That soothing sound that Gary Cavalli hears emanating from Twitter these days? It is the sound of silence — specifically, the silence of former President Donald Trump.
“My blood pressure has gone down 20 points,” said Cavalli, 71, whose obsessive hate-following of Trump ended for good when Twitter permanently barred the former president in January. “Not having to read his latest dishonest tweets has made my life so much happier.”
It seems like just yesterday, or perhaps a lifetime ago, that Trump swaggered through the corridors of Twitter as if he owned the place, praising himself and denigrating his enemies in an endless stream of poorly punctuated, creatively spelled, factually challenged ALL-CAPS DIATRIBES that inflamed, delighted and terrified the nation to varying degrees. That all ended on Jan. 8, two days after a mob egged on by his incendiary remarks had stormed the U.S. Capitol in an ill-conceived effort to overturn the results of the presidential election.
One hundred days have now elapsed since the start of the ban — a move that raised questions of free speech and censorship in the social media age, upset pro-Trump Republicans and further enraged a now-former president who still refuses to accept the fact that he lost the election.
To many of the former president’s detractors, the absence of a daily barrage of anxiety-provoking presidential verbiage feels closer to a return to normalcy than anything else (so far) in 2021.
“I legitimately slept better with him off Twitter,” said Mario Marval, 35, a program manager and Air Force veteran in the Cincinnati area. “It allowed me to reflect on how much of a vacuum of my attention he became.”
For Matt Leece, 29, a music professor in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, the Twitter suspension was akin to a clearing of the air: “It’s like living in a city perpetually choked with smog, and suddenly one day you wake up and the sky is blue, the birds are singing, and you can finally take a full, nontoxic breath.”
Yet for millions of Trump loyalists, his silence has meant the loss of their favorite champion and the greatest weapon in their fight against the left.
“I miss having his strong, conservative, opinionated voice on Twitter,” said Kelly Clobes, 39, a business manager from southern Wisconsin. “Other people have been allowed to have free speech and speak their minds, and they haven’t been banned. Unless you’re going to do it across the board, you shouldn’t do it to him.”
Even in a forum known for turning small differences into all-out hostility, Trump’s Twitter feed was unique. There was its sheer volume. From 2009, when he posted his first tweet (“Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!”), to Jan. 8 of this year, when he posted his last (“To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20”), Trump tweeted more than 56,000 times, according to an online archive of his posts. He tweeted so often on some mornings in office that it was hard to believe he was doing much else.
Then there were the presidential tweets themselves.
The one where he predicted that if he were to fight Joe Biden, Biden would “go down fast and hard, crying all the way.” The one where he called Meryl Streep “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood.” The one where he accused former President Barack Obama of wiretapping him. The one where he boasted that his “Nuclear Button” was “much bigger & more powerful” than that of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader. (“And my Button works!” he added.)
Love it or hate it, it was impossible to ignore Trump’s Twitter feed, which flowed from the platform directly into the nation’s psyche. His tweets were quoted, analyzed, dissected, praised and ridiculed across the news media and the internet, featuring often in people’s “I can’t believe he said that” conversations. For his opponents, there was a rubbernecking quality to the exercise, a kind of masochistic need to read the tweets in order to feel the outrage.
Seth Norrholm, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit and an expert on post-traumatic stress, said that Twitter had offered Trump a round-the-clock forum to express his contempt and anger, a direct channel from his id to the internet. Every time he used all-caps, Norrholm said, it was as if “an abuser was shouting demeaning statements” at the American people.
Although “out of sight, out of mind really works well for a lot of people in helping them to move forward,” he continued, Trump has refused to go away quietly. Indeed, he has set up a sort of presidential office in exile at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, emerging intermittently to issue statements on quasi-presidential letterhead and to heap derision on Republicans he deems insufficiently loyal.
“It’s as if you’re in a new relationship with the current administration, but every now and then the ex-partner pops up to remind you that ‘I’m still here’ — that he hasn’t disappeared entirely and is living in the basement,” Norrholm said. “What’s going to happen over the next couple of years is that you will hear rumbles from the basement. We don’t know whether he’ll emerge or not, or whether it’s just some guy in the basement making some noise.”
But how significant is the noise? Many Republicans still seem to be hanging on Trump’s every word. But others say that without Twitter or indeed the presidency, his voice has been rendered nearly impotent, much the way Alpha, the terrifying Doberman pinscher in the movie “Up,” becomes ridiculous when his electronic voice malfunctions, forcing him to speak with the Mickey Mouse-like voice of someone who has inhaled too much helium.
“He’s not conducting himself in a logical, disciplined fashion in order to carry out a plan,” the anti-Trump Republican lawyer George Conway said of the former president. “Instead, he’s trying to yell as loudly as he can, but the problem is that he’s in the basement, and so it’s just like a mouse squeaking.”
Not everyone agrees, of course. Even some people who are no fans of Trump’s language say that the Twitter ban was plain censorship, depriving the country of an important political voice.
Ronald Johnson, a 63-year-old retailer from Wisconsin who voted for Trump in November, said that Twitter had, foolishly, turned itself into the villain in the fight.
“What it’s doing is making people be more sympathetic to the idea that here is somebody who is being abused by Big Tech,” Johnson said. Although he doesn’t miss the former president’s outrageous language, he said, it was a mistake to deprive his supporters of the chance to hear what he has to say.
And many Trump fans miss him desperately, in part because their identity is so closely tied to his.
Last month, a plaintive tweet by Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, that bemoaned Trump’s absence from the platform was “liked” more than 66,000 times. It also inspired a return to the sort of brawl that Trump used to provoke on Twitter, as outraged anti-Trumpers waded in to inform Giuliani exactly what he could do with his opinion.
It is exactly that sort of thing — the punch-counterpunch between the right and left, the quick escalation (or devolution) into name-calling and outrage so often touched off by Trump — that caused Cavalli, a former sports writer and associate athletic director at Stanford University, to leave Twitter right before the election. He had been spending an hour or two a day on the platform, often working himself up into a frenzy of posting sarcastic responses to the president’s tweets.
When he called Kayleigh McEnany, the president’s press secretary, a “bimbo,” Twitter briefly suspended him.
“I thought, maybe God’s sending me a message here, and this is something I shouldn’t be doing,” he said. “So I quit.” His wife was happy; he has tried to channel his pent-up outrage by writing letters to the editor of The San Francisco Chronicle.
Joe Walsh, a former Trump-supporting Republican congressman who is now an anti-Trump talk-radio host, said that even some people who hate the former president are suffering from a kind of withdrawal, their lives emptier now that Trump is no longer around to serve as a villainous foil for their grievances.
“I completely get that it’s cool and hip to say, ‘I’m going to ignore the former guy’ — there’s a lot of performance art around that — but a lot of people miss being able to go after him or talk about him every day,” he said. “We’re all so tribal and we want to pick our tribes, and Trump made that dividing line really easy. Where do you stand on Biden’s infrastructure plan? That’s a little more nuanced.”