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The ‘Very Fine People’ of the Fever Swamps

The president is embracing open white nationalists. How much lower can we go?
May 6, 2019
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(Photo illustration by Hannah Yoest. Photos by Getty Images.)

We still have no idea how history will record the surrealism of the Trump Administration, and it is unlikely that this weekend will stand out as any sort of inflection or turning point. Donald Trump’s Twitter storms, embrace of conspiracy theories, and other bizzarities (we are driven to create new words to describe the moment) blend together and create a sense that (1) it’s all happened before and (2) nothing matters.

But, for a moment, let’s consider what just happened and what it means.

Facebook finally got around to banning a small number of cranks, conspiracy theorists, and bigots: conspiracy monger and InfoWars proprietor Alex Jones, his acolyte Paul Joseph Watson, crackpot activist Laura Loomer, troll Milo Yiannopoulos, former congressional candidate and neo-Nazi-adjacent Paul Nehlen; and finally Nation of Islam leader and notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.

Facebook insists that its ban was not about ideology, but rather about safety. “We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate regardless of ideology,” the company said in a statement.  

But on Friday, Trump chose to play the victim card. He lashed out at Facebook, accusing them of censoring free speech and targeting “conservatives.” He followed up with more than dozen tweets, including a retweet of a prominent white nationalist and an anti-Muslim video from a Twitter user known as “Deep State Exposed.” On cue, Trumpists called for government control and regulation of social media platforms, and actively agitated for retaliation against companies that practice “viewpoint discrimination.”

There’s a lot to unpack here.

The president of the United States is continuing/completing the process of mainstreaming the fringes into conservative politics. Conservative thought leaders (William F. Buckley Jr. comes to mind) once tried to disinfect the right from “parasitic cant.” Trump has embraced it.

Not that long ago conservatives routinely pushed back on the notion that someone like Jonesa 9/11 Truther who claimed the Sandy Hook massacres were fakedwas in any real sense “conservative.” But sometime in the last decade, the Drudge Report began linking to InfoWars and injected the fever swamp deeply into the bloodstream of right wing politics. Trump accelerated the process by embracing Jones, going on his show, and praising him. Now, he’s upped the ante, by posing as a champion of a whole group of alt-right charlatans who traffic in theories that vaccines cause autism, that the government is behind “false flag” massacres, and who peddle discredited theories about the murder of a DNC staffer.

As David Frum wrote over the weekend:

One thing at least will follow from the president’s Twitter campaign: It will become even more difficult than before for the shamefaced remains of what used to be mainstream conservatism to separate themselves from these grifters, racists, and liars. According to the president, they are now martyrs, saying things that deserve to be heard. There have been times in the past few years—especially during the hoax to shift blame from the Russians for hacking the Democratic National Committee—that Fox News and Infowars blurred into each other. Those days will now return.

Irony alert. Trump apologists have spent weeks trying to debunk suggestions that Trump had called the racists of Charlottesville “very fine people.” But the president spent much of his weekend praising and defending white nationalists., including actually retweeting Canadian alt-right activist Lauren Southern, who warns of “white genocide.”

There are, Trump now tells us, lots of very fine people in those swamps.

Conservatives do have legitimate concerns over speech bans, speech police, and the relabeling of controversial ideas as “hate speech.” But this is the not the mountain to die on. Alex Jones, Paul Nehlen, et al do not traffic in ideas. They traffic in hoaxes, frauds, fabrications, smears, and bigotry.

CNN noted that Trump went out of his way to show support for Paul Joseph Watson “an InfoWars personality notorious for spreading misinformation. (In the past, Watson has peddled conspiracy theories about the unsolved murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich, the September 11 terrorist attacks, and so-called “chemtrails.”)”

Trump’s position on free speech is, well, complicated. The president who now poses as a defender of free expression, is the same man who led a national campaign against the NFL for allowing players to kneel before games. And that martyr for free expression, Watson, once posted a video titled “F**k Kaepernick,” that insisted that the protests “were not about free speech.”

Following Trump’s lead, some conservatives are now embracing a Big Government that will force, coerce, or bully private companies to surrender their own First Amendment rights. The First Amendment limits government action, not private individuals or companies. And that means the government cannot compel a company either to censor or – and this is equally important – engage in any kind of political speech.

Facebook has no obligation to provide a forum for cranks or bigots, and government has no authority to compel them to do so. Like any other private outlet, Facebook can decide to exclude fraudsters, extremists, and bigots if it so chooses. If we concede that Facebook is not obligated to provide outlets for 4Chan, or pornography, then it can also draw the line at Jones’s lies and hoaxes. If Facebook gets it wrong, the free market provides a solution. Or, at least that’s what conservatives used to understand.

But now, we get this kind of hysterical rhetoric from folks like Tucker Carlson, who demand the intervention of The State. “Mark Zuckerberg is not simply censoring opinions, he’s prescribing which political opinions you’re allowed to have,” he said over the weekend.

What we’re watching now in real time is this country become unfree. So the question is who exactly is defending us in all of this? Us who might dissent from Mark Zuckerberg’s view or think that NBC News doesn’t tell the whole truth the whole time all the time? Or don’t trust Zuckerberg to control what we think. What about us? Who’s standing up for us? Where are our leaders in Congress? Where is the White House? Nowhere.

So much for the tattered fiction that conservatives still believe in limited government. But also note Carlson’s sophistry here: Banning Paul Nehlen and his racist and anti-Semitic maunderings, is not “prescribing which political opinions” we are allowed to have. And who is the “us”? When did we become Paul Nehlen? When did a kook like Laura Loomer become “us”?

All of this highlights the cancer in the conservative movement. Make sure you read Rosie Gray’s piece about Katie McHugh, who parlayed raw bigotry and trigger-the-libs white nationalism into  a quasi-successful career writing for prominent conservative media outlets.

It offers a lesson about the failure of conservatives to police their own borders and the blurring of the lines between ideas and white nationalist trolling.   

Her story is about support systems and pipelines. It’s about how an angry young conservative with reactionary views got herself involved with a small coterie of ideologues in Washington and prepped for a conservative media career in the crucial years before the rise of Donald Trump, as extremism became more popular on the right and as people could optimize themselves for success through attention on social media. It’s about how the organizations she worked for either turned a blind eye to or were genuinely ignorant of the fact that one of their young stars was leading a double life among hardcore racist activists.

As Gray notes, “the legacy of this period — the racism, the spread of white nationalist ideas online, and the murder in Charlottesville, Virginia — will affect American politics for a long time to come.”

So will Trump’s decision throw the mantle of his office over the darkest reaches of the fever swamp.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.