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Don’t Blame Twitter

You can't mistake the pus for the infection.
May 27, 2020
Don’t Blame Twitter
(Illustration by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages)

Jonathan V. Last makes a compelling case that Twitter should ban Donald Trump. I’m going to make a counterpoint, but he reminds us of several crucial facts here: Twitter is a private company and “private companies are legally allowed to make reasonable decisions about who they will and will not serve.”

That’s the whole point of having terms of service and standards. JVL also reminds us that it shouldn’t be up to Twitter to make this call: “Ideally, a president would have the decency and temperament, experience and prudence to keep from saying the kinds of things Trump routinely says on Twitter.” In a normal world, there would be other guard rails, but those are all down.

So if Twitter did decide to kick Trump out, it would not only be within its rights, it would reaffirm basic principles of decency.

But it would also be beside the point, because the whole debate about Twitter is a distraction.

Banning him would be both ineffective and even counterproductive, because it mistakes the pus for the real infection.

This isn’t to say that social media platforms don’t bear some responsibility here; and we should applaud anything they can do to push back on disinformation.

But in this case, the vector of this disease is not Twitter: the root of the malignancy is the president himself. Until we deal with Trump, everything else is just noise, because he is the bully pulpit.

Peter Wehner makes that point in the Atlantic. “Donald Trump doesn’t merely want to criticize his opponents,” he writes, “he takes a depraved delight in inflicting pain on others, even if there’s collateral damage in the process, as is the case with the Klausutis family.”

“There is a wickedness in our president that long ago corrupted him. It’s corrupted his party. And it’s in the process of corrupting our country, too,” writes Wehner, “He is a crimson stain on American decency.”

So go ahead and ban him, or fact-check him, but his malignancy is bigger than Twitter. Trump will not be ignored. He’s the president and he will be heard as long as American voters continue to listen to him.

He would simply move the depravity elsewhere, while flying the flag of his victimization.

If Trump wants to soil our democracy, he doesn’t need to tweet. He can join the trolls at Gab, or Newsmax, or OAN, or Fox News, or Rush Limbaugh. He has his toadies at the Federalist, American Greatness, and Breitbart. And even if they won’t play, he has his own social media death star.

Like Obi Wan, strike him down and he’ll become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

I wrote about this earlier this year when Kamala Harris unwisely (I thought) called upon Twitter to kick Trump off the platform. Back then I argued that banning him would be a political gift to Trump.

The Orange God King would like nothing better than to play the victim; to stand before his MAGA masses with the stigmata of censorship. If Twitter acquiesced to Harris’s demand it would confirm every suspicion in Trump’s base about the intolerance of the left and the bias of the social media companies.

And, of course, it wouldn’t shut him up. Because nothing can.

The attack on his account, he would rail, was not about him, but about the desire of the left to silence all of you out there. This is about you, would be a staple of every campaign rally. If they can try to gag the president of the United States, what are they capable of doing to the run–of-the-mill deplorable schmo who posts cat videos on Instagram?

I still think that’s true, but JVL makes a strong counter case: “There are moments when bad speech becomes especially dangerous and, because of temporal and logistical constraints, difficult to counter,” he writes. “There are times when the immediate damage caused by bad speech is so great that we would rather not wait around for the good speech.”

He asks us to imagine Trump using Twitter to super-charge a constitutional crisis and destabilize the country by challenging the legitimacy of his election defeat. He reminds us that “as nice as the idea of ‘more speech beats bad speech’ is, Twitter is not a suicide pact.”

He’s right, of course, and the scenario he offers is not far-fetched. But it is also not just about Twitter. Americans have to decide whether our democracy is a suicide pact.

Ultimately, only the American public can de-platform Donald Trump.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.