It’s not ‘OK’

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.”

We Need to Name the Threat

Early on Friday, a 28-year-old white man who described himself as “an actual fascist” entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, armed with assault rifles and killed at least 49 people and injuring many others. New Zealand authorities also report that the attacker had placed two explosive devices in his vehicle, which apparently did not detonate.

In a gruesome contemporary twist, the gunman apparently streamed parts of the attack live on Facebook. Although that feed and other accounts associated with the shooter have been taken down, but the New York Times reports that both the 17-minute video and a manifesto posted by the shooter have been widely disseminated on social media. Others were taken into custody, but reports suggest that the 28-year-old man, who by his own account was born and raised in Australia, was the sole shooter.

That man appears to have posted a manifesto online before the attack. In it, he rages against “Islamic invaders” who are “occupying European soil,” and writes that he used guns to commit this massacre in order to call attention to debate about the Second Amendment in the United States. The alleged mass murderer also claimed that he donated money to American white supremacist organizations, and quoted the “14 words” pledge often used by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

According to reports, the alleged terrorist specifically cited Donald Trump as an inspiration. His online manifesto praised Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”

Friday’s massacre appears to be an example of what is known as “stochastic terrorism,” when someone who has a large platform describes the kind of violence that they want to be carried out, but stops short of direct incitement. They identify targets, but leave it up to their viewers or listeners to carry out the violence, giving themselves just enough plausible deniability if/when violence occurs. It is another case study in how right-wing terrorists, with no official group affiliation, can be radicalized online.

Of course, every right-wing provocateur came out to demand that we ignore where this man got his hateful ideas. Their gaslighting was wrapped up in virtue signaling, “starve them of attention” they said, just as they peddled the hate that fuels these attacks.

They don’t want you asking questions. They didn’t want you to ask after Norway, or Charleston, or Charlottesville, or Quebec, or Pittsburgh. And now, they don’t want any questions after Christchurch either. And it’s worth asking: Why?

It has been repeatedly documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as other organizations, that Donald Trump is considered a hero by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Since Trump launched his presidential campaign nearly four years ago, there has been a surge of hate crimes, including violence against Jews, Muslims, and immigrants of various backgrounds.

There have been many documented examples of assaults and other forms of violence by Donald Trump supporters, in some cases the perpetrators even wearing MAGA hats and other regalia, shouting his slogans or claiming to act on his behalf. These hateful actions have included the so-called MAGA bomber, who mailed pipe bombs to public critics of Donald Trump, the man who killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, and the neo-Nazi mass murderer who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Trump has suggested that the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who rioted in Charlottesville, Virginia, included “very fine people.” He sought to ban Muslims from entering the United States and pursued a policy of separating immigrant children from their families and placing them in concentration camps. He has suggested that Latino immigrants are a natural criminal class who come to America with the express goal of raping and killing white people.

Trump has described predominantly black nations such as Haiti and Nigeria as “shitholes.” He basically abandoned the people of Puerto Rico after the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, implying that they were lazy and did not deserve humanitarian aid. At least 5,000 people died.

Trump has shared neo-Nazi talking points and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on Twitter. He has condemned the Black Lives Matter movement and has said that African-American athletes who exercise their constitutionally protected freedom of protest are traitors who should be kicked out of the United States.

Trump was and remains one of the leading voices for the “birther” conspiracy theory alleging that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and may be a secret Muslim. The Trump administration is working to remove language in UN documents that condemns racism, xenophobia, bigotry, or nationalism.

Some would like to look away from this list. Others will find it tedious and complain that they have seen this all before. Some will mutter that we all know that Trump is a racist, but so what? And yes, many other people who will see such a list and feel validation. Numbness to this kind of horror is one of the main ways through which evil is normalized.

Later on Friday, Donald Trump issued an obligatory public statement condemning the Christchurch massacre, apparently committed by a self-identified fascist who claimed him as an inspiration. The president wrote, “My warmest sympathy and best wishes goes out to the people of New Zealand after the horrible massacre in the Mosques.”

As usual at such moments, there is something deeply awkward and strained about Trump’s pronouncement. We all understand the reason for that awkwardness. Trump does not value the lives of Muslims, or nonwhite people more generally, as equal to those of white Americans.