By John Biers
Four days after Twitter permanently suspended Donald Trump’s account on January 8, 2021, the then-US president’s son pleaded with entrepreneur Elon Musk to employ his “brilliance” to launch a social media platform that “isn’t biased” to crush the competition.
Musk didn’t accept Donald Trump Jr.’s challenge.
But the Tesla chief’s deal to acquire Twitter sets him up to revisit the ban on the brash Republican — a move that could roil US politics as the nation marches towards the 2024 presidential race and a potential Trump re-election bid.
The Trump matter has loomed as a question mark throughout the twists and turns of the Twitter deal saga.
A reinstatement of Trump would have significant implications for a media landscape the ex-president once dominated before he was deplatformed “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”
Since then, Trump has remained the most powerful figure in Republican politics, even as he has all but vanished from the daily news cycle.
When Trump does make news, he continues to claim the 2020 election was stolen from him, a false narrative that fuels his movement and sows distrust of US institutions.
Trump has said he wouldn’t return to Twitter even if offered, telling Fox News on Monday he would instead stay on his fledgling Truth Social platform, which has struggled to fully get off the ground.
On Tuesday, Truth Social was the most downloaded iPhone app, at least for that day. But its launch has been beset with technical problems and it has yet to make it onto the national political radar.
Nevertheless, many remain skeptical Trump would be able to resist rejoining Twitter if given the chance.
A Washington Post article Monday quoted anonymous Trump aides who said the ex-president badly misses Twitter, which he employed as president to settle scores and mold the news cycle.
While pursuing Twitter in recent weeks, Musk has not directly addressed the Trump question.
Analysts believe Musk is driven primarily by a desire to control a visible marketing platform more than aspirations to shape American politics.
But many read Musk’s criticism of Twitter content policies as suggesting he will lift the Trump ban.
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said Monday in announcing the deal.
‘He sells news’
A Trump reinstatement is not without downside for Musk, who could face pushback beyond the world of Twitter.
“Trump is about as polarizing an issue as any imaginable,” said Daniel Binns, chief executive of Interbrand North America in New York.
“There might be some short-lived boycotting of Tesla amongst a small group of potential customers,” Binns told AFP in an email.
“But long term, I would fear a more corrosive erosion of the affinity people have for Tesla and the sense of empathy they have for their customer base,” he added.
Still, several experts in politics and social media characterized a Trump return as more likely than not in light of Musk’s freedom of speech statements and Trump’s standing as a potential 2024 Republican frontrunner.
New York Times columnist Kara Swisher urged readers to ready themselves for a shift from the “over-one-year-long respite from Trumpy Twitter.”
Twitter executives “would have been under enormous pressure to reconsider the ban” even if the company had not been acquired by Musk, said Swisher, who predicted the deal will “probably run Truth Social” and other nascent sites “out of business.”
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, predicted Trump would again have an outsized presence if he rejoined Twitter.
“It’s going to inject Trump back into the Republican mainstream,” said Sabato, who calls Trump “the worst thing to happen to American Democracy in my lifetime.”
Sabato thinks Trump will likely use Twitter to overshadow other politicians, including current President Joe Biden, “who doesn’t fill the news hole” as Trump did.
Karen North, founding director of the digital social media program at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, believes Trump would first give Truth Social a chance before returning to Twitter, if given the opportunity.
A key difference from Trump’s White House days is that his statements are no longer newsworthy by default. That creates questions for journalists on how much to amplify the former president’s comments, North said.
Trump “has surprising staying power,” she added, noting that some of the fascination may be the result of his diminished presence in daily news.
“People are still so curious and so polarized by him,” she said.
“He sells news.”