Our Troll Addiction Epidemic
Too many people need enemies so as to confirm their own hatreds and partisanship.
Dear Reader (Even those of you who continued to like Genesis after Peter Gabriel left),
True story: A friend of a friend once got pretty deep in debt with his bookie. One day the bookie showed up outside his house and asked him to get in his car. He was very friendly; “Come in, it’ll be fine, I just want to talk.”
First lesson in such situations: Don’t get in the car.
Anyway, the guy gets in the car and says he knows that he’s a little behind on his payments, but he’ll catch up soon. Not to worry. The bookie says something like, “That’s great. I appreciate it. But I need you to swear it’s coming soon.”
“No, no,” the bookie says as he grabs something from the back seat, “I need you to put your hand on the Bible and swear to me.”
The guy, relieved, says, “Sure, of course I’ll do that.”
The bookie extends the Bible and the guy puts his hand on it.
Second lesson in such situations: Don’t put your hand on the Bible.
“Repeat after me,” the bookie says, “I do solemnly swear…”
“I solemnly swear …”
And then the bookie smashes his hand with a hammer.
That’s pretty much how I’ve felt about the news cycle over the last 3,000 years since 2015. Every time you earnestly try to come to grips with the “new normal,” the next normal takes out a hammer and smashes your extended hands.
The troll addiction epidemic.
The first thing that needs to be said is that no one should be a jackass about Trump getting ill. Whatever your feelings about Trump, publicly rooting for COVID to take him out is a form of jackassery. It doesn’t matter that Trump himself is prone to uncharitable takes when people he doesn’t like meet with misfortune:
Look, I understand that a lot of people tested positive for schadenfreude this morning, but if you think Trump’s behavior is contemptible, making his standards your own makes you part of the problem.
But you know who else is part of the problem? The people scoring points on the other people who are part of the problem. Take one example, Twitchy:
Now I think the tweets they collected, mostly from people I’ve never heard of, are all dumb, vile or both. But, take a moment and imagine if someone actually only got their “news” from Twitchy and similar outlets. You’d think that “liberals” are all publicly hoping Trump dies and are proud to say so publicly. But that’s not remotely true:
My point is that, just as there are a lot of liberals and Trump critics who want to be vile jackasses about Trump’s predicament, there are lots of conservatives and Trump supporters who want them to behave that way. Each side has an incentive structure to pick the worst examples of the other side and say, “See, this is what they’re all like!”
This is just a small illustration of the whole dynamic of our politics today. Yes, there are people saying asinine things about Amy Coney Barrett’s religious faith. But there are also people who need such people to exist to confirm their own hatreds and partisanship. And while, there are good examples from 2020 bolstering the case for religious bigotry, there aren’t nearly as many some on the right would like, which is why many of the ads and opinion show segments about the nomination fight recycle stuff from several years ago.
You know why Steve King, Ilhan Omar, and the other Star Wars cantina pols get so much attention? Because their enemies need them to be as prominent as possible. Ahab needs his white whale. Lokai needs Bele. Maggie needs Gerald Samson, the monobrowed baby. Mr. Glass needs The Overseer. Don Quixote needs his windmills to be sinister giants. In Bram Stoker’sDracula, when Van Helsing discovers Dracula, he joyfully declares that he has found "the enemy I have waited for all my life."
And while there are countless people eager to play the role of the boogeyman the other side loves to hate—negative attention is sadly monetizable today—when there isn’t a suitable boogeyman available, it doesn’t take much inducement or work for the legions of professional smellfunguses out there to turn someone into the boogeyman you need. Many on the left need everyone on the right to be racists, and many on the right need everyone on the left to be Marxists. It’s so much easier to argue with caricatures and so much more lucrative to bravely stand up to an existential enemy.
(And if I can be forgiven a brief plug for The Dispatch, part of our core mission is to just not play that game. That doesn’t mean we won’t criticize or report on boneheads, radicals, jackanapes, bandersnatches, cockalorums, bigots, maroons, ninny-hammers, snollygosters, pillocks, grifters, and Matt Gaetzes. But we’ll try as hard as possible to do it in the right context and without pretending that the transitive property or guilt by association makes them more important or representative than they really are.)
What does this mean?
All right, enough with all that. Since nearly everyone I know is wondering what to make of today’s news, I’ll join in. But I want to be clear: I don’t want to be ghoulish about any of this. This is pure rank punditry. I mean, we’re in the homestretch of a presidential race, and I don’t see how you can avoid talking about the political ramifications of this.
Let’s assume that President Trump gets through this more or less fine, which is still the most likely outcome. I don’t see how this doesn’t hurt him politically. The debate was very bad for him, for reasons I laid out in brief here. It doesn’t matter if you want to blame Chris Wallace, or if you think Biden performed badly too (he did). Trump did nothing to gain ground in a race he’s losing, which means he wasted time he doesn’t have. And if everything I’m hearing is true, never mind the publicly available data, he hurt himself with the voters he needs to tighten the race.
And that’s what this diagnosis does. It takes him off the campaign trail in the last weeks of the race. Under different circumstances, I could argue this the other way. One of Trump’s big problems is overexposure. He has a bizarre need to be the center of attention and while he’d prefer positive attention, he’s convinced that negative attention is better than no attention at all. If he’d hung back more over the last three years, he’d undoubtedly be more popular, particularly with the voters he needs. Staying in quarantine could help, if I thought his doctors could keep him off Twitter. But who wants to bet on that?
Moreover, there’s no avoiding the fact that contracting COVID illustrates—in almost literary fashion—his mishandling of the epidemic. His contempt for wearing masks, his claim that the virus is behind us and “under control,” and his insistence that we can get back to business as usual all take on a new and decidedly unhelpful meaning. Canceling rallies and staying in quarantine with 30-odd days to go cannot be reconciled with the Trump campaign’s messaging that the COVID chapter is over. I mean, who’s stuck in the proverbial basement now?
Another easy guess: The vice presidential debate suddenly got a lot more interesting. If you asked me yesterday, I’d have bet that Pence would win the debate with Harris. I suspect that’s still the case. But given Biden’s age and Trump’s condition, the possibility that one of them could be president seems less hypothetical than a normal presidential debate. And while I’ve never found the standard White House talking points particularly effective—he shut down travel from China! We make a lot of respirators now! Democratic politicians said nice things about the administration when they desperately needed help from the administration!—Harris has a much easier retort now: “Yeah, none of that stopped the president from getting the virus.”
It’s entirely possible that the narrative being pushed by the White House will hold water, but I expect the timeline of how they handled Hope Hicks’ infection and diagnosis will unravel somewhat under close scrutiny. I don’t know if it will matter much. But, as with the Times’ story about Trump’s taxes, if the truth were better than the public story, the White House would have gone with the truth.
One scenario a lot of people are talking about (or were, before it was announced that "out of an abundance of caution" that Trump would be staying at Walter Reed for a few days): Trump has a very mild case and comes out of it saying, “See it’s no big deal.” I think that’s not only possible, but likely.
Though, I could also see him saying, “See, it’s no big deal because I have such incredible strength and great genes”—which would not play well. Either way, he’ll still have lost two weeks he badly needs, and I don’t see how his recovery would do much to win back the voters he needs. Though I guess it could boost enthusiasm among people in his own column.
One politically plugged in friend wonders whether Trump could come out of this a new man, sober and serious about the pandemic and presidential in his demeanor. I think that would be the smartest and best thing Trump could do. But I think it’s only slightly less likely that him having a sex change and growing wheels so Ivanka’s kids could give new meaning to the saying “If my grandma had wheels she’d be a bus.”
Of course, the worst scenario is the one where Trump gets really sick. In that case, you have to wonder what the party would want him to do—and what he would want. Again, I don’t think any of this is likely, and I hope he recovers. But if Trump’s truly incapacitated, would Mike Pence become acting president under the 25th amendment? Barring being on a respirator and having no choice in the matter, would Trump agree to it?
One bit of wishful thinking in some quarters is that Trump finally has the exit ramp he reportedly wanted in 2016. I don’t think many serious people dispute that the primary reason Trump insists that the only way he can lose is if the election is stolen stems from his primal fear of looking like a loser. As ironic as it may be, this could be his best opportunity to walk away without losing. “I would have won were it not for the China Virus!” However, I think resignation is so wildly unlikely it reaches the point of outright fantasy.
But it does have its own compelling logic, particularly—perhaps exclusively—if he really does have a bad bout of COVID. A while ago, down-ticket Republicans came to the conclusion that they couldn’t really separate themselves from the president. That might have been the only choice available to them given the facts on the ground. But that hasn’t worked out for them. Joni Ernst, Lindsay Graham, Sue Collins, and Cory Gardner are all in dire circumstances. It’s not inconceivable that in the next couple weeks, they see that their only chance to survive what could well be a Democratic tsunami is to say, “I supported the president through thick and thin, but this tragic situation, beyond the president’s control, has changed the equation, through no fault of his own. We need a president who can dedicate all the energy required for the job. Joe Biden can’t do that, and now, tragically, neither can the president. Mike Pence needs to be that man.” Trump saves face, Pence gets his shot, signs the appointment letter for Amy Coney Barrett along with, who knows, maybe some pardon papers, and the senate possibly stays under Republican control.
None of that is remotely likely to happen. But what else have you said that about over the last 3,000 years, before the hammer smacked you?
Various & Sundry
Canine update: The girls are having a sleepover at Kirsten’s house because we’re heading out of town for a wedding. We had a wonderful report this afternoon from their midday adventures. There was a time when Zoë was quite the bully with new dogs introduced to Kirsten’s dog-walking pack, but every year she gets sweeter and mellower. Today, Clover came along and Zoë was like “Meh, whatever, another spaniel.” The stories about Zoë’s wilder youth are fun to tell, but I’m really glad they’re behind us. As for the spaniel, she’s just really spanielly. This is the key difference between them. Zoë has many modes and much guile. She’s the jealous guardian of her prerogatives and possessions. She’s the protector of the realm. The hunter. The snuggler. The begger. The bully and the buddy. Pippa has basically four modes. Crazed ball (or stick) chaser and swimmer. Sleeper. Snuggler. Eater. That’s it. She’s not complicated. When she comes home, she tries to convince us it’s time to go back out and play. If that fails, she goes to sleep to recharge her batteries for eating, snuggling, or more craziness.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.