Given all the attention that Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has drawn, one might forget how little it will affect most people. Although Musk fancies the platform “a common digital town square,” Twitter reports just 238 million daily active users in a world of nearly 8 billion. It just so happens, though, that there is a strong overlap among people who report the news, people who use Twitter, and people who are interested in Elon Musk.
But Musk could make one move that would have wide-ranging effects even for the prudent majority that avoids Twitter: welcoming back Donald Trump. Musk vowed in May to lift the former president’s ban from Twitter. He started making changes at the company yesterday, firing Twitter’s management team and announcing, “The bird is freed.”
Trump was never the most-followed figure on Twitter, but he was the most consequential, using the platform as a crucial tool to get himself elected president. His removal following the January 6 insurrection was a pivotal moment for Twitter and himself. Trump is always unpredictable, but there seem to be two likely outcomes for an escape from his digital Elba. Either Trump’s return to Twitter proves a return to the toxicity of the 2010s, in which his presence harms democracy but helps Democrats, or else the peculiar mix of factors that made him a Twitter phenomenon is no longer attainable.
One other slight possibility exists: Trump could be unbanned but stay away. In April, he promised that he’d stick with this own social-media platform, Truth Social. “I am not going on Twitter. I am going to stay on Truth,” he said on Fox News. Under his agreement with Truth, he “is generally obligated to make any social media post on Truth Social and may not make the same post on another social media site for 6 hours.”
But c’mon. Trump has never been bound by his own promises and contractual obligations. Truth Social is flailing as both a megaphone—it has never attracted a large user base, especially outside Trump loyalists—and as a business proposition. (Perhaps hiring a CEO best known for Keystone Cop–style antics in Congress was unwise.) He isn’t getting nearly the attention he wants there. In the absence of Twitter, he has taken to sending screenshots of his “Truths,” as the platform’s messages are inaptly called, to reporters via email in the hopes that they’ll post them on Twitter. It’s silly to expect him to resist the temptation to reclaim the greater audience he once had.
Musk could change his mind, too. He unsuccessfully tried to extract himself from buying Twitter, has already scaled back his claims of free-speech “absolutism,” and might face an advertiser boycott if he unbans Trump. Still, the promise is so central to his acquisition, and so attention-grabbing, that Musk is unlikely to backtrack.
In imagining how Trump’s return might play out, his behavior on Truth is instructive. Being exiled did nothing to reduce his flow of unhinged statements. He has threatened American Jews, embraced QAnon, attacked the FBI, and said that Senator Mitch McConnell has a “DEATH WISH.” That’s wild stuff, and you may have heard about some of the lowest lights, but much of this goes largely unnoticed beyond Truth users.
The utility of Twitter for Trump was not that he could communicate to his fans—he had plenty of channels for doing that. Twitter allowed him to communicate to everyone else. An inflammatory tweet would be retweeted by supporters, dunked on by critics, and amplified by journalists, before making its way to website homepages, cable news A-blocks, and newspaper front pages. Truths stay inside the bubble.
That rhetoric was bad for the functioning of American politics, and social media was a crucial part of his work to stir up the insurrection, but it was also probably bad for Trump. The constant attention fed Trump’s ego, but it reminded voters of what a loose cannon he was and is, too. After all, he never had a positive approval rating as president and never won the popular vote in an election.
Putting Trump back in the public eye would probably help Democrats, who have fared well when running against Trump (in 2018 and 2020) and are struggling now, forced to reckon with a bad economy without the bogeyman of Trump. This dynamic feeds an amusing charade among members of both parties. Democrats rail against Trump and express horror at the idea of his return, even as they realize that his reemergence would aid them electorally, at least in the short term. Meanwhile, as Matt Yglesias notes, few prominent Republicans are campaigning for his return to Twitter, even as they claim he’s an electoral asset.
But an alternative exists: Trump could come back and the effect could be negligible. The confluence of factors that made Trump so successful on Twitter in the mid-2010s are not all in place. Though Trump was already a celebrity—arguably a has-been—when he joined Twitter, the platform and his presence there were both somewhat novel. The idea of unfiltered thoughts from a famous person was unusual, and boy were his unfiltered. He was also unique in the Republican Party for the views he held, or sometimes for his willingness to publicly express them.
Now neither is true. Twitter has seen decreasing numbers of active users and is particularly concerned about a decrease in use by “heavy tweeters,” according to internal documents obtained by Reuters. A greater portion of tweets involve porn and cryptocurrency, about which the jokes write themselves. Only 13 percent of Americans get their news regularly from Twitter, according to the Pew Research Center, a number that’s falling. On Facebook—another platform central to Trump’s rise, and another where he was banned but might someday be unbanned—the number of people getting news has also dropped, partly thanks to changes made by the company to deemphasize news.
As for the Republican Party, Trump has remade it in his own image, but that means plenty of other candidates have sprung up who have studied his example and are using it to their own advantage, seeking to devise a Trumpism that is more broadly palatable or might work better in 2022. To see how effective this is, look no further than Trump’s vituperation toward Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a star pupil turned rival.
As a result, the magic—whether white or black magic depends on your politics—of Trump’s old Twitter mojo might simply be gone. As one very infrequent Twitter user once remarked, you can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.