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Elon Musk and Ron DeSantis’ fiasco shows they didn’t realize Twitter needs TV

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An illustration of Elon Musk.
Illustration by Kristen Radtke / The Verge; Getty Images

Look, Elon Musk just hosted the launch of Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign on Twitter Spaces, and I could say some things about hypocrisy — Musk insisting that “for Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral,” DeSantis promising to “hold big tech accountable.” But we’re all adults here. These men aren’t rational or consistent. They just want you to lick their boots, the big white baton twirler ones. So instead, let’s talk about the thing the Twitter Space made obvious: when it comes to politics, TV is still king.

The basic facts of yesterday’s announcement are pathetic. Musk’s first attempt at holding a Twitter Space failed when more than 600,000 users tuned in concurrently. (By comparison, BuzzFeed got 800,000 concurrent viewers when putting rubber bands on a watermelon in 2016 on Facebook Live, without the technical difficulties, and Travis Scott drew 12.3 million people in Fortnite, similarly without failures.) DeSantis managed to join another Space with David Sacks, a fellow Musk PayPal mafioso and the event’s moderator. That one drew as many as 300,000 listeners, allowing DeSantis to finally make his announcement via glorified conference call, complete with a questioner who had trouble unmuting.

But there are a few things happening here. First, Musk and DeSantis are trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle that Twitter had with Donald Trump. Second, Sacks is vying for the Silicon Valley power broker role his other old PayPal buddy Peter Thiel is leaving vacant. And the third — cue the Succession theme — is that Musk apparently wants to be the online Rupert Murdoch.

Trump and DeSantis are currently the main rivals for the Republican nomination in 2024. Musk’s frenemy Thiel made a name in Republican politics by throwing money around, but he appears to be sitting the next election out, and his absence makes Sacks look more important. Murdoch’s influence on American politics can’t be overstated, but he’s from a different era, and so is his audience. 

Still, Trump’s CNN town hall drew 3.3 million viewers, also without the technical difficulties. This is one battle the internet hasn’t yet won.

In Trump’s shadow

Trump made Twitter the center of conversation in a way no other politician has because he had a kind of loveless anti-poetry to him, like if Philip Larkin went into advertising. Trump, who cut his teeth on reality TV, knows how to write and say stuff that “even the haters and losers” wind up having lodged in their brains permanently. (Say it with me, “One of the wettest we’ve ever seen, from the standpoint of water,” “at seven, it’s marginal,” “very stable genius.”) I have difficulty even thinking “Ron DeSantis” without thinking “Meatball Ron” or reflecting on the time that Trump called him “Rob.” 

Leave aside Trump’s knack for slogans for a moment, though, and consider the way he used Twitter: to live-tweet TV. Trump’s real platform has always been television; reality TV made him a household name outside the reach of the New York Post’s Page Six, and he got put on Fox regularly during the Obama administration — shit, CNN is still airing his town halls! As president, his running TV commentary was possibly the most effective way to know what his political agenda was, regardless of whether you were in politics. It made Twitter incredibly powerful.

For Trump, Twitter and TV worked synergistically. Pretty much every reporter on earth is Too Online, and most of them are (or were) Twitter-addled. Sending out a weird tweet essentially guaranteed him airtime. The end goal was always TV, which his voters have been watching since they were children with their noses three inches from the screen. Twitter was (and is) a niche online platform, and it is even more niche among boomers; that’s why Trump’s campaign focused on Facebook ads.

For Trump, Twitter and TV worked synergistically

Now, having a direct line to every political reporter in the nation is not a bad thing for a politician, so you can kind of see why DeSantis thinks this is a good idea. Sort of. If you squint. But not only does DeSantis lack Trump’s knack for a memorable phrase but the Twitter Space also suggests he misunderstands what Trump was doing. Recording and rebroadcasting a Twitter Space is more technically challenging and high effort than simply flashing a screenshot. Broadcasting audio on TV is visually boring. A lot of reporters tuned in — I certainly did — but there were fewer incentives to amplify DeSantis on their own platforms. Putting DeSantis in a Twitter Space is great for Musk, whose goal is simply getting more people on Twitter. But all DeSantis did was lock himself into a platform with a small user base that’s less likely to vote.

And at the risk of belaboring the point: compared to Trump, DeSantis is boring. The Twitter Space consisted primarily of whining about the media, covid restrictions, the “woke mob,” central bank digital currencies, and, for some reason, the Chevron deference.  

Sure, Trump, the world’s softest boy, also whined constantly — that John McCain had “the world’s longest funeral,” for instance — but it was punctuated with surreal digressions about how people should, I don’t know, put disinfectant in their lungs to fight covid. People will put up with whining if it’s entertaining, but if it’s some nerd shit like Chevron? Tough luck, pal.

PayPal’s made men

On his All-In podcast last year, David Sacks confidently predicted a big Republican red tide in the midterms. It did not materialize. I have heard an explanation I find credible, and it came from Peter Thiel.

When I last saw Thiel speak publicly, at the Reagan Library in December, he opened his remarks by saying he would begin by “wallowing a bit on the disaster that was the 2022 — depressing disaster that was the 2022 midterms.” The shape of the disaster, as Thiel told it: not defeating a single incumbent Democratic senator and defeating only one incumbent Democratic governor. Though 31 incumbent Democrats in the House of Representatives chose not to run, Republicans picked up a “mere” nine seats. All this despite inflation and what Thiel termed, “Biden’s dementia.” 

“The part of it that’s not merely disastrous but depressing is just the sense that, you know, if we don’t do something different, we’re just going to be in this Groundhog Day, where something like this is going to repeat in 2024, or throughout the rest of this decade,” Thiel said. He went on to argue that the Republican Party had run out of juice and hadn’t figured out how to attract new or undecided voters with Paul Ryan-style policy wonkery or Mitch McConnell-style nihilism. According to Thiel, Reagan had a popular idea: defeating communism.

In this sense, Trump also had a popular idea: extending a middle finger to the existing political system. DeSantis, however, is the system. And while Sacks has been on the DeSantis train for a while, that enthusiasm is not widely shared among the donor class. Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman declined to donate to DeSantis because he’s “pragmatic and wants to support a winner.” Several other top donors have also expressed hesitation about DeSantis’ book and abortion bans, though without ruling out donating altogether, according to Reuters. Thiel himself has said he’s sitting the 2024 cycle out because he thinks the culture war is a bad fight.

If you want to be Silicon Valley’s next kingmaker, you have to deliver a king

That leaves an opening. While Sacks isn’t as rich or as important as Thiel, he did co-write a book with him: The Diversity Myth, best remembered today for calling date rape “belated regret.” (Sacks later said that the book “does not represent who I am or what I believe today.”) Indeed, Sacks rode Thiel’s coattails to PayPal — which set the stage for the rest of his career.

Thiel is actually powerful and, consequently, doesn’t have to speak any more than he wants to. But Sacks has set himself up as an influencer of sorts with All-In as well as appearances with Megyn Kelly, Dave Rubin, and Glenn Beck. Though his checkbook is smaller, he can provide introductions to other Silicon Valley conservatives — he is mobbed up. And Sacks has an in with the biggest Silicon Valley influencer of them all: Elon Musk.

But if Sacks wants to be a kingmaker in his own right, he needs a winner. That puts a lot of pressure on DeSantis to deliver. Maybe DeSantis will fare better in other venues than he did in this Twitter Space, but in his campaign launch, he just didn’t have the juice.

Thiel posed a question in December: what do Republicans even stand for anymore? His own answer was… still communism. “Perhaps communism was not fully defeated,” Thiel said. “And perhaps that is still the really big problem today. Not in the form of the Soviet Union, but in the form of China, the Chinese Communist Party, Red China, whatever you want to call it.”

Now, maybe Thiel was just playing to the kind of audience that shows up at a Reagan Library event. But he’s not wrong about having a unifying idea. It’s just that DeSantis’ unifying idea — along with that of many other Republicans — happens to be demonizing queer people. Besides the “Don’t Say Gay” law, he’s restricted medical care for trans people, banned drag shows, and weirdly, regulated bathroom usage — which means that if the women’s room is out of order, I guess cis women have to piss in the bushes because commandeering the men’s room in a pinch is now illegal in the great state of Florida.

But DeSantis in particular has made the very weird decision to take on his former wedding venue, Disney, which made a mealymouthed objection to his “Don’t Say Gay” law. Battling the most classically American megacorporation shy of Coca-Cola is about as far from Thiel’s vision as you can get and requires a certain level of panache. But so far, DeSantis can’t even win over Musk’s true believers.

“I’m going to go watch some paint dry so I can be more entertained,” tweeted Musk pal Catturd2. He then retweeted several other users who were also bored by DeSantis.   

Mimicking Murdoch

Shortly after Musk announced his Twitter bid, Om Malik noted that buying Twitter meant Musk would “never [be] locked out from the platform that gives him the bully pulpit and power.” Musk needed the pulpit, Malik continued, to make sure “enough people believe in his way of thinking so that hundreds of millions flow into his projects and thus enable his vision of the future.” But Musk’s vision of the future has been contracting, hasn’t it?

While some sweet summer children think Musk can go toe-to-toe with Murdoch, there are some problems with this thesis. First, Twitter is not TV — and consequently doesn’t play constantly on mute in public spaces. Second, the people who are most likely to vote are not Twitter’s (tiny) audience. And third, Twitter has already failed at live video. Suggesting that Musk can compete with Murdoch underrates Murdoch’s media savvy and dismisses how important habit is for viewers.

Musk has scored one big TV émigré with Tucker Carlson, who announced he’d be taking his show to Twitter after being canned from Fox. But I doubt Carlson’s geriatric audience will come with him — TV is still the path of least resistance. Assuming they do decide to get on Twitter, they’re going to be confronted with snuff videos, scams, and other assorted detritus that even Fox News doesn’t allow. 

In some ways, Musk hiring Linda Yaccarino to serve as CEO suggests parallels to Murdoch’s relationship with Roger Ailes, the man whose vision most shaped Fox News’ lineup. (Yaccarino served in the Trump administration; Ailes with Richard Nixon.) But Ailes could control his programming, from the “leg cam” angles to the “fair and balanced” grift  — and like Murdoch, he was laser-focused on being entertaining. Twitter is full of user content and is consequently only as good as its users and its moderation. Plus, Murdoch gave Ailes free run of Fox News for 20 years, until Murdoch’s sons defenestrated him; Musk fired Twitter’s last non-Musk CEO, Parag Agrawal, for the crime of suggesting Musk not trash-talk the company in public.

There’s one other thing: scale. On Fox, Carlson averaged 3 million viewers throughout 2022. DeSantis’ original Space crumbled under 600,000 people, or about 20 percent of that audience. And Carlson’s viewers probably won’t be placated by some weak jokes about “breaking the internet.”

There are plenty of things to take away from the lackluster beginning of the DeSantis presidential campaign, but for me, it felt like a combination of off-brand colas. DeSantis is no Trump; Sacks is no Thiel; it is probably an insult to Rupert Murdoch to compare him to Musk at all. And Twitter can’t really touch TV, which is still the dominant medium for most politics, as it has been since 1960.

Now, I have only one question: did DeSantis’ entire presidential campaign just experience an unscheduled rapid disassembly?

Correction May 25th, 11AM ET: This story originally screwed up the percentage of Tucker Carlson’s viewership that Musk’s Twitter Space fell apart under. It is 20 percent, not 1 percent. We regret being bad at math in many contexts, but especially this one.