Last Saturday, two middle-aged men from the Columbus, Ohio area gained national attention — a classic 15 minutes of fame in the Andy Warhol sense — by sporting an eye-opening message on the t-shirts they wore to the Donald Trump rally. A photograph of them quickly went viral and touched off a slew of reaction, pro and con, on social media. Their message? “I’d Rather Be A Russian Than A Democrat.”
Now, there are a couple of things that can be deduced from this event. First, Buckeye fashion plates James Alicie and Richard Birchfield are big Trump supporters — a fact born out by subsequent interviews they’ve done with the press. Second, they appear to be liars through and through and exceedingly pleased about it. As much as they may despise or distrust Democrats, we are fairly certain the men actually wouldn’t care to be Russians in their heart of hearts. No matter what they say in Michigan, that’s not really how Ohioans roll. Their purpose was to, as the president’s core supporters like to say, “own the libs,” that is, get liberals to light their hair on fire in a way that amuses the other side.
This desire to get a rise out of progressives isn’t some new phenomenon, it’s been part of the pro-Trump culture from the start, and, indeed, it permeates the president’s own messaging, particularly on Twitter. The hatred of the media, the insulting of European allies, the rejection of higher education and science, the skewering of liberal-supported causes or icons, there are multiple motives behind the whole disjointed mess of a political philosophy, but surely part of the core purpose of the Trump movement is to make liberals squirm.
That doesn’t make the movement any less dangerous, only the more thought-disordered. It’s difficult to have an honest debate with people who find sport in rocking the world of those they perceive as opponents. Even the usual labels of “liberal” or “conservative” seem inadequate to describe the situation, given that Trump supporters generally take their cues from the big man himself who one day hates North Korea, the next is praising its leader, or who sometimes claims to want affordable health care but only seeks to deep-six the Affordable Care Act. The most consistent political philosophy of the Trump era is inconsistency. Just try to explain the administration’s position on Russian interference in the coming election — it’s either all hands on deck or fake news or who knows what tomorrow.
We would be the last to claim that goading hasn’t been a part of U.S. politics for generations, nor is it an arrow exclusive to the conservative quiver. A John Adams supporter once famously needled Thomas Jefferson as likely to turn all women into prostitutes if elected. But such low-brow behavior usually ended after an election, at least from the party that won the nation’s highest office. At the mid-point of a presidential term, governance and bringing the country together is usually the focus of a White House, not trying to get a rise out of those with whom you disagree. (Note to Mr. Trump: Mock those who call on you to act “presidential” if you like, but they aren’t looking for robotic behavior, merely decorum.)
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley recently observed the foolishness of many in her party spending so much political capital on mockery. Speaking last month to a gathering of high school leaders in D.C., she urged them not to “own the libs” but to try to persuade. “Real leadership is about persuasion, it’s about movement, it’s bringing people around to your point of view,” she said. And while the former South Carolina governor didn’t mention her boss by name, it’s hard to believe she wasn’t thinking of him when she called on the teens not to shout but to show them “how it is in their best interest to see things the way you do.”
Trolling, owning, goading, whatever you want to call it, the technique of degrading oneself in order to make someone else uncomfortable may provoke the internal guffaw, but it still leaves one person annoyed and the other debased. Yes, yes, the liberals hate it when you say you adore Vladimir Putin, but how many people does that rally to your cause other than Russia’s president?
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