Wojcieszak is convinced that, even with Trump gone, not much will shift online. While the former president operated at its core, it was users of all political affiliations who held him there. That nucleus was “sustained by users like you and I and traditional media,” Wojcieszak says, explaining how Trump’s tweets regularly proliferated from Twitter to cable news and liberal websites. “Even now we are still amplifying his online presence.” Banning Trump could have the paradoxical effect of emboldening his supporters even more, or sending them to other platforms, but social media will not need to be totally remade without his image.
As of this posting, Trump remains in digital exile—a total of 17 tech companies have taken action against him, from YouTube and Snapchat to TikTok—but chances are he won’t stay ostracized for long, says Christopher Federico, who teaches political science at the University of Minnesota. “Former presidents usually observe the norm of staying out of the limelight and not commenting on their successors, but Trump is not likely to observe that norm any more than he observes other norms,” he told me. “To the extent that he remains an influential kingmaker and opinion leader in the Republican world, the volume might not get turned down as much we might expect.”
In his farewell address from Joint Base Andrews on Wednesday morning, Trump promised as much, saying, “We will be back in some form.”
It’s that very sense of defiant norm-breaking that gave a dangerous meaning to his presidency, the lasting effects of which have extended well beyond the rowdy planes of social media. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of How Emotions Are Made, says the Trump years are best understood as a “public health crisis,” which makes his ostensibly diminishing role in our digital lives no less complicated than before. He may be gone for the moment, but the repercussions remain.
Trump’s tweets were often erratic in a way that fed public uncertainty, but Feldman Barrett notes that even unpredictability, when it comes in a steady-enough stream, can feel like sureness. With him banned, what we are experiencing now is a new kind of instability. “As Trump withdraws from the central stage or as news agencies turn their attention away from him, and his platform gets smaller, to some extent it will be a change that will come with an increase in uncertainty,” she says, “which will come as an increase in arousal for people, which most people experience as anxiety.”
It’s helpful to think of Trump’s five years of deranged tweeting as little taxes on the body. Each tweet that caused stress, in and of itself, was not a big event. But Feldman Barrett warns that those taxes compound over time. “Like a drip of water boring a hole through a steel pipe, eventually the water breaks through.”
And that’s what’s happening currently. “It’s not a coincidence that we have record levels of depression, anxiety, opioid use—and of course there are other causes for that, and those things were on the rise before the Trump presidency,” she says, but we cannot understate the damage. “When it comes to the human nervous system, you don’t have single causes of anything. You have lots of small, nonlinear causes which interact with each other in a complex way to produce any kind of health or illness. I think the Trump presidency, for a lot of people, was a persistent public health stressor.”
America is at the beginning of a new turn. Still unclear are the ways the friction of the Trump era will endure online without its leader at the center of the chaos he was so artful at spinning. There is a chance someone new could emerge to fill the space he has left vacant. He may even reemerge from digital exile himself, louder than before. But for now, even as it is tinged with uncertainty, life online has a slightly less deafening vibration.
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