But the magnitude of that decision still hasn’t been fully appreciated. The fact that this one social media company decided to shut down this one account might have completely reshaped American politics for the coming few years.
Until 10 days ago, nearly everyone assumed that Trump would be in a unique place for a defeated ex-president, retaining a hold on his party’s base that would make him the axis around which the Republican world revolved.
His opinions would shape the party’s approach to Biden’s presidency. He would make or break Republican officeholders, depending on their loyalty to him. Everyone within the party — especially those who want to run for president themselves in 2024 — would have to grovel before him, just as they have for so long. The GOP would still be Trump’s party, in nearly every sense.
But not anymore.
As much as we’ve talked about Trump’s tweets for all these years, if anything we might have underestimated how central Twitter was to his power. Without it — especially as an ex-president — he’ll be like Samson without his hair, all his strength taken from him.
Twitter was so important to Trump, according to Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media of the University of North Carolina, because of a few critical features of the platform itself and who uses it.
First, “Twitter is the space for political and media elites,” McGregor told me. Facebook has many more users, but journalists are on Twitter constantly, which means that when Trump spoke there, he was speaking to them.
So even if Facebook lets Trump back on (it, too, banned him, but so far only through the inauguration), that won’t give him the ability to send a missive and then sit back as one news organization after another runs stories about it, multiplying its effects. “Whatever he said on Twitter ended up on the news,” McGregor said. According to research McGregor conducted but hasn’t yet published, when President Barack Obama tweeted during his second term, 3 percent of the time the tweet would find its way into a news story. The figure for Trump’s tweets during his term was 65 percent.
Second, the platform provided him a place to speak uncontested. He could say whatever he wanted without being challenged, at least in the moment.
Third, his Twitter presence enabled him to constantly reinforce an affinity between himself and his supporters by speaking to them not only about politics but also about plenty of other topics.
Trump connected with them “because he was so genuinely himself, for better and for worse, on Twitter,” McGregor told me. They identified with his opinions about everything, whether it was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or the merits of KFC or the latest celebrity scandal.
“That’s the reason influencers of all stripes are successful, because of that sense of intimacy” that social media can create, McGregor said. And because Twitter is so reactive, “it allowed people to make that connection between him and themselves” as they responded to the news together.
When he’s not president, Trump will have means of speaking to the public — he can call in to “Fox & Friends,” for instance — but he won’t be surrounded by reporters waiting to write down his every word, so he’ll have to work harder to get the attention of the press. Without Twitter, he won’t be able to speak to his people on an hourly basis, maintaining that affinity and crowding out the other Republicans who might compete for their affection.
He could go to some upstart conservative social media platform, like Gab or Parler (if it gets restored). But those don’t have the mainstream legitimacy he craves, and reporters aren’t on them, so their reach is much more limited.
That means that when new events occur, Trump won’t be able to make himself the core of the story. He won’t be able to constantly remind Republicans that they need to fear him. While many of his supporters will remain loyal, others will drift away, not turning against him but just no longer thinking about him every day.
That will create a vacuum into which other Republicans can move as they position themselves for 2024, not because they’re such Twitter ninjas themselves, but because space will have been created for something more like a normal, non-Trump presidential nominating contest.
There are profound questions about the role social media now plays in our political process. I agree both with those who argue that Twitter banning Trump was long overdue (his account was the single most important nexus of misinformation on the entire platform) and that it’s deeply troubling that a private company has this much power.
But, for now, it does. And so one company’s decision to finally say no to a president who used it to inject poison into the American political bloodstream for years has remade the future of the Republican Party, and perhaps the whole country.
Trump will still play a role in his party and in our politics; we won’t shake off this horrific presidency so easily. But that blissful quiet, as we no longer have him shouting in our ears every day? We could get used to that.