In the tradition of Victor Klemperer, I’m beginning a series of posts on the Trump era, not because I judge myself so much more perceptive than other commentators, but because I think there is a need for some kind of chronicle that is neither news-based nor analysis-based, but just a series of reflections as events happen. I may move these to another site if this becomes enough of a habit.
Three events happened on Friday at three different levels. On the national level, Trump was inaugurated. He gave a speech that discussed the “American carnage,” but compared to the horrorshows he painted in his campaign speeches, it was comparatively low-key. It didn’t stop the National Class (the term I’ll use for the coastal elites and upper-middle class Democrats who overwhelmingly voted for Clinton and are horrified by Trump) from reacting as though Hitler had just taken the chancellorship and that fascism had begun in America today, but I persist in hearing Trump’s words as belligerent but mostly unintelligible noise. Trump’s speech was written by Breitbart’s Steve Bannon and the young Stephen Miller. Bannon fancies himself a right-wing Lenin, as he has himself said, while Miller is an arch-conservative true believer. In other words, they are not Washington political operatives, and they do not hold the reins of power in the way that Republican hacks like Reince Priebus (Trump’s chief of staff) and shadowy spooks like Michael Flynn (Trump’s Director of National Intelligence, who’s been investigated for his Russia ties). Trump’s speech was aimed at his supporters, but it was not an indicator of policy. Judging by the widespread reports of Trump’s messy and half-baked transition, policy is still being worked out.
Trump (and Bannon and Miller, I imagine) also wanted tanks in the streets for a Red Square style inauguration; the military shot that idea down on the grounds that it would destroy DC streets. I imagine they weren’t keen on the idea in the first place. (As Dan Newman points out, this is according to a single anon source in the Huffington Post, so take it with a grain of salt. At the same time, it’s not exactly something that would damage Trump’s standing among his fans, and among his detractors it seems a bit redundant. Still, let this serve as warning that all the information we’re receiving currently is going through multiple levels of indirection and distortion, and accepted facts today may become blatant falsehoods in retrospect.)
The Friday protests got violent at times, with anonymous black bloc protesters causing damage in several cities and, most notoriously, punching out white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. Spencer’s role, then as now, is mostly as a bogeyman for the left. He holds no power and has been rejected even by other “alt-right” mouthpieces like Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich. (In turn, Spencer’s fanbase deems them the “alt-light” for downplaying the whole race-war narrative.) In turn, the left on Twitter was consumed by holier-than-thou posturing over who could more fiercely advocate for violence against the far right, with anyone who dared question the punching raked over the coals for being sheltered and privileged. Comic book writer Warren Ellis (540,000 followers) opined, “It is always okay to punch Nazis in the face,” which was representative of the level of discourse at work. Notably, Clinton surrogate Sarah Silverman (10 million followers) was excoriated by Adam Johnson (45,000 followers), Susie Cagle (18,000 followers) and others for saying of Spencer, “I saw a wildly misguided young man who could have been changed with info & <3 but now will forever be closed.” She was apparently ignorant both of Spencer’s age (38) as well as the extremity of his views: she expressed shock and horror when shown some of his magazine’s publications: “Holy shit what a piece is shit! You guys all knew this?”
Such is Twitter discourse: whatever position you take, there are fools on your side making your position sound dumb. But there are also fools on the other side to convince you you’re right and that you should defend the fools on your side even though they sound dumb. My sole comment on Spencer-punching is that a pie would have been more effective than a fist.
The second event was underreported: a protester was shot at Milo Yiannopoulos’s University of Washington event. The protester was hard-left, but the shooter apparently said thought otherwise, possibly based on the protester having a tattoo of a swastika in a red No circle on his arm. So a case of left-on-left violence, then. [Update 1/24/2017: Perhaps not, it may have been right-on-left violence after all.] So much was going on that this event got buried. Was it because it served no clear narrative to either side? I think it speaks to an important narrative, which is that events often happen accidentally and some of them will inadvertently lead to escalation. Trump didn’t get his tanks in the streets, but I’m sure that he is itching to deploy the National Guard on flimsy pretexts. Trump’s rallies last year were ugly affairs, but never reached a significant level of physical violence, which was constrained to isolated incidents. But now that he has the executive branch at his command, excuses to crack down on social unrest will be far more welcome.
The third event went unnoticed: a site dedicated to chronicling/stalking internet weirdos and other “lolcows” went offline permanently after the site’s owner and his family were targeted. (Another site with a history of similar behavior is currently imploding.) The seedier site of internet underculture came to most people’s attention last year as part of a concerted effort by the Clinton campaign to associate Trump with racist internet trolls and the amorphous “alt-right” movement, which was defined as much by the media as by the “alt-right”‘s actual members. The mainstream narrative around these internet cultures is confused, ignorant, and alarmist, partly because the Clinton campaign was happy to exaggerate and distort the reality in pursuit of an effective campaign strategy (it didn’t work), and partly because the people writing about it did very little first-hand research and have no familiarity with the workings of the internet underculture. The shutdown of these sites signals that the underculture is not sitting still; it too is undergoing realignment and reshaping, and it has been affected deeply by Trump’s election. Excluded from the national conversation, Trump’s supporters are mostly able to express themselves through the underculture. They do not constitute the majority or even a significant plurality of the underculture, but they are unified in their goals (evangelizing Trump, hating on the media, attacking Trump’s opponents) in a way that most underculture groups are not, and they are far more prone to express themselves outside the underculture so that the mainstream takes notice of them.
This is meaningful because the mainstream and the underculture are now in permanent contact, a development only of the last few years. And while the underculture isn’t capable of manipulating the mainstream to their own ends, it does have an impact on the mainstream, mostly to increase the amount of noise, disinformation, and conflict. As long as the underculture (whether right or left) can organize and disseminate information on Twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere, the media and other entities will draw from this information and interpret or misinterpret it, for their own ends or sheerly at random.