Dems shouldn't celebrate Trump's return to Twitter, even if his tweets are enormously unpopular
Electoral backlash is real. But it's not worth the damage Trump does with his tweets.
By Noah Berlatsky
In his latest move to own the libs, right-wing Twitter CEO Elon Musk reinstated former President Donald Trump’s Twitter account over the weekend. Trump himself has lauded Truth Social as superior to Twitter and indicated he has no interest in returning to tweeting, but should the temptation strike, the former president can now resume doing what he did before his account was suspended in the wake of the January 6 insurrection — using the platform to spread lies and harm democracy.
But many argued that Trump’s return to Twitter could also be a secret weapon for Democrats. Author James Surowiecki tweeted, “Purely in political terms, if Trump were to come back, it would be very good for Democrats, and bad for the GOP.” Democratic pollster Nick Gourevitch added: “In every swing voter focus group I’ve ever done or watched about Trump during his presidency … within 5 minutes someone would always say some version of: ‘I wish he would just stay off Twitter.’ And then everyone would nod and agree. Without fail.”
Public Notice is a reader-supported publication. The best way to make this work sustainable is with a paid subscription.
There’s something to this line of thinking. It’s no secret that Trump’s tweets are broadly unpopular. In a 2018 poll, 42 percent of Republicans said that Trump’s Twitter presence harmed his presidency, while only half as many, 21 percent, said it helped him. Similarly, in a 2019 poll, 70 percent of respondents said Trump was on Twitter too much; 14 percent said he used it the right amount. Only 1 percent said he didn’t tweet enough. Combine that with the dismal performance of Trump-endorsed candidates in the 2022 midterms, and it’s clear that Trump’s screaming invective from Twitter is likely to hurt the GOP in 2024 much more than it will help.
But for Trump, Twitter has always been less about advancing the GOP agenda than it is to advance his own, including harnessing violence and harassment when it suits him. Let’s not forget how often he did this before he was suspended.
Trump’s tweets endanger people
Electoral politics aren’t the only politics, and if Trump successfully uses Twitter to undermine democracy — as he’s done before — it could in fact harm not just democracy (as just about everyone agrees) but Democrats, who rely on democracy to win power.
Trump regularly used Twitter to attack Democratic leaders in irresponsible and inflammatory ways. In September 2019, Trump shared a video of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar dancing at an event hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus. The tweet Trump shared lied about Omar, claiming she was celebrating the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In fact, she was dancing to a Lizzo track at a Congressional Black Caucus event.
Omar said that the video “spread lies that put my life at risk.” And researchers have found that Trump’s tweets do drive harassment and threats. The Brookings Institute analyzed activity on Twitter after some of Trump’s attacks. They included a 2020 tweet right before the election in which Trump called Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam “crazy” and said Northam wanted “to take away your guns” and was “in favor of executing babies after birth.”
Brookings found that Trump’s words sparked a massive jump in threats directed at his targets. And there’s reason to think those threats weren’t just online.
In April of 2020, for example, Trump attacked Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Covid public health policies in a tweet that said, in its entirety, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” A few days later, armed demonstrators marched outside Whitmer’s house; a few days after that, armed demonstrators entered the Michigan Capitol, one carrying a sign that said “Tyrants get the rope.” Trump tweeted in support of the demonstration.
Six months later, federal authorities said they’d thwarted a plot to kidnap Whitmer. She said she believed that Trump’s tweets were in part responsible. That’s a reasonable conclusion given his reach, his rhetoric, and the documented effect of his tweets on extremist threats.
There’s an even clearer link between Trump’s Twitter and the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. On December 19, 2020, Trump tweeted that it was impossible for him to have lost the election legitimately, even though his advisers and experts had all informed him he had in fact been defeated and there was no vote tampering. Instead, he tweeted, “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
The January 6 commission documented how that tweet and the call for protest led tens of thousands of Trump supporters to the Capitol, including radical right wing extremists like the Proud Boys.
Per Trump’s plan, the rally turned into a violent march which threatened the life of Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence and of members of Congress.
Trump was not able to overturn the election results, and his efforts to do so and incite violence seem to have damaged the GOP. The Republicans just had one of the worst midterm results for the out party in the last century. Gov. Whitmer cruised to a 10 point win over her Republican opponent, leading a sweeping blue wave in the state. Democrats seized control of both legislative houses in Michigan for the first time in almost 40 years.
The problem goes deeper than electoral politics
When Trump tweets lead to failed kidnappings and insurrections, he hurts his party — in a narrowly electoral sense at least. But what happens if Trump’s calls to violence are successful?
It’s not just a theoretical question. Republican violence has directly harmed many people and eroded democratic guardrails. Poll workers have increasingly been targeted for violent threats. Armed gunmen have shown up to “guard” ballot boxes in Arizona. Trump could use Twitter to ramp up this kind of harassment and intimidation.
At what point would threats of violence start to depress turnout significantly? We don’t know. That doesn’t mean we want to find out.
Similarly, right wing plots against Democratic elected officials have so far been interrupted or foiled. The man who mailed inoperative pipe bombs to Joe Biden and others critical of President Trump in 2018 harmed no one and was arrested. Whitmer wasn’t kidnapped. The man who intended to kidnap House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a month ago before the midterms was also arrested — but only after beating her husband with a hammer.
Trump may well use his Twitter, though, to inspire more violence against political foes and marginalized people. It’s possible that one of these radicalized, violent MAGA partisans will succeed where others have failed. The fallout from political violence against prominent figures is difficult to anticipate or measure. But even putting aside the horrific cost to those affected and their loved ones, it doesn’t necessarily in all cases benefit the party targeted. For that matter, if Trump loses in 2024, he may use Twitter to try to organize another insurrection, which could get further than the last one did.
Electoral backlash to Trump is real, and Trump’s Twitter is likely to make that worse for the GOP. But the backlash is only effective if Trump fails in his efforts to undermine and subvert elections. And Trump’s Twitter, unfortunately, gives him another powerful tool to try to ensure that elections don’t matter.
Aaron’s clip room
Bill Barr’s shamelessness
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial