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 Center 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 late afternoon, evoking the languor of approaching dusk. For a moment, the illusion of a public-spirited chief executive rises 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 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” agrees to allow the full complement of tens of thousands of Republicans, journalists, concessionaires, and hangers-on into “the Arena,” where they will 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 re-tweeter, of course. He has been known to post more than a 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 or not his “retweets = endorsement.” 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.