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How @realDonaldTrump Changed Politics — and America

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How @realDonaldTrump Changed Politics — and America

At the same time the account made its mark on politics, so did it color American culture. Trump’s pithy, idiomatic speech patterns translated to Twitter in a manner that became comic shorthand in American life, whether earnestly or ironically: “Sad!,” “WITCH HUNT!,” “STOP THE COUNT!” He even added a new word to the English lexicon, a simple typo that became effective shorthand for his administration’s endemic confusion and lack of professionalism: “covfefe.”

Trump’s Twitter account didn’t do anything novel in its own right. But it exemplified, at the largest possible scale, the twisted incentives at the heart of the platform that gave it life: to generate spectacle and action without regard for truth, context, or collateral damage.

One of the most remarkable and revealing things about Trump’s dominance of the platform is the fact that the septuagenarian president is as far as one could be from a “digital native,” refusing mostly to ever even use a computer. He has no particular calculating genius about social media, just the standard set of opinions and aesthetic preferences that a particularly bigoted member of his generation might hold, combined with a helpful lack of restraint. That biliousness and shamelessness, combined with his baked-in celebrity, found their perfect outlet in Twitter, where outrage is currency.

Before he became president, Trump deployed his narcissism and bile to more petty, and sometimes downright bizarre, ends. He issued his first tweet on May 4, 2009, reminding its followers to tune into CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” for a cursory appearance from Trump, then the star of a declining reality show. It was a long road from there to Trump’s using the account to rebrand himself as a pugilistic, reactionary populist, elevating him from cable news gadfly to Republican party gatecrasher to, eventually, leader of the free world.

In its early years, @realDonaldTrump served as mostly a promotional tool for its owner, seeking to bolster his flagging celebrity. It was also a vehicle for his quixotic and seemingly arbitrary cultural fixations. He attacked such sacred cows as Coca-Cola, calling it “garbage” despite pledging to continue drinking it; provided repeated, unsolicited relationship advice to “Twilight” teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson; and unaccountably threatened legal action over a nominally flattering musical tribute from the late rapper Mac Miller.

But most of all, he was fixated on the man he would eventually succeed in the White House: Barack Obama. Trump repeatedly assailed the former president via Twitter, deriding him for a perceived lack of transparency and excessive golf habit, but first and foremost propagating the false conspiracy theory that America’s first Black president was actually not born in the United States, making his presidency illegitimate.

Such tweets made Trump a star in the burgeoning world of online conservative media. While his commentary was treated as a sideshow by the mainstream, including a fateful in-person roast from Obama himself at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, his tweets were cited frequently by far-right publications such as Breitbart, InfoWars and the Gateway Pundit. Improbably, and at first to some ridicule, he parlayed his Twitter stardom into a Republican presidential primary campaign. The Twitter account soon proved an invaluable resource in combating Trump’s better-funded, more professionalized rivals, revealing the extent to which social media had already upended the worlds of political communication and civic engagement. He used it to coin a series of monikers for his political rivals some of which will long out-live his account, and likely even the man himself: “Low-energy Jeb,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Crazy Bernie,” “Little Marco,” “Sleepy Joe.”

Once Trump became president, he used the account to in effect drive a policy agenda without having to bother with the bureaucratic details of governance. It also served as daily inspiration for a legion of loyal followers who relentlessly pursued vengeance against anyone who would criticize the president; it brought a much higher profile to the longrunning, unresolved debate over the definition of online harassment. It also gave politicians, particularly elected Republicans, a new tool to dodge questions, used over and over in response to his messiest and most reckless attempts to rule by tweet: “I’m not on Twitter.” So common was this excuse that reporters on Capitol Hill took to printing out Trump’s latest missives so that they could physically show them to senators who professed ignorance.

That only became more difficult over time. Long before last week’s Trump-inspired violence at the U.S. Capitol, the account’s most outspoken critics, both serious and less so, argued that @realDonaldTrump’s combination of a massive platform and brazen disregard for the truth was a menace to civic health — fueling a pipeline of disinformation that’s resulted in violent and bizarre crimes across the nation. Although its owner claimed ignorance, @realDonaldTrump repeatedly retweeted posts from overt white-nationalist groups and accounts, spreading their message to a far, far wider audience than it otherwise would have reached.

In its final months, @realDonaldTrump became a touchstone for the burgeoning debate over the extent to which technology platforms should be liable for the speech they publish, exemplified by the president’s own politicization of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Under that law, internet services are not legally liable for the content published by their users, allowing them the freedom to moderate it on their own terms.

And moderate they did on Wednesday, ending @realDonaldTrump’s long run as one of the most-followed accounts on Twitter. Over the past two months, the president’s time in the spotlight has been coming to an end, the miracle of the meme presidency waning in both novelty and actual power. So, finally backed into the proverbial corner, he decided to reverse the polarity of Marx’s famous quotation and turn farce to tragedy.

With his fate sealed, having shown the world the power of this combustible, ungovernable new technology, the president met the inescapable fate of the terminally online: to tweet and rave at close of day, to post, post, against the dying of the light… resulting in his being hounded by moderators to the bitter end. Given the odd strictures of Section 230, one could call it a form of law and order.

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Will There Be a Trump Presidential Library? Don’t Count On It.

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Will There Be a Trump Presidential Library? Don’t Count On It.

Where could Trump put his? Sometimes universities help provide homes for local presidents, like the University of Texas, which provided 30 acres on its Austin campus for LBJ. But it’s hard to imagine either of Trump’s colleges, Fordham or Penn, willingly hosting his library. Even less controversial presidents have run into friction with such plans. Duke University rejected Nixon, who got his law degree there. Stanford rejected the Reagan Library. Southern Methodist University faculty and students protested the George W. Bush Library, but the library eventually did open on its University Park campus. While each of these presidents had his controversies, none was as widely reviled by a large and diverse swath of the country.

However opposition forms, it can be hard to persist and overcome, for even the most patient and connected of former presidents. The Obama Center has had its groundbreaking delayed for years by community opposition in Chicago—the city that launched his political career.

Trump also has some challenges that are uniquely his own. As of this writing, we don’t know if he’ll run again in 2024. We don’t know if he’ll launch a competitor to Fox News, OAN and Newsmax. We don’t know if he’ll seek to form a new party, or if his party will seek to break from him (though the latter, currently, seems unlikely). We do know the announcement of a presidential library, center or whatever it may be called, is a sign of the end of a political career. A capstone. In effect, a notice of retirement—at least from office-seeking. And Trump has shown little inclination to step decisively out of the public eye.

Even if he did, Trump would then have to raise, legitimately, and according to the laws of the state in which he creates his foundation, hundreds of millions of dollars to build a traditional presidential library, with a museum, archives and space for public events, his foundation’s offices, and whatever other activities he wishes to attempt within such a limited legal and financial environment.

To say the least, Trump has shown little ability to operate a legitimate nonprofit foundation, never mind build an endowment. He’ll have considerable difficulty doing so in his home state of New York. Under a 2019 court order, after “admitting to personally misusing funds at the Trump Foundation,” Trump agreed to a settlement that—should he succeed in persuading anyone to give him the money at all—puts an extremely short leash on any nonprofit he might launch in that state.

If he does build a library, it’s likely Trump would want the legitimacy and imprimatur of the federal government, as a “seal of approval” for his story, told his way. He might even like to have the National Archives host his exhibits about how “great” he made America (again), and, perhaps, how great was the “theft” of his second term. But to do any of that, the law will require him not only to spend the money on the grounds and building, but to raise hundreds of millions of additional dollars—and give it, almost unthinkably, to the government.

If there’s a model for a rule-breaking outsider like Trump, it might be—ironically—the Obama library. But if anything, Obama’s experience shows just how hard it would be for a character not known for focus or persistence.

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"I haven't been able to get this moment out of my head"

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"I haven't been able to get this moment out of my head"

This week’s episode of Nerdcast

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Republicans who impeached Trump are already on the chopping block

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Former President Donald Trump waves as he disembarks from his final flight on Air Force One at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.

Democrats have control of the House, the Senate and the White House. But if they want to get anything done, like a massive Covid bill, they’re gonna have to work across the aisle.

“I personally know those Washington State members of Congress who voted to impeach Trump. Our friendship will continue but no more financial support from me. In my view they just retired from Congress,” said Khorram, a real estate developer who has previously given to Rep. Dan Newhouse, another Republican in the state who supported impeachment.

Deep-pocketed outside groups are also engaging. Chris Ekstrom, the chair of the Courageous Conservatives political action committee, said his organization would be focusing on defeating Cheney, Gonzalez, and South Carolina Rep. Tom Rice.

“All of them are vulnerable. Some things stick in politics and I think this outrageous betrayal will,” said Ekstrom. “Examples will be made.”

Ekstrom, a Dallas investor, said he was beginning to reach out to Texas-based Trump donors to raise money for the effort.

People close to Trump say he is particularly fixated on the Republicans who backed impeachment and is determined to take them out. The former president has raised more than $200 million since the election, much of which has been directed into a new committee than could be used to back primary opponents. Trump aides have also been at work creating a political apparatus that can be deployed in the 2022 elections.

While Trump is gone from the White House, Republican still face a conundrum: How to mollify his tens of millions of supporters, many of whom remain convinced that the election was stolen and insist that Trump isn’t to blame for the Jan. 6 riot. Party officials concede that they need to keep Trump’s loyalists in the fold and say failure to do so will complicate their political fortunes in 2022 and beyond.

With the Senate impeachment trial looming, attention is shifting to Republican lawmakers in that chamber who must decide whether to vote to convict Trump. Several incumbents face potentially challenging general election contests, and their prospects could be further complicated by primary fights. Trump has already said he wants to oust red-state Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and John Thune (S.D.) for not supporting his drive to subvert the election results.

But some Republicans argue that any political fallout for impeachment supporters will be short-lived. They insist that among GOP voters there’s been widespread revulsion over Trump’s role in the uprising and say that many are in favor of impeachment.

Rice, a five-term South Carolina congressman from the conservative northeastern part of the state, said most of the people he’d heard from had expressed disapproval for his vote. But he said he’d also gotten positive feedback from hundreds of people across the country, including some who offered campaign contributions.

“There are a number of people who have expressed their displeasure obviously and others who are happy with a vote of principle. I didn’t swear an oath to Donald Trump, I didn’t swear an oath to the Republican Party, I swore an oath to defend the Constitution. That’s what I intend to do,” said Rice.

The Trump forces will face high hurdles in defeating any of the pro-impeachment Republicans. Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, raised nearly $3 million during the 2020 election cycle and is certain to have a substantial campaign account in 2022. Cheney is also a well-known commodity in the state: She is the daughter of former vice president and ex-Wyoming congressman Dick Cheney.

The rush to take on Cheney may make it harder to unseat her — a trend that may play out in other districts, too. With multiple candidates in the race, the primary challengers face the prospect of splintering their support and giving the three-term congresswoman an easy path to victory.

Complicating matters further is redistricting, the once-in-a-decade drawing of congressional lines which will determine where House candidates seek election. Hagan said she was waiting for clarity on how Ohio’s map would be reconfigured.

But even at this early stage of the midterm election cycle, the impeachment vote is looming large in the minds of Republicans.

Rice said he did not want to offer advice to senators on how they should vote in Trump’s upcoming trial. But he noted that the Capitol siege had imperiled the lives of lawmakers, including many who had been loyal to the president. The congressman recalled sheltering in a saferoom, not knowing if someone outside had a weapon. All the while, Rice said, Trump was doing nothing to quell the violence.

“If that’s not high crimes and misdemeanors, I don’t know what is,” Rice said. “I don’t know what it would take.”

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