Yesterday, we saw the president (not for the first time) goad violent rioters acting in his name. At a rally aimed at preventing Biden’s election win from being certified, Trump had addressed the crowd: “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened, radical left Democrats, which is what they’re doing… You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.” His son, Donald Trump Jr., also spoke at the rally and celebrated that the protest was peaceful. He then said, after a shouting rant about the election being stolen: “We must fight.”
Just hours later we saw the logical conclusion not only of that rhetoric but of two months of the president repeating these unsubstantiated claims. Thousands of extremists formed a violent mob outside the US Capitol building and stormed in, smashing windows, threatening law enforcement, brandishing knives, pitchforks and guns. In videos shared of the attackers (many of whom were known alt-right pundits and QAnon figureheads), you could hear them chanting Trump’s Twitter catchphrase since 3 November: “Stop the steal.” We now know that, as a result of this insurrection, at least four people are dead.
Shocking as this is, what was equally astonishing during this hours-long siege of a building containing lawmakers, who were attempting to carry out the scheduled electoral college certification, was what was happening on Donald Trump’s Twitter account. The president said very little, but when he did, he praised the insurrection. In a video posted amid the action, which has since been removed by the platform, Trump told the Capitol attackers “we love you”, and an hour later posted another since-removed tweet: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide victory is so viciously & unceremoniously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”
Twitter, after several hours, froze his account and announced that it would stay frozen until he deleted those tweets. Twitter also acknowledged that any further violation of its rules would result in the president receiving a permanent ban.
The case for kicking one of its highest profile users off the platform is self-evident. What we saw on Wednesday was the clearest, but far from the first, example of how the president’s online rhetoric can translate directly into real life violence. And while it’s easy to say that the riots were the result of a few bad days – or weeks, or months – of his messages, in fact yesterday’s insurrection was the consequence of an alt-right movement that has been growing for the better part of the last 20 years. Through Trump, this movement found a viable mascot, and through his Twitter account, the perfect megaphone to shift niche ideas into the mainstream.
Twitter should have suspended Trump’s account years ago. And after yesterday, it has no choice but to suspend it now.
I love Twitter…. it’s like owning your own newspaper— without the losses.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2012
The power of Trump’s Twitter account has often been dismissed over the past four years, mostly because it can be so funny. Since the beginning of his presidency, his tweets were (failingly) used by centrists to mock and disarm him, from jokes such as the “covfefe” meme to noting his strange writing tics (see: random capitalisation, “Sad!”). Clout merchants appeared in the replies beneath each of his tweets and quote-tweeted him with a mix of derision and well-intentioned but futile criticism. Even if these tactics did nothing to weaken his appeal to his supporters, it was assumed that Trump’s Twitter was just a sideshow to the platforms on which he did his real damage – in law, at rallies, in public appearances.
The reality was somewhat different. While liberals continued to dismiss Trump’s online rhetoric, he fired up a base that was growing exponentially. His ideas – which had long been popular on niche sites such as 4chan – were now being read by millions, if not billions, all over the world, thanks to his ability to simply tweet them out. Twitter held its hands up and said there was nothing it could do, there were rules that protected the accounts of world leaders (rules, of course, that Twitter set). No matter what Trump did or how widely his was rebuked by lawmakers, journalists and the international community, his Twitter account remained a secret bat signal to his most devoted, most gullible fans.
Trump’s Twitter account was a hotbed of conspiracism even before he got close to the presidency. It’s important to remember that Trump spent his first years on Twitter spearheading the Obama “birther” movement (the false claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and the demand that he release his birth certificate to prove otherwise). Starting from this, he created the brand he is known for now; a sower of doubt, painting everything we once believed to be true as fake. In doing so, he has been able to build an alternate universe in which conspiracy theory peddlers (some truly believing, others trolling) can create a new version of reality, citing his tweets as evidence.
From Pizzagate to QAnon, the followers of the most popular Trump-related conspiracy theories read his tweets as coded messages that support what they believe. This reached a fever pitch this year: every time a Trump defeat became more certain in this election cycle, the president would fire off a tweet, sparking QAnon message boards to light up and dissect his messages, with followers inferring he was speaking directly to them, encouraging them to keep up the fight. This mania was, of course, aided by the few moments Trump has parroted back highly specific QAnon talking points that he had clearly seen on Twitter – most recently in his leaked phone call with the Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, in which he referred to a QAnon hashtag. He even explicitly tweeted a QAnon conspiracy theory about Georgia voting machines on Tuesday, in the midst of the state’s run-off election.
In constructing this echo chamber, Trump has raised a base so unconditionally loyal that he can become the beloved autocrat of their alternative universe. And through his aggressive hints and obvious winks at these conspiracy theories over the last decade, he has learned to seamlessly direct violent action towards his enemies – those trying to break through with actual reality. It is this toxic feedback loop that inevitably culminated in QAnon diehards storming the Senate on Wednesday. And while Trump courts these conspiracy theories and incites violence in all of his public appearances, there is one major communication channel through to them that we can, at this very moment, control.
[see also: What is QAnon?]
Yesterday, was a moment that could tip the course of American politics – and history – in two very different directions. It could prove to be the end of an era, the final grasp at authority, as Trump’s followers and the movement he created begin to crumble as they realise their mascot won’t be in power that much longer. This is a seductive idea – one that might comfort us as we watch gun-toting, domestic terrorists smashing windows and congressmen and women tweet pictures of themselves in gas masks. But the other direction is more likely: that this is just the opening gambit of an alt-right movement made mainstream thanks to one man. And nowhere has he found a bigger megaphone than on Twitter.com.
It’s likely that on 20 January 2021, as Biden is officially sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, someone at Twitter HQ will hit a button that permanently suspends Donald Trump’s account. This will be met with applause from across the political spectrum, as users post the same kind of “dunk” on the very website that let Trump run rampant for 12 years. But we should remember, when this action is taken and we wonder how these deadly ideals managed to become part of the publicly acceptable mainstream, that much of it could have been prevented from the start – by taking down Trump’s account years ago.