Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Right's Talk of Civil War is Incitement to Terrorism

by Neil H. Buchanan

In the category "Most Relentlessly Pessimistic Columnist," I would probably be the John Oliver of the Downer Awards.  My pessimism about the political situation in this country has been on ready display at least since mid-2016 (no coincidence there), but in fact I have been watching with dismay for most of my adult life as the steady march of movement conservatism -- abetted and even worsened by Bill Clinton/Tony Blair style capitulation -- has made it nearly impossible to imagine anything but a bad outcome.  I concede that I was briefly willing to think positively from about 2006 through 2010, but that ended up being more about hope, with the change being an enormous backlash and acceleration of previous negative trends.

My column here on Dorf on Law yesterday was another in a long line of pieces (Tuesday's Verdict column being another example) in which I excoriated the wimpy centrists and center-lefties in the U.S. for their unwillingness to wake up and deal honestly with the reality that confronts us.  I did, however, stipulate that the true villains of the story are the people to whom these timid souls are failing to stand up.  I have always been skeptical of the claims that there were reasonable moderates remaining in the Republican Party at any time in this century, and the voting records and public stances of, say, Tom Cotton and Chuck Grassley are now so nearly identical in substance that there is little sense in calling the former "extreme" and the latter "moderate" (or even "very conservative").

Today, I want to focus specifically on that extremism in the Republican Party, or more specifically on the emerging super-extremism that even I -- in my worst nightmares -- honestly never anticipated.  Are people on the right in this country now talking about civil war?  Incredibly, yes they are.

Because today's topic is villainous behavior, I should mention that I had planned to write a full column following up on Professor Dorf's reluctant announcement: "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Blog Closed to Comments."  I wrote in an annoyed column two months ago that,
"once a troll reveals himself (and I readily admit that I am assuming that the trolls are male, based on the overwhelming weight of the evidence in the world), it is easy enough simply to put an offender on one's mental do-not-bother-reading list.  In any event, they usually leave (most likely due to boredom, given the relative sedateness of our community) after a few days or weeks."
This made my life rather easy, because all I had to do was check who had posted comments and skip over the irredeemable trolls.  Unsurprisingly, the four most useless of the group were the first to comment on that anti-trolling column, validating my point.  I did occasionally slip and read a sentence or two from one of them, which was reminiscent of Monty Python's The Funniest Joke in the World.  In that classic sketch, a joke turned out to be so deadly that the British translated it into German to win World War II, but they had to do it word by word, and "one of [the translators] saw two words by mistake and had to spend several weeks in hospital."

That was mostly a simple annoyance factor.  There was no content to the trolling (almost by definition), but the very speciousness of the non-arguments was so infuriating that it could distract from doing something more useful (like counting the number of blades of grass in my back yard).  When the tone turned ugly, however, it was no longer harmless fun.
 
One of the worst of the trolls went so far as to mock a law professor's recent New York Times column in which she revealed that she had been raped by her father.  Yes, this now-former Dorf on Law troll did indeed ridicule and minimize someone else's searingly painful experience.  I occasionally try to figure out whether someone is wrong because he is naive (uninformed about the facts), stupid (incapable of reasoning based on facts and logic), or evil (willing or even eager to do bad things).  One sub-category of evil is indecency, and that troll's mockery of someone else's rape was simply indecent.  Indecency is not worthy of a full column-length response, so that is enough about that.
 
As disgusting as that was, if trolling were the worst of what we were seeing in the right-wing world, I would not be especially worried.  Earlier this week, there was a flurry of commentary about one of Fox News's host-trolls, Jesse Watters, using violent imagery in a speech about Dr. Anthony Fauci.  Fox apparently then responded with a statement saying, in essence, that people were taking Watters too seriously and that he had not done anything wrong.  Fauci had responded that Watters should be fired, but he did so only after having been told about the violent words that had been used, not after having seen the video itself.

And the video is actually quite reassuring, in an odd way.  It is true that the speech was peppered with phrases like "kill shot" and "deadly," with Watters saying at one point: "Boom! He is dead! He is dead! He’s done!"  Even so, if I had my druthers, I would give Watters the floor any time.
 
Why?  He used that violent rhetoric in a speech in which he was trying to train college-age Republican activists how to do what he did before getting his Fox show: ambush interviews.  Watters became infamous for accosting people on the street -- sometimes politicians or celebrities, but sometimes regular people -- and shoving a microphone in their face while peppering them with loaded questions.  One low point, when he was the "correspondent" for Bill O'Reilly's now-canceled show, involved Watters going to Manhattan's Chinatown and mocking people for not being able to speak English.  (The clip even used a gong as a sound effect.)

Watters's approach to interviews has been picked up on the right, including by now-Congressperson Marjorie Taylor Greene, who became infamous as a troll herself by chasing after one of the Parkland school shooting victims as he walked to testify on Capitol Hill.  She yelled ridiculous questions at the traumatized kid and, when he wisely ignored her, she pulled the usual troll's move of calling him a "coward."  It was the standard move: Oh, so you don't have an answer, do you?  DO YOU?  The troll "wins" either way, because any engagement feeds the troll, while disengagement is taken as proof that the troll was right all along.

This is nasty stuff, and it is classic bullying behavior.  When I wrote above that I found Watters's anti-Fauci video "quite reassuring" and that I would rather have him on the floor at a conservative convention, therefore, I was not in any way endorsing or excusing his dickishness.  What I am saying is that the content of his "lesson plan" for the budding troll wannabes was simply silly.

The supposed "kill shot" that was going to leave Fauci "dead" and "done"?  It is almost laughably weak:

Now you go in for the kill shot.  The kill shot with an ambush?  Deadly, because he doesn’t see it comin'.  This is when you say, "Dr. Fauci, you funded risky research at a sloppy Chinese lab, the same lab that sprung this pandemic on the world. You know why people don’t trust you, don’t you?"  Boom.  He is dead!  He is dead.  He’s done. Now, you do that 30 seconds, it’s all you need.  Thirty seconds. ...  Imagine Tucker Carlson teases that in the A block: "Coming up, brave college student confronts Lord Fauci at dinner."  ... Get us that! ...  That changes the whole conversation of the country.  ... Just make sure it's legal.

Wow, if that is what passes for a deadly take-down on rightwing media, we are in much better shape than I ever would have imagined!  Fauci would not see that coming?  Doubtful.  But the larger point is that Watters is a superstar among right-wing ambush trolls, and this is his idea of a big score.  Watters apparently thinks that it would change the country to have a college student film himself saying, "Hey Fauci, people don't trust you because you funded Wuhan," at which point Fauci would shrug and walk away, thinking, "I'll take that any day, compared to the death threats."  Watters is not even suggesting that the video would have to be doctored, which is what Breitbart and others are more than happy to do.  He thinks that what he described is devastating.  As the kids would say: adorbs!

Among the many bad futures that we might face, then, I would gladly settle for one in which hapless university students wander around yelling stupid questions at people and then try to get the videos aired on Fox or some similar outlet.  Those media might even run some of them, but so what?  Yes, it would coarsen day-to-day life in this country even more than it already has been, but just as people quickly accustomed themselves to the idea that cameras and microphones are everywhere, it would be no time at all before even non-famous people would say to themselves: "OK, one of those nitwits might jump in front of me at the grocery store and yell at me.  Whatever."

To be clear, the outrage over Watters's comments was focused on the violent imagery that he used.  And that does have a much more worrisome kind of coarsening effect on the country.  I am only saying that what Watters is actually telling his pupils to do is ultimately a regrettable but rather minor additional stress on social interactions, which is bad but not threatening to our future.

What is worrying, as the title of this column suggests, is that many on the American right now seem to be willing -- in fact, they seem impatient -- to move from self-aggrandized trolling (using violent language that they think is macho) to actual violence.  The most terrifying thing that I have heard recently is the talk, even from some Republicans in Congress, favoring what they unhesitatingly call a civil war.  Last month, thirty percent of Republicans polled agreed with this statement: "Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country."  Thirty-nine percent of people who believe the election was stolen from Trump agreed.
 
Of course, some of this is simply affiliation bias.  That is, people know what they are supposed to say when someone asks a question, in order to fit in with their group.  Even if a Republican does not honestly believe that, say, Joe Biden is being controlled by someone talking into his earpiece, many of them will say that he is.  Agreeing with a relatively open-ended question that people "may have to resort to violence," as bad as that is, hardly satisfies the imminent danger standard.
 
But of course, we have seen actual violence break out -- along with a concerted Republican effort to justify it, minimize it, and deflect blame for it.  Not-at-all famous people are receiving death threats, and some have been left cowering in their houses or cars while angry mobs try to get at them.
 
I honestly do not think that it matters whether 10 percent, 30 percent, or 70 percent of Republicans answered that polling question in the affirmative.  It does matter that only one person can do massive damage, and increasingly radicalized groups are moving toward taking violence to the streets.  If 0.001 percent of the roughly 75 million Americans who identify as Republicans decide that the time has arrived, that is 750 people who are willing to resort to violence.

Again, they are talking openly about this.  Because they are White supremacists, they idealize the Confederacy and use the term civil war, somehow imagining (I guess) that the red states will fight the blue states.  Of course, that cannot possibly happen, in part because there are many Democrats in the reddest states, and the citizenries of the states with the most radical right-wing governments -- Texas, Georgia, Florida, Arizona -- are in fact rather evenly divided in their party affiliations.  The idea that, say, Texas could secede from the union and see everyone within its border rally around the MAGA flag and sign up for the Cruz Regiment is beyond crazy.

That in turn means that when members of Congress and others talk about civil war, they are in fact talking about domestic terrorism.  There would be no clean regional split with each side unanimously committed to defeating the other (not that that was true even in 1861, of course).  This means that the Trumpists who might ask, "When do we get to use the guns?" will conclude: "Whenever and wherever we feel like it."

I recently talked about these concerns with a colleague who teaches at a univesity in England, and I started the conversation by saying, "People tell me that I'm an alarmist, but ..."  After listening to me ramble for a bit, he reminded me that he is part Irish, then added: "I take very seriously the idea that violence can suddenly erupt among neighbors."

As I noted at the beginning of this column, if there were something called the Downer Awards, I would clean up.