Who empowered the trolls — and why
For the past three summers, I’ve volunteered to spend a couple of hours staffing the Dems booth at the Waukesha County Fair. In southeastern Wisconsin, the words “Waukesha County Democrats” usually draw a raucous laugh. Waukesha is one of the “collar counties” that rim Milwaukee County on the west and north, and it’s known to be one of the most reliably right-wing areas in the state. But it’s also got the third largest number of Democratic votes in the state, and thanks to Donald J. Trump, the third largest Democratic party in terms of membership.
The Dems booth during the fair is usually fully staffed, if not as large as the Republican booth that is usually located on a different aisle in one of the fair’s indoor pavilions. The Republican booth is hung with framed, color photographs of the Republican office holders, the governor, the state senators the assemblymen from Waukesha. The Republicans feel a certain pride in their dominance, so why should they go out of their way to mess with the Democrats? In the past, they haven’t.
In the summer of 2017, I expected the Democrat booth to be a bit livelier than usual, and it was. More people stopped by, people who were engaged and outraged by the Trump administration and wanted to talk about it. People seemed less furtive, less embarrassed, less, “Gee, I hope none of my neighbors see me over here,” than in previous years. I staffed the booth with one other Democrat, and we were buoyed by the action on a Saturday afternoon. When turnout like that happens, it gives you a feeling of hope that some great awakening is about to occur in Waukesha County, that people will start voting in their own interests and stop thinking that concern about the contents of other people’s uteruses and a largely concocted horror of government are the only reasons to turn out on election day.
Midway through our shift, a dad, tall, black-haired, ethnically mixed-race, stopped by with a flock of dark-haired kids all wearing Swimtastic tees patterned in psychedelic colors. One of the kids, a daughter, was tall like the dad. The dad seemed friendly and open while his kids were helping themselves to our Democrat lollipops. The woman I was staffing the booth with kept encouraging them to take more. We’re Democrats. We’re nice people.
But we had also made an assumption about this man, based on his appearance. We had profiled him. We had decided that, based on his race, he was one of us.
After the kids had consumed about three tootsie pops apiece, the family continued to linger, standing across the aisle from us, in front of the LuLaRoe area stuffed with clothes that must have cost the poor woman selling them thousands of dollars.
That’s when the dad and his tall teen-age daughter began a deliberate display, one that seemed choreographed, or at least pre-planned, taking stickers out of their pockets and pasting them onto their shirts.
The stickers featuring the words “Trump” and the acronym MAGA.The daughter and the dad smiled at each other while unveiling this delayed evidence of their political affiliation.
I said, jokingly, “You can’t be serious.” I thought maybe we could talk about it.
The dad looked straight at me and said, “I don’t argue with you about the stupid things you believe in.”
Climate change, healthcare for all, immigration rights, the right to live your life authentically with a meaningful identity, the right to choose how many kids you’ll have – these things are stupid?
I was confused, but instead of talking back, I whispered to my fellow Democrat booth-staffer that the man and his blond wife were probably “mega-churchers.” They sure had enough kids. And the fact that all his children were evidently attending private swimming lessons did suggest parochial school.
They probably heard me, but they just kept standing there, smirking, until I said to my friend, a bit louder, “If they don’t get out of here, I’m calling security.” I would have had absolutely no grounds to do that, but the threat worked, because the entire family, dad and five kids, did an about-face and shuffled off.
After they left, two skinny adolescent boys raced by our booth yelling, “Trump!” I guess you could say all this was a measure of the passion of the president’s base. But I have a hard time feeling anybody really likes Trump that much. I think it’s something else.
Fall of 2016, while I knocked on doors for Hillary, I received mostly positive reactions and warmth. Canvassers only visit voters who are registered Dems or have voted Democrat in the past.
But there was one woman who came close to attacking me as soon as she heard my introductory, “just here to see if you’re going to vote” spiel.
She sprang out of her door, a small woman with blonde ringlets down to her shoulders, middle-aged and filled with ferocious anger. She didn’t understand how anyone could vote for an evil person like Hillary Clinton, she said. Didn’t I know about Benghazi? she shouted. What about those emails?
As canvassers, we’re not supposed to get into arguments with potential voters. And besides, this would have been more than an argument. She looked like she was getting ready to hit me. So I stood there calmly watching this display until she finally ordered me off her porch.
I’ve heard a lot of pundits talk about the divided America, how we’re not able to talk to each other anymore. During the Obama administration, they talked a lot about how angry the voters were. I remember seeing John McCain on the news talking about how the voters were so angry about President Obama’s “failed” liberal policies.
I knew that anger was largely manufactured and reinforced by people like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck. And of course, the Koch Brothers, founders of the so-called “grassroots movement” known as the Tea Party.
I think many people would agree that what’s revving people up, reinforcing their prejudices and making them believe that a mere figurehead like Trump is actually running our government is the right-wing media. But do any of us really listen to it? Or are we saying we “know” when we only assume?
It’s hard to do, I know. But recently, more and more disgusted by Trumps cavalier assertions about “fake news,” I decided to give a listen to what he considers “real news.” I picked Hannity because he’s the current #1 right wing fulminator, because he is an avid Trump supporter, and the admiration society is mutual.
Watching Hannity is like entering an alternate universe through your TV screen, one every bit as weird as anything served up by Netflix or Hulu. On his January 4 show on Fox News, lower thirds appearing beneath Hannity screamed the news that the DOJ was investigating Hillary Clinton, had reopened investigations into her emails and into the activities of the Clinton Foundation, a story that had barely raised an eyebrow, let alone earned a mention, in the mainstream media.
If you’re like me, you probably think, “Jesus, why can’t they leave the woman alone? Haven’t they investigated her enough already?” And furthermore, isn’t the DOJ just doing this to appease Trump for Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the Mueller investigation?
But Hannity’s complaint that night was the fact that what he constantly refers as “the liberal media,” had shifted away from discussing the button controversy that occurred when Trump announced on Twitter that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong Un’s nuclear button. “[Watch] the media’s hysterical coverage as they lie to you,” Hannity shouted, without explaining what exactly they were lying about. Then he complained about “the media’s” attention span. They stayed on North Korea “until Steve Bannon’s comments [on the Trump family’s treasonous Russia connections], and then the narrative shifts away.” That, said Hannity, “just shows you how pathetic these people [the media] are.”
Reporting about Bannon, whose comments were recorded in Michael Wolff’s infamous new book, Fire and Fury, was according to Hannity, is evidence that the “media has been an extension of the Democratic Party for decades.”
Then Hannity refers to presidents Clinton and Obama as “people who appease murdering dictators and despots.” (What would Hannity call Rodrigo Duterte? Putin? Xi Jingping?)
Clinton and Obama had the nerve to try to negotiate with our enemies, and the media loved it! Just in case viewers were missing the point, the words “Media Love Appeasement” appeared against a red background behind Hannity’s head whenever there were no clips.
Hannity raged that Bill Clinton “totally sucked up to” Kim Jong-il in the 1990s, playing an extensive clip of Clinton describing a nuclear disarmament deal, in which NK agreed to halt development of nuclear weapons in exchange for aid.
The media, of course, loved it, because “They’re all a bunch of braindead sheep.”
“Today we know this failed,” Hannity said of 1994s nuclear deal. (According to the D.C. based Arms Control Association, an NFP, the deal collapsed in 2002).
Hannity jumped from North Korea to one of President Obama’s signature negotiations, the Iran nuclear disarmament deal: “Total B.S. Total stupidity.”
Hannity repeated an outrageous claim frequently made and never disputed on the right – the President Obama “paid them 150 billion of your tax dollars – out of your pocket.”
That actually shocked me, because it was such a blatant and obvious lie. The money paid to Iran consisted of Iranian funds that were frozen by the U.S. as part of sanctions against the country.
Is it possible that someone as media savvy as Hannity doesn’t know that the $150 billion that went to Iran was their money and not ours?
And would Hannity’s outrage about the Iran deal have carried as much weight if his viewers knew the truth?
Wrapping up this portion of the show, Hannity happily called it tonight’s “Hannity history lesson.” And reminded his viewers once again that the “media loves appeasement” because they are “mindless liberal leftwing ideologues.”
A recent article by Matt Shaer in the New York Times Sunday Magazine put Hannity’s annual income at $36 million. That’s annual income, not net worth. Telling people what they want to hear and playing to their instinctive prejudices can really be worth something in this country.
Besides the word “stupid,” a word that Hannity loves is “evil.” The press is evil, liberals are evil. But watching him, it’s hard not to see him, good ol’ Sean Hannity just a regular guy from New York, who was happy enough to pose for a Sunday Magazine cover photo, as the personification of modern-day evil, someone who uses a powerful media vehicle to twist the truth, reaping significant financial gain.
But even more than that, what Hannity and others like him do is empower people – he empowers their contempt, their narrow-mindedness, their rage.
And what they do with that rage is turn it on people like us, the ones who disagree with them.
The solution to the very real divisiveness created by Hannity and the many like him is not to continue to ignore him, but to pay attention. Hannity’s show, according to Matt Shaer’s article, was originally supposed to have more of a debate format, with Hannity discussing current events with a liberal pundit. But Hannity didn’t like that. He isn’t interested in getting at the truth or working out reasonable compromises. In fact, he has every reason to be afraid of factual accuracy.
Sean Hannity and his fellow fulminators are capable of doing a lot damage. They are doing a lot of damage. They are the only news some people listen to. Hannity’s fulminations aren’t a discussion of news and current events. They are evidence of a society-wide addiction to anger and prejudice. And no addiction was ever cured by just ignoring it and hoping it would go away.