It seems like a lifetime ago in this stupid timeline, but it was only six months ago that Zina Bash, a Republican operative who was seated behind Judge Brett “Devil’s Triangle” Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings last September, flashed a white nationalist hand gesture. It was during the latter half of the week of Kavanaugh’s hearings when Bash, with deliberation, looked directly at the camera, lifted her hand, and made the “OK” sign, which white supremacists had been using as an identifier for more than a year at that point.
Most of the media didn’t report it that way. Rather, the dominant narrative was that Bash was making a joke, a troll meant to prank liberals and nothing more. Why she thought that was an acceptable way to behave during a Supreme Court confirmation hearing is anyone’s guess.
The response from conservatives and mainstream journalists was widespread accusations of paranoia. So the next day, Bash reacted to the criticism by deliberately and unmistakably flashing the sign again. One way to read that was that Bash was removing all doubt. But what most journalists chose to believe instead was that she was just kidding around with white nationalism, like people who kid around do. Again, during a Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
The Anti-Defamation League declared the episode a “hoax” perpetuated by 4chan and other online trolls to bait liberals into acting stupid. Most media outlets left it at that, mocking “snowflake leftists” for being taken in by this “hoax.”
Six months later, a white nationalist from Australia shot up two mosques in New Zealand, killing 50 people. When he appeared in court after the shooting, the killer flashed the OK symbol at the cameras.
This time however, the media reports did not frame the OK gesture as a “prank” or a “hoax.” Vox for instance, simply reported that it was “a white power sign.” Racism stops being “ironic” when the racists are murdering people. It’s not “trolling” when you shoot dozens of people.
Although, the fact that they’re a mass murderer doesn’t mean that he’s not a troll. He’s both. He livestreamed his killing spree and posted an online manifesto that is stuffed full of alt-right memes and inside jokes, making it clear that one of his goals in murdering all those people was, in internet parlance, “for the lulz.” “Triggering snowflakes” is what trolls live for, and it turns out that nothing messes with people’s heads quite like “committing mass murder to own the libs.”
According to ContraPoints’ video Decrypting the Alt-Right, this is how the fascist strategy works: “shroud your sincere ideas in cartoon characters and memes and then, when called out, you mock your accuser for being a clueless normie who isn’t in on the joke…They benefit from the confusion and the appearance that the left is paranoid,” Wynn noted, adding that it’s not entirely untrue that the left is paranoid. “Paranoia and self-doubt and questioning of your own is the psychological consequence of being constantly gas-lit by fascists pretending not to be fascists and communicating in code. And it’s an intentional consequence.”
It’s Schrödinger’s fascist, simultaneously expressing sincere beliefs and just trolling depending on who who’s looking at the moment. Flashing the the OK sign both serves at a white supremacist symbol, and is also just ordinary enough that when people express concern, the white supremacist can just play the victim of liberal hysteria.
Punking journalists by tricking them into denying that the OK symbol is a white nationalist signal is also part of the troll. White nationalists hate both the liberals who are calling them out and the mainstream media who are so eager to call liberals paranoid so they can seem “neutral.” So the trolls take pleasure in creating conflicts over trivial issues like the OK sign, which can cause both groups to look foolish.
The seriousness of this situation means there is no pleasure in being able to say, “Told you so.” At least the Christchurch killer flashing the OK symbol in court removes the ambiguity around the gesture that made it such an effective troll. If some Republican official does that again, like Bash did in September, it’s less likely that we will see a bunch of condescending articles accusing the left of being paranoid for seeing white nationalist intent in it.
Instead, the far right and their sympathizers in mainstream politics will find some new way to troll progressives into launching accusations of white nationalist sympathies so they can respond by acting huffy and offended. Journalists will once again be stuck between the two, fearful of admitting that progressives might have a point, lest they be accused of having a “liberal bias.”
Donald Trump seems to be playing this game with the New Zealand shooting already. Hours after the mass murder, he made comments signaling sympathy with the shooter’s views, characterizing immigration from Latin America as an “invasion” and claiming that the country is “bursting at the seams” with new arrivals, in language that echoed the white nationalist’s manifesto and the online forums from which he sprung. But as soon as people pointed that out, Trump and his administration played innocent, pointing to his rote condemnations of violence and claiming it was “outrageous to even make that connection between this deranged individual that committed this evil crime [and] the president.”
There are two possibilities here. One is that the Trump is acting with deliberation, both in signaling support for white nationalist terrorism, and gas-lighting the left by denying that he’s doing what he’s doing. The other is that he’s a dotty old bigot who is too self-absorbed to realize that his use of terms like “invasion” are used to justify violence from white nationalists, and that his administration is covering for him because they are too power-hungry to care about the consequences.
Considering that Trump had been told, time and again, that his racist language emboldens terrorists, it’s hard to imagine that he’s acting out of ignorance instead of malice. But he is an incredibly stupid and mentally feeble man, so there’s no way to be sure.
To avoid being perceived biased, journalists will continue to give Trump the benefit of the doubt that he may just be too stupid and/or ignorant to understand that characterizing immigrants as a subhuman invading army is basically inviting people to murder them or the people that seek to help them, as the terrorist who committed the Pittsburg shooting did.
If we’re lucky, perhaps after this debacle the mainstream media will be a little less quick to mock liberals for believing that people on the right are using symbols and other coded gestures to signal their sympathy for a toxic and hateful cause. Remember that famous quote from novelist Joseph Heller: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”