Trump’s $1.2 Billion Twitter Handcuffs

Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
April 26, 2022

Everyone besides Democrats was in a celebratory mood yesterday, it seemed, after Twitter accepted Elon Musk’s $44 billion offer to take the company private. The richest man on earth, who also happens to be an unrepentant, red-pilled memelord, has promised to turn the media’s most beloved social platform into an anything-goes free speech playground. But for MAGA world, at least, the World Series-level victory was bittersweet. Shortly after the deal was announced, Donald Trump told Fox News that he would not return to Twitter if Musk invited him back. Instead Trump claimed he would remain on his own platform, Truth Social, where he plans to begin posting (“truthing”) within the coming days. 

As a political strategy, this seems unwise: Trump returning victoriously to Twitter would have provided a jolt of pure adrenaline to the far right, immediately re-establishing his position as the loudest voice in the MAGAverse, and bending the news cycle yet again to his will. It would also, of course, amplify his position as the G.O.P.’s 2024 frontrunner. As I reported earlier in the Musk takeover saga, Trump would have rejoined Twitter “in a heartbeat,” according to someone familiar with his thinking and tweeting brain.

But Trump’s alleged loyalty to Truth Social, the tech-savvy MAGA set believes, is financially motivated. As the chairman and principal behind the Trump Media and Technology Group (TMTG), whose primary product is a social media platform, Trump is a fiduciary of a Twitter competitor. And, if you recall, TMTG entered into a SPAC agreement with Digital World Acquisition Corporation (DWAC) last fall. He’s locked into a pending merger with a publicly-traded company that, on paper at the moment, is worth $1.3 billion. Should the deal be completed, he will own 58 percent of the public entity, per Bloomberg. It’s unclear what reps and warranties Trump is subject to, as is the nature of what might comprise competitive behavior, which would impact investors, and TMTG did not return a request for comment regarding whether Trump could post on a competitor’s platform. 

But at the very least, TMTG’s entire presentation to the market is based on the notion that Twitter, among other platforms, is some lib Valhalla that’s inhospitable to right wing voices. Setting up shop there again would essentially obviate any reason for TMTG’s very existence, potentially harming the deal and possibly worse. If Trump is publishing his content for free on a competitor’s platform, TMTG withers, and the investors who sent DWAC’s prices to the moon on the stock market—at one point, it traded at $175 a share—will be rightfully mad. “I don’t believe it’s practical for Trump to go back to Twitter even if he wants to,” Jeff Brain, the C.E.O. of CloutHub, a competitor in the MAGA free speech tech space, told me, adding that Trump should never have been kicked off in the first place. “But I think he’s got to stay where he’s at. If he were to just leave and go back, people would go, well, he screwed us, now our stock’s not worth anything.”

But Trump and “C.E.O. Devin Nunes,” who left Congress to join this shambling mess, have their work cut out for them. Truth Social is notoriously buggy, rather empty, and apparently suffering personnel issues. DWAC’s stock has also been on a steep slide since Musk indicated his interest in Twitter, down more than 40 percent in the last month.

Given the various headaches, and his penchant for doing only what he wants, could Trump throw his hands in the air, initiate a messy exit from the merger, and abandon TMTG and its pitch deck full of multiplatform streaming dreams? Sure. There is also the possibility that Trump’s lawyers constructed language that gives him latitude to post on other social platforms, though color me skeptical that a SPAC would enter into an agreement with him without ensuring that, in one way or another, Trump keeps his brand value inside the company. That was, I’m told, a key component of earlier negotiations between Trump and tech companies hoping to re-platform him, as one would expect. (Representatives for Trump did not return requests for comment.) Of course, Trump’s primary superpower is a high threshold for litigation, as well as a history of ripping off investors in Trump-branded publicly-traded companies, so, sure, all bets are off.

But the fact remains: If the merger closes, and if the DWAC stock continues to trade at more than $10 a share, and if Trump retains his majority stake in the company, the guy makes good-to-great money. And that means that Trump has created a situation where, in a strange turn of events, returning to Twitter would increase his cultural relevance but cost him a meaningful pile of cash. And while Trump might be quite wealthy, he certainly does not have Elon-level “fuck you” money to drop at a moment’s notice for the sake of free speech. Time to start Truthing.

The G.O.P. Cracks Pandora’s Box

Twitter isn’t the only domain in which Trump has been sidelined from the political conversation. He has also been pushed down the G.O.P. pecking order by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whose ongoing WWE-style attacks on the Walt Disney Company has inspired the conservative commentariat to begin mulling other ways to take the culture wars into corporate boardrooms. Granted, DeSantis and Musk control levers that Trump does not—DeSantis runs a state, Musk has stupid amounts of money—but the door has been cracked open, and new proposals are coming in hot. Could other governors take aim at NBA tax breaks, or strip nonprofit status from university endowments? Could other executives or activist investors push for corporate purges of “woke” staff, as Ben Shapiro hopes Musk will do in Month One? 

For a measure of the far-right’s current arousal level, consider this recent article from The Federalist’s co-founder Ben Domenech, outlining an emerging thesis that the most successful forces on the left are all beneficiaries of a massive and swelling welfare state. “All of the woke Masters of the Universe are welfare cases—taxpayer funded schools and colleges, unfireable public employees, Wall Street TARPers and market manipulators, publicly financed sports arenas, Big Tech monopolists of taxpayer-created and taxpayer-protected technologies, corporate collaborators in Beijing’s brutality. Look at local, state, and federal budgets. We don’t work for the woke elite. They work for us.” Naturally, the tax credits that Tesla enjoys in Texas and SpaceX’s government subsidies go unmentioned.

Of course, this is a massive flip from days where the conservative movement firmly believed that free-market capitalism was the ultimate arbiter of American popular opinion. “Corporations are people too,” that infamous Mitt Romney haiku, was a line pushed by Ginni Thomas as she lobbied on behalf of Citizens United. But I’m also reminded of a conversation I had recently with a Republican pollster who noted that companies such as Disney, already empowered by the First Amendment to spend money for political purposes, are increasingly using their corporate might to back progressive issues that are less likely to be understood by non-activists. 

Unlike, say, the push for marriage equality, which the average voter could immediately grasp—two people who make a lifelong commitment to each other should have the legal protections of marriage, regardless of gender, etc.—the issue of trans rights is more esoteric. “Somewhere between 0.7 and 0.8 of the U.S. population identifies as transgender. It’s a concept that doesn’t even translate into Spanish very well,” the pollster said. “So what’s happening is there’s this massive heat lamp that’s being put on something that frankly most Americans are unfamiliar with. The Democrats’ position on this, it’s just out of touch with where voters are right now.”

Is Disney out of touch for reluctantly opposing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, under durress from its L.G.B.T. staff? Or is it DeSantis, who is enthusiastically (and probably illegally) threatening the state’s largest employer after already having won the legislative battle? Either way, the episode reveals new terrain for enterprising culture warriors looking to emulate DeSantis if the showdown breaks in his favor.

Guess Who’s A Secret Claremonster 

Last week, when the federal mask mandate was struck down by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, the initial media reaction was something like horror. Mizelle is only 33, a Trump appointee, and was previously rated  “Not Qualified” by the American Bar Association to be a federal judge—and this was the woman who struck down a massive public health policy put in place to curb the spread of a deadly global pandemic? Then an email landed in my inbox from the Claremont Institute, praising Mizelle as an 2017 alumna of their John Marshall Fellowship, and the more meaningful context for her sweeping ruling fell into place. 

I’ve written plenty about the Claremont Institute and how it’s functioned as the intellectual home for Trump-era nationalist-populism in recent years. The John Marshall Fellowship is one of their most prestigious programs: a fully-subsidized seven-day intensive seminar “for prospective clerks and legal scholars who will have opportunities to educate the judges and Justices with whom they work, and the legal community at large.” In academic terms, the Institute’s Center for Congressional Jurisprudence, which runs the Marshall Fellowship, acts as a “corrective to the legal establishment’s contempt for American principles of natural right and limited government” by using strategic litigation to take cases through the federal court system that challenge federal overreach. Its alumni include Blake Masters, the Peter Thiel acolyte running for Arizona’s Senate seat, and the faculty this year includes John Eastman, who authored Trump’s blueprint for Mike Pence to overturn the election. 

It’s not as if conservative judicial activists contrived to put the mask mandate issue before Mizelle—she was randomly assigned the case, as is usual for district court challenges. But it’s a stellar example of how well this network understands the nation’s playing field, and how Trump’s efforts to fill judicial appointments is now paying dividends. The Health Freedom Defense Fund, after all, filed this case in a Florida district court that was, more likely than not, to have a conservative-minded judge; they were especially lucky that it landed in front of Mizelle, a judge who ticks off all the desired boxes for a MAGA-minded lawsuit.