On Wednesday, the day after the Democrats took the House of Representatives and a few minutes after President Trump “asked” Attorney General Sessions to resign, Trump held his most aggressive press conference yet. It was a rambling, incoherent, ignorant, hour-long threat of violence—one more bullet in the right wing’s gun.
But this time it went a step further.
The next morning, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders uploaded literally fake news — a doctored video — to justify censuring a member of the press. This is one of the most disturbing things the White House has ever done, and I don’t say this as a journalist who reserves special and outsized outrage for attacks on journalists while not expressing greater outrage for more heinous attacks on marginalized and terrorized minority communities. They don’t compare, and many journalists need to get perspective on that.
It’s particularly heinous not because of the target, but because of this faked video from an official White House official, a lie intended to justify an otherwise unjustifiable response — temporarily revoking Acosta’s press pass. This move by Sanders, straight out of 1984, is inseparable from the eruption of violent rhetoric and violent attacks from right-wingers. Like those who selectively cite passages from books of faith, things like this can and will be used to justify not just anger and protest, but acts of terrorism.
This is no longer hypothetical. Terrorism has happened. It will keep happening.
Let me explain.
In the middle of the conference, Trump personally insulted CNN’s Jim Acosta, calling him a “terrible person.” Trump then cut Acosta off and sent an aide to take the microphone from the reporter to be handed off to the next journalist with a question. The aide, a woman, did physically attempt to take the mic. She reached in, and Acosta held up his free hand to stop her. Neither act was violent or aggressive.
Sanders uploaded this video the next morning, doctored at a moment to make it appear Acosta chopped at the reporter. Here’s the tweet:
The doctored video apparently came from conspiracy theory site Infowars. But those familiar with how video works on Twitter will know from the tweet format that Sanders or someone at the White House had downloaded the Infowars video, then uploaded it to Sanders's account.
Here's an expert on video editing who makes this clear (note that it was Infowars who doctored it, not the White House—this tweet just explains the methodology):
Here's another expert — the reporter who covers A.I. for the Washington Post:
And if you doubt the experts and trust Sarah Sanders via Alex Jones, you're probably susceptible to flat-earth theory, but here is a direct comparison of the two so you can see the difference yourself:
This is a lie to imply violence and justify an extreme reaction. It is literally fake news, and intended to create fake outrage. This exaggerated rhetoric is part of a pattern, so let’s be very clear about it here:
The right wing has a pornographic obsession with violence. They want a reason — any reason will do — to imprison and physically attack liberals and members of the press. The White House, styled by Trump, shares and supports this.
Note that Trump insulted Acosta at this press conference in response to a question Acosta asked about the pipe bombs a Trump supporter sent to CNN.
Recall the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta’s character Vincent Vega goes to his heroin dealer’s house, and the dealer, a guy named Lance, asks him about his car. It was a cool car, a Malibu that Vincent loved, and someone had keyed it. Their conversation goes like this:
Lance: Oh, man, that’s fucked up.
Vincent: Tell me about it. I had it in storage for three years, it was out for five days and some dickless piece of shit fucked with it.
Lance: They should be f*cking killed. No trial, no jury, straight to execution.
Vincent: Boy, I wish I could’ve caught him doing it. I’d have given anything to catch that asshole doing it. It’d been worth him doing it just so I could’ve caught him doing it.
“It would have been worth him doing it.” This is the far right in America, except with one incredibly important difference: Vega’s car actually got keyed. The right wing, on the other hand, has become so radicalized, and they want fascism and violence against the left so badly that they have keyed their own car. They’re literally editing reality to justify violence. And Trump has repeatedly refused to do or say anything to calm them down. In fact, he called Acosta the enemy to his face.
Again, this is the President of the United States.
This has unsurprisingly become common. Even Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell have publicly said that protesters against the Kavanaugh nomination, who at the very most yelled at congressmen, are a “mob.” They equate pipe bombs from their own side with non-violent public criticism from the left — “attacking.” The president equates Democrats with the Antifa boogeymen (Antifa are not Democrats; they are mostly anarchists) without mentioning the right-wing groups Antifa clashes with in the Great American battle for the basement.
They twisted words from Maxine Waters, Eric Holder, and Hillary Clinton to prepare for violence. Trump paralleled his relationship of influence with the pipe bomber to that of Bernie Sanders’ influence over the left-wing terrorist who shot up a Congressional GOP softball practice, even though a) Sanders never once used violent rhetoric against the right and b) immediately and unequivocally condemned that evil. They say the mainstream press is the enemy of the American people and have brought this on themselves, and any future violence will be the fault of the press. In the press conference, Trump blamed “the Obama regime” for Putin’s invasion of Crimea.
It’s likely just a matter of time before Trump arrests someone like Acosta, which is likely a better fate than the almost inevitable attempts on the reporter’s life.
This “gaslighting” manipulation — blame the victim — is dangerous the same way an abuser is dangerous in an abusive relationship. Except one thing that goes largely unnoticed: it’s worse. They don’t just intended to mess with the opposition’s minds in order to get their way. The rhetoric also whips up anger in the base, which is like a step past gaslighting. It’s as if a husband manipulates his wife to confuse her, but at the same time is also training his own subconscious to eventually hit her out of something like pre-emptive self-defense.
I envy people who are apolitical and don’t care about this, who think I am overreacting. Because maybe they’re right. That would be a nice way to live. But I don’t think they are. Actually I take that back: They are flat out wrong. We’ve l seen bombs sent to dissenters — which these maniacs are telling their base AREN’T REAL BOMBS. Even if they weren’t real bombs they are still horrifying and demand condemnation, because it’s an escalation. And with tacit encouragement from Trump, it will, step by step, escalate to attacks that will mark what’s already happened: A change in the very nature of America.
They treat it all like a joke. But horror happens in the name of humor. Just read the guidelines shared among anti-Semite, racist 4Chan trolls. Look at Proud Boy white supremacist Gavin McGinnis doing stand-up. His jokes are objectively not even funny, because the humor isn’t real — the anger it communicates is. The Proud Boys — led by McGinnis, who in a manifestation of some perverted role-playing fantasy wielded a sword — recently beat down random people in the streets of New York.
It’s all funny to them. And it’s funny to them not because the content itself is funny — it’s funny because they’re getting away with it. It’s funny because their irrational double-speak nonsense makes liberals mental.
Horror can wear the disguise of humor. When you start laughing at people, you start dehumanizing them. They become props.
This is a real and urgent concern, and I can’t shake it. I’ve written about it who knows how many times, starting with the string of violent rhetoric before the 2016 election, including real threats of white supremacist violence such as a plot by militia members to bomb and shoot a Somali community on Election Day 2016 — which the FBI thwarted. It continued with the shooting in Kansas — a month into Trump’s presidency — of two Indian men working here on visas, who a Trump supporter thought were Muslim. It continued with the left-wing terrorist who shot up that baseball game months later, with the arrest of a man that same summer who was planning to shoot up CNN, with Charlottesville, with the Trump supporter who killed 58 people in Las Vegas, with the dehumanization of minorities and essential kidnapping and imprisonment of migrant children, with countless white supremacist attacks and acts of terror against minority and Semitic communities — including the recent murder of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, the most deadly anti-Semitic attack in US history — with the pipe bombs sent to Trump dissidents, including Barack Obama and CNN, and with many events I haven’t listed here.
Of course, equally worrying is the fact that some nut on the left might take it upon himself to avenge these attacks. But that too is at Trump’s feet: no Democrat, not one, in any position of influence has ever advocated violence.
I am furious and I am frightened. I condemn any political violence — from anyone — as an act of terrorism, something that will rip us apart. But Donald Trump will not do that. He lacks the moral capacity for introspection, as does his amoral cult of followers. The extreme rhetoric of the extreme MAGA right is nothing short of an endorsement of terrorism, and a permission slip for more.
This makes me physically ill.
My grandfather was the director of the Foreign Service Institute in the 1970s — the equivalent of a Deputy Secretary of State. He devoted his life to effecting peaceful political change through diplomacy, and created the Foreign Service language school to do it — a weirdly controversial idea at the time, when the prevailing thought was that exceptional Americans shouldn’t deign to learn the languages of the people we wanted to work with. This current regression to that selfish mentality would crater him, and l feel guilt about having lost all patience with the opposition in what seems like still early days of this administration.
But that’s how fast this has metastasized. It is early days of this administration, but it’s not early days for this movement. The far right has waited years for this. It’s not going to happen — it has happened. It is here. My warnings perhaps sounded extreme to many people in earlier columns. But I have been proved right. And I’m still right.
We are violent, America. There is nothing — nothing — that will stop it from getting worse. The President of the United States wants it that way. They will change reality to make you want it that way. It is well past the time to categorically reject Trumpism and excise his cancer. It has metastasized. We have no immediate cure beyond our own capacity for peace. May it hold.