Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Twitter and former President Donald Trump are together in the news again.
Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk bought more than 9% of Twitter’s stock and secured a board seat at the social media company, fueling speculation about his potential influence on the platform.
Musk, a strong advocate of free speech who has used Twitter to spread disinformation and mock politicians, has already suggested he would work with the company to make “significant improvements,” although it’s unclear what those plans might be and whether they will come to fruition. Meanwhile, some conservatives are calling on Musk to allow Trump back on the platform after the former President was permanently suspended two days after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”
“Now that @ElonMusk is Twitter’s largest shareholder, it’s time to lift the political censorship. Oh … and BRING BACK TRUMP!” tweeted Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert. Twitter spokespeople have said that management and employees make those policy decisions, not the board.
The potential for Trump to regain access to Twitter could have a significant impact on the 2024 Republican primaries, assuming the former President is planning to run again. Twitter was integral to Trump’s political success, and if his accounts are restored, he would have immense leverage to secure the Republican presidential nomination and enhance his position in a general election.
Six months after he was suspended from Twitter, I convened a meeting with the former President and a group of other historians working on a book about his time in office. Responding to a question about his Twitter usage, Trump seemed to gloss over the blow of losing access to his social media accounts, saying that he found issuing news releases on his website “far more elegant.” But it’s undeniable that Trump’s presence in the public square has significantly diminished since he was suspended from several social media platforms. And months after our meeting, Trump submitted a court filing to try to get his Twitter account reinstated (a judge rejected his argument and granted Twitter’s motion to move the lawsuit filed in Florida to the Northern District Court of California). Meanwhile, his efforts to build an alternative social media platform have so far struggled.
Trump depended on Twitter to communicate directly to the public in an informal and unedited way. Though we still don’t know how much was scripted, and whether certain tweets were written by White House staffers, Trump’s Twitter account was a source of constant commentary. He used the platform to attack his opponents, spread disinformation to his political advantage and taunt foreign leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
But more important for Trump was the way that he used Twitter to shape the 24-hour news cycle. Whether or not he was self-conscious about his strategy, Trump had an innate feel for the way modern media is drawn to controversy, provocative statements and sensational stories. With a willingness to communicate without any guardrails, Trump was able to shape the news of the day with just a few words on Twitter. When you are a powerful leader willing to say just about anything – be that outlandish statements, incendiary words or simply nonsensical comments – it is a safe bet that media coverage will follow. Remember covfefe?
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Indeed, the campaign to delegitimize the 2020 election relied in part on Trump’s repeated Twitter blasts that fueled his narrative. What we saw on January 6 was a real mob that came together through the world of social media, chanting slogans that grew out of Trump’s Twitter feed as they stormed Capitol Hill.
If Trump is going to make a political comeback in 2024, Twitter could prove to be a game-changer for him. Without access to this medium, it will be enormously difficult for him to recreate the strategy that propelled him to the White House in 2016, especially with a new generation of Trumpian Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ready to stir up controversy and feed red meat to the base.
If Musk’s presence on the board does somehow lead to a change in policy, the Republican primaries – and the future of the country – will likely look very different.