Here’s an experiment. Tell a large group of people who depend on you for authoritative information and societal analysis that someone is fascism incarnate for months on end. Cast this person as a singular threat to democracy who, if he hasn’t already, will do everything in his power to subvert the very freedoms that their lives are based upon. After whipping the group into a frenzy, such that they react to the physical presence of this person as an occasion to riot, condemn them for acting on what you’ve told them.
Such is the case right now at Vox, which recently suspended editor Emmett Rensin for his tweets that encouraged people to riot at Trump rallies. The offending tweets were, of course, sent out on a night when an actual riot took place, when supporters at a Trump rally in San Jose were beaten, bloodied, pelted with eggs, and generally harassed by a crowd of close to 400 protesters. Rensin was castigated for inciting violence and suspended by Vox. In a statement, editor-in-chief Ezra Klein said that while Vox doesn’t “take institutional positions on most questions,” Rensin had crossed a boundary by “directly encouraging dangerous, illegal activity,” and would be suspended as such.
This, of course, is the same Ezra Klein who, in a video posted back in February, called Donald Trump “dangerous”, “extreme”, and “terrifying.” The same Ezra Klein whose website publishes articles like this, this, and this, that last one coming just yesterday.
But it’s not just Vox. Every publication from the New York Times to The Atlantic and every public intellectual worth their salt has either outright compared Trump to Hitler or painted him as the harbinger of the end-times. Even Andrew Sullivan called him an “extinction-level threat.”
As Rensin tweeted:
Listen, if Trump is Hitler then you’ve got no business condemning rioters. If he isn’t, you’ve got no business pretending normal is better.
— Emmett Rensin (@emmettrensin) June 3, 2016
He followed that up with a lot more of the same, but it basically boils down to this: if liberal publications and intelligentsia believe what they say, i.e., that Trump is a fascist demagogue who will unequivocally destroy democracy and America’s reputation in the world, then how can they turn around and condemn their readers for acting on the information presented to them?
Rensin, for his part, clarified that he believed that violence against the actual rally-goers was morally reprehensible and should be denounced, but that property destruction was perfectly acceptable for people who believed that they were opposing the rise of a would-be tyrant. This was a sort of hair-split that came pretty late in his stream of tweets about the incident, and his original tweet, “If Trump comes to your town, start a riot” is hardly that clear or reasonably defensible. But his point, even if it got lost in the shuffle, speaks to something larger.
He calls the whole phenomena “concern trolling,” an act in which the media stokes a concern for months on end, only to condemn those who act on those concerns. He compared the recent round of tut-tutting to those who believed, on one hand, that deeply ingrained white supremacy and structural racism in Ferguson had resulted in the death of Michael Brown, while, on the other hand, criticized protestors for operating outside of democratic boundaries by rioting. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote about this in Welcome to the Desert of the Real:
When today’s Left bombards the capitalist system with demands it obviously cannot fulfill… it is basically playing a game of hysterical provocation… The problem with this strategy, however, is not only that the system cannot meet these demands, but that, in addition, those who voice them do not really want them to be realized.
Meaning, it’s awfully easy for liberal elites to levy radical charges—like, Trump will end America—knowing that they’ll never have to act on those charges. “In this way,” Žižek writes, “they can hypocritically retain their clear radical conscience while continuing to enjoy their privileged position.”
Think back to March. Trump’s rallies had seen an uptick in violence, culminating in a grainy video of a protester receiving a devastating punch in the head from a rally-goer, who was then defended by Trump. Left-leaning publications were aflame; The New Republic declared it a symptom of the rise of “Trumpism.” The rhetoric of Trump and his supporters, it was declared, was violent in a very real, tangible way. Then, a few weeks later, when students at Emory declared outrage at a Trump message scrawled in chalk on their campus, the very same publication put out a piece essentially telling the students to buck up and deal with it. As Osita Nwanevu put it:
Yesterday: Trump supporters’ violence & rhetoric re: race are scary
Today: Look at these idiot minority students afraid of Trump supporters
— Osita Nwanevu (@OsitaNwanevu) March 23, 2016
My intent isn’t to condone Rensin’s call for rioting, the violence of the protesters, or any racist, xenophobic, misogynistic proposal that Donald Trump has made. Those are all irrefutably immoral actions and should rightly be condemned. What needs to change, however, is the alarm-blaring of influential publications whose readers shouldn’t be blamed for simply taking the analysis presented to them to its logical conclusion. If journalists don’t believe Trump is Hitler/a fascist/the end of democracy and needs to be dealt with as such, then they should stop saying so. Yes, Trump is unique in recent history for his flouting of political propriety and for his proposals that have been severely misguided, if not outright reprehensible. But to treat him as the first American to whip up nationalistic fervor ignores much of our history.
This is why Breitbart and r/The_Donald have been able to attract devoted followers in droves. The more the Left howls about Trump-as-Lucifer, the more he becomes an irresistible, golden-haired ‘God-Emperor’ that attracts people reasonably disillusioned with coverage of him as easily as he does white supremacists. Milo Yiannopoulos and his ilk can only happen as a reaction to another extreme. Look at this Huffington Post article: it offers direct support for violence against people of a certain political persuasion, from a publication that put all coverage of Trump’s campaign under “Entertainment” for almost six months last year.
Locke wrote about the right and the duty of a civil society to overthrow a government that acted against the common interest. While it’s doubtful that protesters throwing haymakers at Trump supporters for expressing their political beliefs had just put down their copies of Two Treatises of Government, they shouldn’t be cast as the only culprits here. The hand that feeds pointed and said, “Sic.”
Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.