Tuesday, October 01, 2019


Charlie Warzel's New York Times op-ed on President Trump's "Civil War" tweet is an informative dive into history of such talk on the right. A sample:
Civil war rhetoric increased sharply during the Obama administration, led, in part, by anti-government radicals like Cliven Bundy. In 2014, the conservative radio host Michael Savage released a book, “How to Stop the Coming Civil War,” which argued that “Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008 might represent the final nail in the coffin of freedom.”

... In the fall of 2017, alt-right YouTubers and websites began circulating a conspiracy theory that anti-fascist protesters were, as one site phrased it, “planning to kill every single Trump voter, conservative and gun owner” at various protests across the country. The baseless rumor was first promoted by obscure YouTube accounts that summer and then spread across Facebook groups with breathless posts and memes. It was amplified by conspiracy sites like Alex Jones’s Infowars that September (Infowars has a rich history of predicting imminent civil wars).

By late October 2017, pro-Trump blogs joined in. The Gateway Pundit (a blog frequently linked to by the Drudge Report) posted a story with a headline suggesting “Millions of Antifa Supersoldiers Will Behead All White Parents.” The piece was based on a satirical tweet from an account unaffiliated with the anti-fascist movement.
Yup, that happened.

But Warzel says Civil War talk on the right "began as trollish shorthand for increasing political polarization." But that's not trolling. Krang T. Nelson was trolling in his tweet, but right-wingers who've talked about civil war are serious, or at least they've been engaging their own deep-rooted cosplay war fantasies. Either way, they haven't used the term because they think it pokes liberals in a sensitive area. They've mostly used it among themselves.

Trump's tweet wasn't trolling:

Trump's base regards him as mighty and powerful, but this is one of those tweets in which he tells the base that they have more power than he does. There's going to be a war and, implicitly, his voters are going to fight it.

This is dangerous rhetoric not because we're likely to have an all-out civil war anytime soon, but because individual right-wingers might be inspired to take the fight to the enemy (us). This is Trumpian moral hazard: If anyone takes this rhetoric seriously, Trump assumes he won't be compelled to accept responsibility. (Regrettably, he won't.)

The "Civil War" tweet comes with the implication that Trump can't do anything to prevent war if it happens due to the actions of evil liberals. Something similar is happening in another recent inflammatory Trump tweet.

In this case, Trump isn't calling on his base to fight for him, but he's implicitly portraying himself as a helpless victim of Adam Schiff's traitorousness. He writes "Arrest for Treason?" as if he has no government power. We all know he uses the attorney general as one of his personal lawyers -- why doesn't he press for Schiff's arrest if he thinks Schiff is guilty? But in this tweet Trump writes as if he's not the president, but rather a guy on the couch watching Fox who thinks that Adam Schiff ought to be hanged for betraying his country. In this way, Trump makes himself relatable -- he's just like his most fervent fans! And he pulls this off because he legitimately sees himself this way. He's not the president. He's just another old crank with a TV remote.

There's moral hazard in this one, too -- I hope Schiff has stepped-up security, because he's at risk from angry, armed Trumpers. But the tweet is Trump acting helpless, or maybe not acting.

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