Let us stipulate that @RoguePOTUSStaff—the rollicking resistance Twitter feed with some 875,000 followers that claims to originate among Trump’s underlings—is fiction. Yes, its authors insist on their web page that they are “White House staffers, working at various levels, operating in secrecy to reveal hidden truths of the Trump administration to the American people.” But @RoguePOTUSStaff is best understood as a work of imagination, a political thriller, akin to House of Cards, Wolf Hall, and Macbeth.
At this point POTUS' wire tap claim feeling akin to a teenage cutter hurting self as revenge for being picked on.
— Rogue POTUS Staff (@RoguePOTUSStaff) March 5, 2017
And lord does this thriller make the pulse race. It describes a clique of courtiers called The Unholy Trinity–Priebus, Pence, and Ryan—who are scheming to take out a king gone mad, along with his devious consigliere, Bannon, who is bent on absolute destruction of the realm. To block @RoguePOTUSStaff because its authors probably don’t work in the White House is to deny yourself an intriguing hypothesis and mordant observations about urgent national affairs. To block it is to walk out on a compelling piece of pop art designed to undermine a despot.
The tweets on @RoguePOTUSStaff contain more riffs, pep talks, and speculation than claims to firsthand reporting. Recently, the account tweeted: “This cannot be understated. The president of the United States is a Russian espionage agent.” Many on Twitter, including journalists with verified accounts, were saying the same thing, in so many words. All of the players were acting on the same #TrumpRussia news as it broke. So @RoguePOTUSStaff did not have insider information. But the account sounded its alarm succinctly, powerfully, without reservation. Fourteen thousand people retweeted, “This cannot be understated . . . ” in the first 24 hours.
This cannot be understated: The President of the United States is a Russian espionage agent.
— Rogue POTUS Staff (@RoguePOTUSStaff) March 3, 2017
Just a day earlier, @RoguePOTUSStaff had urged readers, “Do not tire. Do not fatigue. As long as our country is controlled by foreign agents we must continue to #resist and #persist.” The keepers of the account act less as leakers than as moral leaders. Sometimes they sermonize, sometimes they connect dots, sometimes they post lighter fare to boost morale. Mostly they just trade in aperçus, the flash perceptions that Twitter is best for: “At this point POTUS’s wire tap claim feeling akin to a teenage cutter hurting self as revenge for being picked on.”
— Rogue POTUS Staff (@RoguePOTUSStaff) March 2, 2017
But to follow @roguePOTUSstaff also requires that you brush up on your fiction-reading skills, which—for many of us—takes some concentration. In 2013, 53% of Americans had not read a single poem, story, or novel in the past year. Maybe one reason Johnny can’t read news—and falls for, repeats, and even acts on hysterical conspiracy gibberish—is that he is unaccustomed to reading fiction that is labeled as fiction. He can’t perform the “willing suspension of disbelief” that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued was the signature operation of reading poems and stories. So the reader doesn’t know when to maintain that skepticism, and he can’t recognize fiction or fantasy when it’s mislabeled.
And @RoguePOTUSStaff is indeed prominently mislabeled. The writers insist they are White House staffers. But if you can put that claim in brackets, it’s clear that in every other way, what you are reading is a thriller, not a newspaper. @RoguePOTUSstaff is dense with fiction’s tells and hallmarks. It has a carefully drawn dramatis personae, stacked with meaningful plot-advancing dialogue. And then there is suspense. Hour after hour, the words and actions of the principals and the supporting cast are relayed in this present-tense narrative, along with heavy interpretation in the second-person plural that makes the action both more more chilling and more anxiously comical. Exquisitely dramatized are also the waxing and waning of the Unholy Trinity’s plan, the danger of it, the promise of it, the futility of it.
Poetry also suffuses the @RoguePOTUSStaff feed. Its epigraph—known in the genre as the “pinned Tweet”—is baldly lyrical, complete with a smattering of Shakespearean iambs:
When well intended patriots disagree/
When POTUS says it’s not fact/
until he approves it/
Above all, though, @RoguePOTUSStaff takes pains with its characters. Last month, the account tweeted: “Spicer is already burning out. Been carrying double load, but greatest stressor is having to paint over obvious lies and absurdities.”
Spicer is already burning out. Been carrying double load, but greatest stressor is having to paint over obvious lies and absurdities.
— Rogue POTUS Staff (@RoguePOTUSStaff) February 10, 2017
This tweet advanced the tick-tock narrative of the whole feed: Who will burn out first, the administration or the resistance? It served the thriller genre. But it wasn’t insider news. Twelve hours earlier, Tina Nguyen in Vanity Fair had already written a report on Spicer’s apparent exhaustion. What @RoguePOTUSStaff added to Nguyen’s tale of Spicer’s disintegration was the suggestion that his “greatest stressor is having to paint over obvious lies and absurdities.” This turns Spicer from a tired communications director into something much more: a man riven with high moral conflict. A dramatic figure.
The new administration, with its flagrant subliteracy and bellowing insistence that black is white, has had the unexpected effect of compelling voters to become better readers. Trump issues statements that diametrically invert reality, while his exponents traffic in laughable propaganda. It’s thus crucial that voters learn—in short order—to recognize, dismantle, and confront untruths.
It’s reciprocally important that voters learn to read narratives like @RoguePOTUSStaff’s as novelistic but also—like the fiction of George Orwell, Philip Roth, John le Carré—dense with useful hypotheses and moral truths. If that sounds like a cognitive triple axel, it’s not; it’s what you do every time you watch Game of Thrones. Now try doing it with @RoguePOTUSstaff. Then move up a grade level, and try doing it with cable news. (A clue: Wherever characters use silly noms de plume like “RoguePOTUSstaff” and “@realDonaldTrump” or wear heavy theater makeup, as on Fox News and CNN, the first priority is stagecraft and style.)
Learning to recognize genre, with reference to explicit labeling or (more generally) internal tropes, is a foundation of learning to read. The fact that the president is a habitual liar may or may not be proof of his treachery. It may or may not even be proof of his mental instability, as Andrew Sullivan recently charged. But it may be conclusive proof of his illiteracy. He seemingly can’t tell fiction from fact, Breitbart-style folklore from fact-checked reporting, passing hearsay or speculation from data and documentation. So, veteran of reality television and hammy programs like The Howard Stern Show, he continues to play a make-believe character and say make-believe things.
And then there’s the electorate at large. Many of us aggressively refuse to take the mainstream media on faith, but also find it difficult to read empirical evidence, including data, legal decisions, audits, and medical and scientific research. As recently as last June, an NBC News/Survey Monkey poll found that 76% of registered Republicans said they doubted Barack Obama’s citizenship, well after his birth certificate had been presented and verified. A December survey by the Economist/YouGov found that 62% of Trump voters (and even 25% of those who voted for Hillary Clinton) believe that—in the utter absence of evidence —”millions of illegal votes were cast in the election.” The same poll found that believing lies is nonpartisan. In spite of conclusive medical research, 18% of Clinton voters believe the statement, “Vaccines have been shown to cause autism.”
@RoguePOTUSStaff is almost certainly based in a lie, but not a lie like “President Obama wiretapped the phones of Trump Tower.” Instead, it’s a lie the way of, “Let’s imagine Alexander Hamilton as a person of color who sings everything he says.” Its a conceit. And @RoguePOTUSStaff’s conceit allows it to keep issuing provocative and inspiring tweets. “POTUS going fully rabid.” “We will #persist.” And, with a link to the Washington Post, “Eric Trump’s business trip to Uruguay cost taxpayers $97,830 in hotel bills.”
A big part of the Twitter feed’s reason for being is to suggest, with poetic language and high drama, that inside the body politic are levelheaded antigens conscientiously fighting the pathological liars. In the U.S. at large, this happens to be literally true. Protesters, judges, activists, fact checkers, reporters—all of them by both finding facts and underscoring truths we hold to be self-evident—keep righting the ship every time the administration tries to capsize it.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Economist/YouGov found that 81% of Clinton voters believe the statement, “Vaccines have been shown to cause autism.” That is incorrect; the correct percentage is 18%.