The Intellectual Situation
In 2016, Twitter, like money, was speech.
Of the journalists who make up the imagined community known as Politics Twitter, Asawin Suebsaeng, the Daily Beast’s deputy social media editor, is the most entertaining. Unlike many of his peers, whose aspirations are wonkish or earnest or self-important, Suebsaeng revels in political excess. (Sample Daily Beast headline: “ ‘Stump for Trump’ Surrogates Promote The Donald on Neo-Nazi Show.”) He often posts photos of himself smoking at parties, the last man in DC confident enough to be seen with a cigarette.
Last September, Suebsaeng began to include the hashtag #bestelectionever in some of his election tweets. The hashtag was a statement of fact: Donald Trump’s candidacy marked the mainstreaming of the kind of high-grade silliness Suebsaeng has celebrated for years. Everyone on Twitter, from Jerry Saltz to Marc Andreessen, seemed to come up with the same joke to describe the new front-runner: Trump was an internet comments section come to life.
The next few months gave Suebsaeng plenty of fodder. Each week brought new polls showing Trump far ahead of the other Republican candidates, all of which were #bestelectionever-ed. When Suebsaeng shared Trump news from other outlets, the hashtag seemed even more triumphant: Mediaite’s “Donald Trump Hate-Tweets #SNL Sketch He Isn’t a Part of (VIDEO)” got a #bestelectionever, as did the National Review’s Jim Geraghty’s “Trump calls brain surgeon who separated twins conjoined at skull an ‘okay doctor, not great.’ ” Each new tweet was a chronicle of the campaign’s escalating absurdity.
But after Trump’s primary victories in early 2016, Suebsaeng’s enthusiasm seemed to waver. “Getting harder and harder by the day to tweet #bestelectionever,” he wrote in March. This dejected missive featured a screenshot of two search results: a CNNPolitics.com article titled “Donald Trump defends size of his penis” and a Salon post that began with the words, “Donald Trump endorses beheading.” Such material would have been prime content a few months earlier, but Suebsaeng had had enough. The hashtag was retired.
It’s hard to remember that for a few weeks in the summer of 2015, Trump seemed more ridiculous than ominous.Tweet
Our short-term campaign memory is bad, and our long-term campaign memory is even worse, so it’s hard to remember that for a few weeks in the summer of 2015, Trump seemed more ridiculous than ominous. In July, a month after his descent down the Trump Tower escalator (the first campaign kickoff inspired by a Nicholson Baker novel), Trump gave a remarkable speech at a rally in Sun City, South Carolina. It was forty-five minutes long, and I watched it twice. He began with a detailed analysis of the unfair media coverage he’d gotten for his previous speech, the one about how Mexican immigrants were rapists. His digressive, endlessly self-referential rhetoric would soon become shtick, but at the time it still felt mesmerizing and novel: media criticism as political performance. Trump didn’t seem like a real threat — not yet — so his vileness was relative. As I watched the candidate — boorish, lizard-like, breathtakingly outer-borough — preen in front of the assembled group of unsmiling, mystified South Carolinians, I, too, felt that this was a true American spectacle, a prime document of the #bestelectionever.
Yet form couldn’t trump content — not for long. That Trump systematically destroyed decades’ worth of right-wing mantra was appealing, as was his seemingly genuine loathing of Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio — three of the most loathsome candidates in recent history. But the violent chaos Trump unleashed within his own party and its bureaucracy was no match for the violence he unleashed everywhere else. Trump wasn’t funny long before his voters started voting for him. Why, then, did campaign journalists remain ecstatic long after it became clear that far from the #bestelectionever, this was a sad and exhausting spectacle — a bleak onslaught redeemed only by Bernie Sanders’s extraordinary campaign — and a strong candidate for #worstelectionever?
If Trump proved seductive even to sophisticated connoisseurs of DC bullshit like Suebsaeng, he was irresistible for lesser pundits and reporters. This election season, campaign journalism finally got the election it wanted: cataclysmic yet contentless, dense but personality driven. We had been trending toward overcoverage for years, but if Wolf Blitzer’s aggressive vapidity was a worst-case scenario in 2012, or 2008, this time it seemed almost sane.
The way the news media covered the candidates’ Twitter accounts was revealing. In 2016, Twitter, like money, was speech. Anchors read political tweets on the air, and then the response tweets from rival candidates, and then their viewers’ tweets in response to the response tweets. Trump capitalized on this dynamic better than his competitors: his tweets were the weirdest and the vilest, his Borscht Belt fascism (Steve Almond’s memorable formulation) a perfect fit for the medium. But all the candidates got in on gestural speech — I couldn’t open Facebook without seeing a post from Mic, or Uproxx, or Occupy Democrats, or some other part-time semiotic organization, analyzing the meaning and implications of Clinton’s A/B-tested not-quite-remarks, or Cruz’s distilled bursts of antipathy, or Rubio’s tentative throwdowns.1 But there was always an elision at work: news organizations — legitimate, hacky, all of the above — seemed unable to resist attributing all tweets, no matter how self-evidently impersonal, to the candidates themselves, rather than to their campaigns.
In 2016, Twitter, like money, was speech.Tweet
This attribution error wasn’t the biggest mistake the news media made, but it was one of the most symptomatic. CBS chief executive Les Moonves said that Trump’s candidacy was
good for us economically. . . . They’re not even talking about issues. They’re throwing bombs at each other and I think the advertising reflects that. . . . I’ve never seen anything like this and this is going to be a very good year for us. . . . It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald, go ahead, keep going.
This was repulsive, but not as repulsive as the fact that many pundits and reporters felt the same way. For years, I have watched them approach election coverage with an obsessive superficiality. Like their patron saint Mark Halperin — who gets $1 million a year from Bloomberg to bestow literal letter grades on candidates for their debate performance — they longed for a politics robbed of everything but total interpersonal conflict, a politics that was entirely performative, rooted only in sparring matches. This year, they finally got it.
And it wasn’t just the content bottom feeders: as I write I have a tab open to a New York Times article that begins: “Look, we don’t want to write about every presidential campaign tweet that teeters on the brink of the absurd like a fun-house mirror revealing the political Frankentheater that the entire electorate has collaborated to create, whether actively or by submission.” The writer then proceeds to quote a lot of tweets. ↩