But there is a case to be made, in our hyper-politicized country and state, that our social media feeds offer a more truthful image of us than we know. Perhaps it is that we only wish our social media feeds – so laden with animosity – were a misrepresentation. Perhaps the “fun-house mirror” characterization is a terribly optimistic one.
In that case, Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters are spending a lot of time gazing at their own reflections these days, and it appears, God help us all, that they like what they see.
Since last November, conservative social media’s been rife with the sort of stuff best left in an outhouse: white nationalist claptrap and grimy xenophobia used to ostracize immigrants, much of it citing McCarthy-era legislation aimed at rooting out suspected communists and Soviet infiltrators.
That legislation, the McCarran-Walter Act, was – no coincidence – the proposed justification for Trump’s travel ban, although the alt-right and its sympathizers, Trumpsters who adopt the racism but reject the label – call them the alt-alt-right – have taken it to new extremes since the travel ban.
There was a time, not long ago, when a politician’s supporters would blanch at comparisons to the late Joe McCarthy.
But one of history’s most toxic fearmongers enjoys a kind of quiet renaissance in the Trump camp, thanks in no small part to memes like this one, which argue that the McCarthy-inspired bill banned Muslims from holding public office in the United States.
Noxious as the bill was, it did not.
Nevertheless, in the heart of social media’s darkness, variations of the McCarran-Walter riff sprout like mushrooms. Some claim that the mythical Muslim public service ban remains on the books even today, and that the only thing that stops our country from reclaiming the assorted smattering of offices held today by Muslim Americans is a legion of knock-kneed public officials, spaghetti-legged, pencil-necks without the stomach to do what’s “right.”
One particularly ambitious bit of racist Internet drivel aims for – we can safely assume – the endgame, declaring that the law actually bans Muslims, all of them, from the United States.
None of this is true, of course, but by the time one falsehood is addressed, its creators have spun several more tall tales. In 2019, misinformation has longer legs.
The only thing worse than a racist, it seems, is a racist with a high-speed Internet connection.
A racist cajoled by a commander-in-chief like Donald Trump, who’s made bigotry a brand, who’s replaced a dog whistle with a bullhorn. Calling Trump a racist is hardly a novel thought anymore.
But how else to explain the queasy union of New York bigotry and Southern bigotry in Greenville last month – the red-liners and the white hoods – the confused communion of kindred spirits, chanting “send her back” with, we can assume, one or two of these memes marinating on their news feeds?
Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Somali-born, naturalized American citizen, was the target in Greenville. Omar is, along with Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Both would, surely, like to answer a reporter’s question or debate a policy point someday that does not, in any way, have something to do with their religion, but not in the Trump media vacuum.
One widely-circulated photo, often purporting to depict the “sisters” of Omar, captures several women, clad in head coverings, with “Down to USA” scrawled upon their palms. But, its progenitors assure us, the photo was not taken in the Middle East – “where America is hated and Muslim terrorist (sic) are born” – it was taken in Michigan, Tlaib’s home state.
The image was originally captured at a rally in Iran in 2013, one, according to FactCheck.org, that appeared in several media accounts of the rally, one recast as having taken place in the U.S. in March by actor and conservative activist James Woods, a Tweet that, as of this accounting, has tallied almost 10,800 retweets and nearly 24,000 “likes.”
Whether the bogus caption is the work of a liar or a buffoon matters little. Both look like fools from a distance.
Of course, the sort who revel in such white supremacist rhetoric would exist without Trump, but they would not cavort about on so grand a stage, with the president of the United States lending speed and inspiration all the while.
To observe the resurgence in Trump’s racist campaign rhetoric and divorce it from the social media feeding frenzy is lunacy.
In recent days and weeks, the president issued lacerating attacks aimed almost exclusively at prominent progressives of color. In addition to Omar and Tlaib, he’s uncorked on New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, civil rights activist Al Sharpton, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, chair of the influential House Oversight Committee.
“Instead of doubling down on the excellent state of the economy, his raft of conservative judicial appointments or his potential second-term agenda, Trump is launching bombs to excite his base and rile up progressives,” Politico’s Nancy Cook wrote this week. “He’s showing little concern for civility, political correctness or the longtime stature of the office of the presidency, facts that his supporters like because they view him as telling-it-like-it-is authentic, the ultimate anti-establishment candidate.”
Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden noted recently, is “more George Wallace than George Washington,” but the reaction from Trump’s GOP enablers is either frighteningly muted or stunningly celebratory, even for a group that has, for decades, peddled a subtle brand of identity politics, a snake-charmer for white voters.
Kentucky Republican Rand Paul proclaimed this week that he’d buy a ticket for Omar’s return to Somalia, “so she might come back and appreciate America more.”
And one Republican strategist offered this slimy justification of the Trump brand to Politico this week: “It engages in a fight — head on. Ask yourself: How many African American votes does he lose because of this?”
As if, in any world we might want to live in, campaign strategy is a justification for racism. Such justification is fitting because racists are constantly, tirelessly, seeking justification.
“There are, after all, in this world, some people who are naturally aggressive and violent,” Steve Bannon, former Breitbart boss and Trump strategist, once wrote of the racial discrepancy in police violence, a slippery ode to “race science,” an homage to white supremacists’ favorite method of contending, in bogus scientific terms, that some races are inherently better than others.
Bigots seek proof that their assumptions are based on facts, and that, without their discerning, withering gaze, the country would be submerged in crime, drugs, violence or whatever ill is most convenient.
And liberals, moderates and conservatives who don’t hold to this line of thinking have an uncomfortable habit of believing that to respond to this bilge is to lend it credence, that addressing these keening cries of a reinvigorated white supremacy movement may only embolden and strengthen it. It is an ill-fated line of thinking, one that people like you and I have to reject if we’re to tear it down.
Racism – like the sort that fuels Trump-world social media – is only strengthened when it lies unexamined. It thrives on misinformation, used crudely to justify unexamined prejudices, in crepuscular places. Its correction requires a full autopsy and a careful dismantling, so we may show how these arguments, these imaginary palaces, are rickety bits and pieces, popsicle sticks bound with chewing gum and spit.
No matter how tiresome it may seem, no matter how many memes and Tweets and misrepresented images we may face, no matter how widespread these tools of hate, we must address them, and cauterize them, one at a time.
Let the bigots know that they are not justified, that they are fools in thrall of a fool.
Let them know that, while their nativism has a precedent in this country and in this state, the sort of lawmaking or executive action they seek is not bolstered, borne aloft or made anew by misrepresentations of the past and fond remembrances of the McCarthy era.
Let them know that, if they would like to see their bilious leader’s most pestilential proclamations made law, if they would like to remove every race, creed and religion that does not suit their world view, that they will have to do so over the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an amendment so crucial to any understanding of American ambition or greatness that its defenestration in these toilsome times is truly akin to America spiting its nose to save its face.
Let them know that, for a host of their political goals to come true, we will require that they say it aloud, not mask it with perilously posed obfuscations. Say it aloud that they do not, in the pit of their stomachs, respect the American Bill of Rights, that, to suit their ends, they wish to be free of it.
At least then, we will have an authentic conversation about this disgraceful era. And a good, honest look in the mirror.