow stars that cascade down the screen when you correctly identify a Trump quote; you then stockpile those stars until you have enough to trade in for campaign memorabilia signed by Clinton. The re-sale value of that swag could be essentially nil, but at least the app makes clear what users stand to win.
2. Let’s Accept That “Gamification” Is a Cruel Joke of a Word and Has Nothing to Do With Games
Lone exception: On the Clinton app you get to re-arrange imaginary furniture in a virtual campaign headquarters. Yes, it’s the most boring incarnation of The Sims ever, but technically still a game.
3. Clinton’s Network Pits You in Competition Against Friends; Trump’s Network Pits You in Competition Against Strangers Named “Wall Revere”
Wall Revere has still not responded to any of my messages. His AP is through the roof, and I’m hoping he can help mine.
Trivia. (Photo: America First)
4. Both Applications Are Essentially Garbage, but of Different Kinds
America First and Hillary 2016 represent two different visions of digital pandering. Clinton’s is earnest and largely feel-good; its news feed includes warnings from the candidate about Zika threats in the Southern states, statements of solidarity with the flood victims in Louisiana, announcements about the With Her podcast, Spanish-language content about the Olympic Games, and so on. The Clinton app is also less joyless than Trump’s (she has more people writing jokes than he does).
Clinton’s app is in the breathless-Internet-optimism vein: competent, well-engineered, dutiful, dull. Trump’s is duller still, with weird line-item navigation like an early version of Quicken software, or the smartphone app for your local credit union. The main distinction is one of spirit: Hillary 2016 valorizes solidarity between and among voters; America First dangles the promise of proximity with a charismatic candidate.
It bears noting that however bad the design of the Trump app, the core users are as deeply motivated as you’d expect. On Monday, I used America First to contact a fellow Californian named Shelley who had collected the most points in the state. I wanted to know how. “I sent out invites to friends and family as well as posted an invite with my code on Twitter and Facebook,” Shelley told me through the app. “People that use your code add 1,000 points. I also completed all items on Action tab & post from the app to Twitter.” By Monday evening, Shelley was enjoying an AP score of 9,395, which puts her firmly on the TrumpTrain and within striking distance of TeamTrump.
“Do we earn prizes,” I asked in response, “or just help the campaign?”
Shelley responded within five minutes. “I think they’ll be prizes at some point, but it’s really to get us ready for the ground game. I would imagine the closer we get more features will be released. The platform has the capability to help with door to door canvassing.”
Less than 10 minutes later, Shelley followed up again, this time unprompted: “Need to get as many people signed up as possible. Make sure to get the word out. And please, use your own code to sign them up.”