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Meet the man the internet blames for Donald Trump becoming president

In 2013, Russell Steinberg joked to Trump that he should run for president. Man, does he regret that now. 

Russell Steinberg was bored at work when he arguably started it all.

“I remember it pretty clearly,” he says of 7 February 2013, the day he sent the tweet that would change his life. “I followed Donald Trump at the time and he was going on just a rant about President Obama and it was annoying me. I wanted to tweet something at him that would illicit a response – that was my goal, just purely for my own entertainment – I knew even at the time how thin-skinned he was.”

Looking for a reaction from a man who was, at the time, simply a TV personality, Steinberg wrote: “If you hate America so much, you should run for President and fix things.” It didn’t take long for The Apprentice host to reply. “Be careful!” he wrote back, exclamation mark and all.

Steinberg thought this was hilarious, promptly showed all of his friends the exchange and then, within a week, forgot all about it. By 8 November 2016, however, everything changed.

“I was getting a lot of death threats, a lot of anti-Semitic comments because of my last name,” he says. “The hate in my mentions erupted.”

***

How did a 26-year-old community manager from New York’s tweet inspire so much vitriol?

Steinberg’s tweet was initially brought to popular attention in March 2016, when the digital news company Now This found and retweeted his message. The company then made a video with Steinberg, and he describes the reaction to his tweet – and the video – as “very good natured”.

“I just thought it was funny, something that would be kind of entertaining through the summer until [Trump] fizzled out,” he says. “Of course that didn't happen.”

By October, Steinberg had hit the headlines. “Meet The Man Who May Have Created The Trump Monster” said MSN, “The man responsible for Donald Trump running for president” said Indy100, “People are blaming this man for Donald Trump’s presidency bid,” said Metro. Steinberg says meme aggregators began posting screenshots of his tweet across the internet, particularly Instagram, meaning a younger audience discovered his profile.

“There’s actually one exchange in particular that I do remember,” says Steinberg. He had reported a death threat on Twitter and forgot about it. The account belonged to a girl who was in high school. "Her friend tweeted at me and said: ‘Hey, you know you’ve got my friend’s account suspended, f*ck you’ and all of this," Steinberg recalled. He replied that the girl should not have tweeted death threats. She argued that it was just a joke, and he countered that it didn’t feel like a joke when hundreds of people were saying the same thing.

“And she said: ‘Well you know if everyone’s tweeting death threats at you, then maybe you deserve it.’”

***

It is clear that the majority of people tweeting Steinberg messages such as “It’s all your fault” are being flippant, and don’t seriously believe that one tweet caused Trump to run for President. Nonetheless, Steinberg has encountered people who sincerely blame him, which makes it troubling when multiple people send him messages such as “kys” (kill yourself).

“All you need is for one person to actually be serious about if for there to be an actual problem,” he says, explaining that by mid-October he was getting a death threat every hour. “I get it, I get what they’re saying that it's just a joke – but when you’re getting it hundreds and hundreds of times it's hard for it to not have an impact on you.

“They don’t know me; they don’t know what my mental state is, for all they know I’m completely over the edge. They don’t know if that could actually cause me to do something, you have to actually think about that before you tweet at somebody who you’ve never met before.”

Thankfully, Steinberg says the tweets didn’t have too much of an impact on his mental state. He says it is “lucky” that at the same time his Twitter started erupting, he was off sick with pneumonia. “I was sitting on my couch, just sick as hell and not even concerned with Twitter, just wanting to not exist anymore… Looking back on it thank God I was sick and not at work with Twitter open all day because I probably would’ve just gone crazy.”

***

“That was a really rough day, not gonna lie.”

Steinberg is referring to 8 November, the day Trump confounded pollsters and won the United States Presidential Election. At the beginning of the day he felt hopeful that his tweet would be forgotten after Hillary Clinton won. Yet as the night went on and it became clear Trump was in the lead, the hateful tweets came pouring in.

“I had Tweetdeck [a dashboard for managing Twitter accounts] open and I was getting so many notifications that Tweetdeck just wouldn’t function for me,” he says. It was then, at last, that Steinberg decided to delete his tweet. “I was inundated with notifications and I wanted to cut down on it at least a little bit.”

It didn’t work, as screenshots of Trump and Steinberg’s exchange are still all over the internet. Nowadays, Steinberg says he gets a handful of comments about the tweet every day. A few hours after we speak, he contacts me again to show me a tweet he has just received. “You're the reason Trump is President. You're a monster,” it reads.

Steinberg now freely mutes and blocks people, and is enthusiastic when I suggest using Twitter's brand new word-blocking tool to filter out the words “It’s all your fault” – the tweet he gets the most.  

***

Does Steinberg regret ever sending the tweet? “I’d be lying if I didn’t say to you I didn’t at least like the attention for a little bit and I think anybody would whether they would admit it or not,” he says.

“On the other hand, God my life would’ve been a lot easier if it never happened.”

The irony of the whole affair is that Steinberg was a Clinton supporter during the election, and donated and volunteered for her campaign. Because of this, he feels the hatred directed towards him is especially misplaced. I ask what he would say to people who are tempted to send him a threatening or hurtful message.

“I would say: take whatever anger, frustration you have with me and channel it into something that will actually make a difference in your community and in your local politics,” he says. "That’s what I’d say you should channel your energy into, rather than just tweeting at me.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.