When the Mob Rules, Everyone Is a Target
Trump’s ochlocracy brings dangers and threats that the Republic has not witnessed since Joe McCarthy. Do we even know how to fight back?
The poet John Berryman once said, “A man can live his whole life in this country without finding out whether he is a coward.” This is a blessing for which we should all be thankful. It is also a curse, which is perhaps why those words have always haunted me. I spend my life writing words that cannot possibly get me in any real danger. How can I not wonder what I would do if my world changed so that words could bring the full might of political power on my head? Now, suddenly, it’s not an idle question. The night Donald Trump was elected, I wrote that the closest analogy to his elevation to the presidency was Philip Roth’s nightmarish novel, The Plot Against America. Now we will see if the worst comes to the worst.
Today, of course, protests against Trump are an exercise in liberal catharsis, about as dangerous as a homecoming pep rally. A few days ago, I got an email from an organization called Refusefascism.org, calling on followers to surround the Trump International Hotel in Washington. “We REFUSE to accept a Fascist America,” the organizers thundered. If the problem were remotely as grave as they claimed, surrounding a hotel wouldn’t do much to stop it — nor, of course, would they be permitted to surround the hotel in the first place.
I, too, refused in my day. I have sweet memories of attending the Mobilization for Peace in Washington in November 1969. It was cold and confusing and very righteous. I found a ride back to New York with the nice, old Jewish ladies of the furriers union.
We feel that we live in dire times; but so far the direness of our times has only lent them a welcome edge of glamour, like a hurricane that didn’t kill anyone but left us huddled together by candlelight in the high school gym. Yet perhaps this time will be different. You can feel, as we speak of 1932, not only the fear but the wish for something immense and menacing, something that will call on us to stand up and be counted, whatever the cost. Trump may oblige us.
What would that look like? For a premonition, you need look no further than last week’s news conference in which Trump toyed with White House reporters like a cat with a cornered mouse. Trump’s blowhard triumphalism, and his habit of describing his business empire and the United States of America as entities of equal significance — if that — are old hat by now. What was frightening about the event was the way he goaded an audience of young staffers to cheer him on as he bullied the press, for example, by telling a questioner that nobody except the reporters themselves cared about his tax returns, since, after all, “I won.”
I used to watch Rudy Giuliani humiliating reporters and punishing critics when he was mayor of New York. The spectacle was repellent, but I reassured myself that an authoritarian mayor can do only so much damage. Yelling at people is really not a danger to the republic. Giuliani, however, was only Trump’s Mini-Me. Trump could go much, much further in persecuting his critics not only because he has the extraordinary levers of the presidency at his control, but because he has both a penchant and a gift for turning a crowd into a mob. Those laughing, clapping, jeering young aides at the news conference were Trump’s stand-ins for the American people.
Trump revealed that dark gift even at the most solemn of moments, his inaugural address. After Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) reminded the audience of the most resonant phrase of Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 inaugural — “with malice towards none, with charity for all” — Trump offered a foaming goblet of malice. No longer, he declared, would “a small group in our nation’s capital” steal our wealth, nor would the middle class suffer “the ravages of other countries” that took our jobs. “From this day forward,” Trump shouted in the rhetorical high point of his speech, “It’s going to be only America First! America First!” Woe be to you who stands in the way of America.
It is not enough, of course, for President Trump to hold precious liberties in contempt. A mob leader is nothing without a mob: Joe McCarthy would have been no more than a drunken loudmouth without a public ravening for the hides of Communists. In Roth’s imaginary universe, President Charles Lindbergh went hunting for Jews. The United States has not arrived at any such pitch of public outrage; the contempt for liberal elites that Trump has stoked is very far from a McCarthyite auto-da-fé. But it’s early days. Trump has not yet suffered a reversal that stings his vast and brittle ego. He has not yet faced a body of facts that he cannot wish or tweet away. That will happen. His mood will darken; his courtiers will abet his paranoia; he will pursue his enemies with something more than words. Or perhaps he will suggest to his implacable followers that the time has come for them to use something more than words against those who stand in the way of his plan for America.
When I imagine the scenario in which cosseted elites really will have to stand up and be counted, I don’t envision cops piling out of a paddy wagon and rounding up dissidents. I don’t believe that under any circumstances Trump could turn America into a police state like Turkey or Egypt. Rather, I imagine American citizens turning on people who, they have been told, despise their values and the nation itself. I imagine one of Trump’s campaign rallies, in which he encouraged supporters to beat up hecklers, turned into an instrument of governance. Or is it a 20th-century archaism to worry about “the crowd”? Maybe Trump’s followers sit in their bedrooms and flood designated enemies with online threats, the way they have Comet Ping Pong, the Washington pizzeria said to host a pedophile sex ring. And maybe more and more people will translate those threats into action.
I don’t find it at all impossible to foresee a moment in which criticism carries a price that cannot be reasonably reckoned in advance. Once people have stopped believing in the sanctity of opinion, once they have been convinced that some vast and vague category, like “elites,” holds views not merely wrong but traitorous, Trump, like his idol Vladimir Putin, will need only a glancing comment to mark an enemy to be hounded. Breitbart News can do the hard work of weaving a tweet into a narrative of betrayal. And if something terrible happens? That won’t be President Trump’s fault, of course, or Breitbart’s. Then courage really will come at a price, and we may yearn for the days when you could live your whole life without knowing if you were a coward.
Do I think this will happen? No, I don’t. I think Trump will fail on one front after another, steadily drop in the polls, lose his ability to dictate congressional action with a tweet, and go into a monumental sulk. Or rather, that’s what I hope will happen. But if this election has taught me anything, it’s not to trust my hopes.
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