Conservatives have been railing against Silicon Valley brand names for years for allegedly discriminating against right-wingers and their content. Donald Trump only began aggressively taking up the cause in recent days and only after hearing that it was affecting him personally.
Earlier this week, Trump tweeted that Google search results for Trump news were “RIGGED” against him and conservatives. He wondered if it was “Illegal” and stressed that this “is a very serious situation-will be addressed!” The White House digital team subsequently created an official (and factually-challenged) video slamming Google.
But it wasn’t just Google who took it on the chin from the president. Trump also laid into other Silicon Valley titans in an Oval Office interview with Bloomberg on Thursday.
“I won’t comment on the breaking up, of whether it’s [Google] or Amazon or Facebook,” Trump said. “As you know, many people think it is a very antitrust situation, the three of them. But I just, I won’t comment on that.”
The barrage caught some conservatives off guard, for the implication it left that a Republican administration was entertaining the regulation of private companies and, potentially, First Amendment-protected speech. For Team Trump though, the ideological components are secondary to the political ones. The social media giants are ripe targets in their ongoing culture war.
Trump allies widely view the president’s crusade against tech and social-media giants as the product of both genuine grievance and as a useful bone to throw to the base. One GOP operative close to the White House called it “a new NFL,” referring to how Trump believes that kneeling players protesting police brutality are a winning issue for him and Republican candidates.
But the interest is not just superficial. Aides say that preparations are underway to use government resources to investigate the issue of anti-conservative bias on the major platforms.
On Thursday afternoon, President Trump’s top economic adviser Larry Kudlow told The Daily Beast that an “interagency review” process examining Google’s platform hadn’t yet started. But, he said, it will be “put through” soon, and that it’s a “routine” process performed on various matters, much of which never becomes public policy.
Kudlow claimed that the administration was looking into this subject even before “the president’s tweets.” He declined to elaborate on which agencies would be involved, when the process would get started, and what action is being considered.
Asked by The Daily Beast on Thursday what he thought of the idea of possibly regulating Google—given his history as a self-professed small-government conservative—Kudlow simply replied: “Yes, I am [a small-government conservative].” He noted that he had personally not used the word “regulation” or “regulate” when addressing the matter.
When Kudlow had first been pressed on Trump’s anger toward Google, he had told reporters that the administration was “taking a look at” the issue. But his answers—delivered with a notable smirk on his face—gave off the impression of an adviser who was in on the joke and not seriously entertaining his boss’s whims.
“Definitely wasn’t a smirk,” Kudlow said, while laughing. He added that he was “smiling [because] I’m a happy guy.”
President Trump does have a track record of stating publicly, often via Twitter, that he or his administration is going to take action or look into something, only to have nothing policy-wise come of it. During the presidential transition, he tweeted, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag—if they do, there must be consequences—perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” His administration took no additional steps.
Early this year, Trump said his administration planned to “take a strong look at our country's libel laws,” renewing a complaint he had vented during the 2016 presidential campaign. His administration has taken no action on this.
“If @TedCruz doesn’t clean up his act, stop cheating, & doing negative ads, I have standing to sue him for not being a natural born citizen,” Trump tweeted in February 2016.
He did not sue Sen. Cruz. Instead, on Friday, he announced he would campaign for the Texas Senator during his surprisingly tough re-election effort.
But even if President Trump doesn’t take regulatory or punitive action against Google or other tech giants accused of discrimination against the right, his rhetoric could have the net effect of helping pressure tech companies into appeasing conservative activists. At the very least, Trump’s messaging complements the onslaught of allegations of anti-conservative bias pushed against the tech companies by high-profile conservatives, including his own son.
And Trump has been catching on more and more.
Late last month, the president tweeted, “Twitter ‘SHADOW BANNING’ prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.”
He was referring to a theory among conservatives that Twitter had suppressed the feeds of verified accounts of Republican politicos and lawmakers in the website’s auto-populated search bar. RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, Congressman Matt Gaetz, and Andrew Surabian, a former White House official and current adviser to Donald Trump Jr., have all accused the company of shadow-banning them. Twitter has attributed the alleged “shadow-banning” to a glitch, an explanation that did nothing to alleviate calls for a change.
It helps McDaniel, Gaetz, Surabian, and others that they have caught the attention of the most powerful person in the world. But, as with most things involving Trump, he did not always feel so hostile toward the social media companies he now is attacking. In fact, he once thought highly enough of them to recommend they help President Barack Obama solve one of the Democratic administration’s biggest self-inflicted crises.
“Why doesn't President Obama just get the people from Google to fix the failed [Obamacare] website,” Trump tweeted in October 2013. “In fact, why didn't he use them in the first place!”