One of the last tweets Donald Trump sent before being kicked off the platform appeared at 6:01 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2021, five hours into his supporters’ deadly storming of the Capitol to stop the certification of the election. “These are the things and events that happen” when an election victory is “stripped away,” Trump wrote, justifying the violence in service of the lies he propagated about the election being stolen, and, having failed to reverse the result, telling his supporters to “go home” and “remember this day forever.”
Twitter removed that tweet and temporarily blocked Trump’s ability to post for violating its rules, and two days later, permanently suspended his @realdonaldtrump account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”
Trump hasn’t been seen on Twitter since. He has continued to get his message out in various other ways, including issuing press releases, granting interviews, appearing at large rallies, and posting to his own social media site Truth Social. But the volume of Trump’s current online megaphone is a whisper in comparison. Trump has 4.8 million followers on Truth Social. When he was bounced from Twitter, his following was 20 times that—87.7 million.
Elon Musk lifted Trump’s Twitter ban in November, less than a month after he took ownership of the company. Musk has long promised to ease the website’s restrictions. “The bird is freed,” he wrote soon after his purchase of the social media site became official. But there’s a limit, even for Musk. In another message, Musk told advertisers that the platform “cannot become a free-for-all hellscape.” Before lifting the ban on Trump’s account, he had said he would form a “content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints” and that no accounts would be reinstated until that group met.
Should Trump get back to tweeting, he would regain a platform that he has already shown he’s willing to use to incite and justify violence. At the same time, Trump’s disruptive messages would remind voters of the most chaotic days of his four years in office, and that could erode his support among independents and energize Democratic voters.
“Trump is always a double-edged sword. He is going to motivate Republicans and Trumpites,” says Larry Sabato, a prominent political analyst and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “But he also motivates the opposition. There is nothing that infuriates, not just Democrats, but many independents and a few Republicans, than Donald Trump’s musings or attacks” on social media.
During his years on Twitter, Trump used it to belittle his perceived enemies, promote the lie that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., pressure prosecutors to investigate his political rivals, berate judges who didn’t rule in favor of his allies, and foment violence on Jan. 6.
In late October, Trump posted to Truth Social a message that could serve as a reminder what he would do on a platform with a broader audience, calling a sitting judge who ruled against him in the New York state investigation into his business practices a “vicious, biased, and mean ‘rubber stamp’ for the Communist takeover of the great & prosperous American company that I have built.”
Support for whether Trump’s Twitter account should be unlocked splits largely along party lines. A Morning Consult poll from May found that 77% of Democrats believed Trump should continue to be banned from Twitter, and 72% of Republicans said Trump should not have been kicked off at all.
But voters have long looked askance at Trump’s Twitter use. A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll conducted in April 2019, as Trump’s reelection campaign was revving up, found that 60% of voters thought Trump’s use of Twitter was a “bad thing” and 70% of voters thought Trump used the platform too much. Nearly half of respondents—46%—thought Trump’s use of Twitter would hurt his chances of getting reelected.
Though he has previously said he would never return to Twitter, some think Trump wouldn’t be able to resist going back to the medium that got him so much attention. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he will want to have that kind of sway,” says Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. Truth Social is largely filled with people who already agree with Trump, Naftali points out, and doesn’t generate the ripple effects in mainstream media that his statements used to have on Twitter, says Naftali. “There is no doubt in my mind that he revels in having people respond both negatively and positively to his tweets.”
Soon after Musk became the owner of Twitter, Trump wrote that Truth Social “looks and works better” and that he’s “very happy that Twitter is now in sane hands.” Trump has a business interest in posting to Truth Social, but he is still free to post on other platforms, with some restrictions. According to filings made by Truth Social with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Trump is “generally obligated” to post on Truth Social, and cannot post a message to another site for 6 hours after first posting on Truth Social.
Read more: The Walls Are Closing in on Trump’s TRUTH Social
“Free speech is good for any political landscape,” Hogan Gidley, a former White House spokesman for Trump, told TIME in late October, after having and who had spoken to the former President days earlier. Gidley described Trump as “fired up” about the country “going to hell in a handbasket.” “But I don’t know if he’s gonna get back on the platform or not,” he said.
But the original concerns that led Twitter to suspend Trump soon after Jan. 6—that Trump was using the platform to disrupt the election and promote violence—haven’t been resolved. Trump continues to deny the results of the 2020 election and refuses to accept responsibility for the violent attack on the Capitol.
The recent assault of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul Pelosi, at their home in San Francisco, by an intruder who was reportedly in search of the Speaker, highlights concerns that political anger fomented on social media doesn’t always stay there. “With the attack on Paul Pelosi we are reminded again of the real world consequences of aggressive speech,” Naftali says. “The former president with his words before January 6, heated up this country, motivated disturbed individuals to do violence, will we see more of that with Donald Trump back on Twitter?”
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