One thing at least will follow from the president’s Twitter campaign: It will become even more difficult than before for the shamefaced remains of what used to be mainstream conservatism to separate themselves from these grifters, racists, and liars. According to the president, they are now martyrs, saying things that deserve to be heard. There have been times in the past few years—especially during the hoax to shift blame from the Russians for hacking the Democratic National Committee—that Fox News and Infowars blurred into each other. Those days will now return.
Yet even as the president engrafts conspiracists and racists onto mainstream conservatism, it’s worth wondering: Why is he starting this fight? What does he hope to accomplish? In the past, when presidents publicly criticized major corporations by name, they got results.
In April 1962, President John F. Kennedy criticized, at a White House press conference, “a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility.” Kennedy was angry about steel-price increases that he regarded as inflationary. He spoke even more harshly in private, calling the executives “bastards” and “sons of bitches.” Within 48 hours, the price increases had been rescinded.
In June 2010, a ruptured deepwater rig spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama described the spill as the “worst environmental disaster the United States has ever faced.” He vowed that the owner of the rig, BP, would pay for whatever damage had been done; $20 billion was ultimately collected from the oil company.
But what happens if Facebook … just ignores the president? Facebook—long the premier channel for distributing hoaxes, scams, and Russian propaganda—seems to have made a business decision to clean up its act. Or at least begin to clean up its act. Perhaps presidential pressure will change Facebook’s mind. Or perhaps Facebook will calculate: Trump’s agitation will be forgotten by tomorrow. He’ll move on to the next thing. He’s just venting. He never follows up.
One observer of social media speculates that Trump hopes to deter Facebook from enforcing its rules against him and his 2020 campaign. In that case, wouldn’t Trump fight on the strongest ground, not the weakest? Identifying “my team” with some of the worst characters on the internet seems a prelude not to a hard fight, but to an embarrassing retreat.
Instead of preparing for a trial of strength against a corporation that a president should easily win, he has joined his personal brand to a gaggle of shady characters in an outburst likely to be forgotten in a day or two. Or, at least, forgotten by him.
But other and more determined actors are “monitoring”—and monitoring more attentively and persistently than the president himself. Trump’s Twitter rampage coincided with a North Korean missile test. For months, Trump has been touting the suspension of North Korean missile testing as proof that his concessions to that dictatorship delivered results. By resuming the testing, the North Koreans were administering a calculated humiliation to Trump, gambling that they can extract more from a president who talks tough in international relations, but acts weak. Now Facebook has set him a test of strength at home.