How the Trumpian Right and the Illiberal Left Feed Off Each Other

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in Pittsburgh, PA.
Photo: The Washington Post/2016 The Washington Post

Benjy Sarlin has an interesting report explaining how Trump fans took over Reddit. Part of what Sarlin discovers is that a key pro-Trump activist, who posts under the name “CisWhiteMaelstrom,” calculated that he could exploit a certain kind of anti-Trump outrage for the benefit of his candidate. “Anything that branded the subreddit in opposition to the cultural left drew the attention of anti-PC Redditors, who recognized the site’s prankish ethos as their own even if they had no prior interest in Trump and didn’t think of themselves as conventional conservatives,” reports Sarlin. “Whenever the site turned up on groups like r/AgainstHateSubreddits that oppose offensive speech, Cis celebrated. He fanned the flames by sending outlandish messages to left-leaning forums demanding they stop talking about r/The_Donald, which of course had the opposite effect.

That is to say, CisWhiteMaelstrom identified opposition to political correctness as an issue he could use to broaden Trump’s appeal. By provoking opponents to protest against his right to express himself, he attracted to his side people who were not originally inclined to support the substance of his opinion. The point is not that pro-Trump Redditors were actual victims of repression (there’s no reason to believe they were) or that there is anything attractive about their beliefs or their methods. Supporting Trump just to show somebody they can’t stop you is a bad reason to support Trump. (For that matter, any reason to support Trump is bad.) The point is, as a simple matter of political arithmetic, they understood that provoking protests against their right to express themselves would add to, rather than subtract from, their base of support.

Obviously, some people will always be inclined to use threats to their right to speak as an excuse to advocate outrageous views. But other people like the idea of rebelliousness and standing up against censorship, and the more convincingly any movement can depict itself as the victim of censorship, the more successfully it will recruit those attracted to this form of rebellion. In the 1950s, McCarthyist repression lent American communists the allure of the forbidden. Rather than being seen as pawns of a murderous dictatorship, communist sympathizers acquired the glamour of rebellious independent thought, and pride of place on the front lines of a cultural struggle on behalf of Americans aghast at McCarthy.

Trump’s supporters don’t need to fabricate the notion that they face a challenge to their right to express themselves. Some of their opponents are perfectly candid about this goal. “Trump’s rhetoric is an instigation to racist, anti-migrant and misogynist violence,” one member of the Stop Trump Coalition, a coalition of activist groups attempting to shut down his speeches, told ThinkProgress. “As a matter of self-defense and protection of New Yorkers, we intend to do what the city’s elected so-called leaders refuse to do — and shut down Trump from spreading his hateful message.” (Possibly the “so-called leaders” are aware of the First Amendment, which would seem to get in the way of things like public officials shutting down speeches by political candidates.)

Several organizers of confrontations against Trump described their thinking to Vox’s Dara Lind for a reported story last month. The Stop Trump movement regards his candidacy as a terrifying threat akin to what occurred in Europe in the 1920s and ’30s. “Trump and Trumpism is an emboldened and public new Fascism,” one organizer wrote, “where there is a rising fascism there is a moral imperative to oppose and stop it.” Yet the balance of evidence suggests that direct confrontations help rather than harm Trump’s campaign. So if Trump truly poses such a dire threat to American democracy, wouldn’t it be incumbent upon his opponents to pursue the most effective strategy against him and avoid helping him win?

Not necessarily. The Stop Trump activists not only shrug off the prospect that they will polarize the debate in such a way that enlarges Trump’s support, but they actively welcome it. “The disruptions polarize it in a way,” Marisa Franco, one of the “anti-Trump” activists, tells Lind. “People have to make a choice of where they stand.” If they side with Trump, “that’s the gamble we have to take.” Organizer Joseph Phelan adds, “In this moment, we cannot win over Trump supporters. Nor can we necessarily win over fence sitters.” Instead, Phelan proposed using confrontations with Trump supporters to “consolidate our base and encourage actions, in particular by white people who want to be in solidarity.”

The Stop Trump movement’s putative goal is actually a means to the true end of polarizing the debate in a way that increases its influence within the left. The Trump threat injects the element of fear into politics that allows radical activists to draw adherents to their side on the premise that the normal rules of politics no longer apply. The radicalization of the opposing side is an opportunity to radicalize their own.

What makes both Sarlin’s and Lind’s reporting so valuable is that, read side by side, they describe a perfectly symbiotic relationship between the Trumpian right and the illiberal left. Activists on both sides are candid about their belief that extremists on the other side benefit their own cause. The energy they draw by organizing against the radical target on the opposite end allows them to rally people who would ordinarily be hesitant to endorse them. One doesn’t need to draw a moral parallel between their goals to grasp the strategic parallel in their methods. The two reports demonstrate a real-time, ground-level insight into a dynamic political activists understand and are able to exploit: Fear and repression feed upon themselves.