Twitter has become an excavation site for archeologists specializing in Trump. They dig up the president’s bygone tweets for exhibition in a gallery of hypocrisies. The gallery is boring and depressing. It goes on forever. Most recently, it has featured years-old posts declaring that Obama should not attack Syria (now that Trump has bombed Syria), Obama lacks transparency (once Trump did away with White House visitor logs), Obama issues unconstitutional executive orders (after Trump attempted to bar Muslim refugees from entering the country), and Obama plays too much golf. (Trump plays prodigious amounts of golf.)
Furthermore, @realDonaldTrump, whose meatspace correlate would go on to lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College in 2016, declared in 2012 that the institution was a sham. As a candidate, he chided Hillary Clinton when five of her staffers sought FBI immunity. As a president, he encouraged former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to seek FBI immunity. Having mocked the Democrats online for whining about an obstructionist GOP in 2012, he laid the blame for his failed health care bill at the feet of the intractable left in 2017.
The archeologists retweet their discoveries and periodically compile them into long, eye-rolly articles. “Trump’s old tweets are becoming a minefield of hypocrisy,” announced the Washington Post recently, atop a litany of the most “unfortunate” examples. “Donald Trump is Trolling Donald Trump on Twitter,” CNN proclaimed.
Friends, I understand. I too hear the winsome melody of the gotcha sirens. But I would like to submit that retweeting Trump’s past chestnuts is doing more harm than good. I don’t say this because I believe that we should grant all new presidents a measure of grace, an allowance that no one can really know the best way to govern until his or her butt meets a leather-bound Oval Office chair. Perhaps it is reasonable for a private businessman to change his mind when confronted with the weight and intangible mechanisms of his new role. Perhaps it is cruel to harp on ignorance. But if you possess no insight into what it’s like to be president, and then you run for president, and then you become the president, you are still arguably getting the better end of the deal even if people are laughing at you.
No, the reason I would like to shutter the hypocrisy gallery forever is because these old tweets are a waste of time. People seem to think they reveal the true Trump, how he actually sees the world. They exhume his pre–POTUS 140-character discharges of spleen as if to say: “Ha! Here’s who you really are, jerk! You can’t disavow the beliefs that don’t serve your present political purposes that easily!”
Let’s abandon the fiction that Trump has beliefs distinct from his present political purposes. His stances and values are and have always been 100 percent the product of motivated reasoning, by which I mean that they conform to whatever narcissistic expulsion of windy bombast feels good at the time. Trump’s Twitter feed isn’t the window to his soul. It isn’t anything but a continuous riot of performative farts.
The situation feels different for a politician like Obama or George W. Bush, someone with core ideas that might evolve as the facts on the ground change shape, and whose mutating viewpoints might indeed be relevant to the public interest. When Bush began regulating carbon emissions from American power plants, his past as an oilman and a mild climate skeptic rightly became part of the story. And, fine: Drag an especially fickle or opportunistic candidate over the coals. In what now seems like a very distant political era, Romney’s attempts to spin his views on abortion got him branded a flip-flopper. John Kerry’s vacillations about the Iraq war were frequent enough to fell his presidential hopes. Many pols are rhetorically slippery, of course, altering their messaging to suit their ambitions. But even in those cases, the evasiveness is often a characterological window in itself, fodder for analyzing the journey of politicians’ self-presentation. Hillary Clinton used to condone cutting Social Security costs by strategically excising benefits, until she ran against Bernie Sanders and decided that taxing the wealthy was a better way to preserve the safety net. Self-contradiction or smart adjustment: The nature of this shift was worth unpacking.
But no one could possibly wonder at the motivation behind Trump’s inconsistency. His capriciousness is so well-documented that it now feels besides the point. Even he makes no effort to defend the constancy or cogency of his worldview. By now, highlighting each hypocrisy just brings diminishing returns. It has been thoroughly established that our president’s conscience and politics are for sale. Surfacing more evidence in the form of old posts that are just as empty as the new posts accomplishes little beyond raising our collective blood pressure, if that.
Do you truly think Trump cared five years ago about the taxpayers who had to fund President Obama’s vacations? Was he morally affronted by Romney’s refusal to release his tax returns until September 2012? Of course not! (Also, Romney published his back taxes in January of that year.) In the days before he rose to the highest office in the land, Trump’s tweets were just a different kind of theater, one driven by even more flimsy and random motivations than stoking partisan tensions or rallying a base. The man is nothing if not a weaselly expert on angling himself into the limelight by any means necessary, and his social media antics have historically been the implements by which he thrust his voice into the public sphere. We don’t need to place those antique posts next to Trump’s current actions or statements in order to demonstrate their hollowness. We just have to look at the Twitter handle.
You might counter that it is important to take every opportunity to remind people of Trump’s ideological spinelessness and hypocrisy. “He’s shameless,” you’ll exclaim. “People should point that out!” We cannot allow him to become normalized. We can’t just SIT on easily accessible proof of his lack of character—what if someone somewhere somehow forgets for a second that the leader of the free world is an amoral huckster?
And I will say, sure! If you want to, go ahead and keep shouting the great news. But the cleverness of your presentation—Trump’s earlier tweet contrasted so neatly with his recent tweet or action—just helps make the whole undertaking feel less like a journalistic project than a self-defeating exercise in showy liberal outrage. I keep thinking of that line in the Bastille song called “Things We Lost in the Fire,” the one about rereading a lover’s old diaries that goes, “Oh they told me nothing new/But I love to read the words you used.” It is exhausting to imagine that people are treating these utterly unrevelatory scraps of Trumpian self-indulgence, these dumb ejaculations of ego, with the reverence of historians or archeologists. The artifacts don’t teach us anything, but we linger anyway, out of some intuition that they matter because of who created them. But I would like to propose that we keep our interest in Trump instrumental. If we can use something he’s said to directly resist him, great. Meanwhile, if the thing just proves a point that’s already known, or inflames the outrage we already feel, or leaves us a tad more dead inside as we go about our day, maybe it’s best to let it turn to ash.