Since Donald Trump became the most active and consistently unhinged president on Twitter, an interesting and exhausting phenomenon has emerged: the Trump Reply Guy.
In an era where people believe a viral tweet can be their golden ticket to fame and fortune, the space below all the tweets from Trump’s account — which currently has over 61 million followers — has become the ultimate battlefield for likes and retweets. Within seconds of Trump tweeting, there tends to be two types of replies: those who immediately attempt to drag him, and those who come in to praise him, often by trying to belittle his critics. But they all share the same ultimate goal: crafting a tweet “good” enough to rise to the top of the pile.
While Trump is blatantly a deranged demagogue, the Twitter fans and critics filling up his replies can be, frankly, annoying AF. So it was only a matter of time until someone took the Trump Reply Guy trend to the next level, and that’s how “Walter(Owen’s Grandp” was born. (Yes, that is how he spells it.)
If you follow Trump or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who Walter calls “Alexandra”), start paying attention to their replies, and you’ll notice Walter is always there. The satirical account can constantly be spotted happily espousing right-wing talking points, both to cheerfully encourage prominent Republicans and provoke outspoken Democrats. And the account is incredibly popular: Walter currently has over 111,000 followers.
If you’re not in on the joke, at first glance, Walter might seem like another account of an overactive Fox News binge-watching Republican grandfather. His profile photo is a cute little old man. His banner image is the American flag. He calls Democrats “Democants.” He uses parentheses every time he refers to his wife — as in, “Ethel Pat (wife).” He makes ellipses using three commas.
So who is the actual person behind the keyboard? He declines to publicly say his full name, but the mastermind behind it all is a Nashville-based musician named Adam. Now that Walter has skyrocketed to Twitter fame, Adam spoke to Vulture about why he created Walter, what he aims to accomplish through the account, and his thoughts on the reactions it’s constantly provoking online.
So when was the account born?
Funny enough, it came around through Daily Intelligencer. Years ago, I used to be an active member of their commenting community. Before I got into playing music full time, I was a software developer. I was doing a lot of consulting work, and I was at Wells Fargo insurance and there wasn’t a whole lot of work to do over there. Most of the work we were doing was crime, so probably good there wasn’t too much.
I needed to stay engaged with something, and the 2012 election was going on. I started to notice there was this network of trolls. One of them was way too abusive. He would get kicked off the site like four times a day and just kept creating new accounts and logging back in. One of his favorite things to do was take someone’s comment and cut it off and call them a “low IQ commenter.” So I created an account called “Low IQ Commenter” and just started outstupiding him, thinking of the dumbest thing I could say, which tended to basically be the sarcastic response to what I thought he was about to say. That’s basically what Grandpa Walter is. Like one of them was, “Obamacare made my grandson gay.” I only did this for a couple of days, then it got old and then that was the end of it.
A year and a half ago, my whole healthcare situation was up in air. I was getting back on this hellscape platform and hearing nonstop political noise. I really wanted to start replying to stupid people that way. There’s really no other way to do it. The only way to irritate them, if they’re dumb, is to pretend you’re playing along, then sneak something in the back door. When I started, I was like, This could be kind of fun. Somewhere along the way people started following this and it started growing. I went over 100,000 the other day. That’s crazy to me.
What’s the benefit of keeping your identity secret?
It doesn’t hurt that it’s not public, because you never know who is googling you. I live in Nashville and I’m a professional musician. I play country music, so I work with a lot people who are quite … on the other side of the aisle. A lot of the Grandpa Walters in real life. This is one of the reasons I made the account. I didn’t want to get baited into engaging with people when I’m out on the road. If they say really outlandish stuff, I twist it around a little bit and tweet it out as a Walter tweet.
Are you from Nashville?
No, I grew up in Paul Ryan’s district in Wisconsin, of all places.
Research for the character!
Yeah, a lot of that. I actually once had to play a Trump rally, which was probably the most sinister thing I’ve ever been to. It was like a Nazi rally. It was a co-event with the NRA, so all of the crazy was dialed up to 12 for all of it. During the sound check I saw the teleprompter, and I realized just how far the propaganda goes. Doing the Grandpa Walter thing sometimes reminds me of that. I follow all the right-wing accounts, and I can see what they do. I can see how they coordinate, see how information and disinformation mechanisms work. A lot of people shut that out, and they don’t get to learn about it. That was another part of this thing that informs my approach, in a weird way. In a lot of ways it feels like a sociology project. But, it’s not good for mental health. It’s depressing. You realize it’s not going away.
Where does that little old man photo come from?
I literally google searched “old guy,” and that was one of the ones that came up. The real guy is deceased now. He was a journalist in Iowa or something, by the name of Mearl Luvaas, and he had a column called “Thoughts by the Old Guy,” and that’s why he came up in my search. In my mind’s eye, he was exactly how I already saw this character who was starting to develop in my head.
He looks like a cute and harmless old man — a lot of what this character is. If you look at his tweets, he’s always polite, but he’s also really obnoxious. He reminds me of a lot of people I know in my own life. Everyone probably has a grandpa or uncle like that, who you just want to say, “You’ve been mainlining way too much Fox News, man.” You love them, but you also know they’re kind of nuts.
When I saw this picture, I was like, This guy is perfect. He’s exactly what I think of when I think of a guy who constantly bickers with his wife, has a cat named Mr. Squiggles, and worries that Obamacare made his grandson gay. He just looks like the guy who would get up and salute the flag in his own living room.
Where does the character of Walter come from?
A lot of the character is borrowed from people I know very well, like my own grandparents. I see them all the time at family events, but I know if we ever get started talking politics, my grandpa would go nuts. He’s a big Trump fan, but I still love the guy. I really wanted to create that character. You can’t hate him. He’s not an asshole, he’s just wrong all the time, about everything.
How did you develop your style of tweeting?
That’s from being on Facebook and being a steel player, which is the oldest white man instrument ever, and being friends with other steel players. These old men have a dialect that you start noticing. Like, why do they all use five commas at a time? Why do they all type in capital letters? There’s this weird thing where you start reading, and even if there isn’t a picture, you just know you’re reading from an old guy.
I always see you replying to Chrissy Teigen. Who else do you troll the most?
The Chrissy stuff is not really trolling. She’s really smart and she’s really funny. She plays along, and her followers get really confused because they’re like, “Why are you talking to this guy?” She always cracks up at punctuation stuff. Whenever Pizzagate people start coming after her, she starts seeing the weird typing in her mentions, too.
Are there certain people you enjoy trolling the most?
I’ve had way more fun fucking with people on the right. A few of them are good sports by not blocking me. One of my favorites was [far-right writer and conspiracy theorist] Laura Loomer. She thought she was being censored, and I commented on a tweet saying you couldn’t see her tweets, and she freaked out. I’m like, How dumb can you be? James Woods is another one, because he’s a terrible, terrible person. Joe Walsh, whose views are all over the place, who gave me a “God bless” after I told him my dad died by falling out of a plane. Conservative writer Michael Moates. And I even got Democrat Ted Lieu recently.
Where do you see Grandpa Walter going?
I never really had a goal in mind. It’s weird when you wind up having the size of audience he has, and you get to be part of the political conversation, by subtly making your point jokingly. The hard part is Walter now has a lot of very annoying followers, too. There is no stealth mode anymore where I can just sneak a comment in, because 48 of his followers will chime in. At that point it’s pretty clear this isn’t a serious account.
Is Walter’s wife, Ethel Pat, ever going to get her own Twitter?
I’ve had some really overzealous fans who make accounts for her. It’s annoying. They just don’t get the jokes. They think it’s a running gay joke. The joke isn’t that the grandson is gay. The grandpa thinks that’s possible because of Obamacare. That’s been lost on some people, and I don’t appreciate the homophobic responses. One of the funniest parts in my mind is that this is an eight-year-old kid. His entire life, Obamacare has been there.
They also just immediately go blue on everything. They’re like, “I’m not going to fuck you tonight, Walter.” And I’m just like, God, that’s not funny. I always block Ethel Pat accounts after 30 seconds.
So it’s just going to be Walter?
Look, part of the reason Ethel Pat doesn’t have an account is I don’t want to maintain a second one. But also, part of the problem with the Grandpa Walters of the world is that you don’t really get the other point of view, because they don’t see past their own. He thinks his is the only one that matters. It’s a very important part of the design of this character.
Are you shocked at how popular the account has become?
I’m glad people enjoy it. It’s weird to me because it’s a meta critique of social media that’s also taking place on Twitter. I don’t think social media has been a force for good in our society. This is a very good object lesson about why not. You can laugh at this character, but then you have to go home for Thanksgiving and deal with your real Uncle Walter.
That’s interesting. As a liberal, I find it funny when liberals make fun of other liberals, but I don’t when conservatives do it.
Well, the problem is they’re not funny. Their idea of funny is like Mike Huckabee jokes. It’s just not good.
Have you ever had any pushback from liberals or criticism that the Walter account is trivializing the dangerous elements of Trump and the current political climate?
I guess the answer is technically yes, but not for the reason you are thinking. Satire can be dark, and a lot of #Resistance Twitter warriors can’t handle a spicy tweet. Here’s a really good example [after the California synagogue shooting]:
Every so often I’ll even jump into my own mentions with my personal account to push back on these, because at its core, this type of tweet was always what I wanted the most for this account to be able to do: use satire to shine a light on disgusting hypocrisy. I never thought of it as a parody account — [it’s] just there to make jokes and entertain people while everything burns to the ground around us. I know it’s probably splitting hairs, and maybe it’s just the theater major inside of me, but I tend to get pretty pedantic about the difference between parody and satire when it comes to Grandpa Walter.
How many people in your life know about the account?
My family knows. My parents still think centrism is an ideology, but they get a kick out of this. They see my grandparents in it. My grandpa is the sweetest guy, a quirky character, and I took a lot of his quirks and turned them into Grandpa Walter.
Most of the people I work with directly, even if they’re really right-wing, still find this pretty amusing. I have hardcore right-wing friends who sometimes text me stuff I said like, “Dude, this is hilarious.” I’m like, “I’m making fun of you, but cool! Glad you enjoyed this!”