Saturday, August 1, 2020

What did Donald Trump do today?

He imagined he had the power to ban social media he doesn't like.

Yesterday, Trump threatened to ban the popular social media app TikTok. He told reporters on Air Force One, returning from a fundraising trip to Florida: "As far as TikTok is concerned we’re banning them from the United States." Trump added, "I have that authority. I can do it with an executive order or that."

In reality, he doesn't have that authority. The governments of some countries do: authoritarian regimes frequently ban social media in order to control dissent. In theory, Trump could try to pressure American companies like Apple and Google to block the app from their stores—in other words, forcing them to take sides against their own customers

It's not clear why Trump suddenly decided to make TikTok the latest in a very, very, very, very, very, very, very long line of empty threats. The app, which is owned by a Chinese company, has a poor reputation for privacy protection, but then so do most social media apps.

But it's probably not a coincidence that so many of Trump's unenforceable threats are leveled against people or companies that say unflattering things about him. That applies to TikTok, too. It's popular with young people—a demographic the elderly Trump does worse with than any other age group. 

Trump himself was tricked by TikTok users (among others) into preparing for a crowd of millions at his Tulsa rally, only to have barely 6,000 show up, forcing a furious Trump forced to speak to a mostly-empty arena. And among its short videos are the satirical ones posted by comedian Sarah Cooper, in which she lip-syncs to audio of Trump's own voice. 

In spite of telling reporters the "order" would come today, the day passed with Trump taking no action on this or any other matter besides golf.

So what?

  • Presidents who can't handle criticism can't handle the presidency.
  • Trying to control media and limit free speech is what dictators do.
  • It's bad if presidents just make up powers they don't really have.