Over the weekend, Elon Musk welcomed Donald Trump back to Twitter. Or rather, he tried to lure him back after lifting a 22-month suspension. Trump, who was banned for encouraging insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol and violating a content policy against inciting violence, has not actually tweeted anything yet. Musk would like him to, and so began posting some you know you want to memes, one using an image from the cartoon-for-adults Family Guy (which Donald Trump Jr. thought was “funny!” but Musk deleted it for some reason) and another depicting—no kidding—a monk (Donald Trump) praying to his heavenly father to lead him not into temptation, while closing his eyes and trying to ignore a young woman who is kneeling on a bed with her skirt up (Twitter).
Nobody knows whether Trump will resume use of his Twitter account. He has said in the past that he doesn’t care about Twitter anymore and wouldn’t come back even if asked. But he may struggle to resist the high of blasting his thoughts and vendettas out to 87 million followers (and counting). On his own social-media platform, Truth Social, he has only 4.6 million followers. However, he has contractual obligations to post there, as well as significant financial incentives.
Trying to predict what Trump will do is probably pointless. However, the mere threat that he may return to Twitter is already provoking an emotional response from some of the site’s most devoted users. After Musk’s announcement that Trump’s account would be reinstated, Mary Trump—the former president’s niece, and a popular figure among online liberals who published a tell-all book about her uncle in 2020—posted the single word “Stay,” which has so far been liked nearly 40,000 times. The tweet has become a gathering site for participants in Twitter’s liberal #Resistance subculture. One of the top replies is an offering of inspiration for this “important community,” in the form of a famous Dylan Thomas quote: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The historian and commentator Ruth Ben-Ghiat—who has nearly 185,000 followers—reposted Mary Trump’s tweet and added, “It is more important than ever to stay on Twitter now. This is an information war, and DT is a skilled and tenacious warrior. Removing yourself voluntarily from the field of battle helps the right to win this war.” Pretty high stakes!
It’s probably good news for Musk that people are acting like Trump is back on the site, even if he’s not actually posting. Trump played a major role, during his campaign and his term as president, in making Twitter feel like the center of the nation’s political discourse. “Musk purchased Twitter because it is a political territory he now controls,” Joan Donovan, the research director at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, told me in an email. Letting Trump back on is a business decision, and if it leads to an increase in user activity, well—user activity is user activity, and an outraged frenzy is user activity too. “Faced with an advertiser black out and mass exodus of employees and users, the viability of Twitter as a political territory depends on these meme wars between zealous factions,” Donovan said.
It is an abomination that Trump is back on Twitter.— Don Winslow (@donwinslow) November 20, 2022
But you leaving will not solve anything.
We need to stay here and keep our voices strong.
Before this development, many Twitter liberals—often anonymous accounts whose leanings are made obvious through the political memes that they incorporate into their bios or avatars—vowed that they would leave the platform in protest of Musk’s ownership and of the disparity between his and their values. Now they have pivoted. “STAY on Twitter! Suck it up,” one anti-Trump account posted. “And if you feel you simply can’t, keep your Twitter account anyway, just don’t use it. Don’t give them a metric that they’ll use to tout victory.” Another argued that “Democracy needs you” to “stay on Twitter.”
As the past year and a half have shown, liberals don’t actually require that Trump be present on Twitter in order to define themselves as the countervailing force holding a rabid MAGA subculture at bay. Even without him, there was plenty for them to do. They came up with hashtags to “own” his supporters and added laser beams to Joe Biden’s eyes for reasons that were never totally clear. They did so from a place of presumed security and victory until this month. Now these posters are back in wartime mode—similar to the one that initially brought them together six years ago, when Trump was elected.
“The ‘villain’ has returned, and Twitter provides an illusion of equality whereby liberal #Resisters believe they are empowered to counteract his discourse,” Vincent Russell, an assistant professor at Western Carolina University who has written about #Resistance Twitter, told me. But he found this less concerning than the possibility that Trump’s tweets might end up in the feeds of reporters at major media outlets. “Since being banned from Twitter, Trump has continued to post outlandish and offensive updates on his Truth social-media site,” Russell pointed out. “Corporate media, mostly, has ignored it, much to the benefit of our political discourse.”
This situation—Will he tweet? What will he tweet?—is a useful snapshot of Twitter at its most Twitter. It’s a smallish platform that gets outsize attention because it is used by journalists and politicians, many of whom have trouble distinguishing the conversation there from the priorities of people in the offline world. Paradoxically, though, because powerful people are invested in Twitter, the site demands close attention. If Trump were to return, people would have to look, and that would be especially true if he were once again a serious candidate for the presidency and, once again, tweeting out antagonistic, sometimes dangerous non sequiturs. For the “stay and fight” faction, constrained by the oddball logic of a social-media platform, simply staying online could feel like a small step toward saving democracy.