Opinion | What the Truth Social Flop Says About Trump

Last updated on September 10, 2022

The slow-cooking financial disaster that has been simmering in Donald Trump’s business Crock-Pot is now coming to a boil. Truth Social — the Twitter knock-off the former president launched six months ago in reaction to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube’s decision to deplatform him — might reduce itself to the smoke and char of bankruptcy, according to recent business press reports.

The swill the site serves attracts only a fraction of what Twitter does. Google has yet to approve downloads of its app from the Play Store over moderation issues, blocking it from 40 percent of the smartphone market. It lost $6.5 million in the first year and seems unable to pay its bills. But worst of all, the merger plan that would give it a stock market listing and the $1.3 billion it hoped to raise has stalled.

Once upon a time, Trump fed his 89 million Twitter followers a several-times-a-day mash of insult, provocation and bombast. But he has attracted only an estimated 3.9 million to his Truth Social account, making him one of the biggest social media flops of the decade. Where did the magic go? Why have Trump’s followers forsaken him? Is Truth Social doomed?

Trump deserves credit for marketing his Twitter account to its Everestian heights. He’s always known how to play to the crowds, titillate them and leave them wanting more. During his first campaign and presidency, even a garden-variety Trump tweet could convulse newsrooms. But that was a function of his front-runner status and later his place in the Oval Office. He drew an enormous audience not because he was Donald Trump tweeting but because he was the tweeting president. The power of the office endowed his tweets with muscle that could move financial markets, bury political careers, inspire death threats against his enemies and make the press snap to attention. But exiled to Mar-a-Lago and denied his social media accounts rendered him just another celebrity squeaking noises from a tiny soapbox. When his profile shrank, he became easier to ignore.

Even so, why didn’t the tens of millions of the 89 million who followed him on Twitter or the 74 million who voted for him in 2020 make more of an effort to visit his new address? Blame it on the network effect. If you already have a Twitter account, it takes just a millisecond to click and add another person’s feed to your account. But downloading a new app just to follow a single somebody takes mental energy, especially if there aren’t many other accounts on the app you wish to follow. Trump out of office proved to be as boring as Trump in office was disruptive. Everything we’re learning about Trump’s inability to convene a large-scale audience on Truth Social we learned in miniature from the failure of his mid-2021 blog, which he killed after 29 days. Like most media figures, Trump needs the boost of the network effect provided by Twitter (or CNN or Fox News Channel) to build a mass audience. All by his lonesome, he’s just a political carny on a lightly trafficked midway shouting invitations to his freak show.

Plenty of Trump’s followers were either agnostic about his tweets or politically hostile to them. Many followed him just to stay in the know or for the hate clicks.

This is not to say you can’t build a good business serving mostly Trumpians or mostly conservatives or mostly liberals. But such narrowcasting comes at the expense of winning the largest potential customer base. Twitter wisely places no political litmus tests, real or implied, between aspiring account-holders and an account as long as they promise not to spew bilge from their perch. Everybody is accepted. By appearing exclusionary, Truth Social resigned itself to marginal appeal.

Nothing about Truth Social’s disastrous beginnings should surprise us. Donald Trump has proved himself again and again to be a wreck of an entrepreneur. Steaks, his university, water, an airline, casinos, the USFL, a mortgage company, vodka — the list reads like a guide on how not to succeed in business. Associating Trump with a new venture has become a business death wish.

Trump is still the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 and could well wind up in the White House (assuming he’s not behind bars). But there’s also evidence that Trump has simply exhausted the Trump meme he invented. Trump’s deranged outrage style once contained real entertainment value — which explains why moderates and liberals followed him on Twitter even if they wouldn’t vote for him. But in his post-presidency and especially in the weeks following the Mar-a-Lago search and investigation, the show has gone stale. Vainly, he has sought to top himself by sharing QAnon-related material on Truth Social, denouncing the FBI like a madman trapped in a bunker, and calling for his reinstatement as the “rightful winner“ of the 2020 election. He’s become a carnival geek biting the heads off of snakes, which can be a fabulous show the first couple of times you see it, but after that, meh. Could today’s Trump devise enough fresh outrage to produce even a brief TikTok?

Are there any geek shows left? Send updates to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed has not yet been canceled. RSS is my sort of social media.