Magazine | January 22, 2018, Issue

Same Tweet, Different Day

When does a pattern of behavior become a ritual?

And no, thank you very much, my drinking has not become a problem. Rather I’m puzzling about this stuff as part umpteen of umpteen hundred of my ongoing “Happy Warrior” series on Twitter and the Future of Mankind.

Five, six years ago I got self-conscious every time I referenced in a pulped-wood column some 140-character missive somebody else had launched into the digital ether. Writing about tweets felt attenuated and unserious. It still kind of does, even though — or perhaps because — Twitter has in the interval become the most notorious communications medium in the world, and the preferred battleground of our addled president and the motley who self-identify as “the Resistance” to him.

But for all its notoriety, for all the emotional energy we’ve invested in it, for all the work it does as the vessel of our most putrid thoughts, it somehow feels less consequential with each passing day. The keyboard conflicts, especially the conflict between POTUS and the many Losers and Haters, feel increasingly causally isolated from the unfolding of events in the, you know, real world.

If this is true, then any sane man should be glad of it. But what’s interesting is that even though the people actually making policy and running businesses and living their lives off the Twitter grid appear to have learned how to bracket off this forever flame war being waged by tapping thumbs and forefingers around the world, the combatants in that war remain themselves undaunted and, if anything, only grow in their zeal. The cycle of provocation, outrage, denunciation, and escalation continues apace, with all involved seemingly convinced of their own efficacy even as not a damned thing changes.

And so I ask again, when does a pattern of behavior become a ritual?

Let’s make like college freshmen and dial up Wikipedia.

A ritual, we’re told, “is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects” that is “characterized but not defined by formalism, traditionalism, invariance, rule-governance, sacral symbolism, and performance.”

Is there not pre-coded form, rigid fixity, and, oh, so much performance in each litigation of a presidential tweet? Do we not, every time, hear the same collection of panicky expletives from shrill comediennes? The same sober and somber expressions of disquiet and great pause from David Frum? The same unmoored schadenfreude from the MAGA — or, I’ll beg your pardon, the anti-anti-MAGA — set?

More Wikipedia: “Ritual utilizes a limited and rigidly organized set of expressions which anthropologists call a ‘restricted code’ . . . limited in intonation, syntax, vocabulary, loudness, and fixity of order. Limiting what can be said thereby induces ‘acceptance, compliance, or at least forbearance with regard to any overt challenge.’”

And indeed sometimes in response to presidential tweets we get mere clichéd incantations and exclamations meant to stand in for entire arguments. As Charlie Cooke put it in his late essay on Jennifer Rubin, is there a day that goes by without “Really” or “In 2017” or “Let that sink in” appended to the top of some half thought from the White House? It’s a kind of call-and-response that doesn’t require anything beyond superficially wielding the correct words, just as even Christmas-and-Easter Catholics know the correct times to utter “Amen” or “And with your spirit,” even if they have half-forgotten the context.

Rituals can of course be very powerful things. They’re vehicles for social cohesion and the transmission of values, and they do, to be sure, occasionally involve killing people and stuff like that. Likewise, the emanations of the president, and their ritualistic glorification and denunciation, occasionally have real-world consequences.

But perhaps the most striking feature of a presidency born and bred on Twitter is how little any of it has mattered, how hermetic the entire affair is. As Ross Douthat tweeted, of all things, it isn’t the president’s behavior in office that is surprising. It’s everyone else’s behavior. “Investors, foreign [governments], even to some extent his opponents, all of whom have entered into a tacit conspiracy to act as if his behavior isn’t really part of the presidency.”

The bad news for the Resistance is that if POTUS’s tweets don’t matter then theirs doubly don’t. But I wonder if that’s even the point. One aim of ritual is self-purification, another catharsis, and neither requires that one’s epic trolls and sick burns actually accomplish anything.

The tangible effects of this presidency seem mostly to have been produced by Jim Mattis, Nikki Haley, Mitch McConnell, sundry agency heads, and so forth, while far, far away at the margins lie the president’s biggest partisans and greatest detractors, preparing their bodies for another day’s rites.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster has been news editor of National Review Online since 2009, and was a web site editor until 2012. His work has appeared in The American Spectator, The American ...

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners




Hugging Is Not Compulsory The Week is my favorite part of National Review. I love the quippy, quick way of bringing news and humor. With that said, I was aghast at ...
The Week

The Week

‐ Harry Reid’s Pentagon UFO study comes as no surprise — those Democrats will fund anything that involves aliens. ‐ Protests have erupted across Iran. From the country’s relatively modern cities ...


IMITATION FROM THE CHINESE Ten thousand projects, Bitter tasks set; Five, ten, twenty . . . The years fly. No end to it. And the heart tires With no place to light; So much remorse, Barren regret. No end to ...

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More