It’s a difficult dynamic to wrap one’s head around. Yesterday afternoon, the sitting American president – ostensibly the “leader of the free world” and the chief executive of the world’s preeminent superpower – hosted an official White House event with a group of right-wing media gadflies. The purpose of the gathering was to whine for hours about a perceived conspiracy that, they believe, prevents their social-media content from becoming even more popular.
It was the sort of event that suggested Donald Trump is leading the United States toward something new, and the new destination is far from “great.”
As the Washington Post put it in an analysis yesterday morning, “Trump’s inviting some buds over to complain about how Twitter is mean to them.”
If Twitter really were mean to them, such a White House event would still be a rather pitiful display. But the fact that there is no actual conspiracy made yesterday’s so-called “summit” that much more ridiculous.
President Trump assailed Facebook, Google and Twitter on Thursday – accusing them of exhibiting “terrible bias” and silencing his supporters – at a White House “Social Media Summit” that critics chastised for giving a prominent stage to some of the Internet’s most controversial, incendiary voices.
For Trump, the conference represented his highest-profile broadside against Silicon Valley after months of accusations that tech giants censor conservative users and websites. With it, the president also rallied his widely followed online allies – whom he described as “journalists and influencers” and who together can reach roughly half a billion people – entering the 2020 presidential election.
“Some of you are extraordinary. The crap you think of is unbelievable,” Trump said.
Oddly enough, there was a degree of truth to that. The “crap” the president’s right-wing media supporters come up with is, in a literal sense, unbelievable.
To a meaningful degree, it’s not terribly important that Trump is confused. Sure, it’s annoying to see a president whine incessantly about a conspiracy that exists only in Republicans’ minds, but Trump engages in pointless whining about a great many things, and it’s become the background noise of our political lives.
What’s more important is the president’s eagerness to act on his absurd conspiracy theories.
Yesterday morning, for example, Trump published a tweet – on a social-media platform he believes is trying to undermine his public voice – insisting that “certain companies” are engaged in “tremendous dishonesty, bias, discrimination and suppression.”
Ominously, the president added, “We will not let them get away with it much longer.”
As Politico reported, Trump and his Republican allies seemed determined to do more than just talk.
“Today I’m directing my administration to explore all regulatory and legislative solutions to protect free speech and the free speech rights of all Americans,” Trump said in a seemingly extemporaneous speech in the East Room of the White House.
Attendee Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a longtime Trump ally, promised to lead a similar exploration in the Senate during a question-and-answer session with the president following the public portion of the summit, a person who attended that closed-door session told POLITICO. Blackburn said the Senate Judiciary Committee will convene a task force with her at the helm to probe the power of tech titans, according to the person. A Blackburn spokesperson confirmed that she’s leading the inquiry.
Trump in his speech didn’t endorse any specific measures, though he applauded attendee Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) for working on “some very important legislation.” Hawley has proposed depriving large internet companies of legal immunity for user-generated content if they can’t prove they’re politically neutral – a move that would deal a serious blow to the business models of platforms like Facebook and Google.
In the short term, the posturing is likely to be meaningless. Many congressional Democrats have anti-trust and privacy concerns related to tech giants, but they’re unlikely to seriously consider new federal measures to address far-right conspiracy theories.
But stepping back, we’re reaching the point at which these bizarre ideas are now a staple of Republican orthodoxy. GOP officials, en masse, have convinced themselves that companies like Twitter and Facebook are an enemy, and the party appears determined to punish their foes.
That their beliefs are baseless doesn’t appear to matter.
The irony is, there are real areas of concern in the tech industry and among social-media giants. Trump and his Republican allies are simply too busy whining about nonsense to notice what really matters.
Postscript: The White House initially extended invitations to yesterday’s event to some undeniably extremist and fringe radicals, one of whom was uninvited after Team Trump learned more about his offensive work.
In other words, the White House created a platform of sorts, invited someone to participate in that forum, and then excluded him when officials were disgusted by his repugnant content.
Isn’t this exactly the sort of development Team Trump complains about when Twitter does the same thing?