So, Donald Trump says that if Judge Tanya Chutkan orders him not to reveal details of the prosecution’s case before they can be presented to a jury, including the names, addresses, and testimony of witnesses against him, he’s going to do it anyway and challenge the court.
And there’s little reason to believe he won’t do it: he’ll take what he’s asserting as his First Amendment right to troll and threaten witnesses against him all the way to the Supreme Court he packed with three rightwing crackpots. If nothing else, it may buy him enough time to get elected president and pardon himself before he’s convicted.
In this, Trump has raised vicious social media trolling into a form of electoral performance art. He’s become our troll-in-chief.
America has been under the sway of rightwing trolls before. When I was a child in the 1950s, Republican Senator Joe McCarthy was conducting an active witch-hunt for “communists” in the federal government. This was the era when Robert Oppenheimer lost his security clearance for, in part, declaring himself a “New Deal Democrat” and standing up to the witch hunters, as characterized in the new movie about his making the bomb.
McCarthy destroyed the lives of thousands of people, and many were imprisoned because of his efforts. Historian Ellen Schrecker estimates his victims at over 10,000. He — and his right hand man, Roy Cohn (who went on to be Trump’s mentor) — were classic trolls in the worst sense of the word.
Some of McCarthy’s efforts live to this day, including his insistence throughout the Army-McCarthy hearings on never saying “Democratic Party” but, instead, always saying, “Democrat Party.”
Similarly, McCarthy echoed the John Birch Society’s (JBS) argument that America is not a democracy but a republic, an argument that James Madison made — and then refuted — when he was trying to sell the US Constitution. McCarthy’s and the JBS’s apparent rationale was that “democracy” sounds too much like Democratic while “republic” evokes good feelings for the Republican Party.
Nelson Rockefeller, who would become Gerald Ford’s Vice President, got a dose of this with the John Birch Society-pushed Goldwater sweep of the Republican Party at their 1964 convention.
“It is essential that this convention repudiate here and now,” he said over boos and chants, “any doctrinaire, militant minority, whether Communist, Ku Klux Klan, or Bircher (pause for ‘republic not democracy!’ chants set off by his attacking the John Birch Society)…”
Today’s trolling, however, has gone beyond the fringes defined in that era by the JBS, Cohn, and the occasional McCarthyite wannabee. It’s become the core, the essential identity, of the post-Trump GOP.
From “rolling coal” trucks blowing poisonous smoke at Prius and EV drivers, to “Free helicopter rides for liberals” tee shirts invoking Pinochet’s murders, to hate groups and militia members showing up at school board meetings, today’s Republican Party has fully embraced hate and trolling.
“Owning the libs” is the main online sport of many Republicans today, as you can see by following the social media feeds or reading the hate mail of any high-profile progressives or Democrats.
In large part that’s because Republicans don’t have anything else to present to Americans as a positive national governing agenda.
Reagan at least tried to convince us that cutting taxes to the point where the average American billionaire today pays only 3.4 percent in income taxes would “trickle down prosperity” to workers because the “job creators” would have more money to build factories. Instead, we saw the middle class collapse from two-thirds of us when Reagan came into office to around 43 percent of us today, while the morbidly rich became vastly richer.
He and Bush negotiated the NAFTA agreement to offshore American manufacturing, which Clinton happily signed into law, trying to convince us that getting rid of all those “dirty” manufacturing jobs would produce a white-collar renaissance. Instead, we lost over 45,000 factories and 15 million good-paying union jobs.
Reagan largely ended, in 1983, enforcement of our anti-trust laws; gutted the EPA so badly that his EPA Administrator, Anne Gorsuch (mother of the SCOTUS justice), had to resign in disgrace to avoid prosecution; and deregulated the S&L industry, producing the worst banking crisis since the Republican Great Depression.
His actions by and large hurt America and Americans, but at least at the time he had a happy sales pitch. Much of his neoliberalism was experimental and people were willing to give it a shot, as I lay out in The Hidden History of Neoliberalism: How Reaganism Gutted America, even if it didn’t work out.
But now that neoliberal Reaganism has been discredited, the GOP is bereft.
Donald Trump ran for president in 2016 opposing Reagan’s comprehensive immigration reform; promising to undo Reagan’s and Bush’s NAFTA agreement; embracing the worst aspects of post-communist Russia and Vladimir Putin; providing all Americans with cheap, comprehensive healthcare that Reagan warned would lead to socialism; and promising to raise taxes on the morbidly rich so high that his friends would refuse to talk to him.
He lied, by and large, but his followers bought his lies and many have followed him ever since. They love his hatred of Black, Hispanic, and Asian people. They adore his defiance of the law. They approve of his outing spies and helping MBS seize control of Saudi Arabia in exchange for a $2 billion payday. They agree with his embrace of dictators and his disdain for other democratic nations.
None of these are things that will “make America great.” But they all make for high-intensity trolling, which largely distracts from the GOP’s lack of a positive governing agenda.
Those who would replace Trump are now emulating him.
DeSantis and Abbott have reprized the old gimmick of 1960s southern white racists tricking Black people onto busses for northern cities, this time exploiting immigrants with limited English and a naïve trust in the “official” people who talk them onto planes for Blue cities.
Razor-wire barrels float in the Rio Grande, designed to kill any would-be asylum seeker who tries to breach them.
Public schools in Red states are using hardcore rightwing propaganda from a hate radio talk show host to tell students slavery wasn’t that bad and Columbus arrived to save “the cannibals” from themselves (the Taino weren’t cannibals).
In city after city, terrorists citing post-Trump Republican talking points have stalked and murdered Black people, Jews, and Hispanics.
Kyle Rittenhouse, after killing two unarmed protestors, is lionized across the GOP (an Idaho Republican Party recently raffled off “Trigger Time With Kyle,” an opportunity to shoot an AR15 with the man-child himself).
Pro-Trump and DeSantis events are often speckled with Confederate and Nazi flags and iconography.
At a recent DeSantis event in South Carolina, three teenagers — including a 16-year-old in a wheelchair — were kicked, punched, and thrown to the ground for holding up a rainbow flag. The governor trolled them for the flag, whipping up the rage of the crowd, saying, “We don’t want you indoctrinating our children! Leave our kids alone!”
Which raises the question that may define the future of our republic: how far can a political party take trolling as its main way of motivating voters before it turns into something like the fascist parties of Europe in the 1930s or modern-day Russia and Hungary?
Can political parties (and the nations in which they operate) recover from this without the dire consequences suffered by the Germans in WWII or Russian people today?
History, as Timothy Snyder and Ruth Ben-Ghiat point out, isn’t comforting. Often, when countries are taken over by political parties that use violent rhetoric and trolling of minorities as their electoral weapons, they lose their democracy altogether.
On the other hand, America has a history of astonishing resilience. For all their flaws, the Founders and Framers of our nation created a system of government that has withstood a civil war, two world wars, and multiple criminal presidents.
While Republican presidential candidates try to out-Trump the Don himself, other Republicans and former Republicans are actively repudiating the criminality, hatred, and paranoia that characterized the Trump presidency and continues as the mainstay of his candidacy.
In many ways, the rightwing world seems to be collapsing in upon itself. Increasingly, the social media site that was Twitter has become a troll-filled echo chamber; many of us have simply given up on responding to challenges and attacks, as any attempt at rational discussion these days is fruitless.
As the ever-brilliant Amanda Marcotte writes at Salon:
“One can see the sheen of desperation in the world of self-identified conservatives who make a living by ‘triggering’ the liberals. The usual dose of outrage bait isn’t working as well any longer, so the right-wingers are escalating the provocations.”
Rightwing hate radio and Fox “News” and its imitators have become parodies of themselves, going full-out snowflake over the slightest of provocations while using pathetic slurs to characterize their opponents.
The apparent high point of Trump’s New Hampshire rally yesterday was his saying:
“[Chris] Christie, he’s eating right now.” [laughter] “Sir, please do not call him a fat pig. … See, I’m, I’m trying to be nice. Don’t call him a fat pig. You can’t, can’t do that. So now, because you’re not allowed to do that, and therefore we’re not going to do it, okay? We want to be very civil.”
The role model for America’s young Republicans is a schoolyard bully.
And for the rightwing billionaires who own and fund the GOP, so far it’s worked out well: instead of discussing how they should pay their fair share of taxes, we’re fixated on Trump’s criminality and attempts to end democracy in America.
Meanwhile, Democrats are working hard to undo the damage of Reaganomics and Trump’s disastrous handling of Covid and the economy.
Joe Biden has seen more jobs created on his watch than the last three Republican presidents combined.
Inflation is down and both unemployment and factory construction are at levels we haven’t seen since the 1960s.
The country is rapidly greening its power and transportation systems.
People of good will are showing up in record numbers to vote for women’s rights, civil rights, and a return to fair taxation of billionaires. Yesterday’s Ohio vote is a very good sign.
The next two years will determine if the poison Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn peddled for six long years and Trump has embraced will become the norm in America and we’ll endure a Russian-style strongman rule, prosecuting and imprisoning people for their politics while trashing the rights of women and racial and gender minorities.
Or will the GOP hit bottom and return to some form of rationality, albeit one that purely reflects the interests of the morbidly rich?
It’s not too late. The power to stop this slide into autocracy — and help the GOP hit that bottom — is in our hands, if only we’ll use it.
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