Republicans are fuming, but the timing of Donald Trump’s Twitter ban couldn’t have been better for the party.
Fractured in the aftermath of Trump’s defeat and a riot the president helped incite at the Capitol, the GOP found a unifying foil in the social media platform’s erasure of the president — elevating Big Tech‘s status in the culture wars from an annoying foe to archvillain.
For institutionalist Republicans weary of litigating Trump’s role in the insurrection, the ban — and the sudden silencing of Trump’s bullhorn — served as a diversion. And for the base of the party, it offered a rallying point for broader grievances about “cancel culture” and perceived attempts to censor conservative viewpoints. Less than 24 hours after the ban, Republicans were preparing to seize on the issue for the midterm elections and in 2024.
“A level of censorship that would make China proud,” James Dickey, the former chair of the Texas Republican Party, said Saturday, describing the ban as a “wake-up call for everyday Americans.”
Dickey predicted Republicans “100 percent” will campaign on the unrestrained power of social media and other technology firms in the midterms — and some GOP strategists were planning to capitalize on the controversy surrounding Twitter even sooner.
“I’ll be leading with it on a lot of my messaging, at least in my races, for the next few months,” said John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country. “It shifts the news story — the narrative of the moment — and it refocuses it on a larger, more existential threat for the future of the country.”
On the influence of tech firms on speech, Thomas said, “Most Republicans are truly horrified.”
Republicans and Democrats alike have long expressed frustrations with Silicon Valley, with Big Tech standing in as a rare bipartisan target in the Trump era. But for Republicans, Twitter’s banning of Trump elevated the concern from the realm of policy to one of outrage, drawing a connection for conservatives to deeper complaints about cultural elites and perceived biases of the media, new and old alike.
“It’s one of the things that leads to the frustration of the base of the Republican Party,” said Jason Shepherd, the chair of the Republican Party in Cobb County, Ga., the state where Republicans lost two Senate seats — and control of the Senate — on Tuesday.
Shepherd said he heard from local activists on Friday and Saturday who are leaving Facebook and Twitter as a result of their frustration with social media, finally “sick and tired of it.”
“You’re basically cutting off 50 percent of the voice of the American people,” he said. “That’s huge.”
On Fox News and on the GOP-friendly social media platform Parler, Republicans entered the weekend feasting on the Twitter ban and the Apple and Google suspensions of the Parler app from their app stores for failing to curb posts encouraging violence.
On Parler on Friday, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a Trump loyalist to whom the president awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Monday, re-upped a late December podcast in which he lit into “big tech tyrants,” writing, “This is what I was warning everyone about last week. Please spread the word before they take us down.”
“This is the battle of our time,” the talk show host Dave Rubin said on Fox. “There is a war on reality. We are in an information war.”
Tacitly acknowledging the resonance of the controversy across an otherwise fractured party, Rubin said that regardless of what people think of Trump, “The fact that big tech oligarchs can decide who can speak … everyone should be absolutely outraged right now.”
The subject shows every sign that it will long outlast Trump’s presidency, perhaps even surfacing as a defining issue in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican and potential 2024 presidential candidate, was already planning a forthcoming book titled, “The Tyranny of Big Tech.”
Publishing house Simon & Schuster’s announcement that it was canceling the book because of the riot at the Capitol — and what it described as Hawley’s “role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom” — only drew more attention to the subject.
Wayne MacDonald, a New Hampshire lawmaker and former state Republican Party chair, said it’s “too early to tell” how salient a message Big Tech will be for the party long-term. Frustrations with Silicon Valley have ebbed and flowed in recent years and have rarely become as pitched as other cultural issues.
MacDonald noted that he’s still on Twitter — and that lots of other Republicans are, as well — and he said, “I’m not even convinced the ban is going to be permanent.”
For whatever war the party does have with Big Tech, pinning the subject to Trump’s Twitter ban will not come without risk, largely because the stated reason for the ban — the concern that he would perpetuate more violence — is a reminder of the Trump-inspired, deadly insurrection at the Capitol.
“To talk about perceived censorship, I don’t know how much of a clear lane Republicans are going to have to talk about it, because their actions that restricted their behaviors on social media, particularly Twitter, were a direct result to the attacks that occurred at the Capitol,” said Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy chair of the Minnesota Republican Party. “It would be like people complaining about the number of restrictions that were put in place regarding airline safety post 9/11.”
And while pro-Trump Republicans won’t like it, Brodkorb said, “Ultimately, Big Tech, by policing this content that Republicans have been unwilling and unable to police themselves, they’re actually doing Republicans a favor, because it’s making it more difficult for this extremist type of behavior to continue and to be organized so freely.”
And for traditionalist Republicans trying to move the party past Trump, having the president off of Twitter may be a boon, anyway — for the simple reason that it will deprive him of a megaphone that enabled him to say outrageous things that often reflected poorly on the party.
“Twitter was his easy platform for his base and his activist, rabid supporters to see what he was thinking moment to moment,” said Sean Walsh, a Republican strategist who worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses. “You cut that umbilical cord, you cut off Trump’s ability to rabble rouse, cause problems for other Republicans and s–t-stir.”
For the Republican Party, Walsh said of Trump’s Twitter ban, “It’s liberating.”