Donald Trump is an appalling human being – and that is why I want to hear what he has to say. Keeping him off social media doesn’t shut him up or make him disappear. He’s probably the worst thing to have hit the civilised world since the Second World War. But… he matters. We know that.
He used to matter more, obviously, but he still has a following and there’s still a chance, dread the thought, he could be president of the United States in about two years’ time, and there for possibly two terms and eight years. Until 2033, formally speaking. So, yes, I would like to know, direct from that motormouth of his, exactly what is on his mind. Or, to be more accurate, what he wants us to think is on his mind, which is not necessarily the same thing. (For example, from the Congressional evidence on the 6 January insurrection, it appears he knew full well and privately admitted that he’d lost the 2020 presidential contest fair and square. There are many other examples, including where he thinks two or more things simultaneously, as seems to have happened with policy towards North Korea and towards Putin).
Of course, Trump breaks the law, is an insurrectionist and abuses his power, but the primary way to deal with that is political – debating and defeating him and his arguments – and secondarily via the courts and other legal actions by Congress, such as the attempts to impeach him. Social media bans won’t stop him.
That said, it was perfectly legitimate for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (he was reinstated in November) to remove him from their services around the time of the 6 January insurrection, because they could not be party to a possibly illegal act. No one has a human right to appear on any media – that is plainly absurd. Now, though, Trump is less of a clear and present threat to order and the constitution, and it’s safer to allow him to be heard. Plus, you’d imagine he might have learned his lesson from the ban. If he starts knocking out misinformation or race hate, then they can stick a warning on his messages, take them down, or ban him again.
I hope that doesn’t happen, because what happened last time is that social media began to divide into tribes, and tribes that never interacted argued with one another. The “echo chamber” effect was simply magnified when Trump decided to set up his own social media channel for his base, the ironically-titled Truth Social. A similar thing happened when Nigel Farage, Trump’s sidekick, started an account with a dedicated rightist social media platform (though Farage was shrewd enough to retain his Twitter account, where he can be found doing his usual schtick). You also see a manifestation of this entrenchment of tribalism with the sometimes deranged alt right radio stations and TV channels, places people to go to have their prejudices confirmed rather than challenged. (I prefer a little more challenge, so I actually watch them, until the repetitive anti-migrant, anti-Meghan, anti-trans tedium overwhelms me).
Controversially, I don’t actually mind Elon Musk’s tweaks to Twitter that mean that my Twitter timeline is now invaded by rightist, racist, ranting conspiracy theory nonsense. That’s because I want to understand what these people are up to – and why. You can watch in real time as they tell lies about Brexit, the Covid vaccines and the climate crisis – the unholy trinity of their belief system – and, if you’re inclined, try a little gentle persuasion. The worst extremists can still be reported to Twitter, for grievances such as outright racism or homophobia, though sadly not for spreading propaganda harmful to public health.
I used to have an out-an-out Hitler fan follow me, which I found creepy (he organised online competitions for the nicest pics of the late Fuhrer). Even under the new Musk regime, he got barred. Besides, if I tire of talking sense to the cranks and pointing out that the World Economic Forum is just a pompous talking shop and not an evil global conspiracy, then I can just switch back to hearing from people I choose to listen to. Or watch the BBC to actually find out what’s going on in the world.
There isn’t that much one can do about the deep hate-fuelled divisions that have entrenched themselves in Western societies – except, that is, not to make them worse by closing eyes and ears to others. I opened a Mastodon account because I feared what Musk was about to do to Twitter, but retreating from what should be a broad social forum feels wrong, like I’m being driven out. So I am still on Twitter too.
Somehow, democratic politics have to keep working and that means debate and engagement and common, shared forums. I may regret it – and I’m not exactly thrilled – but I’m just about ready to hear Trump talking cobblers, again.