Donald J. Trump’s removal from Twitter on Friday night might have been one internal decision by one tech company, but it was a seismic event in the history of American political media. At the birth of the @realDonaldTrump account in 2009, Twitter itself was still a tech-world curiosity, covered only by the mainstream in the event of an embarrassing controversy or noteworthy celebrity announcement. By the time of Trump’s ban last night, the platform had become American politics’ main forum for speech, drawing millions of people each day to its white-hot center of attention. Almost always, @realDonaldTrump was that center.
As a lone-wolf celebrity developer, Trump never learned to manage government bureaucracy the conventional way. But Twitter—and his willingness to use it impulsively, even recklessly—gave him a management tool as immediate as anything a CEO could want. He used the platform to tell Cabinet secretaries they’d been fired and to jawbone big corporations by name; he used it as a tool of diplomacy, if you could use that word, to threaten war personally against the president of Iran and brag about American nukes to intimidate North Korea. He’d set policy with his thumbs, or try to, as when he decided to ban transgender Americans from the military and left the entire Pentagon flailing for a follow-up move. And, of course, he offered a powerful megaphone for messages from far-right conspiratorial fever swamps, recklessly retweeting anything that insulted his enemies or flattered him personally.
It was easy for critics to complain about how Trump’s every tweet drove conversation and decision-making in America’s top newsrooms, boardrooms and dinner tables, but there was a good reason: Disconnected from, and uninterested in, the details of actual policymaking and management, Trump used Twitter to govern from outside his own administration, setting its moral, aesthetic and ideological terms post by post. He was the first gadfly president—taking the outsider style of talk-show callers and internet commenters and turning it into the voice of American political power.
At the same time the account made its mark on politics, so did it color American culture. Trump’s pithy, idiomatic speech patterns translated to Twitter in a manner that became comic shorthand in American life, whether earnestly or ironically: “Sad!,” “WITCH HUNT!,” “STOP THE COUNT!” He even added a new word to the English lexicon, a simple typo that became effective shorthand for his administration’s endemic confusion and lack of professionalism: “covfefe.”
Trump’s Twitter account didn’t do anything novel in its own right. But it exemplified, at the largest possible scale, the twisted incentives at the heart of the platform that gave it life: to generate spectacle and action without regard for truth, context, or collateral damage.
One of the most remarkable and revealing things about Trump’s dominance of the platform is the fact that the septuagenarian president is as far as one could be from a “digital native,” refusing mostly to ever even use a computer. He has no particular calculating genius about social media, just the standard set of opinions and aesthetic preferences that a particularly bigoted member of his generation might hold, combined with a helpful lack of restraint. That biliousness and shamelessness, combined with his baked-in celebrity, found their perfect outlet in Twitter, where outrage is currency.
Before he became president, Trump deployed his narcissism and bile to more petty, and sometimes downright bizarre, ends. He issued his first tweet on May 4, 2009, reminding its followers to tune into CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” for a cursory appearance from Trump, then the star of a declining reality show. It was a long road from there to Trump’s using the account to rebrand himself as a pugilistic, reactionary populist, elevating him from cable news gadfly to Republican party gatecrasher to, eventually, leader of the free world.
In its early years, @realDonaldTrump served as mostly a promotional tool for its owner, seeking to bolster his flagging celebrity. It was also a vehicle for his quixotic and seemingly arbitrary cultural fixations. He attacked such sacred cows as Coca-Cola, calling it “garbage” despite pledging to continue drinking it; provided repeated, unsolicited relationship advice to “Twilight” teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson; and unaccountably threatened legal action over a nominally flattering musical tribute from the late rapper Mac Miller.
But most of all, he was fixated on the man he would eventually succeed in the White House: Barack Obama. Trump repeatedly assailed the former president via Twitter, deriding him for a perceived lack of transparency and excessive golf habit, but first and foremost propagating the false conspiracy theory that America’s first Black president was actually not born in the United States, making his presidency illegitimate.
Such tweets made Trump a star in the burgeoning world of online conservative media. While his commentary was treated as a sideshow by the mainstream, including a fateful in-person roast from Obama himself at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, his tweets were cited frequently by far-right publications such as Breitbart, InfoWars and the Gateway Pundit. Improbably, and at first to some ridicule, he parlayed his Twitter stardom into a Republican presidential primary campaign. The Twitter account soon proved an invaluable resource in combating Trump’s better-funded, more professionalized rivals, revealing the extent to which social media had already upended the worlds of political communication and civic engagement. He used it to coin a series of monikers for his political rivals some of which will long out-live his account, and likely even the man himself: “Low-energy Jeb,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Crazy Bernie,” “Little Marco,” “Sleepy Joe.”
Once Trump became president, he used the account to in effect drive a policy agenda without having to bother with the bureaucratic details of governance. It also served as daily inspiration for a legion of loyal followers who relentlessly pursued vengeance against anyone who would criticize the president; it brought a much higher profile to the longrunning, unresolved debate over the definition of online harassment. It also gave politicians, particularly elected Republicans, a new tool to dodge questions, used over and over in response to his messiest and most reckless attempts to rule by tweet: “I’m not on Twitter.” So common was this excuse that reporters on Capitol Hill took to printing out Trump’s latest missives so that they could physically show them to senators who professed ignorance.
That only became more difficult over time. Long before last week’s Trump-inspired violence at the U.S. Capitol, the account’s most outspoken critics, both serious and less so, argued that @realDonaldTrump’s combination of a massive platform and brazen disregard for the truth was a menace to civic health — fueling a pipeline of disinformation that’s resulted in violent and bizarre crimes across the nation. Although its owner claimed ignorance, @realDonaldTrump repeatedly retweeted posts from overt white-nationalist groups and accounts, spreading their message to a far, far wider audience than it otherwise would have reached.
In its final months, @realDonaldTrump became a touchstone for the burgeoning debate over the extent to which technology platforms should be liable for the speech they publish, exemplified by the president’s own politicization of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Under that law, internet services are not legally liable for the content published by their users, allowing them the freedom to moderate it on their own terms.
And moderate they did on Wednesday, ending @realDonaldTrump’s long run as one of the most-followed accounts on Twitter. Over the past two months, the president’s time in the spotlight has been coming to an end, the miracle of the meme presidency waning in both novelty and actual power. So, finally backed into the proverbial corner, he decided to reverse the polarity of Marx’s famous quotation and turn farce to tragedy.
With his fate sealed, having shown the world the power of this combustible, ungovernable new technology, the president met the inescapable fate of the terminally online: to tweet and rave at close of day, to post, post, against the dying of the light… resulting in his being hounded by moderators to the bitter end. Given the odd strictures of Section 230, one could call it a form of law and order.
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