Outrage spaghetti stuck to an online wall
Thoughts on a 2019 article I wrote for Media Matters
Over the weekend, I spent some time thinking about something I wrote three years ago…
On Twitter, former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted messages of sympathy directed to the victims and their families. These were pretty standard, boilerplate tweets from a couple of former politicians’ (social media teams).
Uncontroversial enough, right? Wrong! Right-wing media went into full outrage mode. At issue: the words “Easter worshippers.”
Townhall’s Cortney O’Brien claimed that Clinton “ma[de] up a new term” (she didn’t). Breitbart’s Joel Pollak reminded readers that Obama “drew criticism for his reluctance to identify radical Islam as the source of many terror attacks.” At The Washington Times, Cheryl K. Chumley called the tweets “a political ploy designed to tamp down realities of radical Islamic terror targeting of Christians and Christianity,” adding, “This is how Muslim apologists roll.”
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Naturally, other big names on the right used this as a way to make this horrific attack about themselves.
Hillary Clinton @HillaryClintonOn this holy weekend for many faiths, we must stand united against hatred and violence. I'm praying for everyone affected by today's horrific attacks on Easter worshippers and travelers in Sri Lanka.
I pointed out in the article that it’s not actually uncommon for terrorist attacks carried out on religious holidays. “Christmas worshippers,” “Ramadan worshippers,” and so on. See?
But the people worked up into a frothy rage insisted that this was the first time “[holiday] worshippers” was used, and specifically used to avoid mentioning Christians.
The takeaway from that piece applies as much today as it did back then:
Over the years, conservative media have gotten extremely good at coordination, and the emergence of a social media-dominated news apparatus has allowed that skill to shine through. It’s commonplace to see something posted on social media get amplified in the conservative echo chamber and become big news in a matter of days if not hours. This is what happened when conservative media coalesced around the idea that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) was downplaying the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks, when they clutched pearls over Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) discussing the long-term sustainability of U.S. meat consumption, or countless other examples.
The credulity with which mainstream news organizations take these claims of outrage only embolden the people making them, checking an important box in the conservative media ecosystem: their status as a persecuted minority unfairly picked on by politicians and a “liberal” media. Right-wing commentators have recently learned that by claiming that the Mueller report exonerates Trump (it does not), they can shape a reality in which people will perceive it actually does. Similarly, they know that if they repeat the claim that Obama and Clinton were showing their anti-Christian bonafides by saying “Easter worshippers,” they can build a conventional wisdom in which that is true.
It’s all about the fake outrage. It was then. It is now.
The right-wing rage about tweets from the Clinton and Obama accounts had nothing to do with the attacks, and the people doing the raging knew that “Easter worshippers” wasn’t said as some sort of anti-Christian dog whistle. But it was effective.
Remember the thing I mentioned above about how The Washington Times’ Cheryl K. Chumley called the tweets “a political ploy designed to tamp down realities of radical Islamic terror targeting of Christians and Christianity,” and added, “This is how Muslim apologists roll?” Here’s how you know that this argument was ridiculous, bad faith nonsense:
They used it, too! Was that also “a political ploy to tamp down realities of radical Islamic terror targeting of Christians and Christianity?” *sigh*
Again, revisiting this story just frustrates me for a number of reasons. For one, it’s just… so unbelievably callous to find a way to make a terrorist attack about yourself, and even worse to use it to advance shallow political jabs. But secondly, it’s depressing to see just how effective this kind of nonsense can be. In the years since, we’ve seen QAnon shift from being a fringe right-wing belief to something establishment Republicans will wink and nod at if it’s politically advantageous, and moral panics whipped up by bad actors looking for ways to attack Black people, LGBTQ people, women, and more.
Part of the problem is that the mainstream press, in its quest to appear unbiased, takes everything Republicans say at face value, no matter how disingenuous they’re being. You see this happen all the time. For instance, just last week after a Rose Garden event with Steve Dettelbach, Biden’s nominee to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the RNC Research Twitter account put together an 8-second clip of Biden jokingly thanking Dettelbach for bringing the good weather into town with him for the event.
“Biden says ATF nominee, Steve Dettelbach, ‘was responsible for the weather’ today,” the tweet read. “Dettelbach is Jewish.”
Say what you will about the corny joke, but the RNC’s bizarre attempt to frame this as Biden promoting the antisemitic “Jews control the weather” conspiracy trope was obviously disingenuous. But no matter. When this attack didn’t go anywhere, the GOP just moved on to the next thing, desperately in search of something to be outraged about. Just like “Easter worshippers,” rage over Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)’s nonexistent plan to ban meat, the ridiculous assertion that Biden called for a “physical revolution” in the U.S., lies about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) wanting to give your grandma’s Social Security checks to undocumented immigrants, or the absurd attack on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) for a speech she gave at a 2019 gala, this is what the right does: they fake outrage over things they willfully misinterpret, fling a bunch of accusations, and see what sticks.
None of these attacks need to hold up to scrutiny. Not all of these attacks have to last all that long (the “Easter Worshippers” rage disappeared pretty quickly). Every once in a while, they’ll find something that sticks, helps them politically, and undermines the causes they oppose.
Maybe it’s an out-of-context Obama quote about people who “cling to guns and religion,” or maybe it’s a clip of Nancy Pelosi saying that a bill needs to pass before we all get to know what’s in it. Maybe it’s Hillary Clinton making the case that while roughly “half” of Trump supporters could be categorized as “deplorable,” the other half is made up of good people just looking for answers. The idea in all of these is to have something Republican politicians can go back to their base with and use to argue that Democrats don’t care about people like them — as though Republicans haven’t embraced the “cry more, lib” approach championed by Trump and his cronies.
Maybe it’s about a pool sign asking people with diarrhea not to swim in it, rage over computer-generated candies no longer being sexy, or the opinion of one person on Twitter being treated as a movement to scrub the teaching of an important piece of case law from law schools, or a bisexual superhero, or Captain America doing what he’s done throughout his time in print and questioning whether America has lost its way. There’s also Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head, the Muppets, Disney, and whatever other nonsense the right is worked up about these days. Maybe it’s phony outrage over “critical race theory” or banning books in schools that *gasp* acknowledge that LGBTQ people exist and are welcome in society. All of this exists to make its base feel under attack and disrespected. It’s exhausting.
You can tell that the people who rage about this stuff realize just how ridiculous they’re being, but they don’t care. They know it’s what their audiences want to hear and they know it’s an effective way to win elections.
“Bullet with Butterfly Wings” by The Smashing Pumpkins