Should Twitter Ban Trump?
Sen. Kamala Harris thinks so. Speaking to CNN about the House’s impeachment inquiry into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, she said, “Frankly, when you look at what he’s been tweeting today directed at the whistleblower, directed at so many people, you know, I, frankly, think that based on this and all we’ve seen him do before, including attacking members of Congress, that he, frankly, should be—his Twitter account should be suspended.”
The inflammatory tweets Harris was referring to included Trump’s quotation of a statement suggesting that civil war was imminent (#CivilWar2 is now trending on Twitter, and a Harvard Law professor claimed that the tweet itself was an impeachable offense). Trump also floated the idea that Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, should be arrested for treason.
In other words: it’s been a relatively ordinary week on Trump’s Twitter feed.
Harris’ salvo might be an attempt to gain attention for her flailing presidential campaign, but it’s merely the most recent battle in an ongoing war to get the president removed from his favorite social media platform. The president is known to go on Twitter rants prompted by something he’s just watched on “Fox & Friends” or seen on the front page of the New York Times.
His penchant for policy-making (and policy bumbling) via Twitter has been a constant source of aggravation to his advisers since he took office: Tweeting out highly sensitive spy satellite imagery to make a point about Iran; publicly humiliating cabinet officials and White House staffers by firing them via tweet; and congratulating a repressive communist regime on its 70th birthday, to name just a few recent examples among many.
For as long as Trump has been trolling people on Twitter, his detractors have been trying to get the company to suspend his account. Earlier this month, Rep. Ilhan Omar, no stranger to peddling hate on social media, claimed that a tweet Trump sent about her endangered her life and demanded that Twitter take action against the president.
The company is unlikely to do so—nor should it.
Trump has clearly flouted Twitter’s rules, but he’s also a public figure whose pronouncements are newsworthy and are of geopolitical significance. Moreover, the optics of banning the President of the United States from the platform at a time when social media companies are reeling from charges of political bias and multiple privacy violations would not be good. Monitoring political speech isn’t just a challenge for Twitter: Facebook recently announced that the company “will treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard.”
If there is any benefit at all to Trump’s rage-a-holic Twitter performances, it is their transparency. Trump’s Twitter feed is the agar in the petri dish that is his presidency. Trump’s tweets give us a glimpse of his id (which is not a happy place). As David French has argued at National Review, “One of the reasons why the Ukraine scandal is starting to have legs is that it demonstrates that the Trump you see on Twitter is not some virtual persona distinct from the man himself; they are one and the same.” It will serve as a useful barometer of his mood as impeachment efforts progress.
Banning Trump from Twitter would only fuel his already unhealthy persecution complex and offer yet another victimization narrative for him to exploit. Like impeachment, it would become an effective way to fundraise (via Facebook ads) for his reelection campaign.
The medium of Twitter might be relatively new, but the emotional appeal of the message it helps people broadcast is not. As Eric Hoffer observed of leaders of mass movements in The True Believer, they understand that ideas aren’t the most effective motivators: “What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.” Twitter is the perfect platform for broadcasting such behavior, and with Trump we are seeing its full—and often fully reprehensible—expression.
Twitter has created many new and troubling problems for our political culture. Banning Trump from the platform would solve none of them.