By Yair Rosenberg / Special to The Washington Post
On Wednesday night, a small but influential corner of the internet had a minor meltdown when it was mistakenly reported that Twitter had locked President Trump’s account for sharing misleading information about the coronavirus. The celebrations and protestations of partisans were cut short, however, when it turned out that the platform had momentarily shuttered a Trump campaign account, not silenced the president himself. But the kerfuffle raised the question once again: Should Twitter ban its most influential user?
There has been a strong moral case for booting Trump from Twitter since long before he became president. His racist conspiracy theorizing about President Obama’s birth certificate was both obscene and arguably a violation of the site’s own rules against hateful conduct. More recently, getting Trump banned has become a cause celebre for a certain kind of #resistance liberal. Sen. Kamala D. Harris, D-Calif., a front-runner to be former vice president Joe Biden’s running mate, even used time during a presidential primary debate to call for Trump’s account to be suspended. In June, Trump himself told a friendly conservative outlet that he expects to be banned before the November election.
Many of his opponents would undoubtedly celebrate if @realDonaldTrump vanished. But they’d be making a mistake. That’s because in purely political terms, bumping Trump off Twitter would be a massive boost to his campaign.
The unspoken assumption behind the debates over banning Trump from Twitter is that tweeting is good for his political prospects, and so silencing him would be bad for them. But the reality is just the reverse. Years of polling demonstrates that even Trump’s own supporters dislike his tweets. In February 2020, a Fox News poll found that just 19 percent of voters approved of Trump’s tweeting. Only 37 percent of Republicans approved of his Twitter usage, while 45 percent said they wished he’d be more cautious and 13 percent disapproved. In March 2017, two months into Trump’s term, the same pollsters found largely the same results. Multiple pollsters, from YouGov to the Wall Street Journal, have reported similar findings throughout Trump’s presidency. This comports with my own experiences as a journalist. Nearly every reporter I know who has interviewed voters has heard some variant of “I support the president’s policies, but I wish he would tweet less.”
And it’s not just Trump voters who think the president needs to get off Twitter. His own advisers do, too. Repeated leaks from Trump’s own staff reveal their desperate, but futile, efforts to get him to shut up and stay on message. Late in the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump’s team actually wrested control of his Twitter account for a period of time. Today, they are reduced to doing damage control. Last month, after Trump retweeted a video of a man shouting “white power” before a round of golf, the New York Times chronicled how his aides “scramble[d] to reach him on the course and have him delete the message.”
There’s a reason both Trump’s voters and advisers despise his tweets: They force the president’s backers to reckon with the reality of who they elected, and they expose him for the boorish and bigoted man-child he is. It’s a lot easier to persist in your support for Trump when you’re not constantly confronted with the reality of Trump. Every day on Twitter, the president embarrasses his own supporters with misspelled missives, conspiracy theories and pretty threats, derailing the priorities of his administration and campaign, and forcing people to see him as he really is; not as his spin doctors would like him to be seen.
This is clearly a gigantic asset to Trump’s political opposition, depressing the president’s supporters while galvanizing his detractors. The only reason it is not obvious how much Twitter hurts Trump is that many of us have mistaken social media for reality and digital notoriety for genuine popularity. But Twitter does not represent the views of Americans, voters or global citizens. Rather, like any social media platform, Twitter merely represents the views of the people who are on it; which is only 22 percent of American adults.
What Trump really demonstrates is that the ability to go viral on Twitter with polarizing potshots that rile up the base but inflame everyone else isn’t actually an asset. It just mires politicians in utterly unnecessary scandals and drives up their unfavorable numbers, which might not have happened if they’d just kept a lower online profile and avoided stirring the pot with off-the-cuff 280-character quips. (And if you don’t believe me, just check Biden’s poll numbers.)
As the journalist Tom Gara notes, too many politicians and pundits have “been badly misled by the supposed success of Donald Trump,” misunderstanding his unhealthy take-no-prisoners Twitter approach as a feature, not a bug. In reality, Gara writes, “the real lesson of the Trump presidency is that everything matters; all those insults and vulgarities and rants and racisms, they’ve all piled up to produce the most unpopular and unsuccessful president in modern history. The sugar highs that Donald Trump gets from a cruel taunt or a racist jab haven’t translated into anything even imitating a functional presidency. He isn’t defying gravity, he’s doing exactly the opposite.”
It’s understandable why anti-Trump partisans are allergic to this ugliness. And it makes sense that Twitter should label any dangerous misinformation that the president tweets. But beyond that, anyone who wants Trump to lose in November shouldn’t be trying to shush him online. They should be letting him keep ranting into the microphone; until the exhausted and exasperated American people finally pull the plug.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet Magazine.