Trump Tries to Sink Twitter, His Oldest Enabler

The president’s two strongest instincts stand pitted against each other: his need for attention and his need to punish enemies.

Donald Trump
Alex Brandon / AP

Tweets can be career-enders for the twits who post them. Remember the Taco Bell employee from 2012 who didn’t reckon it a firing offense to tweet a video of himself peeing onto a sumptuous heap of Nachos BellGrande. To no one’s surprise but his own, he reckoned wrong.

I’ve often wondered whether President Donald Trump, with his impulsive, counterproductive, inadvertently self-revealing tweets, could ever meet the same fate. The question was raised anew (by me) this week. It was a week shortened by the holiday, and Trump made fewer public statements than he does in a normal week. And so, away from the gaze of his admirers and the prying eyes of the press, he tweeted instead.

Seeing Trump exclusively through the prism of Twitter gives an incomplete picture, of course. It is best to take him in his totality as a public figure, not only on social media but also in the zig and zag of his press briefings, in his Oval Office Q&As, in the set-piece speeches with their mash-ups of scripted rhetoric and chaotic improvisation, in the answers shouted above the roar of Marine One. Yet Twitter isolates parts of his public approach to the world and throws them into sharp relief—useful to anyone more interested in understanding him than in hating or venerating him, if any such people are left after the past four years. (Anyone? Anyone?)

You can be forgiven for forgetting—especially after his “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” tweet, sent out while cities burned—that Trump’s personal Twitter feed occasionally suggests normality. With the approach of Memorial Day last weekend, he was retweeting a series of public-service announcements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “STOP THE SPREAD OF GERMS … Wash your hands often … Be mindful of social distancing this Memorial Day weekend.”

The tweets wafted through in the late afternoon, evoking the languor of approaching dusk. For a moment, the illusion of a public-spirited chief executive rose up, encouraging his fellow citizens with paternal care, alert to alarms that might upset the commonwealth but eager to give reassurance. Night fell.

OBAMAGATE!” screamed a tweet suddenly. It was 11 p.m. The tweet was followed violently by the next: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” The tweets offer no context, no clarifying commentary, no hint of what might have inspired them. Did a random snarl from Laura Ingraham suddenly pop into his mind? Did a late-night phone call from a flunky and fellow insomniac—“I can’t believe what those bastards tried to do to you, sir”—act like a bellows on the ever-glowing embers of his resentments? We will never know. He returned to whatever he was doing and went quiet for the night. Eventually, the mysterious “OBAMAGATE!” tweet was “liked” 320,000 times, presumably by people with no more clue than the rest of us as to why he had decided to tweet it in the dead of night, but who delighted in it for reasons of their own.

First thing the next morning, the president posted a thread. He threatened to pull August’s Republican National Convention from Charlotte, North Carolina, unless the state’s “Democrat governor” agreed to allow the full complement of tens of thousands of Republicans, journalists, concessionaires, and hangers-on into “the Arena,” where they would be free to breathe on one another unmolested by the state-sponsored Karens of public health. Arriving in four parts, the thread was Homeric by the president’s own standards and by the those of Twitter, which pounds the human attention span into powder. As if to demonstrate the point, the president’s Twitter line erupted again with self-retweets from the previous night: “OBAMAGATE!” and “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Again, no way to know why. Self-retweeting offers private pleasure that requires no justification beyond itself. (The president also found time Tuesday to mention a “boring but very nasty magazine,” The Atlantic.)

The president is a great retweeter, of course. He has been known to post more than 100 tweets from other accounts in a single day. His most popular retweet from Memorial Day weekend was a photo of Joe Biden looking Snoopy-like in a virus-defeating face mask. Thus Trump at once explicitly ridiculed his political opponent and, by implication, the whole idea of mask wearing. Or maybe not! That’s the beauty of retweets. Trump has never bothered to say in his Twitter bio or elsewhere whether his “retweets = endorsements.” He makes full use of the ambiguity, publicizing the opinions of other twits and then scurrying away from their implications, as when he retweeted a tweet calling for the firing of Anthony Fauci, with whom he was apparently and momentarily displeased. With its lightning pace and constant churn, its quick and indiscriminate burial of falsehood and truth in the endless blizzard of new assertions, Twitter is the perfect medium for having your cake and eating it too.

The medium’s systemic indifference to accuracy and truth makes what happened the day after Memorial Day all the more peculiar. The president began the morning flogging one of his recent obsessions: the terrible scourge, as he sees it, of mail-in voting. His tweets on the subject, as on other subjects, were scattershot and only semi-coherent, containing half-truths, outright inaccuracies, and speculation expressed as fact. Typical Twitter fare, in other words, from the president no less than his enemies. Out of nowhere, gnomes from Twitter’s corporate hierarchy appeared. They hung the tweets with a Twitter-blue exclamation point. Twitter directed readers to “fact-checks” from CNN and The Washington Post, two mainstream news organizations reflexively (and sometimes comically) hostile to Trump and whatever his agenda happens to be at the moment. “We added a label,” Twitter’s nameless gnomes explained, “to enhance our civic integrity policy.”

A civic-integrity policy? Twitter? The mind reels. You might as well take an abstinence class at a bordello. Trump’s outrage was volcanic, and I can’t really blame him. He opened his Twitter account more than a decade ago. If he’s tweeted once, he’s tweeted, well, 52,000 times. And now Twitter has decided he shouldn’t get away with it any longer? Trump must have felt like Babe Ruth, who, according to an old story, spent the first several innings of a sweltering ball game consuming a half-dozen hot dogs, a couple of hamburgers, several boxes of Cracker Jack, and a dozen pretzels washed down by nearly as many bottles of beer. Before taking the field in the seventh inning, he wolfed down an apple. A minute later, he collapsed in right field. When he came to, he said: “I knew I shouldn’t have eaten that apple.” (The story is possibly apocryphal. We must get the Post to fact-check it.)

Trump’s immediate reaction to that blue exclamation point was Trumpian—in a tweet, he re-upped a revolting accusation against a random political enemy. Had Joe Scarborough, the early-morning-talk-show host, murdered a young female intern 20 years ago? “Maybe or maybe not,” the president tweeted with a regal shrug. He was just asking! Again, the mechanics of Twitter exposed him in ways none of his other bad habits does. The tweet couldn’t help him in any conceivable manner beyond the immediate, prurient thrill it must have given him, and it very likely hurts him with the fence-sitting swing voters whom he will need most in November. Repeating the claim served chiefly to demonstrate that his compulsion to strike back at his enemies—any enemy will do—easily overwhelms his ability to make rational calculations about his future.

But how far does he dare go? On Thursday, Trump struck back with an executive order directing his administration to reconsider the special legal protections that enable Twitter and other social media to survive. The statutory exemption from libel suits, for example, has made possible the coruscating eruptions of falsehood and innuendo that keep Twitter going and make it indispensable to so many of the twits. Without the exemption, the company likely wouldn’t continue in anything like its present form. Trump wants to end Twitter as we know it—as he knows it.

Trump is making a strange bet, freighted with ironies that double back on themselves. Nothing—at least this week—would please the president more than to sink Twitter, his newest enemy. And yet nothing would deprive him of more pleasure than losing Twitter, his oldest enabler. His two strongest instincts stand pitted against each other: his need for attention and his need to punish enemies—even an enemy whose business is to satisfy his need for attention. Consistency, ideological or personal, is not the president’s strong suit. But seldom has an inconsistency cut so deep.