On Sunday, the staff of the gossip website Gawker were extremely pleased with themselves. After months of trying, they finally managed to get Donald Trump’s Twitter account to post a quote from Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. They accomplished this by setting a robo-account to barrage Trump with Mussolini quotes, in the hopes that eventually he would pick one up and send it out to his followers. He did. This scandalous “event” was then covered in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Washington Post, TIME, and the BBC. Some were swift to see Trump’s posting of the quote as confirmation of the oft-cited allegation that Trump is a fascist, while Gawker said it confirmed their theory that Trump was an “idiot” who would “retweet just about anything.”
Isolated from its context, the quote in question appears completely innocuous: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” If you didn’t know it was from Mussolini, you might expect it to be the epigraph to a business book, or simply one of the thousands of anonymous platitudes that percolate incessantly across the culture. The advice itself seems sound, if not terribly helpful; after all, few people would consciously aspire toward a lifetime of sheepdom. It also hardly seems much different in its general flavor from “it is better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees,” a maxim associated with both Che Guevara and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. At the very least, this sort of sentiment is hardly confined to one particular political faction.
The question about Trump and the Mussolini quote, then, is: what does it prove? Is it news? And what is the use of pulling this sort of glib micro-stunt? The first two questions can be confidently answered with a resounding “nothing” and “no,” respectively. As to the third, it’s very likely that, far from successfully undermining or humiliating Donald Trump, tactics like these enable him to grow even stronger. Those with liberal political sympathies (like the staff of Gawker), who profess to fear a Trump presidency and think him akin to an actual fascist, may want to consider whether this sort of mischief is useful or simply childish. And if it is childish and useless, as one may suspect it is, one may wonder why people on the left are spending their time taunting Trump on Twitter rather than trying to stop the danger they believe he poses to the country.
When Trump himself was asked about the incident, he professed not to see what the issue was. “It’s a very good quote… I didn’t know who said it, but what difference does it make if it was Mussolini or somebody else — it’s a very good quote.” In saying this, Trump is correct. What difference does it make? So he values the content over the source. He should! If Benito Mussolini had said the earth revolves around the Sun, he’d be right. If Benito Mussolini said we should live life to the fullest, he’d be right. What exactly are people trying to allege here? That Trump intentionally tweeted a quote from Mussolini because Trump is a fascist who thinks Mussolini is great and wants everyone to know it? Or that he didn’t notice it was from Mussolini, and just thought the quote was inspiring? That seems the more likely option, but in that case the only thing it convicts Trump of is not paying very close attention to Twitter, something that probably ought to be considered a virtue if it is judged at all. In fact, it doesn’t even prove that he was careless, just that some campaign staffer was. What of it?
“Well,” someone could say, “it does show that Trump’s rhetoric is in harmony with that of Mussolini, and that their sentiments coincide.” Come on, though. We all know this quote doesn’t show that; it’s such an empty bromide that nobody could reasonably call it inherently fascist. (Perhaps the mention of lions could imply a taste for blood, since lions sometimes eat people. But this is truly grasping.)
In fact, even Gawker was not quite sure what they had managed to demonstrate. They were very self-satisfied, but knew it was a “dumb project.” But the question is: if it’s a dumb project, why do it? Have we accomplished anything here, except to flatter our own intelligence and confirm our preexisting disdain for Trump?
A defense can be constructed: “By making him look ridiculous,” says the anti-Trump tweeter, “we help to destroy him. Through exposing his various idiocies and prejudices, we cut Trump down to size and may perhaps keep some from supporting him who otherwise would have.” The holes in this are easily spotted. First, they’ve done the very opposite of making Trump look ridiculous. In fact, they’ve made him look downright reasonable, and made his opponents look like they depend on cheap pranks rather than arguments. The likelihood of a single person switching their support away from Trump because he posted a quote about lions is next to nil. On the other hand, it absolutely seems plausible that voters’ support for Trump might crystallize when they see him being subjected to unfair “gotcha” attacks by a sneering liberal media.
The stupid Mussolini gag is one small incident in a far larger pattern of hypocrisy among Trump’s opponents. People who don’t like Trump claim that he can be labeled a fascist (this includes Gawker). And there’s a plausible argument for applying that word; policies like banning religious minorities, suppressing press freedom, and shutting down speech are strongly reminiscent of 20th century dictatorships. But if someone truly thinks Trump a fascist, really and sincerely believes this, then they should be arming a resistance militia rather than trying to coax an odious retweet. At the same time as Trump’s opponents insist that he poses a major threat to the country, they behave as if he is a harmless clown to be prodded and mocked. In other words, if he’s not a fascist, then there’s no point to the Mussolini trick, but if he is a fascist, then there’s nothing to be amused about.
In fact, even though the vast majority of progressives believe that the election could have a devastating global impact, most Trump coverage is still about the most asinine day-to-day trivia, like the size of his hands or his latest bit of theatrical prop-based insult comedy. Ostensibly serious news organizations run Trump GIFs as stories. Even the New York Times dutifully compiled a database of Trump’s colorful gallery of Twitter insults. In doing so, these organizations help lower our perceptions of the stakes; after all, if politics actually mattered, surely it would be reprehensible to spend even a second replacing Trump’s eyes with lips rather than actually attempting to dissuade his supporters or building up an effective opposition force. By descending to Trump’s level and reveling in gossip and minutiae, any sense of public urgency is steadily muted.
This is the way political media operates generally, though. It simultaneously treats politics as both extremely significant and totally inconsequential. Trump is an existential threat to the Earth’s people, yet we can spend our time mocking his hair or watching him make funny faces. George W. Bush was a war criminal who was responsible for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, yet we could jest about his goofy malapropisms and difficulty handling Segways and pretzels. Liberals laugh at “robo-Rubio” and “fruit salad” fruitcake Ben Carson, but these individuals are competing to have access to a vast arsenal of nuclear weaponry. By being both pervasive and superficial, political media manages to treat political actors as tremendously important and worth obsessing over, while somehow obscuring the fact that bad political decisions actually devastate people’s lives.
Among progressive-minded people in the media, this may partially be the product of impotence: they do not know how to organize a serious political opposition to the things they dislike, so instead they mock those things on Twitter (and in the meantime, lose state governorships one by one). This lack of clear options was the explanation offered by opinion writer Ryan Cooper of The Week in his recent discussion with Current Affairs (available in our March-April issue). Cooper said he writes to “make rent,” and that “you’ve got to be insanely deluded to think writers are a major political actor.” When we pointed out that his belief that Donald Trump is a fascist should lead Cooper to be taking up arms and manning the barricades, Cooper shrugged and suggested he didn’t know what he could do. The politically committed don’t have an obvious outlet, so they tell jokes about Donald Trump’s spray tan and toy with him on Twitter.
But while disaffection is understandable, a pernicious culture of easy ridicule also diminishes the seriousness of politics. Gawker and its editor-in-chief Alex Pareene may be the most glaring example of this, regularly transforming deadly serious subjects into diverting clickable fluff. Their political coverage trafficks in the facile and the asinine, whether conducting unnecessary hypotheticals like “Jeb Bush Should Become a Democrat” and “Would Elizabeth Warren Have Beat Hillary Clinton?” or quizzing readers about whether selected quotes are from Antonin Scalia or a Minions meme.
Every satirist and political humorist should recognize that there is a place where the fun stops. The great British comedian Peter Cook knew this, and sarcastically praised the efficacy of Weimar satire and “those wonderful Berlin cabarets… which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.” And say what you want about Jon Stewart (the Current Affairs position is that he was an unpleasant tyrant who will not be missed), but the ex-Daily Show host knew when a moment required sobriety and reflection. If we accept the progressive premise, the rise of Donald Trump should be a moment beyond the scope of humor; when a major presidential candidate starts murmuring about racial killings and equivocating on the KKK, what the hell kind of person thinks creating an “Il Duce” Twitter account is worth anybody’s time? Perhaps nobody can reasonably expect Gawker to be anything other than an anaesthetized, indifferent gang of snark-mongers. But by invoking the specter of fascism they acknowledge that politics is supposed to be something other than mere spectacle.
That’s not to say that everything in political life must always be a unremitting joyless misery, or that the sort of person who declares certain subjects for humor “not okay” should not be bludgeoned and derided by his peers. Sometimes it is only by photoshopping a person’s lips onto their eyelids that we come to appreciate their underlying nature, and thus their true significance. The real problem with Bush/Carson/Rubio/Trump humor is not that it makes light of something serious, but that it does them no true damage. The best joke about George W. Bush was nothing to do with My Pet Goat or the pretzel-gagging incident, but was the Onion’s devastating headline: “George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him Everywhere.” If you’re going to wield comedy as a weapon against the powerful, make sure you obliterate your target. With Bush, don’t go for the cheap shots, like his guileless fumbling or his simpering baboon-face. Hit him where it really hurts.
Politics have consequences. Is Donald Trump dangerous or isn’t he? If he is, that retweet victory may not seem quite so hilarious when Trump’s immigration agents are dragging families out of their homes at gunpoint. If this stuff actually matters, then all the jokes about bad hair and orange spray-tans and those eerie white rings around his eyes are about as funny as a firing squad. The problem with fascism has never been that the fascists have comical hairdos (even though they always do). It’s that fascism kills. It’s not funny, and the more it’s treated as something trivial and amusing, the more politics is reduced to a series of gaffes, GIFs, and personalities rather than a process by which human beings can be shot, starved, and imprisoned, the more callously indifferent we become to the fates of the victims of political decisionmaking.