Centers hold, until they don’t.
The point, or so it seems to me, is that we can be lulled into believing that truly terrible things won’t happen because they haven’t quite happened, and then they do. Even now, six years into the era of Trump, it’s hard to believe that he’s serious. The event he held on Saturday, in Youngstown, Ohio, was theoretically to rally voters behind candidates he has endorsed, including J. D. Vance, the Republican nominee for Senate, but, in fact, Trump used the occasion to demonstrate his dominance, remarking to the crowd, “J. D. is kissing my ass. He wants my support so bad.” As usual, Trump seemed to really be campaigning to soothe his own wounded ego; now that he’s been caught lifting classified documents from the White House, he needs to up the rhetorical ante if he wants to change the subject. And so he’s stopped saying that he knows nothing about what the QAnon conspiracy theory is and, instead, has begun to embrace it. Earlier in the week, he’d been ReTruthing (this, apparently, is what retweeting is called on Truth Social, his rickety social-media platform) images of himself wearing a Q lapel pin overlaid with the words “The Storm is Coming.” As the “PBS NewsHour” explained, “In QAnon lore, the ‘storm’ refers to Trump’s final victory, when supposedly he will regain power and his opponents will be tried, and potentially executed, on live television.”
At Saturday’s rally, Trump also decided to play music that reminded many observers of the QAnon theme song, “Wwg1wga”—which stands for “Where we go one, we go all.” Trump’s aides claimed that the song was “Mirrors” and said that it had been used in a video played by the former President before, but the Times described it as “all but identical” to the QAnon song. A Trump spokesman, with customary aggression, told the paper, “The fake news, in a pathetic attempt to create controversy and divide America, is brewing up another conspiracy about a royalty-free song from a popular audio library platform.” In any event, the crowd responded to the music by raising their index fingers—a gesture that has been interpreted as a reference to the “1” in the QAnon song’s title—in a scene that looked like something out of a Leni Riefenstahl film. Meanwhile, at another event last week, in Post Falls, Idaho, Eric Trump and Michael Flynn were joined by a pastor, Mark Burns, who has introduced the elder Trump at rallies, and who this time insisted, “I’m coming here to declare war on every demonic, demon-possessed Democrat that comes from the gates of Hell!” It all sounds so preposterous that one wants to turn away, but the message of Kraków’s Galicia Jewish Museum is: Don’t you dare. At the moment, Trump’s pitches sound a little desperate—the Ohio arena wasn’t full (the rally was at the same time as an Ohio State football game), and his Senate candidates are struggling—but we may be just one more bad bout of inflation, or one unexpected global crisis, away from enough people in certain states deciding that we better have his hand back on the wheel. Hitler lost an election, too, and then he came to power; and, as the new Ken Burns documentary series reminds us, America was fatally slow to respond to the full threat of fascism the last time around.
And that was before social media. Now, among even some people who perceive the threats to democracy, it’s been hard to maintain solidarity, and a Times investigation this weekend reports that the manipulation of social media is part of the reason why. The paper examines how Russian disinformation experts at the Internet Research Agency and other trolling operations used the Women’s March, in January, 2017, to try to sow division. First, the trolls tried to exploit race, with posts such as “Aint got time for your white feminist bullshit” and “A LIL LOUDER FOR THE WHITE FEMINISTS IN THE BACK.” America’s racial divisions are raw enough that they’re always playable, and, as the Times notes, there were some tensions and divisions in the movement early on. Still, according to estimates, more than four million people around the country participated in the Women’s March. Undaunted, that same month, Russian trolls targeted Linda Sarsour, a Muslim woman who was one of the march organizers. A tweet purportedly from a right-wing Southerner, claimed that Sarsour wanted to impose Sharia law in the United States. The Times reported that the post was picked up by “a small army” of right-wing accounts and that, by the spring, the backlash “had developed into a divisive political sideshow, one that easily drowned out the ideas behind the Women’s March.” The process was repeated when Sarsour, speaking at the annual Islamic Society of North America convention, in Chicago that July, called peaceful resistance to anti-Muslim government policies (this was at the time of Trump’s travel ban) “the best form of jihad.” “Jihad” is an Islamic term that, the Times said, “can denote any virtuous struggle,” but, online, such nuance can be easily overcome. By the time all was tweeted and done, the Women’s March was no longer the powerhouse it had been.
In the summer of 2018, Twitter suspended nearly four thousand accounts traced to the Internet Research Agency, and a few months later it suspended more than four hundred accounts produced by the G.R.U., Russia’s military-intelligence agency. According to the Times, “With that, a chorus of voices went silent—accounts that, for years, had helped shape American conversations about Black Lives Matter, the Mueller investigation and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. The record of the messaging around the Women’s March breaks off there, too, frozen in time.” In truth, though, Russian professionals are only part of the endless rumbling of social-media thunder; there are plenty of American amateurs eager to join this storm.
So, as Trump continues campaigning, those who fear what could happen in this country will need to be vigilant against all ongoing efforts to divide it. Postwar Poland is a reminder of what Solidarity can accomplish, and the Kraków museum is a stark reminder of how quickly the center can stop holding. The fact that we’ve survived Trumpism so far is no guarantee of anything.