In the life story of Donald Trump, to his mind an epic saga of unrivalled achievement, these are the wilderness years. After the US electoral college confirmed his 2020 defeat, an outcome he still mendaciously disputes, Trump plunged into despair. He sulked, he raged, he conspired. Yet the 6 January coup plot was an egregious step too far. He was cast into outer darkness.
Trump lost the White House bully pulpit and a US president’s ability to command instant global attention. Personally wounding was the ban imposed by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which belatedly agreed he posed a threat to democracy. Trump was cut off from social media and his supporter base. He was all but silenced.
What worse fate could there be for a narcissist who craves constant attention and approval? Exiled to his luxury Florida estate, the Elba of the Everglades, Trump has struggled since to regain his voice. Last week, he made his move. The result: the so-called Truth Social media app, launching next year.
The newly formed company behind the app, Trump Media and Technology Group, plans to disseminate what it calls “anti-woke” news, debate and entertainment to Americans deprived of honest, impartial media outlets. This is total drivel, of course, coming from the mouth of the most shameless liar in modern US history.
Abusing truth as only Trump can, Truth Social will more likely prove both false and antisocial. It’s his way of regaining lost ground, prior to a wished-for presidential comeback in 2024. It’s a political propaganda platform intended to magnify and exploit the hate, ignorance and prejudice on which he feeds. MPs please note: Trump is the ultimate definition of “online harms”.
This self-serving bid to defeat “the tyranny of big tech” is a commercial long shot. The new app looks remarkably similar to Twitter, which has more than 200m users. Previous US attempts to grow alternative “conservative social space” have failed. Although shares in the new company initially soared, its USP is overly dependent on Trump’s continuing appeal.
That appeal looks increasingly fractured. Trump is under fire from Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and other Republicans who fear his obsession with overturning the 2020 result is deflecting attention from Joe Biden’s mistakes ahead of next year’s midterm congressional elections.
An early test will come on 2 November when Democrat-leaning Virginia elects a governor. Polls there currently suggest a dead heat. Trump, meanwhile, is taking legal heat, too. His family business faces a fraud investigation. He was recently questioned under oath for more than four hours in a civil lawsuit in New York.
Steve Bannon, one of his best-known former aides, has been found in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify to the 6 January inquiry and faces possible criminal prosecution. Since Trump ordered all his minions to act similarly, the legal bull’s-eye pinned to his back grows ever more unmissable.
Yet for all that, Trump remains first choice among Republican voters for the party’s presidential nomination. His average “favourable/unfavourable” rating is almost identical to Biden’s among the electorate as a whole. And he has shown how dangerous he can be when he reaches a wide audience, which is why Truth Social is worrying.
Will Trump rise again from the depths, like the “shapeless monsters” imagined by the great 19th-century Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev? Life is akin to an unsuspecting man sitting in a small boat on a calm, limitless ocean, he wrote. “Then one of the monsters begins to emerge from the murk, rising higher and higher, becoming ever more repellently, clearly discernible… Another minute and its impact will overturn the boat.”
For now, Trump’s monstrous outline is blurred, his voice muted. He awaits Turgenev’s “destined day”, when he plans, once again, to capsize the ship of state. To which we say: all hands on deck!