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The Dangers of Ignoring The Former Guy
The less people hear from Trump, the less they hate him. That could be a problem for Democrats
Many political observers were surprised President Biden used his speech on the anniversary of the January 6th Insurrection to take on Donald Trump so directly.
Biden’s decision was notable because, to date, he barely acknowledged his predecessor’s existence, refusing to take the bait when interviewers tried to get him to engage. It was also notable because the prevailing view among much of the party is that we should not give Trump the thing he craves most — attention.
When reporters tweet out Trump’s statements or post clips of his interviews online, they are inundated with complaints about “amplifying” Trump. There is a collection of online progressive activists who only refer to him as “The Former Guy” or “TFG” for short. No one loves hearing their own name more than Trump, so there is much-deserved enjoyment in this tactic. However, he’s not Voldemort. We cannot guarantee his absence by refusing to utter his name.
For the folks who inhale political content (i.e. you and me), Donald Trump remains omnipresent in our lives. We read the books written about his presidency. We pay close attention to whom he endorses. We consume the clips of his interviews on Fox and Newsmax that are tweeted out by Media Matters and the Aaron Rupar’s of the world. We love to mock his bizarrely long, and poorly constructed written statements. This obsession comes from our understanding that the threat of Trump has not diminished in the year since he left office. It has grown. He is the overwhelming favorite to win the GOP nomination and, as of right now, has a very legitimate shot at reclaiming the White House.
For the rest of America, Trump could not be more absent. Trump was purged from social media. His rallies are not broadcast live and get scant coverage outside of the local market where they occur. When Trump does interviews, they are with friendly interviewers ensconced within the Right-Wing information bubble. I would guess that the vast majority of Americans have no idea Trump’s influence within the GOP has only grown in the last year; that he is likely to run for president, and could very well win.
I have no doubt that the absence of attention, the social media bans, and the inability to get news coverage drives Donald Trump insane. It picks at his deeply-held insecurities. But not talking about Trump might be the greatest gift we could give him and the Republican Party.
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Donald Trump’s days of dominating social media came to an end on January 6th, 2020. Alarmed by his rhetoric encouraging the violent insurrectionists at the Capitol, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms suspended President Trump. Twitter made it a permanent ban. Trump remains suspended on Facebook and YouTube, although both reserve the right to reinstate him at some point. When President Biden was inaugurated, Democrats, the media, and most of America turned the page on this sordid chapter in American history.
All of the above pushed Trump so far into the background that he essentially vanished from the political conversation. The Wall Street Journal wrote this past weekend:
Since his social-media ban—just days before he left the White House—mentions of Mr. Trump on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have decreased 88%, according to Zignal Labs, a company that analyzes content on social media.
However, absence seems to have made the heart grow fonder. Trump’s approval ratings have nearly bounced back to where they were on Election Day 2020 when he came within 40,000 votes of winning reelection. An approval rating of 43/52 is nothing to write home about, but it makes him about as popular as Joe Biden is right now.
The lack of attention on Trump also helped his party. A Morning Consult poll found that the Republican Party has fully removed the stain of 1/6 from their brand. Prior to the insurrection, 32 percent of voters thought that the Republican Party was headed in the right direction. After the assault on the Capitol, that number dropped to 24 percent. One year later, it is now 34 percent despite the party leaders being more committed to the Big Lie today than they were one year ago.
Should Dems Want Trump Back on Twitter?
Democrats breathed a sigh of relief when Trump was banned from Twitter. For many, the decision was long overdue. Vice President Harris tried to make banning Trump from Twitter an issue during the 2020 Democratic primaries. There were countless petitions and pleas urging then Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to follow his own rules and ban the President. There is no question that Trump used Twitter to direct abuse at his critics. Every Trump tweet targeting someone — Maxine Waters, Elizabeth Warren, or Jemele Hill — was a call to arms for his most aggressive and abusive supporters. Trump also repeatedly used the platform to spread the Big Lie and sow mistrust in masks and vaccines during the pandemic.
Trump’s banishment from social media may be good for the world, but it’s an obstacle for Democratic efforts to hold onto our majorities. Donald Trump used Twitter to dominate the conversation. It was his strength, but also his greatest weakness. His twitchy Twitter finger got him into constant trouble, stepped on his message, and reminded everyone what they didn’t like about him.
Trump’s use of Twitter was almost always one of the first points voters brought up in focus groups. His constant tweeting was a proxy for all the concerns voters had about his temperament and focus on the job. It created a constant sense of chaos that unnerved a lot of the electorate. A 2019 Morning Consult poll found:
Majorities of respondents also said Trump’s use of Twitter hurts his presidency — 55 percent — and America’s standing in the world — 54 percent. Asked whether his Twitter use helps or hurts the country’s national security, 48 percent said it hurts, while only 13 percent said it helps.
Over the last year, Trump’s inability to remind the world why they hate him was a gift. His statements attacking members of his own party for insufficient loyalty to the Big Lie received a fraction of the attention a tweet saying the exact same thing would elicit. The Twitter ban created a false impression of unity in the Republican Party.
This unhinged statement from Trump about Mike Rounds, an essentially anonymous senator from South Dakota, could be exhibit A in the argument against Trump sniffing out power again.
But don’t take my word for it. Trump’s own advisers agree. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Current and former aides to Mr. Trump said the shift in popularity was largely attributable to the former president’s diminished social-media presence. His constant, often provocative tweets helped galvanize supporters but provided steady ammunition for his detractors. During his time in office, even his most ardent supporters told pollsters they wished Mr. Trump wouldn’t broadcast each grievance and respond to every criticism
To Talk or Not Talk About Trump
Biden’s decision to take on his predecessor so directly brought to the forefront an internal issue for the Democratic Party that had been simmering in the background for months: How much attention should Democrats give Trump as they fight to maintain their majorities in 2022?
Ever since Terry McAuliffe lost the incredibly winnable Virginia governor’s race with a clumsy, ham-handed effort to tie his opponent to Trump (Glenn Trump-kin), the chorus of people calling on Democrats to avoid talking about Trump has grown.
My view is this: Trump is the elephant in the room. It’s simply impossible to avoid talking about a former president who is planning to run again while putting in place a plan to steal the next election, especially when that plan depends on electing Republicans. I don’t know about you, but that seems like something the voters ought to know about.
Mandy Grunwald, a longtime Democratic operative who is starting a SuperPAC to focus on Trump, made this case when she told CNN:
The reaction in our party implies that it's a zero-sum game: We only talk about Trump or we never talk about Trump. We're in the 'and' zone. People want to talk about the economy and what's happening in people's lives, and all kinds of stuff. But you just can't ignore this. It's that sense that you have to choose, it's one or the other. Because Terry McAuliffe didn't win, and he talked about Trump, that's the end of it? That's nonsense.
Joe Biden is fond of saying “don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” Donald Trump is the alternative. More and more, I believe the salience of Donald Trump will determine how Democrats do in 2022. If the looming threat of Trump and Trumpism is front of mind, we have a shot. If it isn’t, we may not.