Only Twitter can end the Trump era
Reading through an otherwise excellent study from journalist Matt Taibbi of the "co-dependent relationship" between President Trump and our major press and political institutions, I was disconcerted by the realization that he and I have shared the same false assumption: that if Trump loses in November, he will, in some sense, go away.
"Isn't four years of this enough?" Taibbi's conclusion asks. "Trump has made us all crazy, and it's time for the show to be over. We deserve slow news days again."
Taibbi's not alone in this anticipation. I've shared it, and so, I suspect, have many others. Vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden to "make the presidency boring again," conservative commentator S.E. Cupp recently argued at the New York Daily News. The Biden campaign is playing to political weariness, too. "Remember when you didn't have to think about the president every single day?" the voiceover of a recent ad begins. Biden, the ad promises, will "bring that back."
That is probably true. Most of us likely won't think about a President Biden every single day. Instead, we may well be thinking daily about an ex-President Trump.
Suppose it's January 21, 2021. Biden has been inaugurated. Trump has finished any election contestation shenanigans. He awakes in his Trump Tower penthouse or, given the season, his suite at Mar-a-Lago. What does he do? He turns on the television, and he tweets.
He tweets unconstrained by campaign strategy or administration toadies with their constant bleating about you can't say that, Mr. President; that's illegal, Mr. President. He tweets anything and everything that comes to mind. He hawks products. He coins nicknames. He shares conspiracy theories. He imagines jailing or executing his critics. He muses about a comeback in 2024. He retweets accounts with white supremacist hashtags because he doesn't know what all that stuff means, and they said something nice about him, and it's nice to share nice things people say about you, and he's not in the White House anymore, where you retweet the wrong thing and five minutes later an aide runs in babbling about how you have to take it down because the Fake News are spinning it wrong when it was really just a very nice thing!
In perhaps the final few months of the Trump presidency, coverage of his tweets is not as exhaustive as it once was, as least among the outlets I read (including The Week). There have been so many tweets by now that all but the most outrage-prone among us in the media are somewhat inured. But a selection of his tweets — the most offensive, those with memorable turns of phrase, the ones with real policy import (like threats to foreign leaders) — are still widely reported because Trump is still the president. Arguments for ignoring presidential pronouncements have never fully persuaded the press, even those of us eager for a reason to ignore them. As Fox News host Chris Wallace said in 2016, "Anything that a president would say" is "news, whether it's sensible or not, factual or not, productive or not."
If Biden wins, that habit of coverage won't be broken overnight. Moreover, the overhyped dysfunction Taibbi diagnosed in so much of the press-Trump relationship will be intact. And Trump himself will be no less exasperating or offensive. If anything, he'll be more exasperating and offensive absent whatever little constraint governance, campaigning, and the Republican Party have managed to impose upon him.
So if it's January 21, 2021 and former President Donald Trump starts tweeting, the tweets will make the news. They will likely continue to make the news for a long time to come. Those slow news days may be years off.
There is, however, another way. Citing basically the same logic of inherent presidential newsworthiness, major social media platforms have declined to oust or punish Trump even when his posts violate their terms of service. "Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions," Twitter said in a 2018 blog post.
This is why @realDonaldTrump will never be shut down while its owner is in office, though he posts content that would get an ordinary user banned. I've argued against removing the president from Twitter for exactly this reason, also suggesting a ban in the run-up to the election would give Trump a compelling narrative of Big Tech collusion with Democrats to censor the right.
If Trump is no longer president, neither of those cautions apply. He could be fairly treated like any other account holder subject to a platform's terms of service. Twitter — and Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, or any other major social media platform whose terms he has violated — could then rightfully permaban Trump.
That's unlikely, of course, but it's far easier and more sensible to cut off Trump's primary means of public provocation than to ask the media to ignore that provocation once made. A Twitter-less Trump could still start his oft-rumored television venture, grant interviews, or, heck, get on Substack. He'd hardly be silenced. But his ability to redirect news cycles and intrude into the daily lives of those who don't actively seek out his content would be much reduced.
Without that reduction, the Trump era won't really be over. His tweets needn't fly from the White House to roost inside our heads.