After two months of inciting violence and undermining the peaceful transfer of power—and a 12-hour Twitter ban—the president got his tweeting privileges back last night and released a video acknowledging that a new administration will take office later this month and calling for calm.
“This moment calls for healing and reconciliation,” the president said. The demonstrators he had egged on and said he loved just a day before had “defiled the seat of American democracy” and “do not represent our country,” he added.
Who was this man, and what had he done with President Donald Trump?
Long before he ascended to the highest office in the land, the soon-to-be-former president reveled in attention. What better explains the gilded ceilings, the glide down the escalator, the desperate bragging about sexual abuse to a minor member of the Bush clan? This is a man who took out a full-page ad in The New York Times to call for the death penalty in a rape case he otherwise had nothing to do with (and in which, it turns out, the accused were innocent). He speaks about himself almost exclusively in superlatives. Look at me! the president insists, demands, begs. And for decades, Americans have acceded to his demands. The first season of his reality-television show averaged more than 20 million viewers an episode. As Trump prepared to enter the 2016 GOP presidential primary, nearly every American knew his name.
So imagine how delighted Trump must have been by the rise of social media. Here, finally, was a way for him to communicate directly with his fans—and with the haters and losers, too. No need to worry about dealing with gatekeepers like NBC, or Maggie Haberman, or even Billy Bush. In the social era, everyone can be their own publisher, network, tabloid. Trump took full advantage. As he ran for president, his every tweet was a news story. Since his election, he’s used Twitter and other platforms to critique, dodge, and displace even the most friendly intermediaries. Large swaths of his day are devoted to “executive time,” which multiple reporters have deduced amounts to sitting in the White House residence, watching cable television, and tweeting about it.
For the bulk of Trump’s four years in office, Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg let him have free rein of their sites. We’re not publishers, Twitter and Facebook insisted. We’re platforms! Preventing the president from posting anything short of pornography or explicit death threats would be censorship.
But in the waning days of the Trump administration, something shifted. Both companies began affixing warning labels or fact-checks on the president’s most misleading and inflammatory posts. And on Wednesday, after a mob, egged on by Trump, stormed the Capitol to attempt to overturn the election result, leading to the deaths of at least four people, the two men who control the most important channels of Trump’s influence said, Enough. Twitter cut Trump off for 12 hours, while Facebook (and Instagram) banned him indefinitely.
Trump has spent the bulk of the past two months making unfounded allegations that voter fraud changed the result of an election he lost by more than 7 million votes to Joe Biden. The past few days have been no different. It was a video on Wednesday, in which he once again referred to the election being stolen, that prompted Twitter to finally give him the boot.
The president stewed in the White House for a day. When he got back online, he was no John F. Kennedy. But he was maybe uncanny-valley George W. Bush.
Predicting the future is difficult. Given his past performance, though, Trump is unlikely to continue with his new tone for long. The president has spoken calmly and responsibly before—but it’s never stuck.
It’s tempting to attribute his change of heart to mounting calls for his impeachment on (and off) Capitol Hill, or whispers of his Cabinet invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to remove him from power. But Trump has survived impeachment once before. Persuading 18 Senate Republicans to convict him and remove him from office would be a tall order. And Vice President Mike Pence, the essential player in any effort to invoke the Twenty-Fifth, reportedly opposes doing so. Perhaps the president has realized that inciting a mob to storm the Capitol has placed him in a difficult spot. Perhaps the people closest to him have his best interests in mind, and have persuaded him to try to mitigate the political damage.
There’s another possibility, though. Maybe Donald Trump, the president who loves to post on social media, who won the Republican nomination and the White House in part on the power of his 140-character dumpster-fire-side chats, wanted to preserve his ability to post.
Anyone who’s ever moderated a comments section, or a local-government meeting, or a message board recognizes this pattern. The trolls will interrupt, sling hate and ad hominem attacks, shout over people, and insist on your attention. But when you finally kick them out or cut the mic or ban their account, their tone suddenly changes.
I’ll behave, they promise. I’ll say whatever you want. I’ll apologize. Just give me one more chance. I know what I did wrong and I’ll change.