Last week was remarkable for two reasons: First, President Joe Biden rolled out a veritable blizzard of unabashedly progressive measures through executive orders, which by their sheer numbers alone appear to have completely flummoxed Congressional Republicans, judging from the deafening silence of their reaction.
Whether it was rejoining the Paris Agreement, defunding the Border Wall, imposing a federal mask mandate, or reinstating reproductive rights counseling in connection with foreign aid, the Republican response to these initiatives by the Biden administration has been muted and sullen. So muted and sullen, in fact, that the party that once accused President Barack Obama of trying to impose a dictatorship through his use of such orders could barely muster a whimper of objection as Biden effectively plowed over four years of conservative fever dreams.
Of course, that’s because Donald Trump had premised his entire single-term tenure on use of the executive order. He wielded it like a cudgel, often amplifying each action with an obnoxious tweet. Republicans know full well they are now in no position to criticize Biden for doing what they themselves had not only tolerated but encouraged over the last four years. Any mewling or whining by the GOP about the use of executive power at this point is forever doomed to fall on deaf ears. And that’s part of the reason that Republicans haven’t responded.
But that brings us to the other truly remarkable event last week, or more precisely, a truly remarkable non-event.
America experienced, for the first time in recent memory, a full week without hysterical edicts, missives, or barbs issued by Donald Trump from his Twitter account.
Having been banned for life by the social media behemoth for attempting to incite a violent insurrection against the American people, Trump’s ability to command national attention through constant displays of attention-seeking vanity on Twitter has been neutered. And as a result the Trump who Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is en route to pay homage to this week is but a shadow of his former self.
As Natasha Korecki notes for POLITICO, Trump’s now permanently flaccid Twitter “non-status” has eliminated the primary means that Republicans, in their abject dependence on Trump, had relied on to give voice to conservative positions.
Gone are the pre-dawn tirades, the all-caps declarations, the “Sleepy Joe” mocking, the Fox News-driven agitations and the general incitements. Instead, Biden debuted a flurry of executive orders without ever having to deal with what surely would have been rapid-fire antagonism from the man whose legacy he was dismantling.
But it was not simply Trump who was diminished by his removal from Twitter. We have to remember that Trump didn’t come up with the content for his tweets by himself. He wasn’t smart enough for that. No, invariably he was highlighting or repeating something he had just seen on right-wing media, most often on Fox News. Trump’s tweets essentially parroted the Fox News line rather than the other way around. So not only was Trump himself cut off by his banning, but the entire spigot of right-wing dissemination that he would readily spew was curtailed as well; as a result, Fox News no longer has a giant orange megaphone in the White House to distribute its content.
Korecki illustrates how that works out in practice:
Indeed, Twitter’s suspension of Trump’s account has seemed to realign the political universe, minimizing diversions and interruptions as the broader conversation over Biden’s agenda played out. Trump wasn’t there to demand a popular uprising against Biden’s federal mask-wearing mandate. His Twitter megaphone wasn’t hyping the construction job losses that could come when Biden ended the Keystone XL pipeline project. Trump wasn’t calling Biden a “loser” for his Covid-19 vaccination plans, or attacking Anthony Fauci as a failure he should have fired when the nation’s leading infectious disease expert spoke out about how difficult it was for scientists to operate in the Trump administration.
Twitter, by its nature, is a didactic, one-sided medium that meshed perfectly with Trump’s autocratic instincts. It doesn’t foster conversation or debate in the traditional sense; it simply provides a platform for expressing a view, or documenting an event. And while Trump’s tweets always drew a barrage of rejoinders from liberals who had access to his feed, those responses were never going to be the dominant story in media fixated on Trump himself. But just as Americans grew mesmerized and numbed by Trump’s ubiquitous Twitterstorms, so the Republican Party’s own ability to impose its own messaging has atrophied in tandem with its near-total abandonment of policymaking.
The impact of Trump’s absence is summed up by Philip N. Howard of the Oxford Internet Institute, quoted by Korecki: “Having him off Twitter allows the conversation about climate change to stay on topic—and about evidence. The conversation about race and social inequality can stay focused on policy ideas.”
And that’s why Republicans are now at a loss. They don’t do “evidence,” and they can’t do “policy ideas.” They gave up on those things long ago. Without the amplification of right-wing ideology by Trump, their ideas are confined to pleasing their own base, which traffics mainly in race-based grievances and conspiracies. But more importantly, they no longer have a figure as powerful and dominating as the president of the United States to capture and hold the public’s attention. They can’t come up with an effective counternarrative because they’ve prostrated themselves before Trump’s narrative for the last four years.
This environment—with Republicans in disarray and Trump effectively a nullity as far as the broader public is concerned—should provide President Biden with the rare opportunity to impose a sweeping array of progressive policies and actions before the Republicans even know what’s happening to them.
He should go for it.
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