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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.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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