Discover more from Noahpinion
What was the Trump Era?
Some retrospective thoughts on these terrible, crazy years
“And as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.”
— The Return of the King
I remember the day that I felt the Trump Era begin. I was sitting in a coffee shop in Brooklyn (as one does), sometime in the fall of 2015. Thinking about some anti-immigrant thing Trump had said in a primary debate, I tweeted: “America is a nation of all races.” And then something happened to me that had never happened before. I got mobbed by Nazis. A couple of big Nazi accounts picked up my tweet and quote-tweeted it, and suddenly I had hundreds of Nazis in my mentions, slinging antisemitic slurs, posting antisemitic cartoons, threatening to kill me, etc. At the time I considered myself a man of principle — I would debate anyone, I would never block people just for their opinions, good ideas would win out over bad, etc. etc. So I argued with one of the top Nazis for a while (a guy calling himself “Ricky Vaughn”), and the trolls kept on dogpiling each of my reply tweets with insults and threats.
And then I realized: This wasn’t a debate. This was a war. The principles of open discussion and the marketplace of ideas don’t apply when the people you’re talking to don’t want to discuss or debate, but simply to drive you from the field.
So I did something I had never done before: I started blocking Nazis. I must have blocked about 250 accounts. And from then on, I implemented a zero-tolerance policy toward anyone who seemed like a Nazi: Block on sight. In fact, I eventually started seeking out Nazi meme accounts, blocking all of their followers preemptively with a Chrome extension. And my Twitter experience improved significantly.
The Trump Era was really just that same episode, repeated at a national level. It really began in August 2014, with two events: Gamergate, and the protests following the killing of Michael Brown. And it ended with Twitter’s banning of Trump in the wake of the coup of 1/6. It took the storming of Congress, but Twitter finally realized that discussion and war are two different things (though it remains to be seen how much it will extend this principle to other wars).
What was the Trump Era? Fundamentally, it represented the confluence of two momentous events: A national identity crisis, and the rise of Twitter as a forum for political debate. The former was the reason Americans decided to fight each other, and the latter was the weapon with which they fought. And as with many wars, it’s not really possible to separate the causal impact of the two.
Fundamentally, Americans fought over this:
There were two reasons for this change: Falling White fertility rates relative to Hispanic fertility rates, and the modern age of immigration that really began under Reagan. This motivated some right-wing people to want to crash the American system into the ground before it led to a White minority; this is a story we all know by now. But more fundamentally, this population turnover made Americans question the very notion of what America meant, as a nation.
Is this a nation defined by race? By institutions? By shared beliefs or culture? In fact, Americans have been fighting over that question since the founding. Traditionally, one camp has wanted America to be an Empire of the White Race, while the other faction has wanted America to be a nation defined by its shared creed of freedom and democracy, and by the institutions that reify that creed. Of course, it’s not really that simple — as the historian Gary Gerstle points out, racial and institutional concepts of nationhood tend to coexist side by side in most people’s minds. But generally speaking, over the centuries the White Imperialists were pushed back. They had a brief renaissance in the early 20th century, but after the Depression and World War 2 the march toward liberalism resumed.
Recently, however, the conflict has become more complex. Among liberals, there has emerged a significant faction who accept the traditional White-nationalist argument that America is a nation defined by Whiteness, but append the opposite moral valence to the notion. This story rejects the idea of a “nation of all races” — the tweet that made the Nazis attack me in 2015. Instead, it characterizes America as fundamentally a White nation, founded upon the core idea of racial slavery, whose inalienable racism defines its institutions and society to this day.
This notion allowed Trump and his White-nationalists to claim largely uncontested ownership of the American flag and all the other symbology of the American nation. Even as they were hard at work tearing down all of the actual institutions of the United States and trampling on the values in which Americans had classically taken pride (such as openness to immigration), a process that culminated in the storming of Congress by thugs bearing the Confederate flag, the Trumpists appropriated the symbolism and language of American patriotism.
During the Trump years, it felt like almost no one was really arguing over whether America was a White supremacist nation; everyone agreed that it was, and simply disagreed on whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. For people like me, who still believed in a “nation of all races”, it was a very lonely time.
That doesn’t mean it was hard to choose a side, of course — Nazis are bad and must be defeated, and the side that includes Nazis, even as a tiny fringe, is bad and must be defeated. But it often felt like the people on my side didn’t really know what future they were fighting for.
Anyway, that was the war itself. But I don’t think it would have happened — or at least, not when and how it did — if not for Twitter. Twitter was both the battlefield on which the war was fought and the weapons with which it was prosecuted.
Gamergate heralded the arrival of Twitter as a weapon of war. It pioneered all the techniques — harassment, the use of roving dogpile mobs to make a fringe movement seem much bigger and more normative, etc. And it was probably no accident that Gamergate happened shortly after the introduction of the quote-tweet function, which allowed people to call down mobs on other people. And that was all it took. All platforms to some degree favor those who seek attention; with the creation of the quote-tweet, Twitter became a platform that favored aggression. He who could call upon the biggest mob would prevail.
Lots of people think Facebook created the Trump Era. Well, lots of people think lots of wrong things. Facebook was the focus of the world’s wrath after 2016 because it replaced chain emails and word-of-mouth as the vector by which old people shared paranoid conservative fairytales with each other. But when Facebook backed away from news after the election, it didn’t put a dent in the Trump Era. And when Facebook banned Trump after 1/6, it barely registered in the public consciousness. It was only later, when Twitter banned Trump, that the man’s deathgrip on America’s public consciousness finally felt like it was broken.
Trump and his movement were a creature of Twitter. When Fox news tried to shut Trump out of the primaries, he Twitter-mobbed them into submission. When Trump wanted a bully pulpit, he turned to Twitter, not Facebook. Trump’s Twitter account was his One Ring — the source of all his power, and his greatest vulnerability.
The President always influences the mood, self-image, and character of the nation. This shouldn’t be true, but it is. America is like the galaxy in Jack Vance’s short story “The New Prime”, where a single telepathic leader sends out psychic emanations that influence all of galactic society. But Twitter was an amplifier for that psychic energy, putting Trump’s insane and vicious thoughts directly into our heads like nothing ever before. For all her New Age silliness, Marianne Williamson was one of the few who clearly perceived the ontology of this dark psychic force.
But Twitter’s impact on the Trump Era went far, far beyond Trump. It was the mechanism by which Black Americans were finally able to talk directly and personally to White Americans on a daily basis, which fueled the mass conversion of young American Whites to “wokeness” (actually a very old American ideology that waxes and wanes over the decades, but that’s a story for another post). Anger over police killings of Black people was as old as the Republic, but it was the sharing of brutal police murder videos on Twitter that finally forced Americans to look. And it was Twitter “hashtag activism” that birthed BLM, which eventually produced the biggest protest movement the country has ever known.
Twitter also allowed the simultaneous airing of long-standing social grievances. Women tired of being treated like sex objects at work used Twitter — not Facebook! — to start MeToo, which changed American gender relations forever. Americans of other minority groups — Asians, Muslims, trans people, etc. — used Twitter to amplify their voices and summon help from each other and from people outside their groups. Even Gamergate represented the airing of grievances, albeit of a repugnant variety. American society was always highly diverse, but before Twitter, we were always able to spread out to some degree, carving out our own little homogeneous spaces where we could feel safe. Then suddenly Twitter and the quote-tweet came and threw us all in one room together, and there was nowhere left to run.
And on top of that, Twitter’s virality, openness, and anonymity made it a potent weapon of war. The platform was the ultimate leveler, where teenagers and outcasts could “ratio” and cow New York Times columnists and politicians into submission. It allowed massive public outcries against individuals, based on videos or allegations that were picked up and retweeted thousands of times. Those outcries often carried real consequences — job loss, lifetime reputation loss, or even jail.
None of this, really, happened on Facebook. Facebook is a rolodex with rabbit photos. It all happened on Twitter. Twitter is both battlefield and weapon for all modern social conflicts.
So Twitter was really the force that allowed and facilitated social upheaval in America in the 2010s. And Trump, and America’s rapidly changing racial demographics, were merely the biggest things Americans had to fight over.
That fight isn’t quite over, but we now know how it will end. Trump is still out there, and the mix of hatred and fear that elevated him is still out there, roiling within a very large part of the American populace. But although Trump mostly brought a halt to immigration and Hispanic fertility fell, there will be no going back to America the White Nation. The last desperate gambit of the White-nationalists failed. The Confederate flag made it to the Capitol Building at last, and then that asshole was in jail.
We don’t know yet what kind of nation America will be, or even whether it will remain a nation at all. Many battles lay ahead of us. And despite Twitter’s newfound love of the corporate block button, it’s still likely that the platform will be the chief arena in which those battles are fought for years to come. Hopefully, audio and video technologies like Discord, Zoom, and Clubhouse will inject a bit of humanity, personal understanding and real substantive debate back into the mix — in fact, as a technological determinist, I think those platforms are probably our best hope for healing our fractured society.
But Trump has been defeated, and with him the last gasp of the White-nationalist dream. That was a momentous thing, and I predict it will be many years before we realize the true import of what happened in 2014-2021.