It was one thing to be blocked by Donald Trump when he was just another man making fart-noises on Twitter. It feels a little different today. Everything does.
Photo by Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via USA TODAY NETWORK
I had nothing but bosses. There was no one in the office who did not outrank me, or deserve it; I did not even know what my job was, really, beyond picking up food from a nearby restaurant and then walking it back to the office for some of my bosses to enjoy in meetings with other people who were probably also my bosses. Occasionally the bosses would give me screenplays to read, some of them already in production and some of them clearly never ever ever destined to be produced, and I would write a "coverage." This was basically a memo to my bosses, telling them either "I, someone whose entire salary amounts to whatever bagels are left over and gasoline reimbursements, kind of dug this screenplay" or "this Die Hard But Also It's On A Large Hot-Air Balloon Now screenplay does not really deliver on that promising concept." Otherwise I sat wherever there was space, waiting to be given a task and periodically checking to see if there were leftover bagels. I was doing that when one of my many bosses found me. There was something he wanted me to watch.
I was joined in a room by the other people who had only bosses. We were shown an early trailer for a film that the production company would be releasing months later; this was the first version, and unfinished. The idea, I guess, was to show it to a bunch of young white people who did not have anything more important to do, presumably because those people were the target audience for that film, and also for all other films. A boss turned the light off, and another boss pressed play, and a screen lit up with the trailer for a movie called End Of Days, which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as a hard-bitten atheist cop named Jericho Cane. It was set in the last days of 1999, and had to do with the apocalypse. Gabriel Byrne played Satan.
It will probably not surprise you to learn that it was not very good. The version I saw was pretty much the finished product, but different in one crucial way. Where the effects were unfinished, text would appear onscreen explaining what viewers would eventually see. Most of the explosions were in place, but a scene in which a menacing albino vagrant's body shatters like a pane of glass—this parenthetical is here only to apologize for the last few words you've read—was spelled out instead of illustrated. In the moment I remember best, a movie-pyro fireball was emblazoned with the words DEMONIC IMAGE EMERGES.
I did not laugh, because there were bosses in the room, but I remember wanting to. Not so much at the concept—the apocalypse was a very popular subject at that moment, albeit in a more abstract way than it is right now—as at the disjunction between what was visible and what was supposed to be blowing my mind. My disillusionment with that job, and many jobs that came after, came down to an inability to suspend disbelief. All I could see were the wires, the big dumb letters telling me about something that was not there.
I mention all this now not just because the end of the world is trending again, but because it seems like the best parallel for what it's like to be blocked on Twitter by Donald Trump, who recently took the oath to become the 45th President of these United States. I want to be clear that this is not because Trump is a demon or anything like that; he's just a real estate developer, and while it admittedly can be easy to confuse those two things, Trump is finally just an unremarkable man. There are some regional and generational specificities to his various manias, but there is nothing that is not mediocre or entirely predictable, here; he is in every way a replacement-level codger, and there is some downmarket version of him muttering know-nothing bitchery into a tabloid in every diner in every town from sea to shining sea. The DEMONIC IMAGE EMERGES effect here has more to do with the way that this man's blustering, outsized presence on Twitter—an unprofitable social media application that drives people insane, and which is Trump's truest spiritual home—manifests, even or especially when you can't actually see any of it yourself.
A Trump Tweet reveals itself, in my feed, through a series of concentric rings of response. The original quoted Tweet is invisible to me, which means I'm left to guess at the specific putrid pettiness or clownfish preening of the original text from the way that people are recoiling from it. Are people saying "holy shit" or something to that effect? Then it's probably a terse n' pissy blurt against civil liberties or long-held democratic norms. Is there a sudden reeking algae bloom of national political reporters appending "Sad!" to a quoted tweet? Then Trump has probably emitted some high, squeaking peal of triumph towards the hater/loser community, and also it's a reminder to unfollow those national political reporters. Are people noting that it's not immediately clear what Rosie O'Donnell has to do with this? Then the 45th President of the United States is awake at 5:50 a.m., thinking about his feud with a former co-host of The View.
Whenever Trump detonates one of these fragrant thought-bombs on Twitter, the entire site lights up, singing as one the warning DEMONIC IMAGE EMERGES. Pasting a URL into an incognito window in my browser gives me access to the actual tweets, but that's a lot of work just to experience a passing jolt of nausea. Anyway, it's usually easy enough to infer what needs inferring.
But "need" is not really the right word, here. Twitter is fun, if you're wired for it, but it is not a thing that anyone really needs, strictly speaking. It is very good for jokes, and lends itself well to a type of collaborative absurdism that I find funny; it is so good at that sort of thing, in fact, that it can be easy to mistake it for something more important or sublime. It is neither. It is a fun place to make jokes and an exhaustingly immediate place to get the type of news or misinformation that you prefer; it is anarchic enough in its churning that it can seem vital or alive, but it is not. It's a thing, on your phone.
When Twitter is switched off at some point in the future it will not be because it has been made uninhabitable by the dung-creatures that occasionally maraud out from its fetid dusklands or because it winds up sanitized into dullness, but because no one has figured out to turn all this noise into money. Until then, it is an interesting thing that is not healthy; the most direct way for literally anyone on earth to shout "n1ce bobbs!!! kiss kiss" at Katy Perry or to tell a complete stranger to fuck off, and mostly just that. For all its proclaimed ambitions and intermittent successes as a facilitator of conversation or connection, Twitter is as fundamentally null as any other bit of technology. It's what we make of it, and it has taken on exactly the shape and stink that you'd expect. Given that it is mostly used to insult people, signal ill-informed certitude, and share pissily passionate opinions on deeply trivial celebrity-related goings-on, it should be no surprise that Trump loves it. The only ways Twitter would be different if he designed it himself is that it would somehow be made of marble and gold and everyone in New York would hate it.
I've been blocked by Trump for years, now; I made up a fake Trump quote and Tweeted it, without tagging him in my joke, and sometime after midnight in June of 2014 the man recently sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America searched for his name, found the quote, and Tweeted it as his own. People laughed at him for doing it; it got mentioned on the radio; he blocked me. That all happened in what now seems like a very different world, which was for starters one in which Trump was still just a widely reviled local oaf. He was as thirsty and prickish and prone to wimpish grievances then as he is now; he has never been anything but that. But he was also a punchline, a lecherous pouch of soft serve ice cream that had somehow developed the ability to live-tweet episodes of Access Hollywood. He was just another person proudly burping the alphabet into an uncaring void, in other words, and so doing the same sort of thing that the rest of us do on Twitter. He was not there to connect with anyone, because that is not a thing he does; his grim kingdom is all gilded one-way streets. He was on there to broadcast his every unremarkable thought, just like me. He did not get my joke, because he does not really get jokes. He was there to see his name, and to shout his name. He treated Twitter the way that he treats the whole world, which is as a series of walls on which to write his dumb name in big gold letters.
Twitter didn't make Donald Trump the way he is. There are chemicals in his brain that do that, and a sufficient portion of American voters have now affirmed this. But it seems increasingly clear that Twitter, and his helpless inability to just log the fuck off for a moment, is wrecking his mind. Trump aides told the New York Times that Trump became "increasingly angry on Inauguration Day after reading a series of Twitter messages" about the low turnout at his inauguration. After marches protesting Trump's policies turned out crowds that swamped the inauguration, the new President sent his press secretary out on Saturday to read a vinegary statement denying that the turnout for the inauguration was low at all; the statement was written in the swinging-dick syntax familiar from Trump's Tweets, and focused on some Tweets that the President saw that were so dishonest, so dishonest. It was ridiculous and widely ridiculed in turn, but what was uncanny about it all was the realization that the things bothering Trump on one floundering, anarchic, brain-eating website are now his whole world, and our news. Every stupid thing he says is now exactly as important as he has always imagined it to be; his feed has eaten everything.
If Twitter didn't make Trump, Trump has already succeeded in making our world feel a little bit more like Twitter. It is an entropy that is stressed out and seething and suspicious, perpetually in conflict and generally without context; it is lying and signifying and blustering and ruled by instinct and omen, idiot affinities and rude whimsy. It's not great. But the broader world, as it happens, remains a good place to make jokes, and a good place to meet people. Trump can't change that, and he's mostly forgotten that world exists, anyway. He is the same howling disaster of a man that he has always been, but we hear him all the time, now, and maybe are coming to read him more clearly, even if only through the displacement and wreckage he makes. Watch the same explosion enough times and eventually you won't need a big dumb on-screen prompt to see what's intended. Your disbelief just fills it in. You see the violence, and you also see the lie.
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