How Donald Trump used Twitter to set a dangerous precedent for US democracy

Donald Trump has spent a decade sowing doubt online, warping reality into his own social media-driven narrative.

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Prematurely, without evidence, and likely days before an election result, Donald Trump has tried to claim victory in the US presidential election and has suggested foul play from the Democrats. 

Posting on his Twitter account and Facebook page early on Tuesday morning, he wrote “A big WIN!” followed closely by “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!” Both Facebook and Twitter have flagged the latter post as misleading, while Facebook has also flagged Trump’s other election night posts (as well as Biden's) with the reminder that results are not yet decisive. 

These declarations from Trump are, of course, something we’ve been bracing ourselves for all year. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, when it became clear that postal ballots would be used more than ever, Trump stated that these votes would be “substantially fraudulent” (this claim, it’s worth clarifying now and until this mess is over, is false and unsubstantiated).

It became an even more likely possibility that Trump would claim a premature victory after Sunday, when Axios reported that his team was actively preparing to do so if the Republicans appeared to be “ahead” on the night. Trump later denied this claim that has since become a reality. 

It’d be nice to say now that, if he decisively loses, it doesn’t really matter what he says. Or that maybe it does matter, from a moral and political bellwether perspective, but that it won’t materially affect the outcome of this particular race. But what we’ve learned from the last four years is what is now clichéd: that facts don’t seem to matter nor truth to really exist. And while you could say that Trump has been laying the groundwork for this moment over the last several months, the reality is that he’s actually been doing it – mostly on Twitter – for more than ten years. 

Trump has used social media since the start of the Obama years to sow doubt in the minds of, really, everyone in the world. He has doggedly campaigned and made it his entire brand to make us question the things we have long-believed to be true. He has argued that Obama’s birth certificate is fake, that reputable media sources were simply lying to us, and that his political opponents (on all sides of the spectrum) had done or said things that no evidence exists to prove true. He laid a popular foundation of his version of the truth on social media and parroted it on the stump and on television. All of this has meant that, particularly in the years where he has literally been President, narrative trumps truth every time. 

And with that has come a new era of reality, one where you spitball it on Twitter and then go out and make it real once you see that it sticks. As my colleague Emily Tamkin wrote in September, “The greatest threat to American norms in this presidential election is the president himself.” Misinformation is rife, the Supreme Court is his, and Trump has spun his own convincing version of the world we’re living in. He has done this so successfully that it is probably enough to make anything to do with the actual result irrelevant. All Trump has to do is convince us that this, his version of the election, is what’s really happening.

Trump has already repeated his false claims of Democratic foul play and premature victory in his broadcast statement, made today just after 2AM Eastern Time. There he suggested that still undeclared, close states (Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania) were already his and said remaining ballots should not be counted, despite the fact that ballot counting happens for days after every American election. Alongside reiterating this story he’s pushing, he crucially confirmed the final piece in his election strategy puzzle: that he’ll be contesting the result in the Supreme Court. 

It's still too early to tell who the next president will be, and it could still be Joe Biden. Most polls predict this is the most likely outcome. However, it will now be days – if not weeks – before we have an answer, with plenty of time for plenty of narratives to latch on to critical American minds. Whether or not these are his last days, Trump has set a precedent that what you tweet can be sincerely powerful: changing what's socially accepted, what's truly believed, and maybe who even wins an election. 

“As far as I’m concerned,” Trump said in his statement this morning, “we already have won it.” It’s hard to look back at this whole presidency and see how he hasn’t.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's senior writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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