People do dumb things when driven by fear or rage


People do dumb things, particularly when they’re driven by fear or rage.

Yesterday, we witnessed a mob attack on our Capital, encouraged by President Donald Trump and his allies. “Oh, how shocking,” some people have said. If you egged it on, you have no right to say it. When you play with matches around kindling, you are obviously playing with fire.

• Trump tweeted yesterday, “Remember this day forever!” Americans should, yes, but not necessarily in the way Trump intends.

• Since 2015, there has been one overriding question: Is Donald Trump fit to be president, in mind and character? Millions said yes (including virtually the whole of the Republican Party and conservative movement); millions said no. Nothing has really changed.

• Anyone who has failed to notice the smell of violence around Trumpism — right from the beginning — needs to get his nose checked.

• All those people at Trump rallies, screaming maniacally at people in the press pen, egged on by the demagogue at the podium?

In December 2015, in Mount Pleasant, S.C., Trump singled out Katy Tur, of NBC News. He pointed at her and said, “Little Katy. What a lie she told,” etc.

Describing the scene later, Tur said, “The entire place turns, and they roar as one. Like a giant, unchained animal.”

Fearing for her safety, the Secret Service escorted her out.

• Over and over, Trump says “enemy of the people.” Anyone who displeases him, he calls an “enemy of the people.” That’s what he called Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state of Georgia, on Thanksgiving Day. Raffensperger and his wife have received many threats of murder and rape.

Mainly, however, Trump reserves “enemy of the people” for the press.

Yesterday, some of his followers smashed up a bunch of press equipment — cameras and the like.

Professional conservatives — the kind who wear suits and ties — say, “Aw, he doesn’t really mean it, when he says ‘enemy of the people.’ That’s just the way he talks. He’s blowin’ off steam.” Other people, however, take him seriously.

Shouldn’t you take seriously what the president of the United States says?

• Fear of the mob — a healthy awareness of the mob and its dangers — is almost the foundation of a genuine conservatism. I hope that this and other elementary facts can be rediscovered.

• On the American right, there is more chavismo than most of us would care to admit. Populism is a dagger aimed at the heart of republican government. Conservatives have always taught this. But the very idea of conservatism has been lost in recent years to populism — to “sheer demagoguery,” as Reagan used to say.

• In June 2016, I wrote a piece called “The F-Word: Donald Trump and concerns about fascism.” “He mainly talks of ‘strong’ versus ‘weak,’” I said. “Strength is better than weakness, of course. But an exaltation of strength can be strange.”

Yesterday, Trump said to his mob, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore. Let the weak ones get out. This is a time for strength.”

Way back in 1990, Trump gave an interview to Playboy magazine. The Soviet Union was in uncertain condition, and democratic protesters were getting bolder. Trump said, “Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.”

His interviewer asked, “You mean ‘firm hand’ as in China?”

Trump answered, “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it.”

Think on that for a moment: “almost blew it.”

“Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”

Okay.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said of Vladimir Putin, “I think that he is a strong leader, he’s a powerful leader.”

He’s a powerful leader, yes. (I’m not sure how strong it is to jail, maim, and kill your critics. Some would construe all that as a sign of weakness.)

• About three weeks ago, on December 19, Trump tweeted, “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

Uh-huh.

Two days ago, he tweeted, “I hope the Democrats, and even more importantly, the weak and ineffective RINO section of the Republican Party, are looking at the thousands of people pouring into D.C. They won’t stand for a landslide election victory to be stolen.”

Uh-huh. The threat of mob violence, a true hallmark of “conservatism,” right?

• Bret Stephens, in a column yesterday, recalled something that Mike Pompeo said — in March 2016. The then-congressman warned that Trump would be “an authoritarian president who ignored our Constitution.”

I can hardly muster the energy to type the letters “LOL.”

• Early in 2020, the chairman of CPAC — the “Conservative Political Action Conference” — said that Mitt Romney would not be welcome at the group’s proceedings. “I would actually be afraid for his physical safety,” said the chairman. Some of us tried to point out that this was telling, and damning. And alien to real conservatism.

The chairman also said, “We won’t credential him as a conservative,” meaning Romney. Would you “credential” CPAC as conservative?

There is more conservatism in a follicle of Mitt Romney’s (copious) hair than there is in about ten MAGA rallies.

Of course, everything depends on what you mean by “conservative” — and this is a battle of our age. (I wrote about the battle in an essay last November: “‘Conservative’: A Term Up for Grabs.”)

• On Tuesday night, Romney shared a plane ride with a bunch of Trump ralliers, going to Washington. They chanted “Traitor!” at him. “Traitor! Traitor! Traitor!” They call themselves patriots.

Sick stuff. 

• Mitt Romney is the only person in American history to vote against a president of his own party in an impeachment trial. He stood dead alone — alive alone — among Republicans. If there were another impeachment trial before Inauguration Day, would any other Republicans join him? (I wouldn’t bet the ranch.)

• In 2012, the Obama-Biden campaign ran an ad that said, “Mitt Romney. Not one of us.” So true. He is not one of the Republicans either, really, though he belongs to that party, formally. He is essentially a party of one.

Good party.

• After this year’s election, people said, “Oh, just humor him” (Trump). “Let him huff and puff and shout ‘Rigged!’ and file lawsuits. He’ll just tweet and play golf. Then he’ll leave on January 20 and everything will be fine. Don’t get your panties in a twist.”

Yeah.

• Consider Trump’s phone call to the Georgia officials, trying to get them to subvert the election. Does anyone doubt that if a Democratic president did this, every Republican and every conservative in the country would be demanding the president’s impeachment?

• For years, David Frum has wondered, “Why do Americans brag about a ‘peaceful transfer of power’? Don’t all civilized countries transfer power peacefully? Is it really something to thump your chest about?” A good point.

But now moot, I suppose.

• In the Capitol yesterday, some of the Trump rioters carried Confederate flags, which I was happy to see. That is a symbol that represents them, more than the Stars & Stripes do.

(Party of Lincoln, my a**.)

• Onstage at CPAC last year, Trump hugged and kissed the American flag. Someone said he “slow-danced” with it. Someone else said he “dry-humped” it. Yes, Trump will hug the flag. And blast the NFL “kneelers.” But patriotism, obviously, involves a lot more — like not whipping up mobs to overturn a democratic election.

• Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said yesterday, “Enough’s enough.” Oh, Lindsey — right on time. There are many like him, of course. I think of a phrase I learned from Fred Barnes, many moons ago: “towers of jello.”

Frankly, I think I have more respect for Trumpers who are sticking with their guy than for those who are now distancing themselves from him. Trump hasn’t changed one iota. It’s just that now he is seen as a “loser,” on his way out. You know?

• A friend of mine wrote me today, “I guess the umpires have finally decided to call strike three.” Gave me a smile, much needed.

• Back in the days of the War on Crime, we had an expression: “scared straight.” There was a famous documentary using those words as its title (1978). Perhaps the recent violence will scare some Americans straight. I especially think of young people who have been seduced by illiberal politics. The young are always vulnerable to such things.

• There are good people — very good people — in the conservative movement. I was talking to one yesterday afternoon, a young colleague of mine, I’m grateful to say. They must find their voices and be bold. Very bold. They will be called “cuck,” “globalist,” “RINO,” “cosmopolitan,” and all the rest. That whole lexicon of abuse.

This is why politicians playing with people’s fear and anger is like an angry child playing with matches and gasoline. People who are fearful or angry will do things that they would never do when they’re in another emotional state. No one walks around violently angry every minute of every day; pretty soon a rage-aholic runs into some sort of serious consequence. Most drivers who exhibit road rage are “normal” until someone veers in front of them without using a turn signal.

And it is extremely difficult for a political leader to raise the level of fear and anger in his supporters to the perfectly calibrated level where they donate money and chant and vote and participate in the political process legitimately, but don’t cross any moral or legal lines into something criminal or horrific. If you relentlessly demonize cops, sooner or later someone full of passion and short on judgment will take a shot at a police officer. If you relentlessly demonize illegal immigrants, sooner or later some guys will have too much to drink and beat up someone they think is an illegal immigrant. Any rhetoric that states or implies, “This kind of violence and criminality is okay, because the right perpetrators are hurting the right targets” is going to set off something terrible.

Most wise elected officials and candidates recognize the danger of trying to whip people up into a frenzy, and won’t touch this kind of rhetoric with a ten-foot pole. But we are not, generally, governed by wise elected officials.

The world has no shortage of troubled souls who are looking for some moral justification for their worst and most antisocial impulses. Political rhetoric that justifies a little bit of violence or criminality will soon be cited to justify all kinds of crimes. Jihadists are convinced their abominable crimes and massacres are necessary steps to create paradise on earth. As the Granovetter research indicates, these things snowball.

The lesson of this is not to never communicate anything that could stir fear or anger in other people. The world has problems and menaces that warrant fear and anger. Fear and anger can be rational. We’ve had arguments and discussions before about when fear is irrational and when it is rational. But leaders in our society have a responsibility to help people steer their fear and anger into productive directions.

Without that good judgment and wisdom and demonstration of good examples, we descend into anarchy.

Comments