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Battle for the GOP

Stripped of his megaphone and much of his influence, Trump still holds GOP in his thrall

Social media interactions concerning Donald Trump have dropped 91 percent since January.
Social media interactions concerning Donald Trump have dropped 91 percent since January.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — Former president Donald Trump learned Wednesday that he would remain banned from Facebook, but being locked out of the huge social media platform didn’t prevent him from sending his marching orders, as usual, to national Republicans.

“Warmonger Liz Cheney, who has virtually no support left in the Great State of Wyoming, continues to unknowingly and foolishly say that there was no Election Fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election,” he wrote in an e-mail distributed to reporters, lambasting the top-ranking female House Republican, who is currently embroiled in a leadership fight.

The “de-platforming” of the former president, as Republicans like to call it, has deprived him of beloved social media megaphones that made his political career, as well as crucial fund-raising and organizing machinery for any future presidential run. Facebook advisers’ decision to keep the ban in place for now is undoubtably a daunting prospect for Trump’s apparent presidential ambitions for himself in 2024.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that the ex-president no longer needs the social media platforms that nurtured his devoted following and rocketed him to the presidency in 2016 to exert an iron grip over his party or keep his lies about election fraud in 2020 percolating among his base.

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This week alone, Cheney, a daughter of the Republican establishment who has long commanded deep respect from her party, appeared poised to be expelled from party leadership over her refusal to go along with Trump’s lies about the election — showing Trump can still foment a mutiny in Congress even as his voice gets softer nationally. His favored candidate came out on top in a special election in Texas. And a Republican-ordered audit of the 2020 election results in the biggest county in Arizona, an unusual and unnecessary process his supporters are hoping will give cause to the baseless distrust in the outcome, dragged on.

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It all points to a strange, almost-backwards dynamic in the GOP after Trump’s presidency: Even as his megaphone gets tinnier, as the tool that forged his political persona eludes his grip, his influence over the party he remade is only getting stronger.

“There’s no real evidence that voters have distanced themselves from him, there’s no real evidence that elected officials have changed their tune on him — if anything, they are more loyal to him than ever before,” said Brendan Buck, a Republican strategist and a former aide to the erstwhile House speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan who is troubled by his party’s direction.

“Donald Trump,” he added, “is much bigger than any one medium of communication.”

His banishment from the social platforms for inciting an insurrection has also fed into a victimhood narrative among his base that has largely prevented Republicans from questioning why he lost in the first place — or laying any blame at his feet.

“This sort of deepens the view of Republicans generally that he’s a martyr, that he was sacrificed by media and Big Tech,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican consultant who previously worked on campaigns for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. “His leadership of the party is at the moment unquestioned.”

Still, there are obvious drawbacks for Trump to his continued banishment from Facebook, which the social media giant first instituted after he used his page to disseminate lies that fraud cost him the election and to seemingly praise participants in the deadly insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. (At the time, Twitter banned Trump indefinitely.)

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Trump and his team skillfully used the social networks to fund-raise, organize, build buzz, and — crucially — to constantly insert himself into the news cycle and say his piece without moderation or fact-checking. His campaign manager at the time said Facebook and Twitter won him the 2016 election. Beyond that, the constant, undulating feedback buoyed his spirits.

“Long ago, this is probably 2013 or 2014, he told me that he was going to run for president because Twitter was telling him to do it,” said Michael D’Antonio, a biographer of the former president. “It was central to his political identity, to his political methodology.”

Now, he is no longer center stage. Social media interactions concerning Trump have dropped 91 percent since January, according to a study by NewsWhip that was first reported by Axios — a statistic that could be explained by the end of his presidency as well as the loss of his accounts.

A small group of Trump staffers sends several e-mails a week to reporters since he lost his Twitter and Facebook accounts — and access to his millions of followers — in January.

And while Trump has called his e-mailed press releases “more elegant” than his rapid-fire social media strategy, he now has to contend with a layer between him and his public that makes it harder for him to insert himself into the news of the day. That’s welcome news for Democrats who often languished in his shadow.

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“Yes, it influences the Republican Party, but it gives space for Democrats to run the vision, for Biden to run the vision he needs to right now,” said Amanda Renteria, a Democratic strategist and a former aide to Hillary Clinton. The diminution of Trump, combined with the infighting he has fomented within the Republican Party, has given her party more space to get work done and reorient itself, Renteria said.

But the former president’s allies see a flip side to his being banned. They are already seizing on his extended Facebook ban as evidence that a “woke mob” was always out to get him, stoking the grievances that have animated much of the party’s discourse in recent months and that they are hoping will help them win back the House in the midterms.

“We’ve known for multiple cycles that Facebook, Twitter, and Big Tech have become an extension of the left’s woke mob,” said Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, in a statement. “The First Amendment and our freedom of speech is a right granted to all Americans from the Constitution, not from Facebook’s ‘Oversight Board.’ If Big Tech can ban a former President, what’s to stop them from silencing the American people next?”

“The Republican Party has become entirely focused on a culture war,” Buck said, “and this is a large part of that culture war.”

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Sam Nunberg, a former aide to Trump’s campaign, suggested that keeping Trump off the platform could make boycotting social media a new litmus test among Republican primary candidates trying to establish their conservative bona fides in relation to him.

“Is it going to be seen as, if President Trump is still canceled by Facebook, if you’re Nikki Haley, if you’re somebody seen as a country club-esque Republican, if you use Facebook, is that going to hurt you?” Nunberg said.

The ban has not stopped Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election from taking root deep in the psyche of much of the GOP. Believing the election was stolen has become nothing short of an orthodoxy for the Republican base, who have censured elected officials who don’t believe it and demanded recounts and new voting restrictions.

Cheney has tried to be a ballast against those lies, and on Monday she took to her own Twitter account to do so once again.

“The 2020 election was not stolen,” she wrote. “Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning our back on the rule of law and poisoning our democratic system.”

Cheney may not have lost her social media accounts, but it doesn’t appear that posts like hers hold much sway over a party that has already been remade by Trump.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.