On inauguration day in 2017, which was also, sadly, my birthday, Damon and I were feeling shitty about the world, and so one way we decided to resist was by creating a Twitter bot called About a Bully, with the handle @insultingdonald. For those of you who don’t know what a Twitter bot is, it’s a Twitter account that you digitally alter to run automatically. Most bots tweet on a regular schedule or in response to certain stimuli, like people tweeting at it who want to see what it will come up with when it answers them. You can make it generate its own material if you know enough about AI (although if you think you know about AI and you don’t you can end up creating something like this, so it’s best not to fuck around), or you can create a bunch of material that it can mix up according to formulae you give it and send out at random. The material we chose for About a Bully was Trump’s insults, but rewritten so that they are directed at him. So if you follow @insultingdonald, about three times a day you will see it tweet out things like “Trump is a liar!”, or “Sleazebag President Donald Trump,” or “Never in the history of our Country has the ‘president’ been more dishonest than he is today.” If you’re familiar with our current president, you will recognize a lot of these tweets for who they are typically directed at. For instance, from time to time you’ll see something like “Donald Trump, who I call Pocahontas,” which refers to Elizabeth Warren, or something about “FAKE TRUMP,” which fills in for his many tweets railing at the media, and of course lots of “Crooked Donald”s — which you’d have to be living under a rock to not know was in its original form “Crooked Hilary,” something that also comes up at lot because he’s still regularly tweeting about her this way, two and half years after the 2016 election, especially when he’s feeling defensive about the Mueller probe, which is basically always.
Which brings me to something that I didn’t anticipate when we created this bot. Because Damon is the coder in our duo, I do most of the analog end of our work. To maintain About a Bully, this means that I am the one who has to go in every few months and collect and adapt Trump’s insults, which means I have to comb through months of his tweets at a stretch. Given how industrious he is in this one area (as opposed to pretty much anything else, other than maybe watching Fox), that generally means I spend several hours immersing myself in…well, just garbage. A stream of pure, steaming, foul-smelling offal. At least that’s how it feels.
This is not what most people experience when they follow the president on Twitter. For them, he’s just one person in their feed, that flow of tweets from all of the people they follow, that appears basically in real time. If you’re following maybe 200 people, one of whom is Trump, you’ll see his tweets mixed up with everyone else’s, popping up a few times a day — which is why lots of people I’ve always assumed are sane, like some of my friends as well as Jordan Peele, Chris Pratt, Chris Rock, Seth Meyers, and John Cusack, who don’t have to follow him for work like journalists or politicians presumably do, can tolerate following him (although the comedians do also need to generate material, so there’s that).
But if you go to Trump’s Twitter page and read three to six months of tweets at a stretch, the picture is very different. First of all, you see just how much he repeats himself, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and just keep going with the overs. He hammers away at the same claims, complaints and attacks, day after day — sometimes the exact same, when he retweets himself, as he frequently does, or when he uses his regular slogans, like some version of “THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA IS THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.” He also repeatedly uses the same words or phrases, such as
- sacred (this one’s especially bizarre, given all that we know about him)
- NO COLLUSION
- PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT (ironic)
- not smart / low IQ (also ironic, for someone who threatened his high school and college not to divulge his transcripts or SAT scores)
- crazy (okay, let’s just say they are all ironic)
- disgrace / disgraceful
- conflicted (used to describe someone or something that has a conflict of interest, not someone who feels conflicted. Yeah, took me a while to figure that one out, since my reaction was always, “I don’t really think Bob Mueller is conflicted at all about the Russia investigation.”)
- fake or FAKE
- failed, or failing
- lying or lyin’
- Crooked, as I already mentioned, always capitalized because it’s always used as part of, or a substitute for, Hilary Clinton’s name.
Whether this repetitiveness is a strategy or something of which he’s unaware, or a combination of the two, is hard to say since we can’t actually go inside his mind (although reading his tweets gets pretty close, which, again, is why I feel covered in filth after doing it for a few hours). Regardless, it is mind-numbing, and thus hard not to read as both the work of someone absent-minded and slightly deranged, and propaganda. Especially because, second, his tweets are just full of flat-out lies, which he also repeats. This is a technique we’ve seen perfected at Fox News and then passed on to the entire Republican Party as “staying on message,” but it’s especially necessary if you’re trying to generate a “fact” out of thin air. Here are just the ones that he said so far today:
- “The Wall is being built and is well under construction.” People on both sides of the aisle (most blatantly his friend and foe Ann Coulter) have pointed out repeatedly how untrue this is.
- “We are apprehending record numbers of illegal immigrants – but we need the Wall to help our great Border Patrol Agents!” Impossible, since only 521K were apprehended in 2018, and the trend is downward overall, from a high of 1.5 million in 2000. He actually claimed himself that the numbers were down throughout 2017 and 2018, as proof that his border policies were working, and has only now 180-ed on that to prove we have a “state of emergency.”
- “Both the Judge and the lawyer in the Paul Manafort case stated loudly and for the world to hear that there was NO COLLUSION with Russia.” What the judge actually said was that Manafort was “not before this court for anything having to do with collusion with the Russian government to influence this election,” which is not at all the same thing, and the lawyer who said there was no collusion was Manafort’s lawyer, who also claimed he wasn’t guilty of bank fraud or cheating on his taxes, two things of which he was just convicted.
And this is not an unusual amount, since, according to the Washington Post the president averaged 15 false claims a day in 2018.
Third, his tweets are full of incorrect grammar and spelling. Typos like “hamberders” and “Covfefe” have become the most famous instances, but nearly every tweet has something wrong with it. There’s erroneous capitalization (most of which he claims is for added emphasis, but in the case of, for example, “Where are the new Texts between Agent Lisa Page and her Agent lover, Peter S?”, what is there to emphasize about Texts?). There is the weird/incorrect use of punctuation, like dashes and scare quotes where they don’t belong and missing apostrophes where they do (here’s one that contains all three!: “Without strong Borders, we don’t have a Country – and the voters are on board with us. Be strong and smart, don’t fall into the Democrats “trap” of Open Borders and Crime!”). And there are the most basic mistakes like spelling “lose” as “loose,” “heal” as “heel” (very Freudian), “there” as “their” and vice versa, “too” or “two” as “to,” etc etc. Of course with any of these, you can say that lots of people make these kinds of mistakes, but you must always remember, they aren’t the president of the United States.
Which is what’s so remarkable and disturbing about diving into this stream of spew: it’s yet another appalling example of something we’ve just accepted Trump does that you cannot imagine any other president would have been caught dead doing, of something that is not normal that we’ve just gotten used to. Even W, who we all thought was not the sharpest tool in the shed, knew enough to delegate things he wasn’t good at (and if the world as we know it is fucked because he delegated too many of them to Dick Cheney, that’s not because Cheney was not competent at achieving what he wanted, but because he was). Trump’s Twitter feed shows him not only to be just as stupid and arrogant as you think — because he figures that all of this thoughtless, repetitive crap that comes into his head and then out of his tiny fingers is exciting, beautiful, tremendous!, just as it is, and thus doesn’t need to be vetted or edited, even when it potentially obstructs justice or reveals information damaging to national security — but even more self-promoting, defensive, childish, crude, and vindictive, and obsessively so. It’s the feed of someone who so believes that the only truth is what he wants it to be, and that he can make the whole world that way if he just continues to hammer it into submission, repeatedly, day after day after day. And on a lot of those days, it seems that America keeps proving him right. Republican lawmakers are certainly trying.
Perhaps the saddest thing that we’ve figured out since 2015, when the New York Times started collecting his insults (and we give them full credit for tracking this phenomenon before we did), is that Trump has averaged 1.8 per day. And that means, since he actually can go for days without an insult if things are going well for him or if he just feels like retweeting other people (and we only include the insults that originate with him), that the concentration of insults you’ll encounter on a given day can often be an impressive four or five. Now, I’m sure we all know people who average more insults than this — the worst bully you ever encountered in junior high, the most horrible boss you ever had, the crazy neighbor down the hall who made your life hell, Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh — but again, none of these people are the President of the United States, to whom we somehow chose to give more power than anyone else in the nation, and in doing so, perhaps the world.
One other thing I noticed this time around, though, was that there are now a lot of people trolling Trump. More people who are anti-Trump than pro respond to his tweets these days, and there are people who do it relentlessly. Sometimes they have cogent arguments with evidence to support them, but a lot of the posts just include memes and name-calling. Then the MAGA people troll the trolls, and then other people troll them, and on and on, until all the yelling and insults surrounding his feed become a reflection of it. It’s sort like what our bot does, only we created our thing to purposely hold up a funhouse mirror to Trump’s tweets and point out their ugly absurdity, whereas this flow of comment bile just shows how he’s actually reshaped so much of the way people “talk” about politics now into a warped reflection of himself. And yes, you can and must also blame the internet for that, and Newt Gingrich, and Steve Bannon, and Roger Ailes, but Trump is their golem, the ultimate manifestation of what we let them do, brought to life in such horrible fashion that many days it still doesn’t seem real to me. And then I go read his fucking tweets.
I used to think that if your average Republican — not his die-hard supporters, because I’ve given up on them — read his feed the way that I do, with all the repetition and lies and mistakes, and repetition of the lies and mistakes, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and hopefully you get it now, they’d recognize how appalling it is that Trump is our president, and realize they can’t vote for him in 2020. But now I think maybe they’d just see it all as normal, as the way we talk about issues, the way we talk about each other: us vs. them, good vs. bad, my truth vs. your truth because I make mine real, everything justified in this zero-sum conflict which is best expressed not in conversation, but in insults. And where do you go from there?