When explosive devices were sent to people Donald Trump routinely targets at his rallies, the response from right-wing media was painfully predictable. We all expected the response to be something akin to the now cliche claim of false flag. Thus, none of us were surprised when Alex Jones said as much. And it really shouldn’t have shocked anyone when Fox News commentators began deploying similar arguments. Lou Dobbs, for example, tweeted the following: “Fake News–Fake Bombs Who could possibly benefit by so much fakery? #MAGA #AmericaFirst #Dobbs”
These comments expose something about the way violent rhetoric operates in today’s post-truth rhetorical climate. Historian of political rhetoric, Jennifer Mercieca says of this climate: “If you have a pervasive culture of weaponized communication, statistically, someone will be violent.” Add to that a pervasive culture of demagoguery, where, as Roberts-Miller puts it, “all questions can be reduced to the question of the motives of the rhetors, and that question can be settled by determining their in-group,” and the cultural logic behind Dobbs’ tweet becomes clear. His focus is on motive and in-groups.
Violent Rhetoric in a Post-Truth Climate
Let’s assume it was a hoax. What if the bombs weren’t meant to explode and were only meant to send a message? NBC news reported that one of the devices had a sticker that suggested as much. But, what to make of sending fake bombs to favorite Trumpian targets? Just more trolling?
Arguments about motives and in-groups take us down the wrong path. We are living in what many now call post-truth times. Our current climate resembles the infamous quote attributed to a senior adviser to George W. Bush (later linked to Karl Rove):
People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
Given this climate, one can’t simply pin the violence that comes out of this culture on something as intangible as motive or in-group identity.
In many ways, it’s like the OK white-power sign that many were arguing about during the Kavanaugh hearing: The Anti-Defamation League reports that it’s a hoax perpetrated to troll left wingers. But it’s also a bunch of people pretending to be white supremacists (if only to pwn the libs). Logically speaking, the OK sign was a hoax … because 4chan posters were using it to troll liberals into thinking that white supremacists were using it while the people using it were merely pretending to be white supremacists by using a hand signal that white supremacists were also using.
Just what is the troll when it comes to these bombs, anyway? “Lulz, the libs think that the new Nazis are going to kill them. Let’s expose this as a legitimate fear by actually terrorizing people!!” (Ed. note for readers: check out this article about the odd serious-but-not-serious-but-serious ethos of the alt-right; much resonance with this point)
People believe these bombs are part of a false flag or just some hoax. And we are missing the bigger cultural picture here.
Likewise, comparing our post-truth president to past instances of modernist dictators doesn’t expose everything about what is actually happening. Trish Roberts-Miller recently pointed out how much of the violence carried out in past fascist climates was done so under the banner of a pre-emptive strike. The point being that the next step in a fascist regime is to claim they have to kill us before we kill them. It’s true that the groundwork for this has already been laid. A modernist fascist could call for “pre-emptive violence” against a vaguely defined “Left,” and possibly even get away with it. I mean, do I even have to bring up Trump’s many calls for violence and his remarks about shooting someone in front of witnesses?
But there is more going on.
When you pay attention to the doublespeak, it becomes clear. This is post-modern, post-truth Fascism: they don’t have to openly call for pre-emptive violence. As Dana Cloud puts it: when weathering issues in this climate, the “Left, armed with science, history, and a bucket full of facts, attempts to ‘speak truth to power.’” They don’t recognize that the “truth does not necessarily set us free; indeed, the powerful often control the circulation and authority of what counts as truth” (1).
In this climate, the post-truth fascist can simply claim they don’t like the violence done against their enemies, shrug, and point elsewhere for a root cause.
And those of us in the reality-based community? We are going to start digging to uncover the true intentions of the person who is actively killing us. It’s as if they fill the room with gas, while we search for the perfect match to strike.
Cloud, Dana L. Reality Bites : Rhetoric and the Circulation of Truth Claims in U.S. Political Culture. 2018.