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The Great GOP Twitter Meltdown

How Republican infighting illuminates the current state of America’s most screwed-up social network

People say Twitter isn't fun anymore, and most of the time it isn't, but if you enjoy watching Republican politicians trying to throw each other over the side of a sinking hot air balloon, it was a little bit fun last week, in the aftermath of the health care–bill debacle. Suddenly every Republican politician was attacking every other Republican politician, right there in public. And not in the pseudo-cordial, where-my-good-friend-from-Wyoming-and-I-differ way of most intra-party squabbles — no. These guys had had it with each other! It even got a little embarrassing, like a couple that can't stop fighting at Olive Garden even though they keep whispering things like, "June, can we talk about this in the car??"

First, the president of the United States declared war on one of his party's most powerful congressional blocs:

Then the Freedom Caucus struck back:

And kept striking:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of hashtags:

Then the speaker of the House revealed his "worry" that the president might be willing to work with Democrats to pass a health care bill (one of the most savage possible burns for a Republican in 2017):

Then Tennessee senator Bob Corker came flying in out of nowhere to clobber Paul Ryan:

Considering that most Republican political Twitter consists of men in suits shaking hands in front of bronze busts carefully situated in window alcoves (e.g.), this was striking. Sure, the party had just tried to ram through one of the worst and least popular bills in recent American history. But what had happened to its dignity?

It was interesting to watch this GOP stabfest play out more or less in tandem with the other big meltdown on Twitter last week, the furious response to the platform's decision to change the format of its reply function. If you're on Twitter, chances are you already know what I'm talking about. If you're not, the next few sentences are going to read like a sojourn into madness; however, it has to be done, so please fasten your shoulder harness. In the past, conversations between Twitter members were conducted through an unwieldy system that required each tweet to contain the @ symbol and the usernames of all the participants, like name cards on a wedding table. Since each username counted against the 140-character limit for each tweet, conversations between multiple people got cramped quickly. If, say, Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), and Raúl Labrador (R-ID) wanted to exchange thoughts about Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, they'd be confined to the sliver of real estate left over after each of their @-handles. The cost to nuance: unimaginable. Under the new system, usernames no longer count against the character limit, so the discussion can romp forward uninhibited, as God intended.

The old conversation system was based on a clumsy hack dating back to a time when Twitter had no reply function at all. Everyone mostly hated it. The new system is simpler and more intuitive, and when Twitter rolled it out last week … everyone mostly hated it. This is partly because there's now no built-in limit on the number of users who can be included in a reply — in theory, the entire Freedom Caucus could carom its way onto an anti-Trump canoe — which opens up hellish scenarios involving notifications, your phone buzzing at dinner, etc. But it's also because we're talking about Twitter, and the depth and complexity of Twitter users' hatred of Twitter are at this point impossible to diagram in three dimensions.

Maybe you've noticed this? Or at any rate, maybe you've noticed that the tone of the platform has curdled in a way no one foresaw a few years ago. It used to be common for Twitter addicts to talk about how much they loved the service, how delightfully strange and welcoming it was compared to Facebook, and so on; now, at least on my feed, the general consensus seems to be that Twitter is Bad, that tweeting is almost never a good idea, that the network has been ruined by the changes it's made (adding blue lines), or by the changes it hasn't made (stopping hate speech), or by other people (their cultural appropriativeness, their performative wokeness, their tendency to act like outrage police, their glomming together into alt-right-ish gangs of trolls). Of course, Twitter users mostly put forward the argument that Twitter is bad and ruined in the form of tweets that they post on Twitter, which is a little like designing and planting a garden to express your contempt for landscape architecture. As I said, it's a complicated situation.

In the introduction to his book on comedy, the literary critic James Wood tells a funny/terrible story about Ian Hamilton, a British poet and editor who died in 2001. Hamilton was drinking in a London pub called the Pillars of Hercules when a fellow poet wandered in. Though it was barely lunchtime — late morning, really — Hamilton offered him a whiskey. The poet recoiled. "I can't go on drinking like this," he said. "I have to quit. It's killing me. It doesn't even give me pleasure anymore." Hamilton gave him a hard look. "Well," he said, "none of us likes it."

None of us likes it: This is close to the kind of light, self-ironizing fatalism that seems to have become Twitter's ground note. Twitter is unbearable, the tone seems to say, yet somehow indispensable — an inescapable prison that anyone is free to escape. I don't know where this tone came from, exactly. But I suspect it has to do with Twitter's transition from what once felt like a lyrical medium into what now feels like an increasingly social one. That is, early on, Twitter was mostly a vehicle for self-expression: You posted thoughts, you didn't know who would see them, there was no obvious climate of judgment, and the shared jokes were too minor and random to feel like they opened onto any kind of larger consensus. Maybe you made a few friends, but tweets were more like little diary entries sent out into an anonymous void than pronouncements made in a public sphere. (We are further removed now from Twitter's founding than Twitter's founding was from the launch of LiveJournal.) Over time, as communities hardened and as the service introduced changes that foregrounded measures of approval — the reply button, likes, the formal retweet count — tweeting became more of a public performance, but without quite losing that sense of the freely personal in which it began. This creates a slight but constant cognitive dissonance that is responsible, I think, for a lot of bullshit (I'm posting this to get likes), and also hyperawareness of bullshit (I can tell that you're posting that to get likes), and also a weird kind of infinitely recursive deadpan irony that pretends to expose bullshit while actually magnifying it (I'm acknowledging that I'm posting this to get likes, as a joke; give me likes anyway).

There is, of course, no Twitter account that straddles the gap between the lyric and the public more bow-leggedly than Donald Trump's. The president's Twitter account belongs by definition to just about any public sphere you can define, yet in practice it mainly serves to vent his emotions and assert his fantasies. It's as if he's made his id the town crier: Twelve o'clock and all is well, except for my uncontrollable desire to burn down Stan's house! In that sense, it's an exaggeration of the common malaise, both more calculated and less calculated than the average personal-brand account. More, that is, because it's utterly unconcerned with reality, and less, because it's utterly unconcerned with the possibility of shame.

It seems to me that this is … not a great environment for political deliberation, even if Twitter on its surface should be a marvelous instrument of democratic exchange. Maybe all environments in all times are unsatisfying in the same way, because human vanity taints all things equally; I'm honestly not sure. What I do know is that Twitter — with its climate of half-sincere resignation, its unpredictable surges of aggression, its baffling hospitality to abusive and threatening speech — seems like the perfect host for internecine Republican name-calling. For actual policymaking, though? I hope the Senate's on Peach.