First, you inadvertently wave a red flag at an arena full of bulls. Then you sit back and wait for the internet to do its dark magic.
In my case, the red flag was a few paragraphs at the end of a recent column, speculating on what would happen if Donald Trump truly and dangerously lost his marbles. I wondered about one “possibility … that until recently I would have said was unthinkable in the United States of America: a military coup, or at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders”:
The principle of civilian control of the military has been deeply internalized by the U.S. military, which prides itself on its nonpartisan professionalism.… But Trump … [is] thin-skinned, erratic, and unconstrained — and his unexpected, self-indulgent pronouncements are reportedly sending shivers through even his closest aides.
What would top U.S. military leaders do if given an order that struck them as not merely ill-advised, but dangerously unhinged? An order that wasn’t along the lines of “Prepare a plan to invade Iraq if Congress authorizes it based on questionable intelligence,” but “Prepare to invade Mexico tomorrow!” or “Start rounding up Muslim Americans and sending them to Guantanamo!” or “I’m going to teach China a lesson — with nukes!”
It’s impossible to say, of course. The prospect of American military leaders responding to a presidential order with open defiance is frightening — but so, too, is the prospect of military obedience to an insane order. After all, military officers swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not the president. For the first time in my life, I can imagine plausible scenarios in which senior military officials might simply tell the president: “No, sir. We’re not doing that,” to thunderous applause from the New York Times editorial board.
Needless to say, when I wrote this, it didn’t occur to me that anyone could construe it as a call for a military coup. Perhaps this should have occurred to me, given the current state of American political discourse, but it didn’t. I received a couple of polite email messages from readers who argued that I shouldn’t have even raised this as a hypothetical possibility, but most initial comments came from readers who took what I wrote in the spirit in which it was intended: What might happen if the U.S. president gave an order that was truly, frighteningly unhinged, and all normal checks and balances had failed? Could we imagine a military refusal to obey the commander in chief? Should we imagine it?
Those are serious questions, and they deserve serious discussion. After all, America was founded by men who came, slowly but surely, to believe that they could no longer obey their government. From the perspective of American political mythology, they were heroes; from the British point of view, they were traitors. (Remember Patrick Henry? “If this be treason, make the most of it.”) With our history, it’s surely important to ask ourselves whether something like that could ever take place again. Political theorists continue to debate the propriety and role of disobedience and resistance to authority. Shouldn’t we debate those questions, too?
Regardless, a few days passed quietly by after the column’s publication. Then, on Thursday morning, Breitbart — the “news” site previously run by Steve Bannon, now Donald Trump’s top political advisor — ran a story about my column, headlined “Ex-Obama Official Suggests ‘Military Coup’ Against Trump.”
Within a few hours, the alt-right internet was on fire. The trickle of critical email messages turned into a gush, then a geyser, and the polite emails of the first few days were quickly displaced by obscenity-laced screeds, many in all capital letters. My Twitter feed filled up with trolls.
Soon, extremists and conspiracy-oriented outlets from InfoWars to openly white supremacist websites had moved from claiming that I had “suggested” a coup to asserting that I was demanding, planning, and threatening the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. (Together with my sinister friend George Soros, of course, and a cabal of deranged left-wing academics.)
By mid-afternoon, I was getting death threats. “I AM GOING TO CUT YOUR HEAD OFF………BITCH!” screamed one email. Other correspondents threatened to hang me, shoot me, deport me, imprison me, and/or get me fired (this last one seemed a bit anti-climactic). The dean of Georgetown Law, where I teach, got nasty emails about me. The Georgetown University president’s office received a voicemail from someone threatening to shoot me. New America, the think tank where I am a fellow, got a similar influx of nasty calls and messages. “You’re a fucking cunt! Piece of shit whore!” read a typical missive.
My correspondents were united on the matter of my crimes (treason, sedition, inciting insurrection, etc.). The only issue that appeared to confound and divide them was the vexing question of just what kind of undesirable I was. Several decided, based presumably on my first name, that I was Latina and proposed that I be forcibly sent to the other side of the soon-to-be-built Trump border wall. Others, presumably conflating me with African-American civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, asserted that I would never have gotten hired if it weren’t for race-based affirmative action. The anti-Semitic rants flowed in, too: A website called the Daily Stormer noted darkly that I am “the daughter of the infamous communist Barbara Ehrenreich and the Jew John Ehrenreich,” and I got an anonymous phone call from someone who informed me, in a chillingly pleasant tone, that he supported a military coup “to kill all the Jews.”
My experience is not unusual. Anyone who attracts the attention of the alt-right is in for a rough ride. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done in the past: Even lifelong conservatives can find themselves on the wrong side of the baying mob. Consider the experience of National Review’s David French. He made the mistake of “calling out notorious Trump ally Ann Coulter for aping the white-nationalist language and rhetoric of the so-called alt-right.” Within days, French, his wife, and his children were all subjected to vicious, racist, and obscene attacks.
Sometimes I wonder who they are, these people who spend their free time sending vitriolic messages to strangers. Often, I imagine them as actual trolls, leaving their computers only to kick the occasional puppy, smack their children, or tend to their basement meth lab. Other times, I imagine something even worse: Perhaps these are all seemingly normal people who go about their days smiling politely at strangers but then go home and start spewing.
It’s hard to know, of course. They tend not to use their real names.
Tempted as I am to blame it all on the age of Trump, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Like most journalists and public commentators, I’ve been through similar rounds of harassment and threats before, usually by sparked tussles with Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and the like. Generally, the storms of hate mail pass in a week or two. Extremists have always been out there; the internet just gave them a means to join up and amplify their voices.
Still, something feels different now.
Partly, I think, it’s just that the world feels a little more perilous in the wake of December’s Comet Ping Pong shooting. Remember that? It started with an alt-right internet rumor so absurd that most of us just laughed: Hillary Clinton was reportedly running a child sex ring out of the backroom of a D.C. pizza parlor (presumably in all the spare time she had between the Benghazi cover-up and running for president). It was crazy, ridiculous, the kind of thing no one could possibly take seriously — until a young man from Salisbury, North Carolina, did take it seriously and decided to pack up his gun and pay Comet Ping Pong a visit.
No one was hurt in the shooting, thankfully. But the Comet incident made it harder to dismiss crazy internet-driven threats as unpleasant but harmless hot air.
Here’s the other thing that’s different now: The alt-right has long occupied the internet’s darker corners, but with the elevation of Bannon to the Trump White House and National Security Council, it’s now occupying the White House itself.
For nearly 15 years, I’ve written and spoken out against what I have viewed as excessive secrecy and dangerously broad assertions of executive power. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush’s administration asserted the legal right to detain suspected terrorists anywhere in the world and hold them in secret without normal due process protections. I worried that the secrecy and lack of due process created too much possibility of abuse: If the United States could designate someone a terrorist based on classified evidence, capture him in Nigeria or Bosnia, and send him off to a secret detention facility, what would prevent a vindictive official from deciding that a CIA black site was just the place for a journalist asking too many inconvenient questions?
I’ve been equally critical of the expanded use of target killings under former President Barack Obama’s administration. If the U.S. president says it’s OK to secretly order the death of a suspected terrorist based on secret evidence, and then kill the suspect in a secret airstrike with no subsequent acknowledgment, what kind of example are we setting for Vladimir Putin and other repressive regimes — and what would prevent an abusive U.S. president from using the same power in the future to get rid of a political opponent?
But even during the darkest days of the Bush administration, I always assumed that these were rhetorical questions. I didn’t doubt that senior U.S. officials would generally act in good faith. I raised these questions not because I could truly imagine a U.S. president targeting journalists or political critics for detention or death but simply to highlight how dangerous it was to create a system in which the wisdom and integrity of senior officials are our sole protection against abuse. What happens if one day you get a leader with neither wisdom nor integrity? What happens if you get a sadist or a madman? This, after all, is why the founders of the Republic demanded a “government of laws and not of men.”
Today, these no longer seem like purely rhetorical questions. Steve Bannon, who once described Breitbart as a “platform for the alt-right,” is now sitting on Trump’s National Security Council, and we have a president whose vindictiveness is legendary, as is his penchant for threats and snap decisions made without consultation. We have a president who doesn’t hesitate to use his bully pulpit to bully those who cross him, from college students to foreign leaders to federal judges. And we have a president who unapologetically admires murderous strongmen like the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. (In a Super Bowl Sunday interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, Trump shrugged off O’Reilly’s comment that Putin is a “killer”: “There are a lot of killers,” Trump said. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”)
For decades, we’ve had the luxury of assuming that the United States would always have a professional, nonpartisan civil service. We’ve had the luxury of assuming that the fearsome coercive powers of the federal government would be exercised responsibly and constitutionally. For those of us who often find ourselves criticizing government actions, that has been a vital assumption: For the most part, we’ve been able to take for granted that notwithstanding occasional mistakes, the FBI and Secret Service will focus on genuine threats and won’t target journalists, NGO advocates, or other critics.
Looking ahead, I’m not sure we will continue to have that luxury.
I’m not suggesting that Trump’s next move will be drone strikes targeting his journalist critics. But I am suggesting that we are no longer living in a time of normal politics. Trump and Bannon have told us as much.
This makes it more important than ever for the rest of us to keep asking hard questions and having uncomfortable conversations, no matter how many filthy and threatening emails and tweets we get. The alternative is worse: If journalists and commentators let themselves be intimidated into silence; if Trump’s attacks on judges and civil servants lead them to back away from their commitment to the rule of law; if the FBI and Secret Service become tools of executive vengeance rather than impartial instruments of justice; if military leaders become too cowed to recall that their most fundamental duty is to the U.S. Constitution, not to Donald Trump….
Well, then Trump will be right that America is no better than Putin’s Russia.
Photo credit: PAUL MAROTTA/Getty Images for SiriusXM
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