A little over four years ago, I suggested, tongue slightly in cheek, that it was time for Twitter to shut down President Donald J. Trump’s account—for his own good, as it would be a routine distraction from his ability to accomplish anything in policy, and for the good of the press corps, which was driven to madness by his every proclamation.
But I should’ve been more worried about his followers and the alternative reality the president has managed to trap them in, one where his repeated lies have shaken our faith in the democratic process itself to its core.
Donald Trump wasn’t stripped of his prestigious spot on the microblogging platform because of a disagreement over tax rates or a spat with The Squad. He wasn’t deplatformed because he is pushing for a foreign policy that would harm Twitter or campaigning for GOP officials or shitposting about a hot-button social issue like trans rights.
He had his account taken away because he has lied, repeatedly, about the election. He has lied about fraud. He has lied about the integrity of absentee and mail-in ballots. He has lied about vote counts. He has lied about the courts. He has lied about Mike Pence being able to magically overturn the results of the election. And every time he lied—every time he told his supporters that the democratic process has failed, that every avenue has been exhausted, that despite his best efforts to follow the rules the corrupt elites have stolen the election and perverted our electoral system—he increased the chance of violence. Because his lies and his adamant refusal to properly concede implied that there was only one recourse left.
Even now, days after the Capitol was attacked by his supporters calling for the lynching of his own vice president, Trump continues to lie, insisting to those who were there that the attackers were actually Antifa rather than the MAGA proud and faithful. Is there any doubt that such untruths would not only find purchase on social media but be promulgated by his supporters in the rightwing media ecosystem?
In a video address after the assault on Capitol Hill, Arnold Schwarzenegger told a personal story he hasn’t often shared. He recalled life in Austria after World War II, a time when his father would abuse both him and his mother—abuse he thought wasn’t extraordinary because all the men in the village were responding similarly to what they had gone through in the war. “It all started with lies, and lies, and lies,” he said. “So being from Europe, I’ve seen firsthand how things can spin out of control. . . . We must be aware of the dire consequences of selfishness and cynicism.”
Donald Trump’s selfishness and the cynicism of GOP officials who backed his half-baked effort to overturn Joe Biden’s Electoral College win are of a piece. And they were compounded by the president’s ability to simply lie to tens of millions of people without any mediation. Removing that ability—or, rather, removing just a few of the many tools that the president has at his disposal for communicating with the public—has led some of his defenders to make allusions to George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is ridiculous: Donald Trump has more in common with the novel’s Big Brother, and his supporters have more in common with the novel’s Party, than do any of his critics in the tech industry or his political opponents in the Democratic Party.
Here is a man with no fealty to the truth, no ambition higher than maintaining his own power. Here is a man whose greatest hope is to control the proles, to fill their heads with falsehoods about outside enemies and internal betrayers. Here is a man who demands access to your screen to spew his propaganda regardless of whether or not the companies who operate those screens have any interest in handing it over to him.
Here is a man, finally, who wants to reshape the world as it is to a world that better suits him. What better illustration is there of doublethink—“to know and not know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies,” as Orwell put it in Nineteen Eighty-Four—than Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley objecting to the Electoral College results despite being smart enough to understand that Trump has lost every step of the way? What better illustration of memory-holing than Trump’s insistence that his speech before the riot did not include instructions to march on Capitol Hill?
As historian Timothy Snyder put it on Tuesday, “The claim that Trump won the election is a Big Lie. . . . A Big Lie changes reality. To believe it, people must disbelieve their senses, distrust their fellow citizens, and live in a world of faith.” Allowing Donald Trump the opportunity to preach to the faithful and win new converts would be a mistake. And that’s why Twitter was not only justified in banning Trump from the service—they were practically obligated to do so to ensure the safety of American democracy.