The whole thing seems a bit rushed. The announcement was hobbled by a flaw that allowed people to sign up early, meaning that the user accounts “donaldtrump,” “donaldjtrump” and “mikepence” were quickly snatched up. Nor does the nomenclature work well; instead of figuring out a term for the amplification of a “truth,” the site just calls them “re-truths,” cribbing the language used by Trump’s first social media love, Twitter.
That, of course, is the point. This is Trump’s “Vertigo” moment, cobbling together a reconstruction of the one he lost. Twitter won’t have him, so he’ll make his own Twitter — and there he’ll be king.
Beyond what the new endeavor says about Trump (including its wildly expansive ambitions beyond just the social media platform; you can practically hear Trump salivating over the net worth of successful tech CEOs), it is probably more informative about how he understands his base. It is reminiscent, in fact, of one of his first major appearances on the country’s political stage.
In August 2015, Fox News hosted the first debate for the Republican presidential nomination. It was a fraught moment for Trump, for the first time engaging directly with the formal process of seeking the presidency. And right off the bat, moderator Megyn Kelly presented him with some of his past abusive and harassing social media commentary.
“Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter,” Kelly began. “However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.’ ”
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump replied, to applause.
No, Kelly continued, it wasn’t just her. “Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees,” she said. “Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?”
Trump’s response was a fitting distillation of his central philosophy.
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said. The crowd again expressed its support.
This is so much of it, isn’t it? The mantra “make America great again” is rooted in the idea that the country has changed for the worse and that one of the manifestations of that is the idea that, at the time, was called “political correctness.” (It is now called “cancel culture.”) Why, you can’t even disparage women as gross and fat anymore! Is this the America we want to live in? The idea that the White majority, particularly White men, was being held to an unfair new standard permeated the MAGA movement. Polling regularly found that Trump supporters were as likely to see Whites as targets of discrimination as they were Black or Hispanic Americans. A shift toward a more inclusive national conversation was a shift away from one that accepted the sort of diminishment that Trump loved to use on Twitter.
Thanks in part to Trump’s approach to social media, the 2016 campaign became a crystallizing moment for the industry. Facebook found itself a hotbed of disinformation; Twitter was roiled by rampant antisemitism and abuse, often centered in what became known as the alt-right movement. Trump used Twitter to bash and abuse people, and his followers echoed the pattern. This spurred a new effort by both sites to control what was being offered on their platforms.
Twitter, for example, made changes that dialed down the volume on people who had been repeatedly accused of hostile and abusive activity. The result was that users began receiving what they called a “shadow ban”: still on the platform but harder to find. Since many of those users (though by no means all) were vocally allied with the MAGA movement that encouraged the sort of frankness that from the other side looked like abuse, many were “shadow banned.” And then Twitter had a new problem: right-wing voices accusing it of being biased against conservatives.
There’s never been any robust evidence that Twitter and Facebook disproportionately targeted the political right because of their politics. In the case of Facebook, quite the opposite was true; it granted prominent voices on the right unusual leeway. In the case of Twitter, an internal source told Vice News that the company was having trouble drawing a clear line between extremist speech and right-wing politicians. But since the point was largely the victimization of the once-prominent voices of conservative Whites, that narrative of censorship stuck.
Trump hung on until Jan. 6. Then, recognizing the obvious role his social media communiques had played in stoking the day’s events, the platforms began cutting him off. They had tried for years to balance his obviously unhealthy activity with his position as president; the riot at the U.S. Capitol tipped the scales. Trump was dumped, and it stung.
So, now he has his new thing, it seems. Assuming it launches on schedule and as promised — a bigger challenge than he might at first have realized, given the trickiness of such things — it will be a community that he dominates and controls.
It is not clear how much fun it will be for users. The site promises a scenario akin to a big wedding in which family members from different parts of the country and with different ideologies get together to chat, but this almost certainly will mostly end up more like a Trump rally. And although Trump rallies have their entertaining elements for fans, after an hour or so, people start to filter out. A number of right-wing celebrities have been risen by attacking figures on the left and in the media, but there probably won’t be a lot of activity from non-MAGA types to “re-truth” for purposes of scoring points.
The point is really to give Trump and his base a place where they can, at last, be free of the new rules of conversation. This will be the again-great America they had sought, where a guy can make a joke about Polish people if he wants to or share something he heard about the coronavirus vaccine from a guy at Shoney’s. Where if they want to call Rosie O’Donnell a slob, they can do so, without facing recrimination. What they can’t do, though, is criticize TRUTH Social. The site’s terms and conditions forbid use of the site to “disparage, tarnish, or otherwise harm, in our opinion, us and/or the [s]ite.”
Even in paradise, some “truths” simply wander too far past the line.