Can Donald Trump Survive ‘Virtual Impeachment’?

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On the defining day of his tempestuous reign, Donald Trump, typically so incorrigibly noisy, was rendered all but muzzled.

Due to Wednesday’s shameful, world-watched putsch at the Capitol, Twitter and Facebook locked the outgoing president’s powerful accounts, stripping him of some of his most important weaponry and leading to a nearly unprecedented day-long stretch of silence. For the first time in his tweet-driven presidency, Trump wasn’t able to employ his preferred method of communication to stoke or incite supporters. He wasn’t able to launch at leaders of his party his usual mob-boss loyalty tests. And he wasn’t able to distract and divert and defend himself in the telltale ways to which Americans have grown so accustomed.

“It’s like he disappeared off the face of the earth,” Tony Schwartz, the co-author of The Art of the Deal, told me, “not being on Twitter.”

Twitter, of course, always has been one of Trump’s most effective tools. He has used it not only as a tether to what his base is thinking and wanting but also as a whip to rev attention, to control conversation, to threaten members of Congress or candidates or governors or anybody else he deems problematic or insufficiently subservient. Now, though, he’s on a kind of partial probation—and in jeopardy of losing more permanently these megaphones—after Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday booted him from Facebook and Instagram until at least Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20 as Trump’s successor.

And looking forward, in these on-tenterhooks 12 days and beyond, we glimpse one of the central questions of what almost assuredly will be an unprecedented post-presidency: Without access to these traditional social media channels—his almost 89 million Twitter followers, his going on 33 million Facebook fans, his Instagram, his YouTube and his Twitch—can Trump continue to pack the same level of cultural and political sway?

Without Twitter, in other words, what is Trump?

“Trump’s dependence on Twitter,” Michael Cohen, his former attorney and fixer, told me, “supersedes even his basic need of oxygen to breathe.”

“The thing that was most powerful about Trump’s Twitter platform was it enabled him to operate as the executive producer of the global news cycle. It really was that powerful. With one click, he could send tremors through every newsroom in the world, every capital and just reframe the focus squarely back on him in an instant,” said Kevin Madden, a former adviser to Mitt Romney. “That power is gone,” he said.

“He is the leader of the mob, and a leader must communicate to maintain his position to incite and to ignite,” added Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist in New York who’s known Trump for decades. “Now he can do none of it.”

Trump biographer Gwenda Blair likened it to “virtual impeachment.”

Others, though, from donors to former staffers to internet experts, expressed skepticism about lasting consequence.

“I would say the jury’s out,” Eli Pariser, the author of The Filter Bubble, the co-founder of Upworthy and the co-director of the Civic Signals project at the National Conference on Citizenship, told me. “I think it’s too early to say Trumpism’s over just because he doesn’t have a Twitter account.”

Still, he wouldn’t have been elected without it. Trump himself has said so. (“I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media,” he told Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo in 2017.) So have people in and out of his orbit. (“I don’t think he would be president without Twitter,” former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said last year.)

Trump started tweeting in 2009, with staff pushing out mostly pro forma promotional notes—but he really started tweeting in 2013. “The moment I found out Trump could tweet himself was comparable to the moment in ‘Jurassic Park’ when Dr. Grant realized that velociraptors could open doors,” the Trump Organization’s former director of social media told my colleague Ben Schreckinger a couple years ago. “I was like, ‘Oh, no.’”

His increased interest in Twitter coincided with his increased interest in a run for the Oval Office. He used it not just as a tool to shill for himself and a battering ram to aim at foes in feuds but also more and more as a sort of a rough-hewn focus group, spotting and spreading the reddest of red meat to pique his fledgling base, identifying and amplifying virulent but politically expedient conspiracy theories (“birtherism” at the top of the disreputable list). “He loved it,” Sam Nunberg once told me. “He doesn’t trust the political people,” the former Trump political adviser explained. The ammunition the would-be presidential candidate sought: “What are we getting the most retweets on?”

The @realDonaldTrump handle throughout his time as the commander in chief has been something like a hyper-public diary, a running, revealing accounting of caps-lock grudges and grievances, typo-marred frustrations, fixations and proclamations—a singular hub of his deep-seated need to try to tell his story precisely the way he wants it to be told regardless of actual reality.

The conveyor belt of quick-hit rants, presidential historian Doug Brinkley told me early on, was “probably the best window into Trump’s presidency.”

What Trump tweets, as biographer Michael D’Antonio put it, “is true Trump.”

And on Wednesday, as the situation in Washington descended into country-rattling madness, Trump continued to tweet his characteristic invective and lies. He charged that Mike Pence “didn’t have the courage” to attempt to overturn the results of November’s election from his presiding seat in the Senate. When hundreds of rioters rampaged through the Capitol, spurred by Trump’s Congress-bashing speech, he tapped out a couple of anemic messages to “stay peaceful.” Then, though, even after his own vice president had to be spirited to safety and gunshots had been fired and a woman had been killed, he sent out a video in which he reiterated his baseless claims of fraud and called “very special” his terrorist supporters that had gatecrashed the Hill’s hallowed halls and chambers. “These are the things and events that happen,” he tweeted, “when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

Twitter quickly locked his account, and it remained locked until he deleted on Thursday morning the three offending tweets.

In the middle of the night, after Congress finally certified the election results that he had fought so much and for so long to discredit, Trump had to use the Twitter account of an aide, almost like a ventriloquist’s dummy, to say “there will be an orderly transition” later this month while complaining yet again about the fact that he hadn’t won.

On Thursday, Facebook’s Zuckerberg upped the ante, citing Trump’s “use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.” The upshot: “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great. Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”

So what is a potential No-Twitter Trump?

“A martyr,” former Trump publicist Alan Marcus told me.

“A MySpace star,” said Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security who was “Anonymous” before he revealed his identity in October.

“The biggest thing ever to hit Parler?” posited former Jeb Bush and John Boehner aide Michael Steel.

“I don’t think there is anything like Twitter,” Schwartz told me. “It’s so instant, pervasive, suited to his limited vocabulary.”

“Without it,” said Blair, the biographer, he’s “like the Wicked Witch of the West, melting.”

Parler, after all, the right-wing refuge that bills itself as a forum in which to “speak freely” and “openly” and “without fear of being ‘deplatformed,’” isn’t Facebook or Twitter, the same way One America News or Newsmax still isn’t Fox.

But Marcus pushed back. “Do you think Trump thinks of it that way?” he said. “You never worked with Trump, you never spent day after day after day with Trump. You have to understand: Trump doesn’t care what you think. He only cares what he thinks. And what he thinks about is whatever makes Trump look good and powerful. So, he now scouts around and says, ‘OK, Parler—Twitter is yesterday’s news.’”

“As important as Twitter has been to Trump?” I asked.

Marcus cut me off.

“He believes that he’s been more important to Twitter.”

On Thursday evening, he was back, and on what felt like short-leash best behavior, tweeting a brief video in which he finally condemned Wednesday’s “lawlessness and mayhem,” called for “healing and reconciliation,” and though he didn’t actually say the name of the president-elect, nevertheless confirmed that “a new administration will be inaugurated.”

Throughout Trump’s presidency, obviously, brief moments of normalcy have been just that—brief—and almost always followed fairly quickly by anything but. A return, though, to his more customary transgressive Twitter M.O. could be the end for good for Trump’s account.

But even if he’s banned from Twitter, at some point in the coming days or once he decamps presumably to his Florida perch and commences an expected role as some combination of kingmaker and havoc-wreaker, it’s unlikely he’d ever fade into oblivion like some two-bit fever-swamp has-been. Just two months back, needless to say, more than 74 million people in this country voted for Trump to have another four years as the most powerful person in the world.

Either way, Pariser told me, the issue is bigger than Twitter, or any one platform, social media or not.

“The magic for Trump, as we’ve seen with all the conspiracy theories is that there’s a feedback loop where his base organizes online, develops storylines, develops ideas, and then Trump amplifies them. And that’s not something that he’s the only participant in. Obviously, there are a lot of other entities and networks and people who are amplifying those stories. So, in some ways, as long as that amplification loop remains intact, Trump’s just one note”—albeit the loudest.

“It is a point of reckoning,” Pariser granted. “I guess my concern, or my worry, is that we just say, ‘Oh, this is all about sort of the psychology of one guy and his unique magic and don’t look at the structures that every stop of the way facilitated him and that he understood and knew how to play and manipulate. And I just would hate for the takeaway to be like, well, we just can’t elect more people like Donald Trump. It’s not as simple as that.”



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