With a disoriented far-right having made its exodus off the most popular social media, we have now entered the historical moment of the Twitter Liberals. They existed before of course, and for some time. Always some of the most insipid and annoying people you would find on that abominable site, the Biden administration has ushered in their heyday. Because if anyone is in need of a platform through which one can transmit the feeblest ideological excuse-making, a site for the kind of “I can’t believe anyone actually thinks this” bullshitcraft that through its sheer volume acts like a shield for the powerful, it’s liberals.
Two cases in point: the evolution of the detention camps on the border, and the bombing of Syria. Biden’s administration has said little publicly about either, knowing full well that a combination of scant media coverage and an online fan club will combine to ensure none of the new president’s actions become the kind of liability they were for Trump. In the defense of both, the difference is in sheer presentation.
It would be laughable if it weren’t so contemptuously stupid and predictable. But then, conventional politics has been about aesthetics for some time, and the rise of social media has solidified it. I’ve posited before that the spectacle of the 21st century has a “re/dis/integrated” character, pulling from both diffuse and highly centralized models, and with some notable differences (celebrations of cruelty and militarism on one end, abstract appeals to “civility” and “being presidential” on the other) I think it’s just as true under Biden as it was under Trump.
Thus, defenders of the new concentration camps point to televisions and soccer fields and basketball courts. These are “more humane” detention centers according to the “don’t criticize Biden” crowd. Never a thought for the utter inhumanity of the borders themselves, the broken promises to reverse the worst of Trump’s immigration policies, or that Biden is on track to deport 100,000 people more this year than his unhinged predecessor did in his first year in office. The logic of the border, of the violence not only represented by it but actively carried out by the ICE and CBP employees now under Biden’s leadership; these are brushed aside. The frame looks better, so the picture’s violence is now excusable.
Same for the bombing of Syria. “So different having military action under Biden,” tweeted Amy Siskind (since deleted), “No middle school threats on Twitter. Trust Biden and his team’s competence.” Competence for what, however? Is a middle school threat on Twitter somehow worse than the far more real threat of a bomb that might fall on a Syrian’s house? These questions are, of course, rhetorical. At least they are here. They aren’t to Amy Siskind or her co-thinkers.
It would be one thing if this were merely about dumb ideas that would, if it weren’t for Twitter, simply stay dumb ideas. Social media is where stupidity goes to valorize itself, and that’s been obvious for some time. The point is that while the discourse focused so much on the antics of a terminally online president whose terminally online antics were transforming a terminally online alt-right into a tangible IRL threat, a more fundamental truth was being ignored. Namely that politics had already become terminally online. Decisions were still made primarily through the same old unaccountable channels, but now employed a medium that both flattened everything into affect while mobilizing people through that same affect; democratic on the surface, in fact just as authoritarian.
The deft observers see that this authoritarianism hasn’t gone away. It just needed a more human face for a bit. Whether Biden’s face is more human than Trump’s is debatable, but he is definitely better at the softer presentation that capital needs right now. The only problem is that capital still faces its worst crisis in several lifetimes, and its most enthusiastic saviors, though chastened for the time being, are waiting in the wings. All the aesthetics in the world won’t fend off that reality for very long.