Trump's tweets are awful. Banning him from Twitter would be worse.
Kamala Harris wants to ban President Trump from Twitter. The California senator put her case for digital ostracism front and center at the fourth Democratic debate Tuesday, pushing Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to join her in pledging to delete @realdonaldtrump.
"[H]ere we have Donald Trump, who has 65 million Twitter followers and is using that platform as the president of the United States to openly intimidate witnesses, to threaten witnesses, to obstruct justice," Harris said. "He and his account should be taken down. ... It is a matter of safety and corporate accountability."
Warren refused to take the bait, but Harris seems convinced this is a winning talking point. Beyond repeatedly prodding Warren, she's been banging on about it for several weeks, including on her own Twitter account. She touted the subject again in the post-debate spin room, suggesting it somehow would be easier to hold Trump accountable via impeachment if he did not have Twitter (an odd contention given his predilection for tweeting impeachable things).
This is all very understandable, and at a gut level, I agree. I would love never to see another Trump tweet. I would love to eliminate — or at least substantially complicate — his ability to fling insults and redirect the news cycle at all hours of the day and night. But banning Trump from Twitter, as briefly emotionally satisfying as it would be, is a terrible idea. It's a fun daydream for the president's critics, yet even publicly fantasizing about it is politically unwise.
There are two big problems with the "ban @realdonaldtrump" plan. The first is about Trump himself: Kicking him off Twitter will not make him better. He will still think and say all the reprehensible stuff he tweets now; he will simply find a different way to broadcast it. Maybe he'd move to Facebook. Maybe, if there were a total social media blackout, he'd have to give more press conferences. Or maybe he'd simply say in private what he now says in public.
That silence would be glorious, but it would also be deceptive. "[A]s vile and painful as the president's tweets often are, they're performing an important role in American democracy right now," Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University, writes at Vox. "One of the functions of presidential communication is transparency, and Trump's tweets serve as a constant reminder of who he is and what his administration values. ... The best outcome in this very bad situation is for us to be confronted, over and over, with the nature and beliefs of our president."
There are a few, rare people in the world who can't feel pain. Their condition is called congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP), and it's commonly detected when, as children, they suffer significant injuries — burns, broken bones, biting off part of the tongue — without complaining or even noticing. CIP is hugely risky in daily life because it's very easy to hurt yourself if there's no pain response to alert your brain to danger.
Getting Trump off social media, as appealing as it may be, is the political equivalent of turning off our pain sensitivity. The pain's not a good thing, but it's providing a necessary alarm. And Trump's Twitter account is not the source of the pain Harris wants to eradicate; Trump himself is. That wouldn't change if Harris got her way.
The second problem is political. If Trump were kicked off social media, it would confirm every one of his supporters' worst suspicions about Big Tech's surreptitious plot to gag the right. Trump would make endless hay out of the ban — it might be enough to single-handedly assure his re-election. I can see the pitch to independents and swing voters now: "You may not agree with everything President Trump says, but in Kamala Harris' America, you won't be allowed to publicly disagree with the president." The ban would be particularly politically useful to Trump if it came at Harris' behest. The narrative of Democrat-directed persecution of Republicans online would be utterly unassailable.
A blanket law prohibiting all elected officials, Harris included, from being on social media theoretically could avoid those bad optics. It would never pass Congress, of course, but total political nonviability is not the only objection here. The ban would have to extend to anyone who has formally launched a political campaign to avoid disadvantaging incumbents during elections, which would lead to even more protracted periods of candidates pretending they are not running for office when they totally are. It would be bogged down in endless lawsuits — Twitter deciding to ban a single account or a category of accounts doesn't run into First Amendment problems the way a federal law restricting political speech unquestionably would — and very possibly could never be enforced.
Ousting politicians from social media is also demonstrably not what anyone wants. The politicians themselves don't want it, and neither do most Americans, as evidenced by the fact that no politician-free social network has emerged. There's no demand for it.
It would be nice to go back to a simpler time on social media, to make it again a place for announcing what you ate for breakfast or laughing at "I can has cheeseburger?" But we can't go back. We can't unfeel the pain of knowing what our elected officials are like. Politics in social media is here to stay — @realdonaldtrump included.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.