The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Trump’s pathetic social media platform is probably doomed

Former president Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Des Moines on Oct. 9. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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What if Donald Trump was never the media genius he appeared to be? What if despite all his ability to commandeer our attention and get everyone to talk about his tweets, he never really understood the nature of that success or of his own supporters’ relationship to the media?

Those are among the questions raised by the former president’s latest doomed media venture.

Seven months ago, an adviser announced that Trump would launch a social media platform in “two or three months.” Though it’s a bit late, the product has arrived (though it has apparently been temporarily pulled for a quick retooling). The good news is that it’s comically stupid in almost every way imaginable.

Going by the name Truth Social, the new Trump platform is billed as a way for him (and all of us) to “stand up to the tyranny of Big Tech,” most especially Twitter and Facebook, which have banned him for repeatedly violating their terms of service. Speaking of terms of service, Truth Social’s terms forbid users from saying anything to “disparage, tarnish, or otherwise harm, in our opinion, us and/or the Site.” At last, free speech has been restored to the Internet!

Even more amusingly, Truth Social users must agree to avoid “excessive use of capital letters,” something of which Trump himself is quite fond. And the terms themselves contain extended passages in, yes, all capital letters.

This is just the latest of many recent attempts to create a Trumpist Twitter, all supposedly devoted to free speech. There was Gab, then Parler, then Gettr — none of which exactly set the world on fire — and now Truth Social.

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The problem the first two encountered, and this one will as well, is that a safe space where they can converse free of engagement with liberals isn’t just not what devoted Trumpists want. It’s the opposite of what they want.

As a political style, Trumpism isn’t about avoiding the libs, it’s about triggering the libs, owning the libs, enraging the libs. If you’re a liberal, have you ever found your blood boiling because of something someone said on Parler? Of course not, because you’ve never even heard about anything anyone said on Parler. It might as well be a social media platform on Mars.

That highlights the essence of Trump’s success on Twitter: He wielded so much influence there because that’s where the journalists are, and they provided the conduit for Trump to speak to a broad audience.

Political reporters are obsessed with Twitter. So every time Trump launched some offensive new tweet, the reporters were bound to see it, amplify it and write stories about it in their own publications, which enabled Trump to dominate the mainstream political conversation. It was the engagement with the mainstream that created the conflict that fueled Trump’s rise.

In that way, Trump’s social media presence was fundamentally focused on the elite, not the millions of conservative followers who were retweeting him and cheering him on. Whether he understood it, it was a top-down strategy.

The most successful conservative media, especially Fox News and right-wing talk radio, is likewise in a constant conversation with the mainstream media. The supposed sins of those media were the founding raison d'etre of Fox and conservative talk, and remain one of their primary themes. Their power comes in no small part from their ability to engage with, and influence, reporters at traditional news outlets.

For years, people speculated that once out of office, Trump would create his own TV network to compete with Fox News. That might have a better shot at success than Truth Social, because it would be harder to ignore. So why won’t he try? The simple reason is probably that creating a news network is extremely difficult and requires an enormous upfront investment — studios, equipment, reporters, anchors, technicians. By comparison, starting a social media platform is easy. I’d be surprised if Truth Social has more than a dozen employees.

That suggests another interpretation of what Trump is up to. Perhaps this isn’t really a political project at all. Perhaps he knows this will do nothing to make it more likely that he becomes president again.

It could be that it’s nothing more than one in a long line of small-time business schemes, akin to Trump Steaks and Trump Vodka. The general public can no longer be a target for Trump to earn a few bucks as he tries to shore up his failing business; if he started a scam like Trump University today, no one would be naive enough to sign up.

So who are Trump’s potential customers? His most devoted political supporters, who can be lured in with the promise of participating in the project of Trumpism, then be targeted with ads for MyPillow, gold coins or whatever other bottom-feeding enterprises can be persuaded to advertise on Truth Social.

But there’s only so much revenue to be had from those sources. And after an initial wave of loyalists signing up for Truth Social, the number of subscribers will probably wither away. Sooner or later, they will probably realize that yelling about liberals who have no idea you exist isn’t nearly as much fun as yelling at liberals.