This is part of Trump Slump, a series of stories checking in on how things are going now for the people and products that were riding high during the last administration.
When history textbooks take on the Trump era, every page will surely feature some mention of the 45th president’s tweets. It’s hard to say which was ultimately more exhausting, at least for me—the tweets themselves or the media’s obsession with and hand-wringing over those tweets. But about four months after his suspension from the platform, one thing feels increasingly true: Trump’s presence kept Twitter culturally relevant. And now, the limits and frustrations of Twitter as a platform have never seemed more clear.
During the Trump presidency, Twitter wasn’t just where we were forcibly subjected to Trump’s all-caps insults—it was a seat of geopolitics, too. Even as political observers made “jokes” about Trump’s likelihood of accidentally tweeting out the nuclear codes or declaring war in an unhinged midnight posting spree, there was the very real fact that major policy announcements like, say, the military transgender ban were announced on Twitter. A whole Twitter cottage industry developed around Trump: On the left, there were the snarky repliers and quote-tweeters, the endless covfefe meme-ing, the eternal refrain of “there’s always a tweet” whenever someone dug into Trump’s Twitter archives to produce some old quote that cartoonishly contradicted something he’d said more recently. On the right, of course, there were the MAGA groupies, both the real ones and the bots, breathlessly cheering on the president in the replies to every message he sent.
It goes without saying that Twitter is very fragmented and a lot of it—the best parts of it—didn’t revolve around mindless Trump discourse. But the way Trump came to dominate conversation on so much of the platform makes sense given that, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, the top 10 percent most prolific tweeters generate a whopping 80 percent of all tweets. And according to that study, the “most active tweeters are much more likely than others to say they post about political issues. Fully 69 percent of the top 10 percent most prolific tweeters say they have tweeted about politics.” Combined with the fact that Twitter users are more likely to identify as Democrats, we got an interminable cycle of people expressing contempt for Trump online while actively feeding on and spreading his tweets—as the hordes of pro-Trump trolls scrambled to amplify his every tweet, too. Even if you wanted to escape Trump on Twitter, it was nearly impossible. I say this as someone who both muted and blocked his account, only to find myself scrolling through endless screenshots and/or replies from people who would take an innocuous tweet about anything from Girl Scout cookies to poetry and somehow tie it to the Tweeter in Chief.
It all felt insufferable at the time. And when Trump first got booted from Twitter, there was undeniably a collective feeling of relief; though the president may have raised the stakes of Twitter engagement, he also made the state of alarm feel one-note and numbing. But since then, my experience of Twitter has somehow gotten … worse. In the absence of Trump, it’s often felt like political and media types on Twitter—formerly united with a shared sense of purpose or at least a shared punching bag—have been circling the drain, bored and angry stars in search of a new galactic center. Now, in the Twitter sphere that used to largely center Trump, there’s a sort of bored antagonism underlying the discourse: The positions are already clear, and none of the emotions that Trump provoked is available to draw on.
Take, for example, the kind of mindless ire now provoked by increasingly inane (and already well-trod) topics. Just scroll through the replies to culture writer Anne Helen Petersen’s seemingly benign thread beginning with the tweet “Would love to read something on the contemporary obsession with hydration / personal water bottles.” (Sample retort: “I know SEVERAL people who get headaches just from not drinking enough water.”) Or the quote tweets on a New York Times piece about people who are showering less during the pandemic. (“People are fucking disgusting.”) Or the overheated response to something as innocuous as a generational joke about GIFs. Culture writer Jenny Zhang recently spurred a mini Twitter outcry over “ageism” when she tweeted “anytime i see someone use a reaction gif i immediately know they are above the age of 33.” (Disclaimer: Zhang and I are former colleagues and are still friendly.)
Aggressive public outrage over showers and GIFs is, at worst, annoying—yet another sign that everyone needs to go outside. But elsewhere on Twitter, the conversation feels more sinister. Many of the tweets raging against “cancel culture” and the dangers of “wokeism” feel like they’re getting more hallucinatory and hollower by the day. Look at the backlash to one cynical CIA ad (a representative tweet: “Turns out the CIA was behind Woke all along”), or the straw-man Twitter outrage that erupted over the alleged “cancellation” of Dr. Seuss after his estate announced that it was ending publication and licensing for six of his titles. (Sales of his books immediately skyrocketed online.) “When history looks back at this time it will be held up as an example of a depraved sociopolitical purge driven by hysteria and lunacy,” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio on the subject. The #CancelDrSeuss hashtag now consists of fewer actual calls to ban Dr. Seuss than expressions of right-wing fury at the imagined idea of such a cancellation. Conservatives in search of any criticism to lob at President Joe Biden, meanwhile, have resorted to calling him out for offenses like not tweeting enough.
I certainly don’t miss Trump’s tweets. If anything, the way his absence has reshaped conversation on Twitter proves that deplatforming works and the tactic should be deployed more often. But it also suggests that, in many ways, Twitter was tailor-made for Trump’s specific brand of noxious, rage-fueled shitposting. Part of the problem is that Twitter was always a bad platform for discussing politics; the format encourages extremist, half-baked takes and pithy one-liners that don’t quite work when we’re talking about infrastructure and the routine police killings that continue apace no matter who’s in office. Trump’s success on the platform, and the Twitter ecosystem that emerged around him, wasn’t a bug that could be fixed with his suspension. It was a result of the same forces that made Twitter a cesspool of disinformation and harassment long before his rise.