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Startup Down

Donald Trump’s Brazen Bid to Control MAGA Minds

TRUTH Social is supposed to compete with Twitter. So far, it’s been a mess. And Trump may go back to Twitter anyway. But it still could work out to be a killer grift.

In the summer of 2007, Donald Trump—his businesses in ruin, hanging on to relevance for dear life via The Apprentice—cut an advertisement to introduce his newest namesake product. “When it comes to great steaks, I’ve just raised the stakes!” Trump says, sitting in his midtown office in front of stacks of black-and-gold boxes. “Trump Steaks are by far the best tasting, most flavorful beef you’ve ever had. Truly in a league of their own.”

Launched in partnership with Sharper Image and the home shopping network QVC, Trump Steaks were a classic mid-aughts Trump product. This was the time of Trump Ice (bottled water, not high-alcohol beer, introduced to grocery stores in 2003) and Trump Vodka (2007). All showcased Trump’s characteristic mixture of desperation and laziness. They were licensing deals—Trump didn’t have his own cows, of course, but instead licensed his name to beef from Buckhead Beef, an Atlanta-based firm—that provided an extra few bucks from his core hotel business. The restaurants in Trump hotels need steaks, water, and vodka—so why not Trump Steaks, Trump water, and Trump Vodka? They were inevitably overpriced: While they did reasonably well in taste tests, the steaks came in packages ranging from $199 to $999, a typically extortionate price point for home consumers who could surely afford better cuts at a lower cost. But the most important part wasn’t the product, but Donald himself. The Trump Organization’s deal with Sharper Image really had only two stipulations: His picture must be placed in the company’s catalog and in every one of its stores. For a few months at least, Trump would be the Kim Jong Il of a chain best known for selling massage chairs.

And, even more characteristically, the steaks were total flops. Two months after launching, they were pulled by both Sharper Image and QVC. “The net of all that was we literally sold almost no steaks,” Sharper Image CEO Jerry Levin told ThinkProgress in 2016. “If we sold $50,000 of steaks grand total, I’d be surprised.” Sharper Image would declare bankruptcy in 2008, though Levin insisted the partnership was good for the company: Sales went up because Trump’s picture was in the windows of its nearly 200 stores—customers just came in to buy its inefficient circular air filters, not food. In 2016, when Trump insisted the meats he was serving to celebrate notching Republican primary victories in Michigan and Mississippi were his namesake beef, a Palm Beach meat distributor bristled. Trump Steaks hadn’t been seen anywhere since 2008; he was actually serving rib eyes from Bush Brothers Provision (no relation to Jeb, Trump’s recently humiliated foe).

In the mid-’00s, this was the Trump familiar to just about everyone. Whether you were a fan of The Apprentice or not, it was all there. The black-and-gold steak boxes—yes, boxes— were at once gaudy and tawdry. The man insisting that his newest product was great “in every sense of the word” was maybe only a half step removed from a TV pitchman selling incontinence pills. Above all else, the products Trump was selling were half-baked and trivial. Even before we all knew how Trump likes his steak—burnt, with ketchup—why would anyone want to eat beef from a reality TV host? Why would they buy vodka from a teetotaler? The real point seemed to be a bid at relevance—and bilking Apprentice superfans.

When Trump ran for president in 2016, there were attempts to throw these ventures—and other, more predatory ones, like Trump University—in his face. “Ever heard of Trump Steak or Trump Vodka?” Marco Rubio asked during a 2016 debate. “Take a look at Trump Steaks. Trump Steaks is gone. You have ruined these companies.” Trump, went a familiar critique from both parties in 2016, was neither a good businessman nor even very rich—he just happened to play a rich businessman on TV. It stuck in some corners, but it never really worked. It may have, in fact, missed the actual nut of Trump’s appeal. The fact that Trump was so obviously full of shit and so clearly out for himself was, bizarrely, a boon. It insulated him from criticism and, for a certain chunk of the population, became a kind of perverse asset: Maybe what America really needs is a huckster.

Now, after four years in the presidency—and four years spent complaining to anyone who would listen about the very lax campaign finance laws that prevented him from directly profiting from his die-hard supporters—Trump is back to doing what he does best: cooking up hastily conceived schemes aimed at making a quick buck with minimal effort. But in Trump’s efforts to enrich himself post-presidency, you also see familiar imperatives: He’s still lazy and unscrupulous, though now he has a far larger pool of potential marks. At the same time, these efforts are also a continuation of Trump’s larger political project: to supplant the existing structures of the Republican Party and replace them with entities controlled by Trump himself.

Now, Trump is hastily combining all his schemes into one effort to get rich and augment his power and influence in the GOP, in anticipation of running for president again. It is, predictably, a disaster.

If you are a lazy person with a half-baked business idea and a long history of dodgy financial dealings, then a special-purpose acquisition company—or SPAC—may be just right for you. For Donald Trump, it’s practically a match made in heaven.

SPACs have been, with non-fungible tokens and digital currencies, among the hottest financial trends of the last two years. SPACs work by merging two companies—one “real” one and one created for the merger. Shares in the latter are sold to investors before it has found an existing company to merge with, and then that company gets whatever money the SPAC has raised from investors. They are, in essence, slapdash IPOs. In the last two years, they have been particularly popular with celebrities, including Shaquille O’Neal and Alex Rodriguez, but also with companies under pressure from investors to go public, like BuzzFeed. One appeal of SPACs is that, like NFTs and Bitcoin, they are attractive in large part because they are scantly regulated. (In late March, the SEC proposed new regulations to treat SPACs more like IPOs.) Another, related appeal is that you can launch them quickly without ever really formulating a business plan or, for that matter, the hope of ever turning a profit. If your goal is ultimately just to sell stock—and profit—then a SPAC is right for you.

On October 20 of last year, Trump announced that he would be creating a social media network, TRUTH Social, as a part of his new company, the Trump Media and Technology Group, which would be merging with a SPAC. “I created TRUTH Social and TMTG (Trump Media and Technology Group) to stand up to the tyranny of Big Tech,” Trump said in a press release. “We live in a world where the Taliban has a huge presence on Twitter, yet your favorite American president has been silenced. This is unacceptable.”

This more or less sums up TRUTH Social’s purpose. Donald Trump’s biggest power—his ability to set and, perhaps more importantly, reset, the news cycle—came from the dispatches he would send off at any hour of the day, though typically either very late at night or very early in the morning. Trump would use his Twitter feed to threaten nuclear war with North Korea, challenge Joe Biden to a fight, and whine about the Oscars being mean to him; it was what he appeared to love more than anything or anyone in the world, including his children (with the possible exception of Ivanka). Now, having been permanently banned from Twitter for the minor offense of using his account to foment a violent attack on the United States Capitol in a failed attempt to overturn the 2020 election, he needs a place to post. Hence, TRUTH Social.

There is, at least theoretically, an audience for this. For one thing, Trump did have 80 million Twitter followers. For another, for most of the last five years, Republicans have ginned up a moral panic about tech companies—particularly Twitter, Facebook, and Google—“censoring” conservatives. This has largely involved a great deal of smoke and mirrors, but the protestations were largely about working the refs—pressuring tech companies to not use content moderation policies to remove posts from right-wingers that were racist or abusive, or that spread misinformation. But it has also taken off on the right—trust for tech companies among Republicans fell 18 points between 2020 and 2021, per a July Gallup poll.

During the same period, Twitter—long criticized for its lax content moderation policies and rampant abuse—has had to take some action in response to two crises. One was the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, where the platform has been used to spread troves of misinformation about masking, the origin of the virus, and whether the vaccine contains enzymes that turn its recipients into devil worshippers. The other was the spread of conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, from “watermarked” ballots in Arizona to the idea that the real culprits of the “theft” were Italians, for some reason. As a result, several major figures on the right, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, Steve Bannon, and Mike Lindell (a.k.a. “the MyPillow Guy”), were permanently banned from the platform, and a narrative set in: Twitter was no place for conservatives. This helps explain why conservatives were so stoked about the April announcement that Elon Musk, who has indicated a broad tolerance for disinformation and rage, was moving to buy Twitter.

Looking at this landscape, one could come to the not wholly unreasonable conclusion that there was a market for a social media platform for disaffected Republicans. Much as Fox News emerged in the mid-’90s to correct biased, left-wing cable news sources, a right-wing social network could provide a safe space for them far from Twitter’s Eye of Sauron. Here they could share their beliefs about the 2020 election, about Covid-19, about genetic differences between the races—you name it.

Of course, several outlets had tried to make such a platform work, with middling success. Parler, launched in 2018 and founded by, among others, Republican superdonor Rebekah Mercer, blew up among a certain subset of right-wingers before crashing and burning after the “tech overlords” (Mercer’s phrase) banned it from their platforms following the January 6 insurrection, causing its user base to fall off a cliff; it has since reemerged, but is a ghost town. Gab, another platform vying for disaffected Trumpers, was hacked in February of last year, making 70 gigabytes of passwords and private communications public. Gab, like Parler, claims to have millions of users but more likely has a few hundred thousand. Gab and Parler had another shared problem. One obvious flaw in building a social network for those banned from other social networks is that it quickly becomes overrun with the kinds of people who get, well, banned from social networks: white supremacists, antisemites, cranks, and Nazis.

TRUTH Social had something that these other social networks didn’t: Trump himself. Sure, Gab and Parler may have been duds—but they didn’t have Donald Trump. TRUTH Social was the answer to a problem, in the classic startup sense: millions of Trump superfans milling around across several social networks, none of which featured their favorite president. If Trump were to build a social network for his followers—all very fine people, of course—they would come.

And so, TRUTH Social was born of twin imperatives. The first was to provide a hub for Trump’s own posts where they could never be taken down. Since he was banned from Twitter in January 2021, Trump has attempted to recapture the magic, with pitiful results. For a month, he tried his hand at blogging but, like so many early Blogspot users, he quickly ran out of steam; with his pieces receiving little attention or traffic, he quit after four weeks and scrubbed the internet of his posts. He does still send out semi-daily streams of updates—some mocked up to look like tweets, featuring his familiar avatar—most of which have his trademark mix of invective and incoherence. They are bombastic—many include charges about the 2020 election that are wilder than anything he said in the lead-up to January 6. “The Unselect Committee of partisan Democrats, and two very weak and pathetic RINOs, should come to the conclusion after spending many millions of dollars, that the real insurrection happened on November 3rd, the Presidential Election, not on January 6th—which was a day of protesting the Fake Election results,” Trump wrote in October, referring to the House committee that has been investigating his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. But these updates don’t move the needle either.

The second was to make as much money as possible off his doggedly loyal supporters before he once again became bound up by America’s campaign finance laws. As a candidate, Trump had once bragged, “It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it,” but that didn’t happen. And, while he was able to merge his private businesses with the presidency in ways that blatantly violated the spirit of public service and maybe the law—with his golf clubs and hotels, particularly the one in Washington, D.C., serving as clear ways to garner influence and smash the emoluments clause to pieces—his core companies cratered during his time in office. A SPAC was an easy way to make a quick buck and maybe—just maybe—build a successful tech company, all without spending a dime. “There’s nothing surprising. The only surprising thing would be if he actually put his own money into it. He’s always an other-people’s-money people guy,” Trump family biographer Gwenda Blair told The Washington Post last fall. Without financial risk, “what’s the downside? It’s all upside.”

“By moving into this area with social media combined with SPAC, it’s largely outside the realm of regulated business,” said the investigative journalist David Cay Johnston, who’s been chronicling Trump’s scams for decades. “Trump has an opportunity to make some money with very little work, and he just has to keep it going long enough to avoid fraud charges. This all goes to a fundamental truth: America and the rest of the developed world have very weak white collar crime laws. They’re full of exceptions and excuses: It’s an open opportunity for criminals to steal with an ink pen and a promise rather than a gun.” All that Trump has to do to get away with it is to keep the scam going long enough. That may prove a challenge.

No one, Trump very much included, appeared to put much effort into making the Trump Media and Technology Group seem like a real company. Trump signed its initial paperwork as its “chairman,” but for weeks it wasn’t clear who worked there, let alone if it even had a chief executive officer. Finally, in early December, Devin Nunes, a former chair of the House Intelligence Committee who spent most of the Trump era running interference for his scandal-plagued president, was selected for the job.

Nunes has no background in technology. Before entering Congress, he was a farmer. Nor has he ever been an executive of a major company. Instead, he had spent the previous two decades in politics. He was leaving the House partly because redistricting meant that his previously safe seat suddenly looked up for grabs. For Trump, he was also doggedly loyal, someone who even sued The Washington Post for suggesting that he had lied to the former president. (Nunes lost that suit in April when a U.S. Court of Appeals found that he had “failed to plausibly allege a claim of defamation.” He has filed several other lawsuits against media companies for defamation, some of which are ongoing.)

Donald Trump awarded former U.S. Representative Devin Nunes the Medal of Freedom on January 4, 2021, two days before the Capitol insurrection. Nunes now heads Trump Media and Technology Group.

The former San Joaquin Valley congressman did have some dealings with social media, however. He had also sued Twitter in an attempt to stop two accounts, @devincow, or “Devin Nunes’ Cow,” and @devinnunesmom (self-explanatory), from making fun of him. That suit alleged that the two accounts had engaged in a “vicious defamation campaign” against him. It also alleged, “In her endless barrage of tweets, Devin Nunes’ Mom maliciously attacked every aspect of Nunes’ character, honesty, integrity, ethics, and fitness to perform his duties as a United States Congressman.” The case has been dismissed several times, but Nunes continues to sue the company. He has succeeded in one respect: Twitter did suspend Devin Nunes’ Mom, but a new account, Devin Nunes’ Alt-Mom, quickly replaced it and currently has more than 125,000 followers. Devin Nunes’ Cow, meanwhile, has only seen its following explode in the wake of the lawsuit.

Nunes would seem to be an odd choice for a company ostensibly committed to fighting “for the First Amendment protections and freedoms of all Americans.” But TRUTH Social was so hastily thrown together that it suggested no one was thinking about intellectual consistency.

The company’s pitch deck to investors, which was unveiled in December, showed a similar commitment to seriousness. The team working on its core social network was listed as Josh A., Billy B., Vlad N., Ryan L., Steve E., Tom M., Ryan L., Mortada A., Brandon B., Simo S., and other tech luminaries. It suggested that a user might be “a sales representative who travels to visit customers,” and, even more vaguely, “Actors may be internal or external to an organization.” Its infrastructure slide is a graph showing people interacting with various computers and servers in increasingly nonsensical ways. It all has the feel of a hastily cobbled together PowerPoint where the primary source is copying and pasting from Wikipedia.

But the pitch also included big ambitions. The deck projects its user base, at various points, to be between 15 million and 21 million users, and 10 million and 40 million “streaming subscribers,” leading to revenue projections between $1 billion and $3.7 billion—though it’s never clear which of these numbers are the real ones. In keeping with Trump’s own hubris—to say nothing of the inflated boasts of tech startups—TRUTH Social would only be the beginning. That company would shake Twitter and Facebook to their cores. But more was coming. The Trump Media and Technology Group would also take on streaming services like Netflix and Disney+. “TMTG+ plans to be an on-demand streaming service that will provide news, Big Tent entertainment, exciting documentaries, sports programming, and more,” the pitch deck reads. “The American public is seeking ‘non-woke’ entertainment, and TMTG+ will provide content for all to enjoy.” If that wasn’t enough, it would also break into audio (going after iHeartRadio), news (taking on Trump’s long-standing foe, CNN), and, of all things, cloud computing (Amazon Web Services). That’s quite a lot to take on for a guy whose primary experience in the tech industry was suing a fictional cow.

The concept behind TRUTH Social was, theoretically, straightforward. It is, more or less, a carbon copy of Twitter with two primary changes. One is that tweets are called “truths,” as in “you post a ‘truth about how the Chinese stole the 2020 election” on TRUTH Social’s feed. The second is that it would include numerous controversial figures who had been banned from Twitter, most notably Donald Trump.

At first, the venture was wildly successful. In October, weeks before TRUTH Social was announced, Digital World Acquisition Corp., the SPAC the Trump Media and Technology Group would partner with, was trading at $10 a share. The day after Trump announced his new venture, it jumped to $40 a share; a day after that, it was trading at $97 a share. In December, shortly after it gave its pitch to investors—a pitch that listed no company executives and contained no business plan—the company was valued at a staggering $10 billion, despite the fact that it didn’t exist yet. “This is now the meme stock of all meme stocks,” Matthew Tuttle, CEO of Tuttle Capital Management LLC, told CNN. It was also announced that TMTG would be doing a so-called PIPE deal (“private investment in public equity”), in which banks and investment firms buy stock that they then sell to retail investors. The deal ultimately netted nearly $1 billion in investment.

All this created what Mother Jones said “could be Trump’s biggest conflict of interest ever.” The former president was raising colossal sums of money in service of a venture that didn’t exist. The identities of its funders, meanwhile, were kept hidden—PIPE investors must be disclosed only after DWAC and TMTG complete their merger, something that may not happen until the fall of 2023. In the meantime, the company’s valuation continued to soar, even as its business plan remained murky at best.

On Presidents Day, its stock jumped yet again, after TRUTH Social released its long-awaited iOS app, giving the company a valuation of $19.1 billion. But that was nearly the fledgling social network’s high-water mark—it peaked two weeks later. A host of predictable issues marred the app’s release. There was a flood of one-star reviews on Apple’s App Store from Trump’s haters. But some negative reviews pointed at real, existing problems. The app’s wait list was over half a million at launch, leaving many users unable to log in. There was seemingly only a skeleton crew in its support team; with their tech support queries left unanswered, a flood of frustrated users abandoned the app altogether, with many leaving one-star reviews.

Publicly, Trump has tried to put on a happy face, claiming that the slow rollout was all part of the plan. “It’s slowly been opened, people are getting on and they’re loving the product and we’re getting a voice,” he said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February. “It’s been an incredible success,” he continued. “We have hundreds of thousands of people trying to get on and we’re doing it very slowly.” But behind the scenes, he is reportedly furious. Reporting from The Daily Beast in early March suggested that the former president was already getting fed up with its lack of success, and that he was regularly asking people, “What the fuck is going on” with the app?

Three months later, things have only gotten worse. An Android app has still not appeared, despite the fact that its operating system is used by 40 percent of Americans; the wait list, meanwhile, has grown to nearly 1.5 million. It had fallen out of the top 100 most downloaded apps on Apple’s App Store but counterintuitively surged after news broke of Musk’s pending Twitter takeover. As of early April, meanwhile, it was attracting only half a million visitors a day—more than 400 times less than Twitter’s daily haul. In fact, no one seems to be clamoring for TRUTH—the user base, at least until the app is operational on Android devices, seems to be locked in. It is regularly bested in terms of usership and downloads by Gab—despite the fact that Gab is popular with Nazis—and Gettr, another right-wing social media app that is run by former Trump adviser Jason Miller. TRUTH Social shares are down 60 percent from their peak.

Nunes had said that his goal was for TRUTH Social to become “fully operational” by the end of March, a deadline that he has missed by weeks. The company has also faced an exodus of talent. Josh Adams and Billy Boozer, the company’s chief of technology and chief of product development, respectively, both left their positions less than a year after linking up with Trump. “If Josh has left … all bets are off,” one tech source told Reuters about Adams’s departure, labeling him the “brains” of the operation. “Devin Nunes, who proved himself to be an incompetent congressman and an incompetent chair of the intelligence committee, has now proven himself to be an incompetent businessman,” Johnston said.

One big problem with the app is that Trump himself is barely using it, despite the fact that he has racked up more than 750,000 followers. Through late April, he had posted only one “truth”: “Get ready! Your favorite president will see you soon!” That post, which appeared in mid-February, has garnered more than 150,000 engagements. He finally posted a second on April 28. But Trump is reportedly waiting to engage with the app until it becomes more popular, creating a kind of chicken-and-egg problem: He won’t post until more people use the platform, but more people won’t use the platform in part because he isn’t posting on it.

Trump’s fury over the app’s lack of success suggests it isn’t merely a way to bilk investors—and supporters—out of money. He has long flirted with the idea of creating rivals for his many enemies in the media, entertainment, and tech industries; the Trump Media and Technology Group was constructed as a means of getting revenge against his haters. TRUTH Social would also be a springboard for his not announced but very real presidential campaign. Increasingly anxious about the rise of mini-mes like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump is also facing the prospect of running in a Republican primary without the same ability to set the news agenda that he had in 2016 and as president. For five years, the press could not look away from the circus that he was creating, 280 characters (or less) at a time. The news media has largely ignored his increasingly unhinged press releases and rallies. TRUTH Social was supposed to be his way back in. Instead, it’s a massive failure. It is not the springboard to mainstream attention that he has sought since leaving office. It also makes him look like a colossal loser, a guy who can’t even get his die-hard supporters to leave Twitter for a Trump-branded property.

Trump’s other post-presidency efforts are similarly exploitative, though many have been more successful. He has charged supporters between $10,000 and $30,000 to attend an event with him, with a broker telling them the “lion’s share” would be going to charity—despite the fact that no charity was ever listed. That money, moreover, went directly to Trump himself and was not tied to his political operation, as is typically the case with such fundraisers. Trump’s wife, Melania, has launched NFTs—which have been as disastrous as TRUTH Social. He has begun selling his famous “Make America Great Again” hats for a whopping $50 to $20 more than those offered by his political action committee, per The New York Times—with all the money going to his company. He has also published a coffee table book that retails for $75 a copy with a new publishing imprint started by his son, Donald Trump Jr. The book, which contains pictures from his presidency, is significantly back-ordered, as it has been since December. (It’s unclear precisely what is causing the delay, although both Trump and a spokesperson have blamed supply chain problems, which have plagued the publishing industry for most of the year.) The company has nevertheless boasted selling more than 300,000 copies of the volume, though its sales numbers are not tracked by industry groups like NPD BookScan. He has also managed to agree to sell his Washington, D.C., hotel—which lost tens of millions even when it was hopping during Trump’s presidency and is currently so empty you can practically see tumbleweeds—for $375 million to a Miami investment group. That figure represents a more than $100 million profit for Trump, who paid $200 million renovating the hotel and lost $70 million operating it. His political action committees, meanwhile, continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars at Trump properties.

The result is a nebulous, shadowy financial empire in which Trump is generating perhaps millions of dollars in revenue from his supporters directly for himself, while also providing products that require almost no effort or personal capital: picture books, hats, NFTs—even a social network.

These financial activities will create unprecedented political problems and new ethical issues should Trump seek the 2024 Republican presidential nomination—and especially if he wins the presidency. Since leaving office, Trump has rapidly, if haphazardly, worked to build a host of new political and social institutions to advance his larger political project. Furious at the power of old and new media to both fact-check and hold him accountable, Trump has sought to create outlets for propaganda where his increasingly deranged statements and allegations will never be challenged. TRUTH Social, coupled with the former president’s larger ambitions for a multipronged media empire, are part of a larger effort to insulate the president and his supporters from any information at all that contradicts, or even challenges, their worldview. As other platforms become more hostile to hate speech and conspiracy theories, the right is frantically trying to build ones more amenable to the lies and misinformation and rage its political project is increasingly built on; TRUTH Social is one of several similar efforts, but it is the only one managed by a figure of Trump’s stature. Indeed, its competitors—from Gettr to Gab—are all run by supplicants.

These businesses also require capital, something Trump has been wary of putting up himself in the past. Regardless of whether they succeed, they have provided an avenue for a degree of investment that simply wasn’t possible when Trump last ran for president. In 2015, he was a failure, and his political prospects were laughed off by nearly everyone. In 2022, he is the most influential force in American politics. His good graces are an immensely valuable commodity in and of themselves. It’s enormously concerning that we know very little about who is doing business with Trump or why, given his propensity for doling out favors to those with whom he has financial ties. In this sense, Trump is trying to become America’s answer to Silvio Berlusconi: a media tycoon who uses his power and leverage to bolster his political project and line his pockets simultaneously.

There has never been an ex-presidency quite like this, in which a former president simultaneously lays the groundwork for another campaign while also attempting to make as much money as possible. The result is an ethical minefield, in which the identities of the people paying Trump substantial amounts of money may never be revealed. On another level, they also resemble the Trump campaign’s own predatory fundraising efforts, in which many supporters unknowingly signed on for monthly donations that caused them serious financial hardship.

But many of these efforts are more reminiscent of Trump’s past post-bankruptcy scores. They’re small-time, reliant on licensing deals, leveraging his name for everything it’s worth, and taking obsessive fans—whether of The Apprentice or President Trump—for as much as he can get away with. The Trump Media and Technology Group—and TRUTH Social, in particular—were supposed to be the big score, an opportunity for Trump to hit back at his enemies, build an unshakable political foundation for his presidential campaign, and also make a boatload of cash. Set up as a technology and media company to end all technology and media companies—how else could you consider something aimed to be a combination of Twitter, Netflix, and Amazon?—it is instead quickly approaching Friendster territory. Trump himself is reportedly musing about joining a competitor like Gettr.

Elon Musk’s pending takeover of Twitter complicates this even further. Despite reams of speculation, little of substance is known about the richest man in the world’s plan for the struggling social network. Nevertheless, given Musk’s musings about the necessity of free speech, vague as they might be, one could expect the tech billionaire to reinstate Trump’s account when he takes control, something that should happen before the end of this year. Right-wingers have rejoiced over the news of the sale, anticipating that people banned for hate speech and misinformation will begin flooding back to the platform.

The possibility of a return to Twitter puts Trump in a bind, however. On the one hand, it is not only the source of his greatest power—his ability to dictate the news cycle at will—but also has a base psychological function: Trump loves attention, and Twitter allows him to get it like nothing else. Increasingly concerned about upstarts like DeSantis, moreover, Trump will likely seek to revive his 2016 playbook, crowding out competitors by dominating the news whenever they start to surge. And yet, Musk welcoming the barbarians back inside the gates could prove financially ruinous. When TMTG’s merger with DWAC is completed, Trump would own nearly 60 percent of a company worth, as of late April, more than $1 billion. Even with all of TRUTH Social’s issues—and new ones are cropping up practically by the day—a completed merger could make Trump, whose finances are perennially shambolic, very rich very quickly. And yet, the success of TRUTH Social—and, by extension, the success of the merger—are dependent on the fantasy that, as Puck’s Tina Nguyen wrote, “Twitter, among other platforms, is some lib Valhalla that’s inhospitable to right wing voices.” Musk may not turn Twitter into the playground for right-wing trolls that many are anticipating, but the perception that Twitter is suddenly welcoming could be severely damaging to TRUTH—and, by extension, to Trump, at least financially.

Regardless, TRUTH Social is looking more and more like a throwback to the days of Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, and Trump Ice than the next Amazon or Netflix, let alone Twitter. The company betrays all the hallmarks of a failed Trump venture. Simultaneously overambitious and undercooked, it’s the result of someone trying to settle scores and make a quick buck without ever really lifting a finger. He can’t even be bothered to post a “truth.” How can he be expected to build a company?